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April 25, 2012

EU luxury sanctions against Syria - is the best you can do?

Syria's First Lady - Asma al-Asad

On April 23, the European Union announced that it would ban the export of luxury goods to Syria as part of new sanctions to punish the regime's continued attacks on its citizens. Are you serious? This is the EU response to the continued Syrian regime's assaults on its own people? This is the best the world can do - cut off Asma al-Asad's access to European fashion and high-end luxury items?

Even members of the Syrian opposition find it ridiculous. If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny.



These photographs were taken at a demonstration in the city of Kafr Nabal on April 24, a day after the luxury goods sanctions were imposed. Kafr Nabal is located in northern Syria between Hamah and Aleppo (Halab); the area has seen a lot of violence over the last year. The signs both carry the date of 4/24/2012 and the location as "Occupied Kafr Nabal."

The sign on the left reads:
The killing in Syria has stopped after the prohibition on exporting perfume to the al-Asad family.

The sign on the right reads:
The Syrian regime is in a true crisis because of the decrease in caviar for the al-Asad family.

It is comical to read some of the comments that accompanied the cutoff of caviar and perfume (yes, I am being sarcastic). The EU ministers stated, "The EU will continue its policy of imposing additional measures targeting the regime..as long as repression continues." British Foreign Secretary William Hague added, "It is very important for us to keep up that pressure, step up that pressure. They are not in full compliance of the ceasefire requirements of the Annan plan."

You can't make this up. Do they honestly believe that halting exports of European luxury goods will change the behavior of regime of Bashar al-Asad? The Syrian president is the son of one of the most repressive dictators in modern Middle East history, and now he is a tyrant in his own right - as many as 10,000 of his own citizens have died in the last year.

The words of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton: "We call on the government to withdraw troops from towns and cities." Add to that the words of German Minister of State Michael Link, "The luxury ban constitutes a loss of prestige for leading circles of the regime."

Yeah, the loss of prestige and the lack of perfume and caviar is going to make the regime alter its behavior. Reality check. Bashar al-Asad is the president of a country; his wife is British born and educated. Asma al-Asad has a degree computer science and French literature, and worked as an investment banker, and holds a British passport. I would think she is smart enough to acquire whatever she wants from wherever she wants. These sanctions are ludicrous.

This farcical sanction protocol, combined with the deployment of a handful of unarmed United Nations observers with no mandate or authority. They are being played - quite effectively - by the Syrian government. The French are demanding that the numbers of observers be increased to 300 within the next two weeks.

That's all well and good, but for them to be effective, they must have the cooperation of the Syrian government. That means real cooperation, not the lip service at which the Syrians excel. I do not believe the Syrians have any interest in facilitating the operations of yet another United Nations observer group. When I was the Air Attache at the American embassy in Damascus, I had to make some arrangements that were part of a UN agreement - the level of cooperation was minimum at best.

If the United Nations, the European Union and yes, the United States, are serious about changing the behavior of the Syrian regime, it will require more than sending the perennially ineffective Kofi Annan to Damascus to negotiate a meaningless agreement, and more than weak sanctions.

Unfortunately, I am beginning to think that it is time to talk about a no-fly/no-drive zone in parts of the country.


April 22, 2012

The President, the Secret Service and me....

The author in front of Air Force One

The recent scandal involving members of the U.S. Secret Service in Colombia brings back memories of the only dealings I have ever had with the agency charged with the protection of the President.

In late 1994, I was the Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria. Part of the training for all air attaches is how to handle a presidential visit - the Air Attache is responsible for the arrangements for the presidential aircraft, in most cases a U.S. Air Force VC-25, a modified ultra-VIP version of the Boeing 747.

I was excused from this particular training because, as the officer in charge of the presidential visit training asked, "What are the chances that a U.S. president is going to visit Syria?" In his defense, I had to agree with him. I was of the opinion that no sitting American president would conduct a visit to Syria thus lending legitimacy to country closely allied with Iran and Lebanese Hizballah, and who certainly had U.S. blood on its hands.

I was wrong.

In mid-October 1994, the embassy received a cable from State Department that President Bill Clinton was planning to make a visit to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad. The was going to be a burden for the small embassy staff, especially as the Secret Service, White House Communications Agency and the Presidential Pilot's Office (PPO), the Air Force pilots who fly Air Force One* all sent large advance teams to make security, communications and transportation arrangements for the visit.

My first introduction to the visit was surprisingly not the PPO as I had assumed - that would come later. Almost immediately after the classified notification of the impending announcement of the visit, I received a message from U.S. Transportation Command headquarters at Scott AFB, Illinois, requesting me (as Air Attache) to secure diplomatic flight clearances for four C-5A Galaxy transport aircraft carrying hundreds of tons of cargo (mostly communications gear), a fleet of Presidential vehicles and Secret Service SUVs, and a U.S. Marine Corps VH-60N White Hawk presidential helicopter (plus a squad of Marines to man it). There were also requests for clearances for a variety of smaller aircraft (C-130 tactical transports and Gulfstream IV business jets).

Thankfully the message also included a fund cite to pay for all the cargo handling - aircraft unloaders, trucks and storage hangars. I waited as the first two aircraft were supposed to land. They did not show up. I had to drive back to the embassy and call Scott AFB.

Once back in my office, I spoke to a colonel at Scott who imperiously informed me that if I had bothered to check the Air Mobility Command online database (I think he called it the "am-cod"), I would have known that the aircraft had been delayed at the President's last stop and that I would have rescheduled the trucks awaiting the two transports. Silly me. I explained, as politely as I could, that I was at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria - we barely had working telephones and on good days maybe a fax machine, let alone any kind of online access. To my pleasant surprise, he laughed and said he understood and committed to sending actual message traffic in the future.

My next dealings were with two Secret Service officers and two Air Force majors from the PPO. Overall, these four individuals were highly arrogant and as far as I was concerned, barely competent to deal with their Syrian counterparts at the Damascus international airport. Their constant use of the phrase "leader of the free world" soon began to wear thin. Finally, I reminded them that although they lived in Washington, I, on the other hand, lived in Syria, and at last check, Syria was not a part of "the free world."

The visit happened - it was uneventful, and as far as our foreign policy objectives go, a failure. See an article I wrote years ago about the visit, The Arrogance of Power - A Presidential Visit.

After the President departed, I spent days reversing the previous process, this time dispatching the same aircraft to the next destination. I had to deal with Syrianair (the national airline) to cover the enormous bills we had run up at the airport. While I was settling the accounts, I was summoned by the chief of airport security, a Syrian Air Force brigadier (Damascus international airport is also a Syrian air base). I went to his office, a place I had visited many times in my efforts to develop a relationship with Brigadier Wafiq al-Halabi. After all, he could provide useful information or generally be helpful if he wished.

Brigadier Wafiq greeted me with the usual Arabic pronunciation of Rick as "RIKI," shook his head, motioned me to a chair, opened one of his desk drawers and took out a bottle of Johnny Walker Black scotch and two glasses. He poured each of us a rather large drink, leaned back and began to recount his impressions of the visit. Although Wafiq could speak fair English, he preferred that we speak Arabic - after all, it was his office, his airport and his country.

I was struck by his final remarks. He told me that he and his staff felt belittled by the PPO representatives and the Secret Service agents. His words were to the effect of, "We know we are a third world country - you did not need to keep reminding us of it. You and I, Riki, are officers of our respective air forces, and you have always treated me with respect as a fellow officer and as a brigadier. Your colleagues did not."

Normally, Wafiq would end the conversation by saying, ila l-liqah, riki (until our next meeting, Rick). On this occassion, he chose to conclude his remarks in English with a curt, "Good night, Major."

Big difference. Over two years of painstakingly slow work trying to develop good working relationships with the airport and air force officers were all for naught, thanks to the arrogance of power displayed by two U.S. Secret Service agents and two U.S. Air Force officers.

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* Despite popular usage, "Air Force One" is not an aircraft, but rather the radio call sign of any U.S. Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. When the President is aboard a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter, its call sign is "Marine One."


April 20, 2012

Chasing Demons - My Hunt for War Criminals in Bosnia

Click for more information

Although not a Middle East issue, this is my memoir of a five-month mission to hunt down and detain war criminals in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It is available in Kindle format for the next 90 days, then a variety of electronic formats - or now as a PDF file. Click here for more.



April 18, 2012

The ICC and Sayf al-Islam al-Qadhafi - not so fast!

Sayf al-Islam al-Qadhafi before and after the Libyan revolution

A legal battle is shaping up between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Libyan National Transitional Council over the future of Sayf al-Islam al-Qadhafi*, son of the late Libyan dictator Mu'amar al-Qadhafi. The question is not if he will be put on trial, but where. The ICC wants him extradited to its headquarters in The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity levied in an ICC indictment of last year. Libya has insisted he should be tried by a Libyan court.

The ICC believes it has the authority to try Sayf al-Islam based on United Nations Security Council 1970, which imposed sanctions on the al-Qadhafi regime, gave the ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed in Libya, and required the Libyan government to comply with ICC demands. The two sides are working on a compromise where Sayf al-Islam will be tried in Libya with ICC supervision (the ICC charter allows for it to hold proceedings anywhere it wishes). That's probably what will happen.

That said, this could be a slippery slope for the future. Should the United Nations or the ICC be able to dictate to sovereign nations where their citizens will be tried? How would we react if either organization attempted to order the United States to extradite an American citizen for trial at The Hague? For example, if the ICC indicted an American soldier for what it believed to be a war crime, would the United States feel compelled to extradite him or her?

The ICC was established as a permanent tribunal in 2002 to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. It has limited jurisdiction - it can exercise jurisdiction only in three cases: if the accused is a national of a state party, if the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state party, or if a situation is referred by the United Nations. The last instance is in play with Libya. Libya is not a signatory to the ICC. Neither is the United States.

The ICC is supposedly has jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute the crimes. Libya has stated a willingness to try Sayf al-Islam and claims that it can do so. What then gives the ICC the authority to impose its jurisdiction on Libya? Of course, UNSCR 1970 provides the required referral, but the ICC should only prosecute when the local nation cannot.

If I had to make the call, I'd say the ICC was overreaching its authority. They should allow Libya to exercise justice in this case. Otherwise, it appears to be just another case of European arrogance.

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* The name translates as "The Sword of Islam"

Egypt - the kingmakers speak....

Campaign posters for the three remaining major candidates
Ahmad Shafiq  -  'Abd al-Muna'im Abu al-Fatuh  -  'Amru Musa

Egypt's Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission has disqualified 10 candidates from running in the presidential election scheduled for next month. According to the rules in place, there are no further appeals for these former candidates. Three of those rejected were considered front runners: the Muslim Brotherhood's Khayrat al-Shatir, Salafist leader Hazim Abu Isma'il, and former intelligence chief and vice president 'Umar Sulayman.*

Of course, there were protests against the move, especially from the Islamists, claiming that the commission is not impartial and sympathizes with the former Mubarak government. There may be some truth to this - the commission was appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the true arbiters of power in Egypt after the removal of Husni Mubarak. On the other hand, if they were truly holdovers, they likely would not have disqualified General Sulayman.

More important are the candidates the commission did not disqualify - one of these men will almost certainly be the next president of arguably the most important country in the Arab world. Given the disqualifications, the new front runners are former Arab League chief 'Amru Musa (commonly rendered as Amr Moussa), former Muslim Brotherhood member and now moderate Islamist 'Abd al-Muna'im Abu al-Fatuh (commonly rendered as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh) and former Prime Minister and commander of the Egyptian Air Force retired Air Marshal Ahmad Muhammad Shafiq (commonly rendered as Ahmed Shafik).

A few words on each candidate.

'Amru Musa (75) is well known throughout the Middle East, having served as Secretary General of the Arab League from 2001 to 2011, and as Egypt's Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1991 to 2001. Prior to that, he was the Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations, India, and Switzerland. Musa is respected in the region as well as in the West. Despite taking some unpopular positions, most Western countries, including the United States, would not object to a Musa presidency in Egypt.

'Abd al-Muna'im Abu al-Fatuh (60) is a medical doctor and described as a moderate Islamist. He is a former long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but broke ties with them last year to run for president. He was imprisoned for five years for his Muslim Brotherhood association.

Ahmad Muhammad Shafiq (70) is a retired Air Marshal who commanded the Egyptian air force and then served as minister of civil aviation until last year. During the revolution in 2011, he was appointed as prime minister for a period of two months. He is regarded by many Egyptians as a holdover of the Mubarak government.

So, these are the three candidates that have been qualified by the SCAF-appointed council. A respected statesman, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a retired military officer of the Mubarak government. It would appear to me that the ruling military officers have shaped the upcoming election quite effectively. Most Egyptians are wary of anyone associated closely with the former government, while others are wary of an avowed, albeit moderate, Islamist.

That leaves 'Amru Musa. Unless something changes - and in Egypt that is not only possible but likely - Musa will be the next president of Egypt. Given the state of the situation in the country, that's probably as good as its going to get.

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* I have transliterated the Arabic names according to the official U.S. government-mandated transliteration system, that used by the US-UK Board on Geographic Names.

April 16, 2012

UN observers in Syria - don't expect much

UN observers at the Damascus Sheraton

Six military officers that comprise the advance team of what is expected to be as many as 250 United Nations (UN) observers and ceasefire monitors arrived in Damascus and checked in to the Sheraton Hotel. They will enter into a series of meetings with the Syrians to work out how they will move around the country, what access they will have, where they will work, security arrangements for the team, etc.

Having been assigned as the air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and having worked with the Syrian Ministry of Defense foreign liaison office - the office that will likely work with the UN officers - I can safely predict that the six officers are about to learn about Syrian bureaucracy. As with most dictatorships, the regime can get things done quickly when it wants, and can drag its feet interminably when it doesn't. I am putting support to the UN in the latter category. I suspect the officers are going to spend quite a bit of time at the Sheraton. If you have to cool your heels in downtown Damascus, though, it's as good a place as any.

The Syrian regime is only allowing these officers into the country as part of an information campaign to allay criticism from the rest of the world. It hopes to prevent increased political pressure and possibly economic sanctions. Since the uprising began over a year ago, the government of President Bashar al-Asad has portrayed the opposition as "terrorists." The tech-savvy al-Asad has made effective use of the internet and social media organs like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in an attempt to frame perceptions of the conflict in his favor. I have looked at the effort - it is quite professional.

Allowing the UN to send observers is another tactic in that strategy. Even if the UN effort grows to 250 officers, they will never be able to effectively fully observe what is going on in the country. If past performance is any indication of the effectiveness of these type of UN missions, this one is doomed to failure and will be nothing more than a propaganda tool for the Syrian regime. The officers will never have the unimpeded access they need, and everything they see will be carefully orchestrated.

The Syrians are very good at managing perceptions. For example, when President Bill Clinton visited Damascus for six hours in 1994 (when I was the attache), the Syrian government decided that the scenery on the road from the airport to the presidential palace included some eyesores, one of which was a refugee camp inhabited by Syrians who had been displaced from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. We watched in amazement as the residents were forcibly relocated to apartment blocks, and the entire refugee camp leveled by bulldozers and replaced with a beautifully landscaped soccer field - overnight.

Previous UN observer missions in the area indicate how successful this one might be. Take UNIFIL in neighboring Lebanon, created in 1978. From the United Nations website:

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was established by the Security Council on 19 March 1978 through the adoption of resolution 425 (1978), to confirm Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, restore international peace and security and assist the Government of Lebanon in restoring its effective authority in the area. In addition to the adjustments of the mandate after the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war and after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon to the Blue Line in 2000, its mandate was again expanded in August 2006 following the Israeli-Hizbullah war. Its tasks included monitoring the cessation of hostilities, accompanying and supporting the Lebanese armed forces as they deployed throughout the south of Lebanon, and extending its assistance to help ensure humanitarian access to civilian populations and the voluntary and safe return of displaced persons.

Likewise, UNDOF was created in 1974 and is still there. From the UN website:

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established by the Security Council on 31 May 1974 through the adoption of resolution 350 (1974), following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the subsequent agreed disengagement of the Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. Since then, UNDOF has remained in the area to maintain the ceasefire between Israel and Syrian Arab Republic and to supervise the implementation of the disengagement agreement.

The fact that both groups still exist is an indication that they don't solve problems, they only acknowledge their existence. UN observer groups are big business in Syria, Israel and Lebanon.

There is a difference with UNIFIL and UNDOF as far as the Syrians are concerned. For the Syrians, it is a tool to be used against the Israelis. The newly formed observer group in Syria is actually aimed at the Syrians, so don't expect much cooperation. To the contrary, you can expect obstruction - it will be subtle, but it will be there.

The observers are there to monitor a ceasefire negotiated by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. For whatever reason, the UN is now invested in the Annan plan, a six-point plan that has almost no chance of succeeding. Anyone who has lived in Syria since the 1970 "Correctionist Movement" of Bashar's father Hafiz al-Asad knows that the government cannot share power - they must retain their positions through coercion and force. That necessitates the presence of Syrian troops in the cities where the uprising is strongest - Homs, Hamad, Idlib, Dara' and others.

Of course, these cities are where the observers will demand to go - I would do the same. Just as with the now-defunct Arab League observer mission earlier this year, they will never quite be there to see anything that shows the government to be in violation. When the observers are allowed to visit, there will be no troops visible. When the observers depart, the troops will return. This is their country - they know it better than the observers. The cities are hours apart over mediocre roads - the UN officers will spend hours in vehicles only to arrive when things have been properly staged.

I feel for the military officers on the observer team. They are likely professional officers trying to carry out an near-impossible mission, but will be frustrated at every turn. I know - I have walked in their boots.

Allowing the UN monitors into Syria is a calculated move by the al-Asad regime. They hope to be able to manipulate the officers to prevent them from seeing anything that would give the UN an excuse to levy sanctions on the Syrian government.

I hope the Syrians are not successful, but I expect they will be.

April 14, 2012

FLASH - Istanbul talks result in agreement to talk!!!

New York Times story on the historic agreement to talk

Yes, I meant the title and caption to be sarcastic. I have wondered over the last few years why Catherine Ashton still has a job. Ashton, more properly Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, is the European Union's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Given her remarks after this latest waste of time in Istanbul, I am still wondering. It has to be her title, because it sure is not her job performance.

What am I talking about? In my two earlier articles concerning the talks between Iran the P5+1 (the permanent member nations of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), I predicted that the talks would result in an agreement to continue talking, but nothing else. My words, "We'll just continue to talk about having talks...."

You can review the articles at:
* Diplomacy and the Iranian nuclear issue
* Diplomacy and the Iranian nuclear issue - ADDENDUM

After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "warned" the Iranians that the international community is not interested in "talks for the sake of talk," she added that the "window for diplomacy" in the standoff over Iran's nuclear program is closing. When she said it, I was pleased, hoping that finally someone in the Obama Administration realized that the Iranians have been playing them - and rather effectively - for over three years.

Unfortunately, "talks for the sake of talks" is exactly the result of the April 13-14 talks in Istanbul. Instead of calling the Iranians out on their obvious delaying tactic, the Administration (in the person of the deputy national security advisor praised Iran's "positive attitude." Positive attitude? Mr. President, they are playing you, again, for the umpteenth time.

Back to the baroness. To hear her gushing over the talks, you would think it was a diplomatic breakthrough rivaling the 1993 Oslo Accords. Although she called the talks "constructive and useful" and said that "we want now to move to a sustained process of dialogue," the only result was an agreement to have more talks in about five weeks. Five weeks of unimpeded uranium enrichment for the Iranians - that does not sound constructive and useful to me.

The baroness's European colleagues do not seem to be as impressed as she is with the "accomplishments" of the talks. The British foreign secretary merely called the talks the first step in a process. The French seemed unimpressed as well. It seems only the baroness and the clueless American deputy national security advisor were hoodwinked by the continuous delaying tactics of the Iranians.

Of course, the Iranians, knowing that they again kicked the can down the road for another five weeks, gloated. Their negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said the talks "will lead to concrete steps towards a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program."

That said, several of the negotiators noted a change in the Iranian attitude, describing it as "almost positive and more constructive." I would assess that the Iranians sense that time is indeed running out, not so much afraid of Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's threats as the potential for Israeli military action against their nuclear facilities. Jalili claimed that "for the Iranian people the language of threat and pressure doesn't work."

Actually, that is exactly what works. However, the West has in the past not been willing to apply the right pressure to bring about a change in Iranian behavior. They are starting to now with sanctions on Iranian banks, making it hard for the country to sell its oil. This pressure needs to be increased.

It remains to be seen just how the Obama Administration will react to the failure of the talks. The President is concerned that as the election approaches, he will be seen as having failed to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He should be. Thus far, the Iranians have outplayed him at every move.

What do we have to show for the efforts thus far? Talks that reached an agreement to have more talks.


April 10, 2012

Obama, Peres and Pollard - any "flexibility?"

U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres

As many of my readers are aware, I have serious problems with many of the Middle East policies of the Obama Administration. I believe that for the most part, this White House does not have a grasp of the nuances that shape events in the region and that this naivete does not portend well for the future. Like it or not, we must remain the major player in events in the region, if for no other reason than to guarantee the unimpeded flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.

That said, when President Barack Obama does the right thing, I believe it incumbent on me to say so. If one criticizes, then one must likewise compliment. On Tuesday (April 10), the Administration did the right thing. It did the right thing in the face of no small amount of political pressure. Numerous Jewish groups in the United States as well as Jewish members of Congress have lobbied for the release/pardon of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

Pollard, a former U.S. Navy civilian intelligence analyst, has served over 26 years of a life sentence for espionage against the United States on behalf of Israel. Due to legal technicalities in force at the time of his sentencing, he is scheduled to be released in November of 2015.

Israeli requests for Pollard's release are nothing new. I have detailed these efforts in a recent article: Israeli leaders depart without spy Pollard - good! I am conflicted by the Israelis' continuous requests to excuse Pollard's treason. The intelligence officer in me respects the Israelis' desire to stand by a recruited spy who worked for them, while the American military officer in me would have supported the death penalty against a traitor whose perfidy may have led to the deaths of people who we, American intelligence, had recruited to work for us. It is a haunting duality.

The latest request, coming from a man of the stature of Shimon Peres, has real gravitas. The highly respected Israeli leader is no doubt acting on the orders of his government and political party. In response, a White House official - not the President himself - stated that the administration's position on Pollard "has not changed."

Shimon Peres is scheduled to be in Washington in June of this year to be awarded America's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There is an effort ongoing in Israel to convince Peres not to accept the award unless Pollard is freed. Eighty members of the Knesset have signed a petition urging Peres to refuse the award. Do the Israelis really want to insult the only real ally they have?

This is very troubling. Shimon Peres is an honorable man who has served his country in a continuous series of military, political and diplomatic positions that mirror the creation and development of the Jewish state. To have this icon of Israeli history grovel for the release of a traitor, no matter the cause, should be embarrassing for the people of Israel. A paragon of honor asking for the release of a spy - not exactly the legacy he would want. It is hard to believe the government of Israel wants one of its most respected citizens to compromise his standards to be associated with the ilk that is Jonathan Pollard.

There is another angle to this case. As we have all seen on video clips, President Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when discussing America's European-based missile defense system, that he will have more "flexibility" after the upcoming election.

This begs the question - on what other matters will the President believe he has more flexibility?

Regardless of the outcome of the election, after it is over, the President will either be in a lame-duck status until January 19, 2013 or until January 19, 2017. After November 6, 2012, the President may feel he has the political freedom - or as he calls it, "flexibility" - to acquiesce to demands such as the release of Jonathan Pollard.

I hope the President adheres to the principled position of previous Administrations and resists calls for "flexibility" over any release for the traitor Jonathan Pollard.

April 4, 2012

Diplomacy and the Iranian nuclear issue - ADDENDUM

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (Esam Omran/Reuters)

A few days ago, I published an article, Diplomacy and the Iranian nuclear issue. In it, I accused the Iranians of playing a delaying game to buy time for their nuclear weapons program. I mentioned that the last round of talks ended when the two sides could not agree on a subject for the talks. The Iranians refused to agree that the talks were to be about their uranium enrichment program - the only reason for holding the talks.

This is typical for the Iranians, and a tactic that has served them well for years. It is only recently that Europe and the United States have begun getting serious about effective sanctions, and those are still months away.

Now, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has raised objections to the venue for the talks. They have been scheduled to be in Istanbul for quite some time, but less than ten days before the meetings, the Iranians now have an issue with convening the talks in Turkey.

It is understandable that the Iranians are upset with the Turks. Turkey is supporting the opposition in Syria, Iran's closest - and some would say, only - ally. Iran has formally requested Baghdad host the negotiations. Iraq, under the leadership of pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, is drawing closer and closer to Tehran in its political, economic and even military relations. Not surprisingly, the Iraqi foreign minister (my friend Hoshyar Zebari) supports the Iranian proposal.

Now there will be a negotiation of where to negotiate. It reminds me of the Paris talks about Vietnam in the late 1960s - the parties spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over the shape of the table.

The talks will probably be held in Baghdad, but it remains to be seen what is actually on the agenda. Perhaps at last the Iranians will actually discuss their nuclear program, but I'm not betting on it. They will assert their right to enrich uranium (not in question), deny the existence of a weapons program (there is) and end the talks when the representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, the so-called "P5+1," demand further information on the program.

Meanwhile, the centrifuges continue to spin.


April 1, 2012

Diplomacy and the Iranian nuclear issue

Former Iranian negotiator Hossein Mousavian

As the United States considers imposing tougher sanctions on Iran over its refusal to adhere to a series of United Nations resolutions about its uranium enrichment program, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned the Iranians that time for a diplomatic solution is fast running out. This is the most succinct warning delivered by the secretary in a long time, and is long overdue.

Another round of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, the so-called "P5+1," is scheduled for mid-April in Istanbul. Most Middle East observers, this one included, believe this is just another stalling tactic on the part of the Iranians, much as they have done for the past several years.

The last round of talks ended when the two sides could not agree on a subject for the talks. It's bad enough when negotiations fail due to disagreement over the subject being discussed, but when supposed professional diplomats cannot reach an agreement on what subject to discuss, it borders on absurdity.

Mrs. Clinton's words: "We're going in with one intention: to resolve the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Our policy is one of prevention, not containment. We are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We enter into these talks with a sober perspective about Iran's intentions. It is incumbent upon Iran to demonstrate by its actions that it is a willing partner and to participate in these negotiations with an effort to obtain concrete results."

I predict that at the April talks, the Iranians will argue that their enrichment program is not up for discussion, effectively wasting everyone's time except theirs. While they agree to talks and try to give the impression that they truly want a diplomatic solution, the centrifuges keep spinning and they pile up more uranium. The Iranians don't want a diplomatic solution, in fact, they don't want any solution. Wanting a solution would indicate that they believe there is an actual problem. They do not believe their quest for a nuclear weapon is a problem. Their repeated agreements to enter into talks is merely an attempt to delay long enough until they achieve their objective. Am I the only one that gets that?

Now let's look at recent remarks on the subject made by former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Musavian, who is now a visiting scholar at Princeton University. His proposed solution to the Iranian nuclear issue: "As soon as the P5+1 recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium, there will be an opportunity to break the nine-year deadlock over the nuclear program."

With a brilliant observation like that, it's hard to believe this guy has a job at a university the caliber of Princeton. Okay, Hossein, let's take this slowly. First, Iran does have the right to enrich uranium. However, it does not have the right to build a nuclear weapon, as long as it remains a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The treaty allows for member states to develop nuclear energy programs as long as they can demonstrate that their nuclear programs are not being used for the development of nuclear weapons. That is what the United Nations is asking of the Iranians - demonstrate that its program is not for the development of nuclear weapons. When Iran does that, the deadlock - and sanctions - are over. The ball is in Iran's court.

You see, Hossein, the problem the Iranians have is that they cannot demonstrate that their program is not being used for the development of nuclear weapons. Why not? Simple, because the Iranians are developing a nuclear weapons capability. There is no other explanation for their program. It is much too small for a nuclear energy program, and the necessary infrastructure to support such a huge program has not been seriously considered since the days of the Shah. If Iran were to use every one of its nuclear facilities to generate electricity, it would produce less energy than what Iran's oil wells flare off as waste.

Nuclear weapons analysts at the Los Alamos National Labs - the professionals at this sort of thing - have looked at the size of Iran's program and concluded it is exactly the right size for a nuclear weapons program. In reality, it can be nothing else.

The Iranians know it, the Israelis know it and with a few notable exceptions in the U.S. intelligence community, we know it. The real question for our diplomats is why are we going through this kabuki dance? The Iranians are not going to give up their nuclear weapons program because of a "diplomatic breakthrough" in Istanbul later this month.

Diplomacy has failed and will continue to fail. Tougher sanctions will certainly hurt the Iranian people, but will they be effective in slowing the nuclear program? Hard to say. The only sanction that has any chance of working it to prohibit Iran from exporting oil. Do we have the political will to do it? Doubtful. We'll just continue to talk about having talks, probably right up to the point where Israel believes the rest of the world is not committed to solving the crisis and takes action on its own.

The Israelis have heard both Secretary Clinton and President Obama say the words that we will not permit Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but so far, it's all talk. I guess that's called diplomacy.