Thursday, June 30, 2011

Iran and nuclear-capable missile tests: a look into the British claim

This week witnessed some controversial political developments regarding Iran. Most notably, in a rare incident British Foreign Minister William Hague outbid his American and Israeli counterparts in leveling serious accusations against Iran before the British House of Commons. Hague claimed that “Iran has been carrying out covert ballistic missile tests and rocket launches, including testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload in contravention of UN resolution 1929,” . According to the British foreign minister at least three secret tests of medium-range ballistic missiles have been conducted by Iran since October, including some in the ongoing missile drill by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Regardless of the fact that the British foreign minister has presented no evidence to substantiate his allegation, two words in his statement deserve closer scrutiny. First comes the word “covert”, which begs the question of how to determine which missile tests are what it signifies. Put differently, what is the criteria of covertness of missile tests? Advance public announcement of missile tests or any other type of military drills is what is conventionally understood to distinguish a public act from a covert one. Yet this was exactly what was done in the latest missile drill by Iran. How could some of the missile tests in the ongoing drill be labeled covert while others normal? Hague has not elaborated on this.

It appears from Hague’s statement that other claimed instances of what he has referred to as “covert missile tests” have been conducted as isolated cases and not as part of a major military drill. Common sense has it that military organizations typically conduct isolated tests of their newly-purchased or newly-developed missiles in prelude to major military drills. It simply does not sound reasonable for military organizations to publicly announce every single case of their weapons tests. After all, how often do we hear other countries publicly announce their missile tests? Why should then a different standard be applied to Iran?

Second, the term ‘nuclear-capable’ missiles is pretty nebulous and the British foreign minister has not explained how he has verified this. Many kinds of ballistic missiles are capable of carrying both conventional and non-conventional warheads. Even in the unlikely event that Iran had tested such missiles, it is pretty obvious that testing nuclear-capable missiles is not equivalent to working on the design of nuclear warheads. According to Western media reports, several other regional countries are already in possession of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. For example, Saudi Arabia is reported to have purchased nuclear-capable ballistic missiles from China in recent years. Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan reportedly negotiated a deal with Chinese officials that paved the way for the transfer of two types of Chinese missiles to Saudi Arabia, including “the DF-21 (NATO-designated CSS-5), which is a two-stage, solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic (MRBM) system developed by China Changfeng Mechanics and Electronis Technology Academy. The DF-21 is capable of delivering a 500kT nuclear warhead over a distance of 1,800 km”.

The recent statement by former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal at a NATO meeting in the U.K. that “ if Iran were to build a nuclear weapon, that "would compel Saudi Arabia ... to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.", indicates that the Saudi Regime has already been planning for worst case scenarios and the purchase of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles from China can be understood as an integral part of that plan. Despite clear evidence of the possession of nuclear-capable missiles by Saudi Arabia and several other countries in the region, not to mention Israel’s formidable nuclear weapons arsenal, Iran has been target of the latest round of accusations by the British foreign minister. It has been long that double standards have been the spice of the foreign policy of Western powers towards the region but the British foreign minister has turned out to have added a different flavor to that spice.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Insanity on Iran: John Bolton's testimony

Written by: Paul Pillar

Sometimes even crazy ideas acquire the semblance of respectability if they are repeated enough in otherwise respectable circles. That has long been the case with the idea of launching a war against Iran in the name of setting back the Iranian nuclear program. This notion gets chanted in a verse about “the only thing worse than a war with Iran is an Iranian nuclear weapon” with almost no careful attention in the chant to how the incentives facing Iranian leaders would affect their decisions, exactly how an Iranian nuclear weapon would affect Iranian behavior, what a military strike could reasonably be expected to accomplish, and the full consequences of a war with Iran. The craziness was in full display in an appearance by John Bolton before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Bolton is no stranger to not letting reality get in the way of whatever bellicose campaign he is waging, including ones involving presumed unconventional weapons programs in states he doesn't like. When he was an undersecretary of state in the Bush administration, he agitated about a presumed biological weapons program in Cuba. When public statements he tried to make on the subject went beyond any available information, and intelligence officers he wanted to concur in those statements refused to do so, Bolton responded by browbeating the officers and demanding to their superiors that they be fired.

In his testimony to the House committee, Bolton dismissed the idea of any mutual deterrence relationship with Iran because, he said, deterrence is only for atheists. Containment and deterrence worked with the Soviet Union, he said, because the Politburo did not believe in an afterlife. But Iran, he says, has “a theocratic regime that values life in the hereafter more than life on earth.” Bolton did not provide any evidence for this being the utility function of Iranian leaders. Nor did he address the implications of his argument for deterrence of states associated with other religions that envision an afterlife. (Watch out not only for Christians but also for those Buddhists itching to get to nirvana.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Iran's role in Syria

Written by: BÜLENT KENEŞ
Source: Today's Zaman

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a long speech on Monday, asking for more time for at least part of the reforms he is expected to implement.
Many found his explanations unsatisfactory, mainly done to buy himself time. But the Syrian people have neither time to lose nor need of empty promises. Their sole demand is for concrete reforms to be urgently implemented in line with democratic principles. This demand was felt once again during the new protests that erupted in various cities across Syria even before Assad's unsatisfactory speech ended.

Apparently, Syria will not be able to attain peace for some time to come and it will continue to form part of the agenda of Turkey and of the world. Therefore, we should continue to analyze and try to make sense of the incidents in Syria. For instance, we may start, first of all, by underlining that Syria cannot be understood by just focusing on Syria. This is because today's Syria also means Iran and Lebanon to a certain extent. Any policy implemented without understanding Syria's ties with Iran and Lebanon as well as with Russia and China does not have any chance of success. Syria's extraordinary ties with Iran must be specifically assessed. In this article, I will try to explain the reason why.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Changing Western attitude and resolution of Iran's nuclear issue

This commentary is simultaneously published in Middle East Online.

Former ambassadors of major European powers to Tehran, led by the former head of the British diplomatic mission to Tehran, Richard Dalton, recently published a memo, entitled “Iran is not in breach of international law”, in some major British and American newspapers on the current status of nuclear negotiations between Iran the P-5+1 countries, which marks a break from the conventional representation of Iran’s nuclear issue in the West . The memo has been written by the former European ambassadors in recognition of the failure of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue and with a view to offering Western powers a solution to the existing deadlock in their relations with Iran.

The publication of the memo is striking not for the reason that it offers any consistent practical proposals for the resolution of the current standoff between Western powers and Iran but because it makes several rare and daring admissions , which if recognized and followed suit by a wider spectrum of Western political elites, can potentially serve as a basis for a logical solution to Iran’s nuclear issue in the future.

The first admission by the former ambassadors is that they recognize that Iran’s nuclear activities are consistent with international law and that there has been no diversion of nuclear activities in Iran to military purposes. The former ambassadors note “nothing in international law or in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty forbids the enrichment of uranium” and that “the IAEA has never uncovered in Iran any attempted diversion of nuclear material to military use”. The public recognition of this fact by the former European ambassadors to Tehran is praiseworthy, given that the general public in the West are systematically bombarded with contrary claims by mainstream Western media on an almost daily basis.

The former ambassadors further recognize that there is no issue from the perspective of international law with achieving a nuclear threshold status by Iran either, even if this turns out to be Iran’s ultimate goal. The former ambassadors write “ Again, nothing in international law or in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty forbids such an ambition. Like Iran, several other countries are on their way to or have already reached such a threshold but have committed not to acquire nuclear weapons. Nobody seems to bother them”.
In addition to questioning the conventional Western assumptions about Iran’s nuclear program, the former European ambassadors also challenge some of the main practical aspects of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue. More specifically, they denounce the goal of "zero centrifuges operating in Iran, permanently or temporarily," as unrealistic and as a key culprit for the failure of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue. They accurately recall that “in 2005 Iran was ready to discuss a ceiling limit for the number of its centrifuges and to maintain its rate of enrichment far below the high levels necessary for weapons”, and that “Tehran also expressed its readiness to put into force the additional protocol that it had signed with the IAEA allowing intrusive inspections throughout Iran, even in non-declared sites”, and blame Western unrealistic demands for the failure of those negotiations.

While doing an outstanding job of critiquing the main foundations of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue, the memo suffers from some notable shortcomings too. The main drawback of the memo is that the former European ambassadors do not draw consistent conclusions from their own assumptions and arguments and fail to offer any genuinely different solution to Iran’s nuclear issue. They note “The next step should be for the two sides in this conflict to ask the IAEA what additional tools it needs to monitor the Iranian nuclear program fully and provide credible assurances that all the activities connected with it are purely peaceful in intent. The agency's answer would offer a basis for the next round of pragmatic negotiations with Iran”.

The former European ambassadors do not explain why, despite their own assumptions about Iran’s nuclear program, they believe Iran still deserves a discriminatory treatment as compared to other members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Iran’s nuclear activities are consistent with international law and if there has been no diversion of nuclear material in Iran to military use, the question remains unanswered as to why Iran’s nuclear activities would need additional IAEA’s monitoring beyond its existing mandate.

The former ambassadors also do not discuss how to reverse the wrong course that has been taken by Western powers over the past several years towards Iran’s nuclear issue. If Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue has been misguided over the past several years, as the former ambassadors convincingly argue, will it be possible to build a new structure with a view to resolving Iran’s nuclear issue before deconstructing the existing edifice? Is it reasonable to speak of enhanced confidence-building measures by Iran while maintaining enhanced economic sanctions that have been imposed on it by the West over the past several years? While deserving credit for some of their daring and honest statements about Iran’s nuclear issue, it should be clear that the former European ambassadors to Tehran would have made a more persuasive case had they answered a number of hard questions before offering any practical solutions to Iran’s nuclear issue.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

U.S. policy towards Bahrain and the Iran factor

This article is simulatenously published in Foreign Policy In Focus, Foreign Policy Journal, American Chronicle and On Line Opinion.

The popular uprising in Bahrain has put U.S. foreign policy makers in an awkward position. The U.S. government has largely lent its diplomatic weight to the Saudi regime in stifling popular uprising in Bahrain for fear that any democratic transformation in that country would work to Iran’s advantage, thus undermining its own interests in the Persian Gulf region. This explains why President Obama refrained in his recent address on the Middle East from even mentioning, much less slightly criticizing, Saudi Arabia for its military intervention in Bahrain and why he sufficed with only a soft criticism of the Bahraini regime’s crackdown on its pro-democracy movement. This posture has further undermined the image of the U.S. in the eyes of the Middle Eastern publics, due to its perceived double standards towards regional political developments, and is likely to work to the detriment of U.S. strategic interests in the region in the long run.

In recent weeks, some commentators and political analysts have questioned the rationale behind the current U.S. policy towards political developments in Bahrain by arguing that the popular uprising in Bahrain has nothing to do with Iran and that the Iranian government has actually a lot to lose in the long run from a democratic government in Bahrain. Others have also played down the sectarian nature of the popular uprising in Bahrain, thus allaying U.S. fears that any new democratic government in that tiny island would ally itself with Iran.

While it is true that the Arab popular uprisings, including the one in Bahrain, are not primarily motivated by sectarian identities and that they are home-grown and independent social movements without any ties to Iran, it can hardly be disputed that Iran will benefit from the fall of conservative authoritarian Arab regimes in both Shiite and Sunni majority states in the region . The experience of the democratic transformation in Iraq which led to the political empowerment of Shiites and Kurds bears witness to the fact that Iran is likely to benefit form the outcome of such political upheavals . Similarly, any democratic and popularly-based political system in Bahrain is expected to exhibit some gravitation toward Iran, given the common religious bonds between the two nations and also in part as a symbolic gesture to mark a break with the foreign policy of the previous tyrannical regime, as witnessed in the case of post-Mubarak Egypt.

But the U.S. government does not need to buy into the claim that Iran will end up to be the loser of the Arab Spring in order to recognize that its current policy towards the region, especially in regard to the popular uprising in Bahrain, is untenable. The U.S. policy towards Bahrain is unjustified for the simpler but more fundamental reason that it does not need to define its national interests in opposition to Iran in all contexts.

Defining Iran-U.S. relations as a zero-sum game in all issue areas would afflict the U.S. foreign policy by limiting its room for maneuver. The fact that every gain for Iran in its foreign policy does not necessarily translate into a loss for the United States seems to not factor prominently into the calculations of U.S. foreign policy makers with regard to the recent political developments in the Arab world . It would of course be brazenly naïve to deny the fact that the United States and Iran are currently serious rivals in the region and have conflicts of interests in a number of important issue areas, most notably Iran’s nuclear program, and that it would take extreme compromise by both parties to reconcile these differences under present conditions. But this does not mean that they cannot be tacit partners and have convergent interests in a number of other issue areas.

While not officially recognized and applied in other similar circumstances, there are practical cases of partnership between the United States Iran in the recent past, where the strategic interests of both countries converged. A notable example is the temporary working relationship that developed between the two countries in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the tragedy of September 11th. Both countries coordinated their actions through multilateral settings under the UN and benefited from toppling their common adversary in Afghanistan. Although that brief formal cooperation between the two countries over Afghanistan soon dissipated after former U.S. president George Bush branded Iran as a part of the “Axis of Evil”, their common interest in preventing the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has withstood the test of time and has enabled the emergence of a tacit partnership between the two countries.

The fact that Iran has since largely refrained from playing a spoiler’s role in Afghanistan despite the fact that it is well capable of creating serious trouble for the United States in that country in light of its geographical proximity and traditional influence in Afghanistan, bears witness to the existence of such a tacit partnership between the two countries over Afghanistan. Iran’s recognition of its common interest with the United States in preventing the resurgence of the Taliban has helped sustain this tacit partnership to this date.

The current political situation in Iraq also shows that any gain for Iran does not necessarily come at the expense of the United States. Both countries have clearly a shared interest in preserving the status quo in Iraq. Despite occasional disputed claims of limited weapons smuggling from Iran to both Afghanistan and Iraq with a view to helping the insurgents in those countries , there is no evidence pointing to any strategic decision on the part of Iran to undermine the status quo in those countries. In fact all major evidence points to the contrary.

That being said, neither the United States nor Iran are yet prepared for any open bilateral diplomatic engagement with a view to redressing their own mutual ties. Yet they can coordinate their foreign policies towards regional political developments through multilateral settings or intermediaries, as in the case of their low-level diplomatic engagement over Iraq, which was hosted by the Iraqi government in Baghdad during the Bush administration. At the very least, the recognition of their common interests in any relevant issue area should enable them to form tacit partnerships and avoid any paranoid reaction to any political developments in the region that benefit either party .

The current political situation in the region, instigated by the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and the continued suppression of the public uprising by the Bahraini regime, is clearly unsustainable and has the potential to escalate to outright military confrontations in the strategic region of the Persian Gulf. The zero-sum mentality vis-à-vis Iran characterizing the current U.S. policy towards political developments in the region has created unnecessary costs for the foreign policies of both countries and above all has harmed the genuine democratic aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the Bahraini population. The unconditional U.S. support for the Saudi regime and its refusal to apply any substantive pressure on the Bahraini regime will further harm U.S. credibility and long-term interests in the region by placing it on the wrong side of the unfolding history in the region.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

No evidence of an Iranian bomb, yet the attacks on Iran continue

Written by: William O. Beeman
Source: New America Media
Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Seymour Hersh has once again created controversy by stating in a recent New Yorker article, “Iran and the bomb”, that there is no evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Hersh is correct, but his statement still provokes debate.

Politico reporter Jennifer Epstein, in a May 31 article, attempts to refute of Hersh’s assertion. Among other charges, she cites criticism of Hersh for using "anonymous sources" in this and other articles. Irony of ironies, Epstein's entire story is based on an anonymous source attacking Hersh. She quotes "a senior administration official" saying: “[A]ll you need to read to be deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program is the substantial body of information already in the public domain, including the most recent IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] report."

Since the most recent IAEA Report itself gives no detail whatsoever about this alleged military information, one can only conclude that the information it is talking about was leaked. Indeed, the website ISIS (Institute for Science and International Security) provided
what purports to be the evidence for IAEA concern.

The information also appears to have been leaked to the New York Times. Writers David E. Sanger and William J. Broad reported on a series of unrelated “concerns” in Iranian engineering research that when considered together could lead to “triggering” technology for a nuclear weapon. Broad followed up with details in the Science Times section of the newspaper on May 31. He acknowledged that there is no evidence that such a trigger is known to be in development, and several of the elements are consistent with non-military peaceful applications.

In short, the IAEA report and the information leaked to ISIS are totally inconclusive regarding any military use of nuclear technology. If Epstein’s "senior official" wants to claim that this is the smoking gun that proves Iran to be manufacturing nuclear weapons, he or she would be laughed out of the room.

In addition, the Government’s own National Intelligence Estimate of 2011, released in March specifically has dropped language stating that Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are a future option. Tellingly, the report has been buried by the Obama administration

According to Epstein, the "senior official" goes on to say:

“There is a clear, ongoing pattern of deception, and Iran has repeatedly refused to respond to the IAEA’s questions about the military dimensions of [its] nuclear program, including those about the covert site at Qom,”

This shows once again that "they ain't got nuttin'." Iran's "refusal" to respond to the IAEA questions is limited to a mysterious laptop captured by U.S. Intelligence seven years ago containing "bomb plans" that no one has ever seen. The site at Qom is nothing but an empty hole in the ground with no fissile materials ever introduced--in short, a complete dead horse.

One can ask: Why does the administration continues to flog this non-starter of an issue in the face of its own intelligence on the issue?

Many who have questioned the Bush and Obama administration's tenacity in holding on to this nuclear non-issue have often been accused of "supporting the mullahs" or worse. This is absolutely not the issue. The issue is not support or non-support of the Iranian regime, it is concern over America's own ineffective foreign policy.

It is worth asking whether the United States is going to follow a reasoned and productive policy toward Iran or is going to keep obsessing about this non-existent nuclear issue to the exclusion of every other possible dimension of interacting with the Iranian State?

The United States really cannot afford to let this obstacle dominate our every move toward the most important political entity in the Middle East. The sad part is that the issue isn't even one of ignorance or misinformation. It is one of ideology. To accept the reality that Iran is not the most dangerous nation on the planet is obviously a political third-rail in the United States. It triggers an avalanche of other accusations, Anti-Israeli attitudes or worse, Antisemitism, being among the most common and also the most irrelevant.

Anyone in government or the press, such as Hersh, who questions the utterly unproven postulate that Iran has an active, effective nuclear weapons program risks political disaster. Therefore, otherwise responsible people are willing to embrace a foolish lie that was concocted to serve as a selling point to the American people for Iranian "regime change" during the Bush administration.

Today the specter of the Iranian nuclear bogeyman serves no purpose whatever except to obstruct progress in bringing stability to the region. People embrace the “Iranian bomb myth” not so much because they know it to be true based on hard facts, but rather in order to avoid political attack. Where are our principles? Where is our professionalism?

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