December 30, 2010

Obsessed with Iran? Me?

A reader recently complimented me on one of my articles, but added that I appear to be obsessed with Iran. I looked back at some of my recent articles and understand how someone might make that assessment. However, in my defense, there is reason to be concerned about Iran, especially in light of the Obama Administration's seeming willingness to downplay or even overlook the issues.

Iran is involved, either directly or indirectly, with almost every foreign policy issue facing the United States today. Let's first point out the fact that the current Iranian regime has American blood on its hands. It goes back as far as the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and continues today. The venues for these attacks on Americans not only includes the obvious battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, but extends to Lebanon and Scotland as well.

Let's review some American foreign policy issues that involve Iran.

Nuclear weapons
The most pressing issue is Iran's nuclear program. I do not think anyone seriously believes that Iran's program is aimed at generating electric power for a country with an almost unlimited supply of oil and natural gas. From a political standpoint, the Iranians have skillfully outmaneuvered the United States on this issue.

The Iranians continually agree to an endless series of talks that have yet to produce any positive results. At each meeting, they agree only to have another meeting, all the while continuing to enrich uranium far beyond the levels required for the mythical energy program. At some point, they will announce that they have nuclear weapons. I suppose they will even then continue to agree to talk, but at that point about how the weapons are a stabilizing factor in the region.

The Iranians continue to work against American interests in Iraq, as they have since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Hundreds of American troops have been killed by weapons made in, or supplied by, Iran to militants trained in and funded by Iran. They are the principal supporters of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi, or JAM). The JAM was active against American forces until the 2007 surge, after which al-Sadr determined that he would suffer unacceptable losses to the additional American combat troops.

Iran continues to support al-Sadr's ambitions to become the key political power broker in Iraq, recently encouraging him to join with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in a broad Shi'a coalition (allied with the Kurds) to form a new Iraqi government, despite the fact that al-Malii's party did not win the most seats in the elections.

The Iranians have key allies in the new Iraqi government. Al-Maliki is often referred to by his detractors as nuri al-irani (Nuri the Iranian), and his office as al-sajad al-irani (the Persian carpet). Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has been close to the Iranians for years.

The recent statement by al-Maliki that all American troops must leave Iraq by the end of 2011 was no doubt encouraged by the Iranians. He said, "The last American soldier will leave Iraq...this agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed."

The Iranians do not want any American military presence in the Gulf, especially on the ground in Iraq. American troops in Iraq sit between Iran and its principal ally Syria, and contribute to the impression in Tehran that the country is almost surrounded by pro-American governments. As long as western economies rely on the continual flow of Middle East/Persian Gulf oil, it is imperative that the United States maintain a military presence in the region. Iraq is the ideal location for that presence.

Iran's closest ally in the region may one day be Iraq, but currently it is Syria. The two countries have been allied since Syria supported Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; it was the only Arab country to side with Iran. Since then, the two have signed a mutual defense pact and cooperate in a variety of fields, including military and industrial efforts.

Syria allows Iran to use its airspace and territory to resupply Hizballah in Lebanon. Hizballah was created in 1982 through the encouragement, training and funding of an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unit that would later become the Qods Force. Iran continues to provide money, weapons and training to Hizballah. Since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, Iran has replenished Hizballah's rocket inventory, and provided more-capable rockets and missiles.

Much as it supports Hizballah in Lebanon, Iran also provides money, weapons and training to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In the past, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched crude, inaccurate homemade short range rockets into border towns in southern Israel. Today they have Iranian-made Katyusha and Grad rockets capable of reaching cities just south of Tel Aviv.

According to U.S. military officials, Iran is providing weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since the creation of the Taliban, there has been a rivalry between the Shi'a Iranians and the fundamentalist Sunni Afghan Taliban. At times that rivalry almost erupted into violence. Following the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the Iranians have decided to support the Taliban against the Americans. The Iranian regime's hatred of the United States supersedes its dislike and distrust of the Taliban. As in Iraq, Iran has the blood of American troops on its hands.

Turkey is an American ally and a member of NATO. Until the recent Gaza flotilla incident in which several Turks were killed attempting to breach the Israeli blockade, it was a close military ally of Israel. The Iranians have made diplomatic inroads with the Turks, playing on the common religion and Middle East affiliation. The Turks (along with Brazil) have responded by allegedly brokering an agreement in which the Iranians export some of their enriched uranium to Turkey.

Turkey has also proposed it join with Iran and many of the newly independent Central Asian states, many of them Turkic, in a Caspian partnership. With Iran's coaching, Turkey appears to be looking more to the east instead of to the west.

South America
Iran is developing better relations with Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is permitting the Iranians to deploy medium range ballistic missiles to his country. (See my recent article, Nose under the tent - Iranian missiles in Venezuela)

Several South American countries have recently recognized a Palestinian state. As of this writing, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador have already made the announcement. Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Peru are expected to do so in early 2011. I am sure these recognitions are encouraged by the leaders in Tehran. Why? Bad for Israel, and by extension the United States, is good for Iran.

Russia and China
Our relations with Russia and China are often colored by our relations with Tehran. It took months of backroom deals to get the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to agree to sanctions on Iran. Both countries have spotty records on adhering to the sanctions; China is actually quite blatant about ignoring them.

Human rights
Iran's record on human rights is abysmal. It runs the gamut: religious persecution, stoning and flogging of adulterers, amputations as punishment for theft, hanging homosexuals, shooting demonstrators in the wake of a corrupt election, sponsoring some of the world's most notorious terrorists, and on and on. Let's not forget the three American hikers (two still in custody for over a year) to go on trial for espionage.

Obsessed with Iran? You bet I am. I just wish President Obama would be obsessed with what the Iranians are doing rather than overlooking it all in a failed attempt to "engage." I am all for talking, but at some point, you have to assess that it is falling on deaf ears. We're well beyond that point.

Obsess, Obama, obsess.

December 26, 2010

Nose under the tent - Iranian missiles in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has agreed to permit Iran to deploy medium range ballistic missiles to his country. According to press reports, the Iranians will construct a missile base in Venezuela housing several versions of North Korean-made Scud short range missiles and the Iranian-produced Shahab 3 medium tange ballistic missile. The Shahab 3 has a range of about 900 miles, not enough to reach the United States mainland.

The fact that the missiles cited in the press reports cannot reach the United States is not the issue. What is important is the fact that the Iranians are deploying missiles to the Western Hemisphere at all. Since the missiles do not appear to pose an immediate threat, Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hope that the Obama Administration will not attempt to block the missile deployment in an effort reminiscent of what President John Kennedy did during what many are calling a similar crisis, the attempted Soviet delivery of ballistic missiles to Cuba in 1962.

While Iran is not Russia, and Venezuela is not Cuba, this initial deployment of Iranian missiles and their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) crews is merely the first step, or as we say in the Middle East, the "nose under the tent."

I should also have added that Barack Obama is not John Kennedy. The Iranians have assessed that the Obama Administration, correctly, in my opinion, is weak and naive on foreign policy. The Obama diplomatic "engagement" strategy toward Iran and Syria has yielded no positive results for the United States. I suspect that Ahmadinejad believes that the American administration has no stomach for confrontation and will do nothing more than demand additional sanctions as Iran continues to develop a nuclear weapons capability. In other words, Ahmadinejad sees a window of opportunity, specifically a period in which a weak American administration focused on controversial domestic issues is unwilling to take a tough stance on Iran's grand ambitions.

Once the initial deployment of Iranian missiles, which will be portrayed as not posing a threat to the United States, is a fait accompli, it only requires minimum effort on the part of the Venezuelan and Iranian governments to introduce longer range missiles currently in the Iranian inventory. These missiles do pose a threat to the southeastern United States, including Washington, DC.

The chance to deploy IRGC troops into America's "back yard" is possibly too great a temptation for Ahmadinejad to pass up. He opposes the presence of American forces in the Middle East and is attempting to turn the tables on the United States. If you ascribe grand strategic thinking to the Iranian president, you could make the case that he is beginning this deployment in a attempt to catalyze an agreement with Obama much like Kennedy did with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. In 1962, the United States removed some missiles from Turkey and the Soviets halted the deployment of missiles to Cuba.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad thinks that he can "engage" with Obama for the withdrawal of American forces from the Persian Gulf if he halts Iran's missile deployment to the Caribbean. Why would he not think that? He has successfully outmaneuvered the Obama Administration at virtually every turn. There has been no slowdown in Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon because of anything done by the American government. The most serious impediment to Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon is a computer virus at some Iranian uranium enrichment facilities and the assassination of two of its top nuclear scientists. Most Middle East analysts, myself included, attribute those incidents to the Israelis.

There are additional troubling aspects of the Iranian-Venezuelan agreement. The missiles will be manned by Iranian military and IRGC officers, in conjunction with Venezuelan military officers. The Venezuelans will receive intensive training in missile technology. The Iranian missiles can be used by the Venezuelans for what is called "national needs." Although that has not been defined, Iranian SRBM's and IRBM's in Venezuela pose a serious threat to American allies in the region, such as Columbia, as well as some American territories (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

Again, if you ascribe grand strategic thinking to Ahmadinejad, you might believe that increased cooperation with Venezuela has other benefits for Iran as well. A few months ago, the Russians backed out of a deal to sell the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran, citing United Nations sanctions. The Russians are, however, marketing that same weapon system to the Venezuelan armed forces. Perhaps these air defense systems might find their way from Venezuela to Iran? Never underestimate the Iranians; this is exactly the type of Byzantine maneuvering that is common in the bazaars of the region.

Where is the concern?

For those of us who vaguely remember the Cuban missile crisis (I was 11 years old) and our quick lessons in the Monroe Doctrine, the mere thought of offensive missiles in the Western hemisphere is troubling. It is especially troubling when the culprit is the volatile and fairly unpredictable regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian leaders believe that the American administration is naive and weak - they may be right. Thus far there has been almost no reaction to the impending deployment of strategic missiles into South America, the deployment of missiles to a country that has demonstrated open hostility to the United States. No reaction is tacit acceptance. Just like the Iranians believe the United States has tacitly accepted their eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons, they believe there is no real action on the horizon to prevent them from stationing offensive weapons only 1000 miles from the United States.

This is another direct challenge to the United States, and yet another test of President Obama's leadership. Where is the concern from Washinton?

December 19, 2010

Increased attacks on Yemen-based al-Qa'idah targets

Site of a December 17, 2009 U.S. air strike against al-Qa'idah training camp
(referenced in released cable below)

Click for larger image BLU-97 submunition found at the site. The 6-inch long explosive device
with a shaped charge can be carried by air and sea delivered missiles.

The United States appears to have increased its attacks on al-Qa'idah targets in Pakistan and Yemen. I am often critical of President Barack Obama for his policies in Afghanistan. While I agree that we must, as the President says, "dismantle, disrupt and defeat" al-Qa'idah, I do not believe that Afghanistan is the best venue to accomplish that objective. Al-Qa'idah has all but quit Afghanistan and moved to Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. They are in the process of being defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, while still posing a threat in, and from, Yemen and Somalia.

The President has yet to explain how taking on the Afghan Taliban fits into a "dismantle, disrupt and defeat al-Qa'idah" strategy. I do not accept assertions that if the Taliban are successful in re-establishing themselves as the government, it will result in the return of al-Qa'idah to the country. That remote possibility can be deterred with the simple threat that if the Taliban allows al-Qa'idah to return, so will overwhelming, crippling, devastating, terrifying - you pick the adjective - American air strikes.

That said, I applaud the President for his continued use of drone-launched missile strikes against al-Qa'idah and other militant groups in Pakistan. The number of strikes since Obama took office in January 2009 has increased substantially; there have been over 100 strikes this year alone. On December 17, three American missile attacks reportedly killed 54 militants. This is effective use of American technology with minimal risk to American lives.

And in Yemen...

Earlier this month, President Obama stated, "Where al-Qa'idah and its allies attempt to establish a foothold, whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere, they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships." This effort has been ongoing for at least a year. Owing to the recent unauthorized release of classified U.S. State Department cables, the scope of the "pressure and partnerships" is clear. American military forces are launching missile strikes into Yemen against the al-Qa'idah-affiliated group known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Initial American strikes were conducted using sea-launched cruise missiles, accurate, but not accurate as air-delivered precision guided munitions (PGM). Apparently (accordind to the released cables), later attacks have employed the more accurate PGM's.

The latest attacks in Yemen were on December 16 against two al-Qa'idah targets: a suspected training camp north of Sana' and a location where "an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned." Although local media in Yemen attributed the attacks to the Yemen Air Force, they were in fact launched by American forces.

More illuminating information on the effort in Yemen can be found in the Wikileaks archives, Here are some excerpts.

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 001669), September 15, 2009:

2. (S/NF) In a September 6 meeting with Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, President Saleh insisted that Yemen's national territory is available for unilateral counter terrorism (CT) operations by the U.S. ... Saleh repeatedly requested more funds and equipment to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while at the same time placing responsibility for any future AQAP attacks on the shoulders of the USG now that it enjoys unfettered access to Yemeni airspace, coastal waters and land. ...

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 002251), December 21, 2009:

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY. The ROYG views the December 17 CT operations as a success and a benefit to Yemeni national interests, and appears not overly concerned about unauthorized leaks regarding the U.S. role and negative media attention to civilian deaths. ROYG officials continue to publicly maintain that the operation was conducted entirely by its forces, acknowledging U.S. support strictly in terms of intelligence sharing. Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi told the Ambassador on December 20 that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement, such as fragments of U.S. munitions found at the sites - could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. While the ROYG has touted the operation as a victory in terms of the number of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members killed or captured, it hasn’t yet decided how, or even if, it should begin to modify its public messaging to address criticism over collateral damage, or the likelihood that the extent of U.S. involvement may become impossible to deny. END SUMMARY.

2. (S/NF) In a December 20 meeting with the Ambassador, Deputy Prime Minister for Security and Defense Rashad al-Alimi said that the ROYG, including President Saleh himself, views the December 17 CT operations in Abyan and Arhab as a success, despite negative press reports (septel) and leaks to the U.S. press regarding a U.S. role in the operation. Alimi said he was joined by other ROYG officials in their positive view of the operation against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a desire for continued collaboration on CT operations. Referring to an internal ROYG meeting chaired by President Saleh on December 19, Alimi assured the Ambassador that Saleh wants these operations against AQAP to continue “non-stop until we eradicate this disease.”

3. (S/NF) Alimi told the Ambassador that Saleh was undisturbed by press reports citing U.S. officials asserting American involvement in the operations, saying that the ROYG “must maintain the status quo” with regard to the official denial of U.S. involvement in order to ensure additional “positive operations” against AQAP. Alimi seemed more concerned with the political opposition and Southern Movement’s use of the Abyan operation as an example of the government’s heavy-handed response to groups the ROYG deems a threat. The Ambassador cautioned Alimi that the ROYG may need to nuance its position regarding U.S. involvement in the event more evidence surfaces, complicating its ability to adhere to the official line that ROYG forces conducted the operations independently. Alimi appeared confident that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement, such as U.S. munitions found at the sites - could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. However, Alimi informed the Ambassador that senior ROYG officials continue to the discuss media strategy and the public posture of the ROYG.

5. (S/NF) Given that local and international media will continue to look for evidence of a U.S. role in the December 17 strikes against AQAP, the ROYG must think seriously about its public posture and whether its strict adherence to assertions that the strikes were unilateral will undermine public support for legitimate and urgently needed CT operations, should evidence to the contrary surface. Thus far, the ROYG has deployed influential local leaders to the affected area in Abyan to explain the need for the strikes in an effort to quell potential unrest; however, it has not attempted to provide any context for the civilian casualties, which might help to counter overblown claims of ROYG disregard for the local population ) in this particular case, southerners.

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 000004), January 4, 2010:

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY: Commander of the U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus congratulated President Saleh on recent successful operations against AQAP, and informed him that U.S. security assistance to the ROYG would increase to USD 150 million in 2010, including USD 45 million to equip and train a CT-focused aviation regiment under the Yemeni Special Operations Forces. Saleh requested that the U.S. provide 12 armed helicopters and train and equip three new Republican Guard brigades. Saleh rejected the General's proposal to have USG personnel armed with direct-feed intelligence present inside the area of CT operations, but agreed to have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory ready to engage AQAP targets should actionable intelligence become available. END SUMMARY.

5. (S/NF) President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh. Saleh reacted coolly, however, to the General's proposal to place USG personnel inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence from U.S. ISR platforms overhead. "You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center," Saleh responded. Any U.S. casualties in strikes against AQAP would harm future efforts, Saleh asserted. Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus' proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, "out of sight," and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available. Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are "not very accurate" and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.

Bottom line

I applaud the President's decision to use American military power in this manner. This is how we need to deal with al-Qa'idah in general and AQAP in particular, including radical American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi. AQAP has been complicit in the Fort Hood shootings, the attempt to bring down an airliner bound for Detroit last Christmas, and the recent attempt to down two airliners with explosive devices hidden in printer cartridges.

I will repeat my earlier advice to the President: You cannot reason with these people, you can not negotiate with them. You have to hunt them down and kill them. What you are doing in Yemen is an excellent start.

December 18, 2010

Israeli espionage devices in Lebanon - I'm shocked!

Israeli communications monitoring device discovered in Lebanon

Lebanese security officials have discovered more Israeli clandestine monitoring and "espionage devices" in the country, and have complained to the United Nations. This is comical on several levels. First, the fact that Israel is conducting intelligence collection operations in Lebanon should come as no surprise to anyone. Lebanon is home to one of Israel's most serious threat organizations, Hizballah, so of course the Israelis are collecting information on it.

Second, complaining to the United Nations about another country's intelligence operations is laughable. One only need look at the other United Nations' efforts in Lebanon, such as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). UNIFIL has been "interim" since 1978; thirty two years has a sense of permanence. It would be one thing if the force was actually effective, but its presence has not prevented repeated wars between Israel and various groups in Lebanon.

Israeli monitoring devices are not a new phenomenon. Israeli military intelligence has been placing them in Lebanon, as well as Syria, for decades. When I served as the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus, it was not uncommon for us to hear of Israeli monitoring devices being discovered. Normally, when the devices are discovered or are tampered with, they detonate, either by a triggering mechanism on the device, or are detonated remotely via an electronic signal.

Over the last month, the Lebanese have revealed the discovery (some by Hizballah) of at least four devices, two near the southern city of Tyre (Sur), and one on Mount Sanin and one on Mount Baruq. The location of these monitoring and observation makes sense to any intelligence officer.

Tyre is a major city in the heart of the area controlled by Hizballah (and theoretically under UNIFIL supervision) and only 10 miles north of the border with Israel. The Israelis consider this to be Hizballah's primary area of operations. Most of the rocket attacks on northern Israel in the 2006 war were launched from this area. Mount Sanin and Mount Baruq are among the highest points in the mountains that run north and south on the western edge of the Biqa' Valley, another Hizballah stronghold.

Most of the tactical communications systems used by Hizballah employ line-of-sight radio waves. To intercept these communications and exploit them for intelligence requires either airborne platforms or devices placed on high terrain. Mount Sanin and Mount Baruq would serve nicely, especially when combined with permanent monitoring stations located in Israel along the Lebanese border.

There is another likely purpose for these devices. Israeli military intelligence and Mossad both operate human intelligence networks in Lebanon; these assets have access to essential information. The problem is getting the information from the assets to the case officers in Israel. These devices may also provide clandestine communications capabilities for these assets.

The Israelis will continue to use these devices, planting them when and where they can. Until the threat from Hizballah is neutralized, they really have no choice.

December 14, 2010

Syria: American foreign policy failure

Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad

It was just five years ago that the so-called Cedar Revolution in Lebanon* forced Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to withdraw his forces from the smaller country, handing the Syrian leader a major foreign policy defeat. In the aftermath of the February 14, 2005 assassination of former, and well-respected, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the Lebanese body politic unified in a manner rarely seen in the multi-confessional and multi-factional country. Thousands marched in the streets to demand the removal of the Syrian military forces that had been in the country since 1976 when they intervened in the Lebanese civil war.

The perpetrators of the assassination are thought to be the Hizballah terrorist organization with Syrian military intelligence support and complicity. It's not hard to believe that these two groups were responsible. It was no secret that there was no love lost between al-Hariri and al-Asad. Al-Hariri had resigned his office a few month earlier in protest to Syrian hegemony over the country.

At the time of the murder, nothing of significance happened in the country without Syrian knowledge or approval. Syrian military intelligence maintained an extensive network throughout the country to ensure Damascus was involved in all facets of Lebanese life. Hizballah merely executed the al-Hariri assassination on Syrian orders; the group has a lot of experience with truck bombs, after all. Evidently there is reason to place credence in the belief that Hizballah was involved. The United Nations tribunal on Lebanon is believed to be on the verge of handing down indictments against senior Hizballah officials for the murder. Of course, Hizballah denies it, and Syria claims the evidence was fabricated.

The removal of Syrian troops was surprising to many Syria-watchers, myself included. I remember clearly the day that Syrian troops entered Beirut in 1976. The spring of 2005 was the first time in almost 30 years that Lebanon was free of a huge Syrian military presence.

This should have been a golden opportunity for American foreign policy. For the first time in decades, there was a serious crack in Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Many Lebanese factions had united against a common enemy. The alliance included former friends and foes alike: virtually every group and party in the country except Hizballah and resident Syrians joined to protest the continuing Syrian presence. The overwhelming belief was that the real culprits in the al-Hariri assassination reside in Damascus.

In the intervening years, the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration adopted different strategies to deal with Syria; both have failed. Immediately after the al-Hariri assassination, the United States recalled its ambassador, believing (correctly in my opinion) that Damascus was complicit in the murder. The Bush Administration continued to try to isolate the Syrians until the end of its term.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, he instituted a policy of engagement toward Syria, hoping that a more positive tone might yield better results. The goal of Obama's Syria policy was, and is, to restart the moribund Israel-Syria track of the Middle East peace process. That sounds easy, but is not. In order for progress to be made toward peace between Tel Aviv and Damascus, several difficult objectives must be met. For Syria, nothing will happen without a commitment by the Israelis to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syrian control.

Israel will extract a price for the return of the Golan which it has occupied since seizing the area in 1967. In addition to spending millions of dollars on agricultural infrastructure, it has built a huge intelligence gathering station at Har Avital (Tal Abu Nada to the Syrians). It will not easily give up its ability to monitor events in southern Syria, nor will it want to give up its control of the headwaters of the Jordan River.

For the Israelis, any agreement will require that Syria stop providing weapons to Hizballah, and stop permitting Iran to use its airspace and territory to provide the terrorist group the money, weapons and training it needs to survive. The Syrians and Iranians have resupplied Hizballah since the 2006 Israel-Hizballah conflict with more and better weapons than before.

In the years after the 2006 war, not only has Hizballah emerged as the main political power in Lebanon, Syrian influence is on the rise. Many of the former leaders of the Cedar Revolution that opposed Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs have "converted" and now toe the Syrian line. Most notable among the pro-Syrian leaders is none other than current Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri, son of the slain Rafiq al-Hariri.

The Obama Administration named a new ambassador to Syria in its attempt to engage the Syrians. Robert Ford was nominated by the President in February 2010, but the Senate has yet to consider the nomination. I doubt it will make much difference. The opportunity has passed, and Syria has outmaneuvered the United States again. It remains firmly in the Iranian camp, and casts a large shadow over Beirut, despite al-Asad's claims, "We (Syrians) don't want to intervene, we don't want to interfere in an internal Lebanese situation."

* The term "Cedar Revolution" is a western press invention. The Lebanese refer to it as the "Independence Intifadah."

December 8, 2010

Doing what Iran does best - agreeing to talk

Iran's Saeed Jalili and EU's Catherine Ashton

Two days of talks in Geneva. The stunning result: an agreement to talk.

In what has become the normal tactic of the Iranian regime, Iran agreed to, yes, you guessed it, to meet again next month to talk. The representatives of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) will meet Iranian envoys in Istanbul in January. If that meeting is anything like the last two days in Geneva, the result will be the same. There will be no progress in halting Iran's continuing uranium enrichment program and thus no progress in halting its development of nuclear weapons.

This has been going on for years. Iran agrees to an endless series of meetings that have no positive results, all the while buying time to continue to enrich uranium. At some point, the Iranians will have amassed enough fissile material to produce a weapon and no longer need to have these meetings. They will present the world with a fait accompli with the announcement that they possess nuclear weapons.

Let's look at the meetings in Geneva. The participants, people who were principals at the table in the meetings, cannot even agree on what happened at the meetings. These are the people we believe are going to be successful in convincing Iran to stop its nuclear activities?

According to the European Union's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, the meetings were "detailed and substantive," and that the discussions in January will address "practical ideas and ways of cooperating toward a resolution of our core concerns about the nuclear issue."

Really? Not according to Saeed Jalili, Iran's envoy to the talks.

Jalili told reporters that the two sides had not agreed on the topics to be addressed at the Istanbul meeting. While Iran's focus is the nuclear weapons of the other countries at the table as well as Israel's suspected nuclear stockpile, he said, "I am telling you clearly and openly that halting uranium enrichment will not be discussed at the Istanbul meeting."

Then why bother? Isn't that the purpose of the talks?

Further, do we really believe that the P5+1 negotiators, specifically Catherine Ashton, will make so powerful an argument that the Iranians are likely to give up what has become one of the key elements of its national strategy? Hardly. The Istanbul talks, just like the Geneva talks, are meaningless, nothing more than political theater to make it appear that the participants are relevant in the region.

A solution? It depends on whether the United States, not the P5+1, has resigned itself to the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran. Given the feckless manner in which the United States is facing the issue, it certainly appears that it has. If not, it is time that President Obama come out and say so. It doesn't have to be complicated, it won't even require a teleprompter. Pick some simple words like, "We will not permit the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon. I have ordered the State and Defense Departments to make sure that they do not." How hard can it be?

Failing that, the Iranians will continue to outmaneuver the United States and the P5+1 at every turn. Although sanctions may be beginning to work, by the time they might be effective enough to change Iran's behavior, Iran will already have a nuclear weapon.

For now, we continue to accept Iran's agreement to talk, and Iran continues to enrich uranium. Why does this not fill me with confidence?

December 3, 2010

Iran: Why containment is bad strategy

Heavy water reactor at Arak, Iran

Many analysts believe that the Obama Administration has resigned itself to the inevitability of a nuclear armed Iran. You can understand that argument if you look at the Administration's continuing attempts to "engage" the Iranians when the regime in Tehran has made it abundantly clear by its actions that it has no interest in meaningful and sincere dialogue with the West over its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hailed as "encouraging" the fact that after months of stalling, the Iranians have agreed to resume talks. Why she thinks this is encouraging is beyond me. The Iranians have consistently outmaneuvered Clinton on foreign policy since she has been Secretary of State. While she has been focused on these fruitless talks, the Iranians have been focused on buying time for the continued enrichment of uranium. The Iranians have used the Secretary's misguided belief that she could convince the regime in Tehran into working with the West as a virtual time machine allowing its scientists more time to not only acquire weapons grade fissile material but to refine weapons designs.

What exactly has Iran agreed to that Mrs. Clinton finds encouraging? It took over a month just to reach an agreement on a date and a venue. There still is no agenda. The Iranians have stated that they will not discuss their nuclear program, which is the only reason to have the talks in the first place.

The talks are pure theater. No one expects any results other than providing the Iranians the fig leaf that they are cooperating with the West. The West gets to advance the fiction that it is addressing a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Meanwhile, Iran continues on its path to becoming a nuclear armed nation. President Obama and Secretary Clinton seem okay with that, figuring that the United States was able to live with a nuclear Soviet Union for decades, therefore, we should be able to contain an Iran that possesses nuclear weapons.

Containment is not a viable option. Here's why.

There is much more at stake than the bilateral relationship between the United States and Iran. Everyone is aware that the Israelis view a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state. They have been planning a strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities for years, even acquiring American-made GBU-28 "bunker buster" munitions required to destroy the hardened Iranian targets. If the Iranians get close to the possession of nuclear weapons, Israel will feel compelled to mount a military operation to destroy the production facilities. It simply cannot risk an attack that might virtually eradicate Israel.

An Israeli strike on Iran might ignite a conflagration that will draw in all countries in the region. Iran and Syria have a mutual defense treaty; Damascus possesses missiles that can strike anywhere in Israel, and is known to possess chemical warheads for those missiles.

Both Iran and Syria have influence over the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizballah, which can strike targets in northern Israel as far south as Tel Aviv. Iran also wields considerable influence over the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Hamas could open up a southern front against Israel.

In addition to the danger of an armed confrontation in the region, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons will catalyze an arms race in the region. Thanks to leaked State Department cables, we have this on good authority.

From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals cable sent by the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh 000178, February 2010):
9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

From a Confidential cable sent by the American Embassy in Eygpt (Cairo 001067, May 2008):
3. (C) Asked about Egypt's reaction if Iran developed nuclear weapons capability, Mubarak said that none will accept a nuclear Iran, "we are all terrified." Mubarak said that when he spoke with former Iranian President Khatami he told him to
tell current President Ahmedinejad "not to provoke the Americans" on the nuclear issue so that the U.S. is not forced to strike. Mubarak said that Egypt might be forced to begin its own nuclear weapons program if Iran succeeds in those efforts.

The best course of action is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Thus far, nothing has been successful at convincing the Iranians to abandon that effort. Sanctions have not worked in the past and likely won't in the future. Time is running out. At some point in the near future, difficult decisions are going to have to be made.

While Mrs. Clinton might find the current situation encouraging, I do not.