Sunday, February 28, 2010

Juan Cole is almost exactly right regarding Ahmadinejad and Zionism

Juan Cole was the first US expert of any authority to counter an emerging consensus that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had called for the, presumably nuclear, genocidal destruction of Israel. That is how Israel's supporters characterized Ahmadinejad's statement that the Zionist regime would be removed from history.

Maybe a vast majority of Jewish people hate the idea that there will one day not be a Jewish state, the idea that Israel should or even can go the way Apartheid South Africa or Communist East Germany went. Given that hatred, which extends to any proponent of that idea, especially a prominent one, such as the president of a neighboring country, there is a strong urge to exaggerate negative statements, to present Iran in as threatening a light as possible.

To counter that urge is to invite accusations of anti-Semitism that can have tangible effects on one's career and that also are psychically stressful to endure. Ahmadinejad's statement in his 2005 speech was clearly aimed at the regime, and it was clearly drawn in parallel to his other examples in that speech of the Shah's Iran, Hussein's Iraq and the USSR - none of which was ended by any genocidal nuclear attack. It took substantial courage in 2005 and 2006 for Cole to, in making what should have been a non-controversial translation, have placed himself in a position to be seen as defending Ahmadinejad.

Cole recently has revisited this role, and says that, contrary to a clearly false and deceptive statement of Israel's ambassador Michael Oren, Ahmadinejad has not called for the physical annihilation of Israel. Non-Americans would be stunned to learn how commonly held the view is in the US that Ahmadinejad has expressed an intention to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons.

Cole makes one statement that while true doesn't address the dispute over Zionism.
Personally, I see Zionism as just a garden variety form of modern romantic nationalism not different in any way from scores of other nationalisms (including Arab nationalism, Serbian nationalism, and Iranian nationalism).
The problem with Zionism isn't that it is a nationalism. The problem with Zionism when it was conceived was that to be implemented, it required changing the demographic makeup of a territory against the will of the inhabitants. The problem with Zionism today is that its perpetuation requires the subjugation of the rest of its region.

Serbian nationalism isn't necessarily evil in itself. But we can't make a Serbian nation in Japan, moving Japanese people out to make way for a Serbian homeland to be the embodiment of that nationalism, then trying to ensure that a tiny Serbian state be militarily, technologically and economically dominant over its much larger hostile neighbors as a matter of strategic security.

Zionism requires the extension of classical Western indirect colonialism in the Middle East nearly 100 years after it began declining in the rest of the world. That is tremendously harmful for the people of the region, and there are tremendous costs it imposes on the United States as its primary sponsor.

But other than that, Juan Cole now acknowledges, also ahead of most of the US foreign policy establishment, that a two-state solution that maintains a Jewish homeland is becoming impossible and that a one-state solution is now eventually the most likely outcome to the dispute over Zionism.
In any case, now that a two-state solution has been made virtually impossible by Israel's determined colonization of the West Bank, a one-state solution is the most likely outcome of what will probably be a 50-year struggle for basic Palestinian rights to citizenship in a state. The rest of us are going to be mightily inconvenienced by this unnecessary and stupid conflict, and the inconvenience will only be increased by equally stupid propaganda from unreliable narrators like Oren.
"Mightily inconvenienced" is a reference to the cost the US pays and that he expects it to continue to pay for its role in the conflict. That may be an understatement, but it is a rare direct acknowledgment.

Overall, Cole is taking very courageous positions here in challenging the emotionally-inspired misrepresentation of Ahmadinejad's position on Zionism, and now on the viability of Zionism itself. These are the two particular issues on which he is most ahead of the rest of the US foreign policy establishment.

No diapora Jew has failed to benefit, in more or less calculable ways, from the existence of the state of Israel

US-born, British and Jewish writer Frederic Raphael has written a review of a book by Shlomo Sand "The Invention of the Jewish People". I have not read the book, the the review is an interesting look at the relationships between Zionism as a political movement, Jewish identity, Israel and the historical narratives that connect and motivate them. I want to look at the segments of that article that I find most striking.
In the last 60 years, the measure of a man’s Jewishness has become more political than religious: The more we support Israel, the more loyal we supposedly are to what is said to be our ancestral faith or race. Today’s Jew can be forgiven for eating a crab salad, but never for wishing that Israel would withdraw from the West Bank “territories,” still less for favoring the dissolution of the Jewish state, as Tony Judt, Harold Pinter and other well-placed Diasporites have appeared to do. In less enlightened eyes, the least that an absentee who calls him/herself a Jew can do is to be a supporter of the Jewish state. My Zion right or wrong; where would we be without it? There is, in truth, no knowing.
The phenomenon that Raphael describes, that Jewishness is tied to support for Zionism in mainstream modern Jewish discourse, has an analogue in the non-Jewish world. For non-Jews, especially, support for Zionism is a defense against charges of anti-Semitism. In some cases it seems presented as both a necessary and sufficient defense against the - in many cases objectively false - charge of anti-Semitism. Necessary because I cannot think of a single person who is not Jewish who has publicly opposed Zionism as a political objective who has not been accused of anti-Semitism. Sufficient because there are examples of people who have directly expressed bigotry against Jews who seem to have been spared from the charge of anti-Semitism by their support for the idea that there must be a Jewish state.
By the same token, turned abruptly on its head, it is unlikely that Zionism would ever have achieved its measure of paramountcy if it had not been for Nazi racism (and what Lucy Davidowicz called “the Abandonment of the Jews” by the Allies). In that sense, there is some truth in the malevolent assertion, which George Steiner put in the mouth of his fictitious Hitler, in “The Portage of A.H. to San Cristobal,” that without Adolf there would have been no Jewish state. Zionism was as unpopular among emancipated Western Jewry (only some 2 percent endorsed it) in the 1930s as Nazism itself had been in Germany until the disaster of the Depression. It does not follow that the state of Israel should not, for that reason, be allowed to exist, still less that its founders endorsed or conspired with the Nazis.
The relationship between Hitler and Zionism is interesting. Supporters of the idea of Zionism point out that the Zionist movement was born before Hitler's rise to power and had made notable progress. For example, the Balfour Declaration predates Hitler's participation in German politics. But one thing that argument misses is that without a specific embodiment of European ethnic nationalism there may well have been both no Hitler and no Zionism.

Hitler was consciously attempting to emulate for the Germans the successes in assertion of ethnic territorial dominance that had earlier been achieved by the "White People" of the United States or the British in, among other places, Southern Africa. Hitler's ideas were in line with the logical progression of the apparently common and widely accepted ideas of the time that success for ethnic groups was signified by the acquisition of territory on which those groups could fulfill free from any unacceptable amount of interference from outside ethnic groups.

German, or even Aryan nationalism and Jewish nationalism are the same idea. If Zionism is Jewish nationalism, then it is not exactly analogous to the radical form of German nationalism that we call Nazism now. However, if Israel loses a major war and is humiliated and impoverished as a result, we can be certain that Israelis will be as hostile to the Arabs living in their country as ethnic Germans were towards the Jews of their country. If Netanyahu faced the situation Hitler faced in 1943, the military defeated and the overrun of the country by more numerous and better equipped enemy forces inevitable, we can only imagine what his final solution would be to the problem of Arab populations inside and outside of Israel.

The ideas that lead to the unification of Germany as an "ethnic German" nation in the mid-1800s, and also, at around the same time, to the impulse for "White People" (which in the United States included Jewish people) to conquer and subjugate the natives of their continent also lead to the idea, formalized a few decades later, that Jewish people need a land to conquer.

The answer to the question, would there be an Israel if there was no Hitler, no Nazism, no ethnic cleansing of Jews in territories held by the Germans, is possibly and possibly not. But that question does not capture the full relationship between Zionism and Nazism. Ethnic nationalism in general can be thought of as a father. Jewish nationalism and German nationalism are, in that case brothers. Nazism is a radical son of German nationalism, and a nephew of Jewish nationalism. But Jewish nationalism may well have its own children. Hopefully none will ever be as destructive or evil as Nazism, but there can be no guarantee.

To present Hitler as the father of Israel is factually incorrect. But there is certainly a relationship.

Rafael makes the valid point that the relationship between Israel and Nazism, even if true, does not by itself discredit Zionism as a movement or prove that Israel should not exist. The argument that there should not be a Jewish state is that the cost is greater than the benefits. The suffering of non-Jews to maintain a Jewish state is the entire argument that maintaining such a state should not continue.

I don't recall ever seeing an argument of the form: "Without Hitler there would not be an Israel today, therefore there should not be an Israel today." The closest I've seen is the argument that Israel today is ironically the perpetuation of Hitler's evil. But by that argument the reason there should not be an Israel is the evil, the suffering imposed, not the connection to Hitler.

I have seen claims that political Zionists, through Germany, in some way sacrificed the Jewish people who were killed by the Nazis as part of the project of establishing a Jewish state. I agree with Rafael that those claims are the product of a profound misunderstanding of what Nazism is.
Konrad Adenauer’s payment of reparations to Israel, rather than (as later happened, in some cases at least) to individual sufferers, was probably well intentioned. Symbolically, however, it can be read as standing for Germany’s (and the West’s?) paying off of all its debts to “the Jews.” Europe’s conclusive goodbye was wrapped in cash. Israel, it has further been argued (not entirely implausibly), was established so that Europe’s evicted Jews should have somewhere to go which was not either the United States or Britain. The victors did not want the despoiled. The British, unsurprisingly, used the Jews to enable them to divide and rule Palestine and then, in accordance with Foreign Office tradition, left them to face the angry Arabs in a war which, if the British had rightly calculated (and fixed) the odds, would lead to their elimination. Pontius Pilate has never lacked emulation in London.
Wait a second. The British calculated that the Jews would be eliminated? That represents a profound misunderstanding of what British imperialism is.

Yes. 1948 Britain was much more anti-Semitic than the 1948 United States, even if it was less anti-Semitic than 1940 Germany. And if Palestine was inhabited by about one-third Jewish people and two-thirds ethic British, Britain would have perceived a great interest in ensuring that the British of Palestine won their war with the Jewish people.

Jewish people very often seem not to understand the idea that "foreign" is not a binary value. A group of people can be more or less foreign, targets of more or less bigotry. The British were bigoted against Jews, especially when compared to other British, but European Jews were less foreign than Palestinian Arabs to them. Conceding that the British were bigoted against Jews, it is a ludicrous idea that that means the British favored the Palestinians, or even that the British were not more bigoted against the Arabs, whom they mostly ruled as indirect colonial subjects at the time.

Ludicrous but also commonly held. The counter-historical idea that Jewish people have been subjected to more intense bigotry than any other group seems to be a major component of the Jewish narrative. One easy way to refute it is to point out that there were dozens or hundreds of different actively practiced religions in Europe two thousand years ago. Almost all of those religions were ruthlessly exterminated to the point that very few can even be named by specialists today.
None of this, however keenly asserted, validates the existence of Israel, nor yet does its devious creation, as a kind of noble dump for unwanted persons, invalidate it. It happened as it did, not because “the Jews” were or were not a single people, but in consequence of events over which no Jews, of any political persuasion, had effective control. Israel is, in that sense at least, a reactionary state. So what? It is a common phenomenon, as Zionists have proved, for the defeated to adopt, in whatever modified or supposedly sublime form, the tactics of those who humiliated them.

Ben-Gurion, for eminent instance, admired European culture, but wanted the Jews to become, once more, a “fighting people” (in truth, the Philistines had more often defeated the Jews than modernized myth found convenient to admit). The baggage Ben-Gurion wanted left behind, in old Europe, were the weapons of inferiority: He now wished the sword to be mightier than the pen.
The goal of becoming a "fighting people", if practiced by leaving Europe to fight people who had already been defeated and were at the time in colonial arrangements with the British strikes me as less glorious than it may have struck Ben-Gurion. "We were powerless before the Germans, so let's go to Palestine, use our European weapons and military techniques and beat up some Arabs who have already been defeated by other Europeans" sounds more shameful than noble. Nobody can say now that an eventual Arab victory would not represent justice, just as it did with previous defeats of colonialism throughout what is now called the third world.
As a consequence of this a posteriori judgment, the Palestinians have a seemingly inexorable reason to regard themselves as Israel’s Jews. The comedy, in a very cruel sense, is that Sand argues, with conviction, that the Palestinians are at least as likely to be the descendants of the “original” Judeans as the Jews who have come from, for instance, the ex-Soviet Union, of whom more than a few are almost certainly without any ancestral link with the Holy Land, since they are descended from, in particular, the Khazars whose king converted voluntarily to Judaism in the seventh century C.E. The Khazars, however, are not an admitted topic in Israeli historiography. Facts are not the friends of ideologues. In logic, Wittgenstein observed, “there are no surprises”; in life, however, there always are. One of my favorite little-known books is Raymond Boudon’s “La place du desordre” (1984), in which he argues, with solemn brilliance, for the systematic lack of reliable system in all theories of social change, i.e. in all ideological prescriptions.
I do see arguments about the Khazars from time to time. I guess they can serve as a single example. I think this particular example is probably over-used. If there were no Khazar's Zionism would not have a stronger or weaker moral underpinning.
The Right of Return implies, in some minds, the obligation to do so. For this logic to hold, it has to be argued that the whole of the Diaspora can trace its lineage, pretty well directly, back to the population which is said to have been expelled, and certainly dispersed, after the double disasters of 70 C.E., when Jerusalem fell to the besieging Romans, under Titus, and that of some 60 years later, when Bar-Kokhba’s rebellion was savagely repressed by Hadrian. One of Sand’s claims is that, despite many massacres and the ban on circumcised men entering the renamed Jerusalem (it became Aelia Capitolina), there was no mass deportation of Jews from Palestine.

Among the unwanted truths of the past is that, at least by the time of Hadrian’s vindictive war against the rebellious Judeans, Palestine was by no means the home of most Jews. Since 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was said to be Jewish in the first century C.E., many of them were surely proselytes and most of them, including converted slaves, lived outside Judea. There is a strand of Jewish thought (seconded by the great Sephardic poet Yehuda Halevi) which argues for the superiority of “biological Jews,” but this is unworthy of intelligent endorsement. Moses Maimonides was the first to argue against such divine nonsense, but he was vilified for his humane philosophy. A great many Jews had, of course, been reluctant to return even from Babylon, where, as Jeremiah himself had recommended, they had prospered and multiplied. Baghdad remained a great center of Jewish life and scholarly wisdom for many centuries. Only in 1941 did the British garrison stand aside while insurgent Arabs massacred most of the Jews still living there.
It is not widely understood that most Jews did not live in Palestine before the Roman conquest. (Or that a ban on entering the main city does not demonstrate or imply that the population of the entire territory was purged.) So the "return" even without the Khazar stuff isn't really returning. This does strengthen the claims of Palestinian people who can prove actual ancestors who were driven out, as compared to people who have a right to return because of their ethnicity but who mostly do not have ancestors who were driven out. But this is still a side point in discussions about the project of Zionism.

But the key statement of Rafael's essay:
However assimilated, in terms of language, education or social embeddedness, no Diaspora Jew has failed to benefit, in more or less calculable ways, from the existence of the state of Israel. Those who grew up after 1948 can have little idea of the sense of isolation, of habitual anxiety to which Jews, even in the most allegedly enlightened or tolerant countries, were frequently subject. Of course there were some who, by virtue of their wealth, excellence or muscle, had no such nervous unease, but the Holocaust was the culmination of the manifest malice and, in the Nazi case, of the murderous hostility of the Gentile world. The German Jews were the most assimilated, culturally and, it seemed, socially, but they were swept away along with the Ostjuden from whom they had made every effort to distinguish themselves.
I had never before seen expressed an explanation for the vehemence and emotional intensity of Jewish support for Israel. According to Rafael, the fear that the US may become Nazi Germany was frequently held among Jewish people before the creation of Israel. It doesn't make much sense given, as Rafael asserts, Jewish support for Zionism was very low before the Nazis came to power. But feelings do not have to make sense.

The reason Western policy must seem so bizarrely distorted to non-Westerners is not mainly or directly that Jewish people or Jewish or non-Jewish people sympathetic to Zionism have positions of power and influence in Western society. What we are seeing is that in polite society, when a large group is apathetic and a small group is emotionally energized, the emotionally energized group, beyond what would be expected by its numbers, directs the discourse and sets the terms by which both the smaller and larger groups understand the issues.

Rather than be out of sync with his emotionally motivated colleagues, we see Juan Cole go out of his way to read anti-Semitism into one of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speeches. We see Flynt Leverett and even Barack Obama extol the virtues of Egypt's authoritarian, but pro-Israel, dictator Hosni Mubarak.

When Barack Obama sits in a cabinet meeting, the Jewish people in the room with him feel they personally benefit from Israel. Both in that Israel is an assertion of their virility as Jews, proof that Jews can beat someone, and also a place that they can go if the United States (for the first time ever) becomes particularly hostile to Jewish people. They are personally threatened by the idea that Ahmadinejad does not believe there should be a Jewish state, or that the pro-Israel Mubarak may lose power in favor of democratic groups that do not accept Israel's legitimacy.

Part of the US and Western conception of civility, the US idea of acceptable behavior, is the avoidance of personal attacks when discussing objective issues. But Jewish people are personally attacked by the idea that Iran can build a military nuclear capability. Over time the idea that civility itself, that good manners themselves, conflict with presenting viewpoints about the Middle East that otherwise may be true systematizes a set of pro-Israel distortions in US perceptions of the region.

This seems to me to be a key to understanding the distortion of US policy and perceptions regarding the Middle East.

On the other hand, if all of the 15 million or so Jewish people of the world benefit from Israel, the number of people who suffer for it is immeasurably greater. The only region where the US maintains the exact same colonial relationships it inherited from the British is the Middle East. The number of people living under pro-US indirect colonial dictatorships, in addition to the number of people whose economies are deliberately hampered to give Israel a strategic advantage approaches 20 times the world population of Jewish people.

The US and other countries' taxpayers funding wars and the people dying in them, and also every person in the world who has flown on an airline since 2001 is paying part of the price of ensuring that there is a secure Jewish state.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Iran's Press TV releases transcript of Rigi confession

US support for the Jundallah separatists in Eastern Iran has been an open secret for a long time, so the content of Rigi's confession is not surprising. Rigi's capture does add to a general feeling that the wind is right now behind the backs of Iran and the anti-colonial group in the Middle East.

Here is the transcript.
"After Obama was elected, the Americans contacted us and they met me in Pakistan.They met us after clashes with my group around March 17 in (the southeastern city of) Zahedan, and he (the US operative) said that Americans had requested a meeting."

"I said we didn't have any time for a meeting and if we do help them they should promise to give us aid. They said they would cooperate with us and will give me military equipment, arms and machine guns. They also promised to give us a base along the border with Afghanistan next to Iran."

"They asked to meet me and we said where should we meet you and he said in Dubai. We sent someone to Dubai and we told a person to ask a place for myself in Afghanistan from the area near the operations and they complied that they would sort out the problem for us and they will find Mr. Rigi a base and guarantee his own security in Afghanistan or in any of the countries adjacent to Iran so that he can carry on his operations.

"They told me that in Kyrgyzstan they have a base called Manas near Bishkek, and that a high-ranking person was coming to meet me and that if such high-ranking people come to the United Arab Emirates, they may be observed by intelligence people but in a place like Bishkek this high-ranking American person could come and we could reach an agreement on making personal contacts. But after the last major operation we took part in, they said that they wanted to meet with us.

"The Americans said Iran was going its own way and they said our problem at the present is Iran… not al-Qaeda and not the Taliban, but the main problem is Iran. We don't have a military plan against Iran. Attacking Iran is very difficult for us (the US). The CIA is very particular about you and is prepared to do anything for you because our government has reached the conclusion that there was nothing Americans could do about Iran and only I could take care of the operations for them.

"One of the CIA officers said that it was too difficult for us to attack Iran militarily, but we plan to give aid and support to all anti-Iran groups that have the capability to wage war and create difficulty for the Iranian (Islamic) system. They reached the conclusion that your organization has the power to create difficulties for the Islamic Republic and they are prepared to give you training and/or any assistance that you would require, in terms of telecommunications security and procedures as well as other support, the Americans said they would be willing to provide it at an extensive level."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Turkey takes steps to subordinate its military

Turkey has arrested military officers, apparently the culmination of an investigation that began in 2003 of plans to overthrow the civilian government. Military organizations draw contingency plans. The US, according to rumor, has a plan to invade Canada. The point is that a US invasion of Canada is not going to happen, but that does not mean the military has not drawn up a plan just in case. But the US military does not have a plan to replace the US president.

Turkey's military has seen itself historically has having, as a last resort, the responsibility to oversee Turkey's civilian government. Turkey's military very likely did have contingency plans to replace the government. My take on the recent arrests is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom I consider possibly the best politician in the world right now, is asserting on behalf of Turkey's civilian government that replacing the civilian government is no longer even a contingency to be contemplated by the military.

There is no reason to think that there had been an imminent coup, or that the military had even been actively disloyal during the course of the investigation. The arrests are more a symbolic statement that the military is, from now on, going to relinquish its conception of itself as having the responsibility or ability to take control from a civilian government it disagrees with.

With that point made clearly now, I don't think this issue has much further to go. Those who have been arrested will be given trials, depending on the wording of the laws and the talent of the legal representatives, verdicts of guilty or not guilty will be reached. But society in Turkey will continue with more clarity that Erdogan's party, AKP, can only be removed from office by Turkey's voters.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh's essay on adjusting to Iran's nuclear capability

We have a situation where bombing will not stop Iran from becoming nuclear capable, sanctions will not stop it, there will not be a regime change that would stop it and the US is not willing to offer enough in negotiations that Iran would disclaim nuclear capability. Just as important as that these statements are true, is the fact that these statements are widely accepted and by now form the US conventional wisdom about Iran's nuclear program.

2010 looks like it will be the year the United States and the West move out of denial about Iran's nuclear program and begin the process of adjusting to it. The West is still hostile to Iran, and the nuclear program will still be used as a pretext to impose as broad sanctions on the Iranian economy and people as the US can muster. The US long term hope is still that Iran bows to pressure the US can impose and becomes a pro-US neo-colonial dictatorship like Egypt. But 2010 is the year the US is beginning to accept that its dream for Iran will not come true for a long time, and in the interim, it will be facing, from now on, an Iran that could, if pressed build a nuclear weapon.

Part of this process is represented by a very detailed article "After Iran Gets the Bomb" by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh - two of the United States' most prominent authorities on Iran at the US' Council for Foreign Relations. There are many statements in the article that deserve to be examined closely and corrected, explained or completed.

Here we have the article's opening paragraph:
The Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to become the world's tenth nuclear power. It is defying its international obligations and resisting concerted diplomatic pressure to stop it from enriching uranium. It has flouted several UN Security Council resolutions directing it to suspend enrichment and has refused to fully explain its nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even a successful military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would delay Iran's program by only a few years, and it would almost certainly harden Tehran's determination to go nuclear. The ongoing political unrest in Iran could topple the regime, leading to fundamental changes in Tehran's foreign policy and ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But that is an outcome that cannot be assumed. If Iran's nuclear program continues to progress at its current rate, Tehran could have the nuclear material needed to build a bomb before U.S. President Barack Obama's current term in office expires.
This is what old Americans would describe as a "doozy" of an opening paragraph. The first statement is an assertion without any reservation that Iran is determined to build a nuclear weapon. How this statement works is that the US has a custom definition of 'weapon' that, in practice as of now, only applies to Iran. Lindsay and Takeyh will come back to their strange definition of 'weapon' later, but it does not mean what it means for the other nine nuclear powers. I'm not going to call it a lie, because they really believe in their definition but it is misleading and they demonstrate in this article that they know it is misleading.

"Iran is defying its international obligations" is the second statement. I'm really bored of this argument because if I was to prove it is a false statement, that would have no impact on the reality in Iran. If Lindsay and Takeyh were to prove it is a true statement, it would also have no impact. Everyone can agree that the UN Security Council arbitrarily invented these obligations for Iran.

The IAEA board could just as easily invent a voluntary and non-legally binding "requirement" of Israel that it disarm and join the NPT as a non-nuclear state. At that point the UN Security Council could, with far greater legality and justification than was the case with Iran, make this "obligation" a legal requirement. Israel would ignore an obligation created in that manner, assuming that it really is legal. Iran is ignoring that obligation. Any sovereign country would ignore it, but I've already discussed this obligations stuff too much.

The third statement: even a successful nuclear strike would not work to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability is a key statement that I do not remember seeing expressed by the US foreign policy establishment even last year at this time. Even though it was true by then.

The fourth statement is that Iran could have enough material to build a bomb before Barack Obama leaves office. I'm not sure how to put this. Iran has enough material to build a bomb today. Lindsay and Takeyh make a true statement, but it is not clear why they choose the end of Obama's term as a marker instead of any other time. An assertion that Iran does not have enough material today to make a weapon but will by the beginning of 2013 really does not make sense by any definition of "enough material". It is just a puzzling statement.

Lindsay and Takeyh come to what was, until recently, the pivotal point of the discussion of Iran's nuclear program, the distinction between a nuclear capability - which is legal and that several NPT non-weapons states have and a nuclear weapon which is illegal until and unless Iran notifies the IAEA that it is exercising its right to pull out of the NPT.
The advent of a nuclear Iran -- even one that is satisfied with having only the materials and infrastructure necessary to assemble a bomb on short notice rather than a nuclear arsenal -- would be seen as a major diplomatic defeat for the United States.
This is the weird definition of nuclear that only applies to Iran. (It will later apply to any state in the Middle East other than Israel because Israel depends for its strategic security on being able to make unanswerable catastrophic threats against its neighbors.) Lindsay and Takeyh skip over the fact that their definition of "nuclear Iran", is not only legal, it is the state the NPT guarantees its non-weapons signatories will be assisted in reaching.

NPT signatories are to refrain from building an actual explosive device and certify to the IAEA that they have not taken any plutonium, uranium or thorium out of their civilian nuclear program and diverted it to a military program. NPT signatories have no other NPT obligations beside that. And they are guaranteed that they will have access to nuclear technology "without discrimination" in return, as well as access to nuclear technology from weapons states and other non-weapons states on favorable terms.

The argument that Israel does not have to account for its nuclear program because it is not an NPT signatory misses the point that Iran is being asked to go beyond its NPT terms, and to respect an obligation custom built for it by the UN Security Council. It also misses the point that by not signing the NPT at all, Israel is further, not less far out of international norms regarding proliferation than Iran.
Friends and foes would openly question the U.S. government's power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively.
This raises the question of what the US foreign policy community describes as "friends" in the Middle East. It really is not hyperbole to describe the relationship between the British empire and the rulers of the Middle East before World War II as colonial. The children of those rulers today are in the same relationship with the United States. If King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is not a puppet, then there never was any such thing as puppets.

Lindsay and Takeyh will show us an example later, but more than any strategic considerations, and certainly more than any popular or legitimacy considerations, the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others in the region are, as the Shah was before Iran's revolution, responsive to US concerns and priorities. This subject-superior relationship, euphemistically referred to as "friendship" by Lindsay and Takeyh is delicate and costly to maintain.

Another important and striking paragraph;
Even if Washington fails to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it can contain and mitigate the consequences of Iran's nuclear defiance. It should make clear to Tehran that acquiring the bomb will not produce the benefits it anticipates but isolate and weaken the regime. Washington will need to lay down clear "redlines" defining what it considers to be unacceptable behavior -- and be willing to use military force if Tehran crosses them. It will also need to reassure its friends and allies in the Middle East that it remains firmly committed to preserving the balance of power in the region.
The United States misreads Iran's expectations of benefits from its nuclear program. US analysts also have an exaggerated view of the potency of US threats even now, but even more after Iran has the capability to break the US and Israel's nuclear weapons monopoly if it were to perceive the need. But the most interesting concept Lindsay and Takeyh discuss is "the balance of power in the region."

The balance of power in the Middle East is far more fragile than anywhere else in the world because the US is constrained by its commitment to ensure that the about five million Jewish people who live in Palestine have an overwhelming military advantage over their much larger neighbors. A Saudi Arabia that builds enough military capability to balance an unrestrained Iran or Iraq is inherently militarily powerful enough to dominate or at least rival Israel, which means it could impose a one state solution that would end majority rule for the five million Jewish people.

Israel's survival requires, in the minds of US and Israeli strategists, on Israel being militarily permanently unrivaled.
Most Israelis believe the key to enduring peace in the Middle East is convincing Israel’s adversaries that ejecting Israel through force is an impossible task not worth pursuing. Essential to inducing that sense of despair is Israel’s ability to continuously trounce its enemies on the battlefield and suffer far fewer losses than it inflicts.
The danger of a powerful Iran, whether that power is nuclear or conventional, is that it will prompt especially Saudi Arabia, but also Jordan and Egypt to disregard or potentially disregard US directives that it remain militarily prostrate before Israel.

Lindsay and Takeyh speak euphemistically because it is uncomfortable to directly examine how delicate Israel's regional position is, and how much effort the US has to exert, how far the US has to go, even in sacrificing more direct and traditional regional interests, to keep the region viable.
Iran has vociferously defended the Palestinians, but it has stood by as the Russians have slaughtered Chechens and the Chinese have suppressed Muslim Uighurs.
This argument is parenthetical to the thrust of Lindsay and Takeyh's point, but it is a weak argument that I'll discuss since they brought it up. The United States has not provided more effective support to either the Chechens or Uighurs than Iran, which means that the proposition that Iran does what it can in each case cannot be discounted. But on the other hand, by drawing the parallel, the US puts itself into the group with Russia and China of parties that commit atrocities against Muslims.

But back to Iran's nuclear program:
During the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, nuclear weapons were seen as tools of deterrence against the United States and Saddam Hussein's regime, among others. The more conservative current ruling elite, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards, sees them as a critical means of ensuring Iran's preeminence in the region. A powerful Iran, in other words, requires a robust and extensive nuclear infrastructure.
I've never seen any indication that Ahmadinejad's motives for wanting a nuclear program is different from Rafsanjani's. I've heard again and again and again from Ahmadinejad and from all across Iran's political spectrum (but especially from Ahmadinejad) that Iran calculates that weapons are not effective in achieving policy outcomes. Ahmadinejad often uses the example that nuclear weapons did not help Israel achieve political outcomes in Lebanon or Gaza. He also notes that they did not save the Soviet Union.

Takeyh and Lindsay produce an explanation of Iranian's motives that is not based on what Iranians have said, but one can only guess based on their own imaginations and projections of their own fears.
However, obtaining nuclear weapons is unlikely to help Iran achieve these aims, because nuclear weapons, by definition, are such a narrow category of arms that they can accomplish only a limited set of objectives. They do offer a deterrent capability: unlike Saddam's Iraq, a nuclear Iran would not be invaded, and its leaders would not be deposed.
Wow. John Bolton on the Daily Show earlier this year said that if Serbia had been nuclear capable, the US would not have been able to bomb it. Bolton is a fringe figure in US foreign policy, a caricature of an unthinkingly hyper-aggressive militarist. Lindsay and Takeyh are solidly mainstream figures who are now saying openly that a nuclear capability would prevent Iran from being bombed, invaded and occupied the way Iraq was.

How much is it worth for a country to avoid the fate of Iraq? What Lindsay and Takeyh are saying, and I wonder if they realize it, is that it would be astoundingly irrational for Iran to accept the restrictions they argue Iran should accept on its nuclear program.
Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft.
Iran does not believe in chemical or biological weapons. By now that is part of the lore of the country. I read again and again how proud Iranians are of the decision by Khomeini not to use chemical or biological weapons against Hussein while he was using them against Iran. And it is a good point. But the anti-aircraft weapons is a different story. Giving Iraqi or Afghan insurgents anti-aircraft weapons would be an escalation, but I've always interpreted Iran's restraint as holding that option in reserve exactly as part of a campaign of retaliation against a US provocation such as attacking Iran's nuclear program.
Nor is it likely that Iran would become the new Pakistan, selling nuclear fuel and materials to other states. The prospects of additional sanctions and a military confrontation with the United States are likely to deter Iran from acting impetuously.
I want Lindsay, Takeyh and the rest of the US foreign policy establishment to believe this, but it really is not true. Iran will be willing and able to extend a nuclear capability to Syria certainly. Egypt and Saudi Arabia would only have to ask. Iran is very clear that it is willing to share its technology, after it breaks the Western embargo in nuclear expertise, with any Muslim country.

Iran does not have Israel's unique security needs. Iran would thrive without problem in a region with multiple nuclear capable states like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, or Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Only Israel is threatened by this capability but it seems Lindsay and Takeyh lose sight of that.
China's pursuit of the bomb in the 1960s prompted fears that Japan would follow, but nearly half a century later, Japan remains nonnuclear.
I'm not sure how to explain this. Japan is non-nuclear? Exactly in the context of its competition with China, a Japanese politician rightly noted that Japan could build thousands of nuclear warheads. The definition of nuclear capable as nuclear only applies to Iran and countries that Israel perceives a need to threaten.

But with this background, we can go to the main point of the article. Exactly how the US should manage a nuclear (capable) Iran.
When Washington publicly presents its policy on how to contain a nuclear Iran, it should be explicit: no initiation of conventional warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, materials, or technologies; and no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. It should also make clear that the price of Iran's violating these three prohibitions could be U.S. military retaliation by any and all means necessary, up to and including nuclear weapons.
US strategists thinking as if the year was 1950 and the US was by far the most industrially powerful nation in the world. Iran is not a territorially aggressive country. If not for Saddam Hussein's invasion, Iran likely would never have fought a war since its revolution. But "no transfer of nuclear materials or technologies" is absurd. Muslim countries, contrary to the US abuse of the IAEA board and UN Security Council in Iran's case, have a right to nuclear technology and the injustice of the US denying that right is not sustainable any more. Iran will also continue to support groups the US calls terrorist.

Lindsay and Takeyh confirm Nick Burns' description of US strategy of containment regarding Iran. Unless conditions change drastically and quickly, I see essentially no chance of a US attack on Iran. The US military foreign policy communities understand fully that war with Iran would harm US interests - and have understood this for years now. The eagerness for war that the US displayed in 2002, the idea that if the Security Council didn't pass resolutions, the US would just go to war and leave the council irrelevant, does not exist in the United States today. In 2002, the United States believed it could accomplish political aims in Iraq through war. Today, that feeling does not exist regarding Iran.

Instead the US seems to have settled on a strategy of containment. The US will try to get sanctions on Iran's economy that are as strict as possible and then wait. Hopefully Iran will buckle under the pressure of these sanctions eventually and produce a new Shah, Sadat or Hosni Mubarak. It is a strategy that does not have a good chance of succeeding, but it calls for waiting, rather than for sudden aggressive moves that would be more harmful to both sides.

Except for trying to increase the burden of sanctions, that will only increase hostility and provoke retaliations that will harm US interests, the strategy the US is settling on is the best that could be hoped for given the fact that the US views the region primarily through the lens of protecting Israel. Here we have Lindsay and Takeyh on containment.
Containment could buy Washington time to persuade the Iranian ruling class that the revisionist game it has been playing is simply not worth the candle. Thus, even as Washington pushes to counter Iran, it should be open to the possibility that Tehran's calculations might change.
Lindsay and Takeyh close their essay by demonstrating that they don't understand why Iran is not today led by the Shah.
An Islamic Republic that abandoned its nuclear ambitions, accepted prevailing international norms, and respected the sovereignty of its neighbors would discover that the United States is willing to work with, rather than against, Iran's legitimate national aspirations.
A lot of euphemisms here. A lot of concepts that Lindsay and Takeyh are uncomfortable saying directly, possibly even uncomfortable thinking directly. "Abandon nuclear ambitions" means accept an Israeli monopoly of nuclear capability in the region, meaning accept that Israel can threaten to cause catastrophes on its neighbors without any retaliation. "Accept prevailing international norms" I think means recognize Israel and accept its legitimacy. "Respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" means to accept the legitimacy not only of Israel, but of the string of colonial protectorate states the US maintains in the region to prevent a threat to Israel from emerging.

What Lindsay and Takeyh are asking of Iran is that Iran take the considerations of US voters into account in its policies in preference to Iranian voters, the overwhelming majority of whom do not accept Israel's legitimacy, much less any need for Israeli regional primacy, for Israel to be able to threaten while immune to threats from others. They possibly do not realize it, but like the Leveretts and nearly the entire US foreign policy community - left to right, they believe colonialism is a good thing if it's good for Israel.

However, this article represents the first steps toward US acceptance of Iran's nuclear program. This article does not hope against hope that the Green Revolution will effectively reinstall the Shah. It does not call for futile airstrikes. It does not call for attempting to tighten sanctions to force a near-term change in Iranian policy. I expect that over the course of this year, the consensus of the US foreign policy will publicly reach this position if it has not already.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Arabs and Muslims are victims of an imperialist-Zionist conspiracy aided by reactionary regimes in the Arab world

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, like nearly every US analyst of the Middle East, and as far as I can think of, every analyst presented by major US or European news organizations, has a view of the Middle East that is drastically distorted by loyalty to the idea that about five million Jewish people in Palestine must have a majority state.

Recently Friedman has argued that there have been two post-Nasser impulses among the Arab people: one embodied in Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem, the other embodied in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and what Friedman presents as an increase in Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia that year.
How so? Following the defeat of Egypt and other Arab armies by Israel in the 1967 war, Nasserism, a k a Arab nationalism, the abiding ideology of the day, was demolished. In its wake came two broad alternatives: The first, manifested by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in his 1977 trip to Israel, was a bid to cast the Arab world’s future with the West, economic liberalization, modernization and acceptance of Israel. The weakness of “Sadatism,” though, was that it was an elite ideology with no cultural roots. The Egyptian state made peace with Israel, but Arab societies never followed.

The second Arab-Muslim response emerged in 1979. To start, there was the takeover that year of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists who challenged the religious credentials of the Saudi ruling family. The Saudi rulers responded by forging a new bargain with their Islamists: Let us stay in power and we will give you a free hand in setting social norms, relations between the sexes and religious education inside Saudi Arabia — and abundant resources to spread Sunni Wahabi fundamentalism abroad.
Nothing gives supporters of Israel more pleasure than gloating over the 1967 war. No, that war did not demolish Arab nationalism. That war did represent the high point of Western-sponsored Israeli military dominance of its region. Israel certainly will never have another war that painless from its perspective again, against any opponent. My response to that gloating is that Egypt lost that war thoroughly, but still exists as Egypt. When Israel loses its first war thoroughly, it will still exist, and it may still be called Israel, but that will essentially mark the end of the Zionist project.

Friedman's description of what he calls "Sadatism" uses a fairly common technique in Western analysis of the Middle East. "cast the Arab world’s future with the West, economic liberalization, modernization and acceptance of Israel". Two other things and then acceptance of Israel. Friedman presents acceptance of Israel as an afterthought. Actually is it the only thing on that list he cares about. Economic liberalization and modernization without acceptance of Israel are concepts that the West consistently opposes in the Middle East.

Even with a government that accepts Israel, Egypt does not have terms of trade with the United States or Europe nearly as beneficial as Israel does. (A post about this is to come.) An Egypt that develops an independent economic base that could support a standard sized military for the country of over 60 million people would be one election or coup away from being a more potent existential threat to Israel than Iran is.
The young reformers today “do not have a compelling story to tell,” remarked Lahcen Haddad, a political scientist at Rabat University in Morocco. “And they face a meta-narrative” — first developed by Nasser and later adopted by the Islamists — “that mobilizes millions and millions. That narrative says: ‘The Arabs and Muslims are victims of an imperialist-Zionist conspiracy aided by reactionary regimes in the Arab world. It has as its goal keeping the Arabs and Muslims backward in order to exploit their oil riches and prevent them from becoming as strong as they used to be in the Middle Ages — because that is dangerous for Israel and Western interests.’ ”

Today that meta-narrative is embraced across the Arab-Muslim political spectrum, from the secular left to the Islamic right. Deconstructing that story, and rebuilding a post-1979 alternative story based on responsibility, modernization, Islamic reformation and cross-cultural dialogue, is this generation’s challenge. I think it can happen, but it will require the success of the democratizing self-government movements in Iran and Iraq. That would spawn a whole new story.
Readers of this blog know well that it is fully accepted in the US and Israeli foreign policy establishments that Israel perceives a security interest in the neighboring countries not being strong enough that Israel (a country less than a tenth the size of some of its neighbors) cannot threaten them with catastrophic defeat.

Friedman will not allow himself to admit that the narrative he describes is correct, but he does not pretend the narrative is held only by Islamists as is commonly argued by Western analysts. Everyone in the Middle East including the pro-US stooges in power in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, Jordan and Egypt accepts that narrative. Ariel Ilan Roth, speaking for the US Council on Foreign Relations accepts that narrative, as do, according to him, most Israelis:
Most Israelis believe the key to enduring peace in the Middle East is convincing Israel’s adversaries that ejecting Israel through force is an impossible task not worth pursuing. Essential to inducing that sense of despair is Israel’s ability to continuously trounce its enemies on the battlefield and suffer far fewer losses than it inflicts.
And given that this narrative is correct, not only are the Arabs and Muslims victims, the 3000 Americans who died in the World Trade Center are victims of this US project to keep the Muslim world weak enough that it could not force Israel to relinquish the political majority status of about five million Jewish people in Palestine, as are the 4000 American combat dead in Iraq.

This is a reality that Friedman has come closer to facing in this piece than I've ever seen him come, but in the end, loyalty to the idea that there must be a Jewish state, as almost always happens in Western analyses of the Middle East, prevents him from making further logical connections.

Nuclear chess: Iran executes a fork, the US saves the wrong piece

Iran made a request for fuel for its medical reactor in June. It wasn't a bluff as much as it was a fork. Or even a double fork that first put Iran into a position where it would either break the (absolutely illegal and immoral) US sanction on medical isotopes
The impending shortage of technetium-99 is caused by the controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, aimed at moving Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program, are supposed to leave medical practice unaffected. In reality, however, Iran has become unable to procure a wide range of medical products. Body scanners cannot be imported from the US or the EU, since parts in these machines could also be useful to Iran's nuclear program. An embargo on medical isotopes was introduced in 2007, in defiance of the medical exception clause touted as part of the trade sanctions, Iranian leaders said.

Isotopes are a rare commodity produced at only five sites worldwide. One of these, the High Flux Reactor in the Dutch town of Petten, currently accounts for 30 to 40 percent of worldwide production, but it is scheduled for retirement soon. Apart from the UN sanctions, so many restrictions -- particularly American -- on trade with Iran exist, that in practice nobody is willing to supply Iran with medical isotopes any longer.
or demonstrate an ability to enrich uranium to near weapons level and also convert the uranium to metal.

The US had been using the medical isotopes as leverage to force Iran to stop enriching, but has been put into a position where it had to choose to either keep its ability to use isotopes as leverage to pressure Iran to disclaim enrichment and nuclear weapons capability or freeze for a some time Iran's status at the time of a country that only enriches uranium to 3.5% with no higher enriched uranium in its stock.

The US chose to keep its embargo on isotopes and whatever leverage that provides. Actually, there is nobody in Iran willing to suspend or limit its nuclear program over the isotopes. As far as leverage in negotiations over the nuclear program, the isotopes are worthless. Like a many US policies ostensibly aimed at Iran's nuclear program, denying Iran isotopes is a petty and vindictive way to punish Iran, but it has no effectiveness in altering Iran's nuclear calculations.

But right or wrong, the US chose to maintain its ability to deny the isotopes. Now Iran has a pretext, that it is using, to further enrich its uranium and learn the technology of turning enriched uranium into useful metal forms. If Iran successfully domestically fuels the medical reactor, there is no longer any serious doubt of its military capability.

The second part of the double fork is that if Iran fails to refuel the medical reactor in time, the US will face the same choice over Iran moving forward with the Arak heavy water research reactor. Now Iran has, until now, been willing to give up Arak for the foreseeable future if the US agrees to Iranian domestic enrichment. Next year, or possibly the year after, the US will be faced with a choice of holding Iran's nuclear program to just enrichment or allowing it to advance like it has this year, next time adding plutonium from Arak.

The same way the US now wishes it agreed with Iran to hold Iran to limited, workshop-scale enrichment in 2006 or 2007, it will wish by 2011 that it had held Iran to a modest uranium capacity without plutonium. The US is kind of destined to negotiate two or three years behind reality, which will cause Iran to gain a full and diverse nuclrear capability.

Why does the US consistently negotiate with Iran as if it was two years previous? Asking Iran to suspend enrichment in 2006 as Iran had been willing in 2004 - asking Iran to revert today to the level of uranium in stock it had in 2008? In one word, Israel. Israel has security needs with respect to its region that are extreme and unsustainable.
Israel fears that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could undermine its qualitative superiority of arms and its consistent ability to inflict disproportionate casualties on adversaries -- the cornerstones of Israel’s defense strategy. Although some idealists dream of reconciliation in the Middle East based on a genuine and mutual recognition of all parties’ legitimate rights, most Israelis believe the key to enduring peace in the Middle East is convincing Israel’s adversaries that ejecting Israel through force is an impossible task not worth pursuing.

Essential to inducing that sense of despair is Israel’s ability to continuously trounce its enemies on the battlefield and suffer far fewer losses than it inflicts. The Iranian nuclear program threatens Israel’s ability to do this in two ways. First, an Iranian nuclear capability would likely force Israel to restrain itself due to fears that Iran’s nuclear weapons could provide an implied security guarantee to other anti-Zionist forces -- the sort of guarantee that would prevent Israel from causing the massive losses it has in the past, while giving anti-Israel forces the confidence to keep up the fight.
Israel needs to permanently be able to make unanswerable catastrophic threats against its neighbors, but today that is just not feasible. Sanctions will not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability. military strikes won't work. There will not be a miraculous revolution that puts Zionists into power or people who can be corrupted into neo-colonial stooges like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

As in 2006 and 2008, now the US will continue to have to choose how much nuclear capability it can live with. If the answer, on Israels behalf, remains none, the US will end up facing an Iran that has every conceivable option for militarizing its nuclear program.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

New York Times: You really can't figure out why Iran would make uranium into metal?

Cyrus over at Iran Affairs is the best source I've come across for dismantling New York Times articles that mislead their readers toward conclusions favoring hostility against Iran (as against Iraq earlier).

However, David Sanger and William Broad have surprised me with a degree of feigned denseness that is unusual even for that news organization.
Perhaps the most startling revelation in the report is that for the first time Iran told inspectors it was preparing to make its uranium into a metallic form — a step that can be explained by some civilian applications, but is widely viewed as necessary for making the core of an atom bomb. The report does not say what explanation the Iranians offered, if any, for the activity.
Just to answer the question, fuel plates for the medical research reactor. Which has been, by far, the biggest new story regarding Iran and nuclear power programs for the past two weeks. (Of course, including stories Broad and Sanger have worked on.)

But really, Sanger and Broad are acting as if they didn't know this? Pretending to be startled? The New York Times does have a way of insulting the intelligence of its readers that is unique even for US news organizations.

Since I'm here, the text of the report itself is available. I found it at ArmsControlWonk. Amano does seem to be more willing than El Baradei was to gloss over the difference between requirements of Iran's safeguards agreement and steps the IAEA and UN Security Council have asked Iran to take that go beyond those steps. Amano actually argues that implementing the Additional Protocols is a requirement of the fissionable materials safeguards agreement written twenty years earlier.

I don't really worry about what lawyers would say at this point. When I did, I felt like Iran's position was easily explained as reasonable. But now, let's say Iran is totally in the wrong legally. Just as wrong as the US was for invading Iraq. So what? A military attack won't stop Iran's program. Sanctions won't stop the program. A color revolution won't stop the program. If Iran's enrichment was legally wrong, I don't see how that has more of an impact than Israel's collective starvation of the people of Gaza for electing Hamas or dropping cluster bombs on civilian farmland in southern Lebanon.

The United States by now is going to have to learn to accept a nuclear-capable Iran. I expect that Iran help with that in the next two or three years when an Iranian official says that the reason Iran does not have a weapon is not that it could not, but that it has decided not to build one.

But about the "startling" metal fabrication. The US has the option of swapping Iran's LEU for medical reactor fuel, provided the US gives guarantees that Iran would actually get fuel - which seems not to have happened so far. Iran would not convert its uranium to metallic form in that case.

A possible guarantee would be explicitly describing the penalties if the full consignment of fuel has not been delivered twelve months after the LEU is exported. Something like Iran would be, in that circumstance, explicitly allowed to purchase several million dollars worth of nuclear products and services from South Africa, Brazil and/or other countries continuously until the deliveries have finished.

This is just to say that specific satisfactory guarantees are not difficult to envision if the US wanted a swap and did not want to use the reactor fuel as negotiating leverage to get Iran to give up enrichment or nuclear weapons capability. But the US does want to use medical isotopes as leverage, so Iran instead will learn to make its own fuel plates which will also deepen its nuclear weapons capability.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Did they laugh at Hillary Clinton's fears of an Iranian military dictatorship?

One report says that as Hillary Clinton was expressing her concern for the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader, President (!), Parliament and formal political system some in the audience audibly expressed skepticism.
Two Clinton statements during her Gulf trip this week were particularly revealing of why Washington continues to fail in its missions in our region. The first was her expression of concern that Iran is turning into a military dictatorship: “We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” Clinton said.

Half a century of American foreign policy flatly contradicts this sentiment (which is why Clinton heard soft chuckles and a few muffled guffaws as she spoke). The US has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, and has long supported states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services. This became even more obvious after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington intensified cooperation with Arab intelligence services in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other terror groups.
The idea that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have mounted a coup that didn't actually remove anyone from office or institute any changes to any laws defies evidence. The theory itself is that the Revolutionary Guards have taken power but have not taken anything that would provide evidence of their power.

I guess this idea has filtered directly from Gary Sick through the US foreign policy establishment. Or at least that the idea was concocted once (whether Gary Sick was the ultimate origin or just the first source I heard it from) and sounded compelling to the US foreign policy community members who heard it. Since it is not the result of evidence, it is the result of someone's imagination. It's not really important whose.

What is interesting is why this idea seems so compelling that it spread unchecked through the US foreign policy community. So compelling that it resulted in the US Secretary of State traveling to to Qatar to deliver this laughable theory to a Middle Eastern audience. One reason is that nobody in the Western foreign policy establishment treats the October Balochistan attack as the major event it was. The reason for that is that the attack was so immediately obviously counter-productive to US interests that it is uncomfortable to think of the implications of it happening. So a coup that produced no indications is a more comfortable explanation of why Iran became more hostile against the US in mid-October.

Another reason is that it is something negative to say about a country that does not accept Israel. For the US foreign policy establishment, to question a negative statement about a party that does not accept Israel is, by itself, uncomfortably associated with anti-Semitism. When a colleague tells you about this theory that makes a lot of sense, that the Revolutionary Guards have staged a coup with no visible mechanism at all, so now Iran is a military dictatorship, you can't ask for evidence.

When someone calls a country that believes Palestinians should be able to vote away Israel's status as a majority Jewish state a "military dictatorship", to ask for evidence is to defend that country. You can't defend Iran in the US foreign policy establishment because even if you are not bigoted against Jewish people, charges of anti-Semitism, even if false and unsupportable, can take a practical toll on one's career and are either way mentally stressful in themselves.

So the idea was stupid when Gary Sick first wrote it in public. It is stupid now with Hillary saying it. It will be stupid when Barack Obama repeats it later this year. This idea has spread rapidly and without challenge because it fits extremely well into the blind spot of the US foreign policy, especially Middle East policy, analysis apparatus.

The worst part is that Gary Sick has mounted a coup and taken control of the United States. He hasn't changed any laws. He's left all of the US political figures in place. The policies he's agreed with all along are continuing. There is no policy I can point to that he disagreed with that is changing. There is no tangible indication of this coup, but that just makes it more pernicious.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, I'm not going to express this theory on a stage in an auditorium full of Americans who would just laugh at me.

The United States offered substantial political assurances that the agreement would be fulfilled

What is a substantial political assurance?

We have the text of a letter to the IAEA from the parties directly involved in the fuel swap deal: Russia, whose job would be to produce 20% enriched uranium; France, who would fabricate fuel plates; and the United States which would upgrade Iran's research reactor and probably have some role in the financing of the deal.
The United States offered substantial political assurances that the agreement would be fulfilled.
Seriously. What does that even mean? What could it possibly mean?

My best guess, and I’m dumbfounded while guessing, is that Barack Obama himself privately gave his word that he’d try to make sure the West honored the agreement. I don’t know how to express how meaningless “substantial political assurances” must appear to Iran. Because worse than if they hadn’t been given, they are insulting. This really feels like a “trade gold for candy with children” situation.

1) Bushehr has not been fulfilled, and the US is not more trustworthy than Russia.

2) The only reason it makes sense that Iran’s uranium has to be removed from the country instead of sealed by the IAEA in Iran is if the US does not plan on delivering the fuel, or at least considers that an important contingency.

3) The idea that the terms of the deal cannot be further negotiated detracts from the credibility of the West.

Iran says its willing to do a swap, if a swap would actually happen, and Iran would actually get fuel. The deal is structured to at least give the US the option of withholding fuel unless Iran makes further concessions. Why must it be structured that way?

At the end of October, the US could, and if it wanted a swap should, have ordered production of fuel plates to start. By now, three months later, enough fuel would be ready that Iran could have made the trade, secure that there is no funny business involved, in early February and Iran’s LEU would, by today, be gone.

The unescapable conclusion is that what could be a simple swap deal is complicated by the US ambition (which might as well be openly stated) of using the fuel to pressure Iran into making further concessions on its nuclear program, and giving up any military nuclear capability.

It is time to move past that. Iran is certainly not giving up enrichment and also probably will not subject the size of its uranium stock or pace of uranium production to limits set by the US in exchange for reactor fuel.

Or not. The US does not have to accept an Iranian military nuclear capability today, even though by today it is a reality. Four years from now, the US will be willing to offer a far more complete nuclear capability than it is willing to offer today. Imagine the limits Iran would have accepted on its nuclear program four years ago. A cap on its domestic uranium stock of 500 kilograms of 3.5 LEU and nothing higher and fewer than four thousand operational centrifuges could have been agreed easily at that time and Iran would probably be implementing and have ratified the additional protocols by now. A deal like that is far more than the Iranians were asking for at the time. Oh, also Iran would be making intense efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan in concert with the US by now.

The US instead has moved, sometimes ambivalently, down the road of increased hostility with Iran. Israel has benefited because the principle that countries that do not accept Israel's legitimacy and support parties that share that non-acceptance are economically punished has been maintained. I can't see how the US has benefited, or will benefit from continuing the current path.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The clock has run out. Iran is nuclear capable.

As of today, even if the US had no vulnerabilities in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf, US military planners would not be able to discount the possibility of Iran building a nuclear weapon in less than a year. For now, Iran would have to put any weapon into a truck and smuggle it to a target that can be reached by land. Just that capability is certainly enough that the US would not be able to put troops onto Iranian soil, likely to be enough that the US would not be willing to mass troops in a neighboring country as a potential invasion force and quite possibly enough that the US could not use a neighboring country as a base for bombing Iran.

Years from now Iran will also have, in theory, the option of putting a weapon onto a missile. Having that option, even without ever actually making a weapon, would be enough to deter a wide range of US or Israeli actions or threats against either Iran or any country Iran commits to defending. A calculation of Iran's nuclear capabilities that is consistent with the US informed consensus can be found at

The fuel swap deal represented a last ditch effort to get Iran to voluntarily reduce its stock of low enriched uranium to significantly below the amount necessary to make one weapon. At that level, while there would not be certainty that Iran cannot build a weapon, the US, in a hypothetical emergency, could hope to destroy as many centrifuges as it could by bombing and be fairly confident that from there building a weapon would take more than one, and possibly several years of intense (and detectable) effort by the Iranians.

I can only guess the US was willing to get around the suspension requirement by allowing Iran to enrich as long as it does not stockpile its uranium, instead exporting it to another country to participate in a fuel bank. This situation would be a virtual suspension and while from the US point of view it would be inferior to an actual suspension, it would not directly increase Iran's nuclear capability. I base my guess that this was offered on three things. The first is that Ahmadinejad, while discussions about the fuel swap deal were still active, said Iran would be willing to participate in a fuel bank. The second is that a Swiss organization published a proposal along these lines as a way to meet the concerns of both the Iranians and the pro-Israel parties. The third is that US Defense Secretary Robert Gates insists that the US presented new and "creative" ideas to resolve the issue.

I'm also willing to guess that while acceptable details would have to be worked out, Iran was willing to entertain discussions of this idea, subject to agreement on the benefits Iran would get from voluntarily holding its nuclear stock at an agreed level and many other terms. Terms would include things like the duration of any Iranian commitment, the leverage that would be available to Iran to ensure that the pro-Israel parties would not be able to break their commitments as well as what the expectations would be from each side regarding behavior in the region unrelated to the nuclear issue, for example US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iranian policies regarding Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. I base this guess again on Ahmadinejad's speaking positively of the fuel bank idea as well as a sense I remember in early October that Iran seemed optimistic that there was a chance that the issue was solvable.

Honestly, the pro-US stooge governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others should be directly represented in US/Iranian discussions of the region. But the US, especially as it is discussing Iran's nuclear status prefers as little direct contact between its colonies and Iran as possible.

Another guess is that the US perceives Rafsanjani and members of his faction in Iranian politics, notably Mousavi, as generally more willing to negotiate than Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards faction of Iranian politics. Also that Rafsanjani and Mousavi know this, meaning the US has in some way successfully communicated its preference for them. My guess that there is a US preference for Rafsanjani comes from the current claims that his faction's losing power in Iran represents a Iran becoming military dictatorship, or junta. There is also the open collaboration between what is now known as the Green movement and the people in the US who are designing sanctions against Iran.
In recent weeks, senior Green Movement figures -- who have been speaking at major Washington think tanks -- have made up a list of IRGC-related companies they suggest targeting, which has been forwarded to the Obama administration by third parties.
There also was the episode in 2005 when the West actually told the Iranians that it wanted to wait for the results of the elections, which at the time Rafsanjani was projected to win, before making its offer on Iran's nuclear program.

My guess that the Rafsanjani faction knows that the US favors it is based on the otherwise unexplainable urgency that was evidenced in Rafsanjani's and Mousavi's behavior after the election. Calling people to the street before he could present tangible evidence of fraud was a hugely irresponsible and desperate action on Mousavi's part. Rafsanjani's claim - a month later addressing the nation, that some people doubt the results, without being able to say he doubts the results himself, and, more importantly, what evidence leads him to doubt them - also was a desperate gamble. These gambles could only be justified by the prospect of huge gains if they had been successful.

I don't necessarily think the huge gains Rafsanjani and Mousavi expected if they could overturn the election results would have been personal gains. They likely believed there was a prospect of historically improved relations with the United States on a respectable basis which would be very valuable for Iran. On the other hand, Rafsanjani is infamous for his corruption. And corrupt leaders are exactly what the US looks for to develop into Mubarak-like stooge dictators.

My last speculation about the recent history of the nuclear issue is that the Balochistan bombing in October disrupted the consensus in Iran that Iran could benefit from efforts to make a deal with the pro-Israel countries over its nuclear program. I base this guess on the severity of the attack, which killed several high-ranking Revolutionary Guards commanders and the impact sudden major violent actions tend to have everywhere in the world of causing communities to lurch towards militancy.

That attack on October 18, combined with the unexpected inflexibility of the Western negotiators on the terms of the proposal presented on October 19 likely are what killed the deal. The public deal, that Iran just gives its stock of uranium for a promise of reactor fuel later, just like Russia's promise to start the Bushehr reactor in 2005 and the promise to deliver the S-300 air defense system years later, was clearly unacceptable from the beginning to any Iranian party. If the deal had a private component that Iran would agree to limit its stock of low enriched uranium, then the private deal would have been injured by the Balochistan attack and the inflexible Western negotiating position would only have reaffirmed Iranian opposition to the deal.

The December killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran would have been a further blow. A possible impact may have been that the stock that was acceptable to Iran in the middle of October is no longer acceptable. But if Iran demands a domestic stock of more than a ton of low enriched uranium that is not acceptable to the pro-Israel parties in the negotiation.

If the Balochistan attack had foreign sponsorship, and that is somewhat likely - the US essentially admits it arms the Balochistan rebels through Pakistan - then the attackers knew they were attacking the idea of the US and Iran resolving the nuclear issue. While an Iran that continues to enrich but limits its stock in exchange for cooperation with the US is seen as beneficial to some factions of the pro-Israel coalition, it is likely seen negatively by others and particularly by Israel itself.

If the attack had a foreign sponsor it most likely was not mainstream US foreign policy apparatus, but possibly Israel's, France's, some subsection of the US' or some party's apparatus that considers itself more pro-Israel than the mainstream US. Possibly, I don't really consider it likely and it doesn't matter on the ground either way, but possibly the timing of the Balochistan attack was just a coincidence. If so, it was a very unfortunate coincidence for US/Iranian relations.

That gets us to where we are now.

The deal is dead. The US has absolutely no problems with Iranian cancer patients not getting treatment as a way to pressure Iran to give up enrichment. To people like myself who do not consider the security of Israel as a Jewish state as the most important, or even the only moral consideration in the Middle East, the US position is sick and repugnant. To most people in the US foreign policy establishment, the idea that there are moral issues that can compete with the security of Israel in the Middle East has uncomfortable, even if false, associations with anti-Semitism. That comes from the environment in which their careers have developed. Dying Iranian cancer patients are just as worth it as starving Iraqi children were to Madeline Albright. What is sick to me is reasonable to people who accept the exclusivity of Israel as moral issue in the Middle East.

If Iran wants medical fuel without giving up the theoretical capacity to defend itself from US attacks it is going to have to make the fuel itself. In the meantime, Iran will build its stock of uranium, not to build a weapon, but because a stock of uranium is itself a deterrent before it is even converted to a weapon. Iran's stock by the end of Obama's first term will be two or three tons of 3.5% low enriched uranium and possibly a hundred or two kilograms of 20% LEU.

Interestingly, the deal the US is so upset that Iran did not take in October 2009 could have easily been achieved in 2006 or 2007. As Iran's stock increases in size and Iran's nuclear capability becomes more flexible, if the trend continues, the deal the US will be willing to accept by the end of 2012 will be much more favorable than what the pro-Israel parties are willing to offer today.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Biden: I worry that Iran may gain "even a modicum" of nuclear weapons capability

US Vice President Joe Biden gave an interview with Larry King on February 10 in which he discussed the danger of Iran getting "even a modicum of nuclear capability":
KING: Iran, nuclear -- worry?

BIDEN: A concern. A -- a -- a real concern, not an immediate concern in the sense that something could happen tomorrow or in the very near term. But what I worry most about with regard to Iran, if they continue on the path of nuclear weapons and were able to gain even a modicum of the capability, then I worry what that does -- Larry, and you know the Middle East, what that -- what pressure that puts on Saudi Arabia, on Egypt, on Turkey, etc. To acquire nuclear weapons. That's --

KING: That's all you need.

BIDEN: That's very destabilizing.
It is unfortunate that the United States does not have a press corps that understands the issues around Iran's nuclear case well enough and is independent enough to catch the position Biden expressed and ask him to define or clarify exactly what he means by "even a modicum of the capability".

I'm not sure King understood that Biden was saying that Iran must not enrich uranium at all, as any country with domestic enrichment has the capability to build a weapon if it was to make that political decision. This is the position held by the Bush administration, that John Kerry in June called ridiculous on its face.
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.
If Biden worries about Iran getting a modicum of that capability, he's going to be worrying until he leaves office. Repeated analysis and simulations demonstrate that sanctions will not prevent Iran from continuing its enrichment program. A military attack would ultimately accomplish the opposite of preventing Iran from getting a modicum of weapons capability. Regime change, as unlikely as that is, still would not lead to Iran disavowing its nuclear program.

The United States foreign policy establishment is psychologically unable to accept Iran having enrichment, despite the fact that it is well understood by now that there is no option available to the US that could effectively stop it. Israel and anxiety around a fear of false accusations of anti-Semitism create an atmosphere in which US policy analysts are not able to observe the Middle East region rationally. This irrationality is where the idea that any deal supplying fuel to the Tehran medical reactor must give the US leverage to stop Iranian enrichment comes from.

The distortions of the US perception of the region, regarding the Iranian nuclear issue and other regional issues, will continue to crash into reality until the US chooses or is forced to adjust its priorities.

Clearing up four widely held misconceptions about the fuel deal for Iran's Tehran research reactor

There are a lot of widely held misconceptions about how the reactor deal progressed.

1) The opposition was not important in Iran’s rejection of the Oct 19 terms. Iran did not accept the deal at the Oct meeting, and expressed its reservations immediately when the terms were presented. The opposition by the time it expressed the same reservations Iran’s government had expressed, was just jumping onto an already rolling bandwagon.

2) Iran did not ever accept the deal presented on Oct 19, or anything equivalent to that. The terms of the Oct 19 deal are onerous. Iran has to ship almost all of its uranium up front and after that has no leverage to force the West to return fuel. Iran would be in the same situation it currently faces unable to force Russia to fulfill its Bushehr contract or its S-300 air defense missile contract.

3) Iran did not ever reject the idea of a swap in the abstract. Iran did express support for a swap around the beginning of October. It’s rejection of the specific terms of the October 19 proposal was not a rejection of a swap. Nor was it going back on a previous acceptance. It was a rejection of a specific set of onerous conditions. Iran always said that with changes to ensure the Bushehr experience would not be repeated with the reactor fuel the swap deal would be acceptable.

4) One side has been inflexible, the West. The position of the West, expressed by now dozens of times, is that the terms of the Oct 19 deal cannot be altered. The point of the deal is not only to remove uranium from Iran’s domestic stock – that’s something Iran can accept. Based on the West's behavior and negotiating position, the point for the West must also be to have the reactor fuel as a piece of leverage that the West can use during negotiations to force Iran to make the further concession of giving up domestic enrichment. That, as the US should have known from the beginning, is something Iran cannot accept.

Lebanon and Syria are holding together well right now

Bashar Assad's interview earlier this week with Seymour Hersch of the New Yorker publication included a statement about the instability of Lebanon that presents a threat of a sudden and unexpected descent into civil war unless there are reforms of its political system.
The civil war in Lebanon could start in days; it does not take weeks or months; it could start just like this. One cannot feel assured about anything in Lebanon unless they change the whole system.
In Lebanon "change the whole system" means move away from the current political allocation that disproportionately gives political power to Christians and Sunni Muslims and gives fewer seats in Parliament to Shiites than the population would reflect.

Parties in Lebanon that benefit from the current allocation of power might take offense at a statement like this, but it seems political parties in Lebanon are seeking good relations rather than confrontation with Syria.
Assad’s remarks drew reactions from Lebanese parliamentary-majority officials over the weekend with the Future Movement issued a statement Saturday saying Hersh’s reporting of Assad’s remarks was unclear. The Future Movement added that an official Syrian source later clarified Assad’s statement in remarks published by Al-Hayat, by expressing Syria’s rejection of all forms of political sectarianism in the Middle East region where several religious communities coexisted.

Similarly, Democratic Gathering Bloc MP Marwan Hamadeh said Sunday Assad was addressing sectarianism in general, not particularly in Lebanon, adding that the Syrians were not satisfied with “Hersh’s interpretation of Assad’s comments.”

“We can easily exploit Asssad’s speech if we want to blow things out of proportion but if we want to wrap the issue then let us adopt the Future Movement’s stance following the call between Hariri and Assad,” Hamadeh said.
And of course, there is Hariri himself who is carefully speaking against the idea that Lebanon is or should be divided.
"We hear a lot of Israeli threats day in and day out," Hariri said in an interview posted on the BBC's Web site Wednesday. "Every day we have Israeli warplanes entering Lebanese airspace. This is something that is escalating, and this is something that is really dangerous."

Hariri said Lebanon, which has a notoriously fractious political system, would unite if there is a fresh conflict with Israel.

"I think they're (Israelis) betting that there might be some division in Lebanon, if there is a war against us," Hariri said. "There won't be a division in Lebanon. We will stand against Israel. We will stand with our own people."
An emerging Lebanese nationalism that causes Hariri to refer to Hezbollah and its largely Shiite supporters as "our own people" is a very good development.