February 16, 2021

Biden's Iran Policy - Obama Failure 2.0?

Obviously satire, but let’s take a look at what is driving it. It’s simple – President Biden’s ill-advised and ill-timed policies on Iran, basically rolling back all of the gains of the Trump Administration to contain Iran, are dangerous. It’s almost like we are watching the implementation of Obama 2.0. That Iran policy was disastrous then, and it will be disastrous now.


Since taking office on January 20, Biden has signaled to both the Iranians and our allies alike that he will be attempting to engage the Iranians, despite the consistent Iranian repudiation of Obama’s efforts to do the same during his eight years in office. In the past few days, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, a former Obama official, has stated, “The path to diplomacy is open right now” with Iran.


Let’s follow that thought – just who will be advising Biden on his Iran foreign policy decisions? Three key advisors have roots in the Obama Administration – we know how its Iran policy turned out. Remember the optic of pallets of cash being flown to Iran just as American hostages were released. Although Obama insisted there was no linkage between the cash deliveries and hostage releases, Iranian officials have stated unequivocally that there was.


Blinken previously served in the Obama Administration as Deputy National Security Advisor from 2013 to 2015 and Deputy Secretary of State from 2015 to 2017. Before that, from 2009 to 2013, he was the National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden. His focus was, among other things, Iran’s nuclear program.


Then we have National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Sullivan worked in the Obama Administration as Director of Policy Planning at the Department of State, and as Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then as National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden from 2013 to 2014. He was also a senior advisor for the Iran nuclear negotiations.


Rounding out the Iran team is Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley. Malley’s claim to fame (or infamy) is being the lead negotiator (or capitulator) of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In the Obama Administration, Malley was designated the National Security Council “point man” for the Middle East, as well as the special advisor on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS – the so-called “JV team,” according to Obama. Given the state of American foreign policy in the region when Obama left office, this is not a sterling résumé.


Biden has tasked Malley to bring both the United States and Iran into compliance with the JCPOA. I’m not sure that is technically possible, since the United States is no longer a party to the JCPOA. I take that as an indication where the Biden Administration is heading – a new round of concessions and capitulations to the mullahs in Tehran.


It could be worse. If John Kerry had not been named as the jet-setting Special Envoy on Climate Change, he would likely be advising Biden on Iran. Thank God for small mercies.


Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said of Biden, “He has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” With these three – Blinken, Sullivan, and Malley – advising Biden on Iran, I don’t expect that record to improve.


In addition to this Obama-rerun cast of advisors, let’s look at some of the actions of the new administration in “containing” Iran.


Some of the first actions Biden has taken in the region was to freeze the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Access to this advanced aircraft was a sweetener on the UAE-Israel track of the Abrahamic Accords. Of course, the Biden Administration may not care if that historic agreement falls through – it does not appear that Biden is that friendly to Jerusalem. 

After almost a month in office, Biden has yet to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – you’d think that a call to America’s closest ally in the region would have already happened, but the Democrats have generally never been fond of Israel, especially when it is led by the Likud party.


Biden has also frozen impending sales of advanced munitions to Saudi Arabia, a measure of disapproval of Saudi (and UAE) military operations against the Huthi-led revolt in Yemen.


In an even more incredulous, and in my opinion, utterly moronic, move, Biden has removed the Huthi movement – a Shi’a militant group supported, trained, and armed by Iran – from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.


It is ironic – right out of the gate, Biden has protected a terrorist group supported by the world’s leading state supporter of terrorism, and taken punitive measures against the two countries leading the fight in support of the Yemeni government which the United States recognizes.


Here’s what to watch in the near future. On February 15, a group believed to be associated with Iranian-supported Iraqi Shi’a militias claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.S. coalition facility in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq. The attack killed a foreign worker and wounded several U.S. contractors, as well as wounding an American servicemember.


What will Biden do in response? If he does nothing, he will be perceived as weak. If that is the case, he will have failed the test – get ready for increased Iranian-sponsored militia attacks on US and allied coalition facilities and personnel.


With the Obama Administration holdovers, the team that brought us the dangerous and disastrous JCPOA, we have some insight as to where Biden’s policy toward Iran is likely headed.


It is not a good place.



January 12, 2021

Turkey may have halted plans to turn former Istanbul church into a mosque

According to a Turkish news outlet (read article here), the Turkish government may be reconsidering the August 2020 decision by self-styled new sultan President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reconvert the Church of the Holy Savior museum to a mosque. (Read my initial thoughts on that decision - "Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque.)


The church/museum in the Chora (Kariye) section of Istanbul is considered one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine church. In the 16th century, the church was converted into a mosque by the city’s new Ottoman rulers, and it became a secularized museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes. It is listed as one of the top 30 “must-see museums” in the world. 

The original church was built in the early 5th century to the south of the Golden Horn, and stood outside of the 4th century walls of Constantine the Great; it became incorporated within the city's defenses later that century.

The frescoes and mosaics, plastered over by the Ottomans, are being restored. They are stunning, almost overwhelming. I have seen mosaics in other early Christian Churches throughout the Middle East, but nothing like these.

In August 2020, the government ordered the re-conversion of the museum into a mosque. The move came shortly after a similar decision to re-convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque from a museum, despite outcries from the international community. That conversion took place and the building is now known as the Ayasofya-i Kebîr Câmi-i Şerifi (Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque).

President Erdoğan was scheduled to inaugurate the newly converted mosque last October, but the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Turkey’s top religious authority, cancelled the event the day before to allow for continued restoration work. 

The church/museum remains closed as the work continues, giving hope that it will remain a museum. Others maintain that the delay is merely a result of the Turks exercising great care when covering the Christian art. 

Let’s hope for the former and not the latter. 

November 22, 2020

Traitor Jonathan Pollard free to go to Israel - good riddance

Netanyahu tweet on Pollard release
Netanyahu tweet on Pollard release

On November 20, Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst convicted for betraying his country and selling national defense information to Israel, was freed from the terms of his post-confinement parole. That means he is now free and will undoubtedly relocate to the country he spied for, Israel, where he will be welcomed as a national hero.


Yes, that Israel, one of America's closest allies and a major benefactor of American aid, political support, intelligence sharing, and other largesse. I have stated unequivocally in the past, and will do so again - Pollard did irreparable harm to U.S. intelligence capabilities at the behest of his Israeli masters, and got only partially what he deserved. If it was up to me, he would still be in prison.


For those who may not be familiar with the treachery of Jonathan Pollard, let’s recap.


Jonathan Pollard was employed as an analyst at the what is now the U.S. Navy’s  National Maritime Intelligence Center in Suitland, Maryland. He had been granted a Top Secret clearance with access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS-SCI) and other special access programs (SAP). Readers with experience in the military or intelligence community will recognize those designations.


In 1984, Pollard volunteered his services to an Israeli Air Force officer attending university in the United States. He continued to work for the Israeli intelligence services until his arrest on November 21, 1985 as he and his co-conspirator wife Anne attempted to enter the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, hoping to seek asylum.


Pollard made a plea deal with the U.S. government under which he would plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. Although that offense carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, the prosecution agreed to recommend "only a substantial number of years in prison." 

However, citing Pollard’s repeated violations of multiple terms of the agreement, on March 4, 1987, the judge adjudicating the case imposed the maximum penalty, a life sentence. That sentence was also greatly influenced by the classified damage-assessment memorandum provided by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. I have seen the damage assessment – it is truly devastating.


Apologists for Pollard claim that spying for Israel is "not really spying" since Israel is an ally of the United States. One has to consider that blanket statement that Israel is an ally of the United States with some reticence. Israel used the information provided by Pollard as "trade material" with the Russians - during the height of the Cold War - in return for the release of Jews detained in Russia. That is hardly the action of an ally of the United States.


There is speculation that American agents, people the U.S. intelligence agencies had recruited to collect information for us at great risk, were uncovered and executed because of the information the Israelis provided to the Russians. If that is the case, Pollard should have been executed instead of being sentenced to life in prison.


There is a group of Pollard supporters who claim that Pollard has been treated more harshly than others, but they fail to mention that others in the same class as Pollard - CIA officer Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen - were also sentenced to life in prison. My response to the claim that other traitors have been given lesser sentences - the judges in those cases got it wrong; the judge in the Pollard case (as well as with Ames and Hanssen) got it exactly right. Unfortunately, prevailing laws at the time limits his “life” sentence to 30 years. That ended on November 21, 2015. He has been on post-confinement parole since then. While he could have been kept in that status for 15 years, he has been freed after five.


Many Israeli leaders and media outlets are citing this as a great day for Israel. It is not at all – this merely reminds that 36 years ago, someone in the Israeli intelligence services thought it would be a good idea to steal intelligence information from their greatest ally and staunchest supporter, then later reveal the sources and methods used to acquire that information to America’s greatest foes. Hardly a great day for Israel.  


So, the convicted felon/traitor Jonathan Pollard is now free to go to Israel. If he’s not in prison where he belongs, then I am glad he is not walking free in my country. Good riddance. Israel, you can have him – after all, you bought him.


To my Israeli and pro-Pollard Jewish friends (and I have many): I know we disagree vehemently on this issue. I will not change my mind, nor will I get involved in a drawn-out discussion where we are unlikely to resolve our differences. This is my view - you are free to voice your own. I simply will not respond to your misguided attempts to justify Pollard’s betrayal of my - and what was once his - country.

October 5, 2020

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (Warner Brothers - 2014)

The Water Diviner follows the journey of an Australian farmer whose three sons were killed or missing during the fighting at Gallipoli (in present-day Turkey) in 1915. The farmer, Joshua Connor (played by Russell Crowe), travels from Australia to the former battlefield at Gallipoli to search for his sons. The movie is inspired by true events.

That said, there has been a fair amount of fiction added, some of which requires a rather healthy dose of the "suspension of disbelief," that concept that makes fiction work, especially historical fiction. Most viewers familiar with Muslim or Middle Eastern customs will note this when watching the developing relationship between Connor and a Turkish woman.

To set the stage to inform your decision on whether to invest two hours watching the film, some background. I will avoid providing spoilers. 

It's 1919 when Connor decides to go to what remains of the Ottoman Empire, specifically to Gallipoli. Gallipoli is a name seared into the psyche of Australians and New Zealanders - the two dominions of the British Empire formed the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Their troops were often referred to as "Anzacs." 

An ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli on April 25, and met fierce resistance from the Ottoman Army commanded by Mustafa Kemal - later known as Kemal Atatürk, who became the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. 

After an eight-month stalemate, the Allies evacuated the Dardenelles, having suffered over 56,000 dead, including 8,709 from Australia and 2,721 from New Zealand. The losses at Gallipoli - and from all wars since - are remembered every April 25 on ANZAC Day. Virtually every city and town in the two countries has a monument honoring those who fell at Gallipoli. It touched every part of the small dominions.

Connor gets to Turkey, then on to Gallipoli. Then it gets complicated - I will leave that for you to discover. 

The scenes shot in Istanbul were well done. Viewers who have visited Turkey will recognize many of the sights, especially the Sultan Ahmed  Mosque (Blue Mosque).

A nod to the fine acting of Russell Crowe and Yılmaz Erdoğan, and to Olga Kurylenko for, well, being Olga Kurylenko. Seriously, her portrayal of young Turkish widow was nicely done.

Many Armenian groups have criticized the movie for not addressing the Armenian Genocide, some even labeling the movie as supporting Turkish denials. I am going to give the producers a pass on this particular film. This was about the fighting between the Ottoman Empire and British Empire, and a father's search for his sons. It had nothing to do with the Armenians. There are movies that clearly downplay or deny that the genocide occurred, but this is not one of them. 

I recommend the movie on many levels - the history is mostly accurate, including the occupation of Istanbul by the Allied powers as they dismantled the Ottoman Empire, and the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). There is also the human interest story of a father searching for lost family members and the lengths he is willing to go in that effort. 

Watch it on Netflix.

September 4, 2020

Movie Review: The Promise (Survival Pictures - 2016)

The Promise is a 2016 film (released in the United States in 2017) that uses a romantic triangle just before and during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It is a rather interesting concept - the use of the interplay of two men in love with the same woman to focus attention on one of the worst atrocities in modern history. I will let the readers decide if it works.

The three main characters are an Armenian pharmacist who wants to be a doctor, an Armenian woman traveling in the Ottoman Empire with the third character, a journalist reporting on what will later be called World War One.

In order for the pharmacist to pursue a medical degree, he leaves small village in southern Turkey and moves to Constantinople (now called Istanbul). To afford the tuition and expenses in the city, he agrees to marry a girl from his village in return for a generous dowry - I believe this is "the promise."

Once in Istanbul, the triangle develops. At the same time the three are involved in romantic relationships, what is portrayed as a systemic government effort to eradicate the Armenian population in the country begins and continues until the three are miraculously reunited and rescued. It was difficult to believe - no amount of the suspension of disbelief would help.

Of note, almost immediately after The Promise was released, three Turkish film companies released a movie titled The Ottoman Lieutenant. It portrayed the genocide as localized random acts of violence rather than a concerted, government-directed campaign. Read my review of that film.

Neither of the two competing movies did well at the box office. The Ottoman Lieutenant cost over $40 million to make, but grossed just over $400,000 worldwide. The Promise cost almost $100 million - all bankrolled by Armenian-American investor Kirk Kerkorian - and grossed only $12.4 million.

The producers of both films claim the money was not important - the message was. Producers of The Promise have labeled The Ottoman Lieutenant as an attempt to counter their film. I would not be surprised if the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was behind the effort.

Criticisms: The Armenian Genocide was a massive human rights atrocity. It just seems to me to use a romantic triangle is not giving it the gravity it deserves. The counter argument is that it was a way to get people to watch it. It didn't work, obviously.

I don't understand the significance of the title. If it was the agreement for the pharmacist to marry a local girl in exchange for the dowry that was to enable his studies in Constantinople, it really had little to do with the plot.

I was disappointed in the movie and story line, but not the cast. Christian Bale, Charlotte La Bon, Isaac Oscar, and one of my favorite actresses, Shohreh Aghdashloo, gave solid performances, but not even actors of that level could save the script.

Despite that, I do recommend it because of the attention it does draw to the Armenian Genocide. It is available on Netflix.

September 1, 2020

Movie Review: Escaping Tel Aviv (Sharif Arafah - 2009)

Escaping Tel Aviv is a 2009 Egyptian movie that takes place in mostly in Israel (filmed in South Africa). The plot involves two intelligence officers - one works for the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (GID), and the other is an Israeli Arab who is an officer in Mossad, Israel's civilian intelligence agency.

Both officers speak fluent Arabic and Hebrew and have similar backgrounds, so much so that the Arabic title of the movie is Wilad al-'Am (ولاد العم‎) which translates to "the cousins."

The movie begins with the Mossad officer Daniel, using the Arabic name 'Izzat (played by Sherif Mounir), leaving Port Said, Egypt, with his Egyptian Muslim wife Salwa (played by Mona Zaki) and their two children. The wife is unaware of his true identity, having met him while he was living as an Egyptian for seven years. She was also unaware that the departure was planned. Once in Tel Aviv, she is desperate to return to Egypt with her children.

Egyptian intelligence officer Mustafa (played by Karim Abdel Aziz) is assigned the mission of repatriating Salwa and the two children from Tel Aviv back to Egypt. The movie revolves around his operation to do just that.

Some comments on the production. I was surprised at the scenes supposedly set in Tel Aviv - it was convincing. I don't speak Hebrew, so I will leave an assessment of that to someone who does. I was impressed that both of the lead actors, both Egyptians, were able to sound convincing (at least to me) in Hebrew. The majority of the movie was in pure Egyptian dialect.

It has been a long time since I have used Egyptian Arabic - it took me about half an hour to get my ear re-tuned to it. This movie was made for an Egyptian audience, so they are not speaking anything resembling Modern Standard Arabic. Egyptians speak fast, and have a unique staccato style of talking. I had to pay close attention.

As many of you know, I often criticize the subtitling of Arabic soundtracks. I found this one to be about as close as could be to the original Arabic. Some colloquialisms were changed to make sense to an English-speaking (or in this case, reading) audience. The Hebrew dialogue was subtitled in both English and Arabic.

A few criticisms. The thought that the Egyptian GID would dispatch one of its best officers to Israel to repatriate a housewife and two children is a bit far-fetched. This would normally be handled diplomatically - Egypt and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1980. In the movie, Salwa at one point asked an Israeli Arab to direct her to the Egyptian embassy.

I will not spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that some of the tactics used by Egyptian officer Mustafa are off-the-chart unrealistic. I will let you decide which.

It's a two hour movie, and with a fair amount of the suspension of disbelief required for most fictional stories, it is entertaining. As a former operations officer, it was interesting to watch a movie about intelligence officers where Mossad is not the dominant player.

It is available on Netflix.

August 24, 2020

Movie Review: The Ottoman Lieutenant (Netflix - 2017)

Initial comment - let's remember that the first rule of fiction, even historical fiction, is the suspension of disbelief. That means as you are watching a movie or reading a book that is not history or a biography, you need to keep telling yourself that this is not true, it's entertainment. However, when you watch a movie set in actual historic events, you expect the author to at least adhere to some aspects of reality.

If you decide to watch The Ottoman Lieutenant, be prepared to engage in a major suspension of disbelief. That said, you may want to watch it. Let me give you some information that will inform your decision. Consider that the movie production cost was about $40 million, but grossed worldwide just over $400,000 (less than $250,000 in the United States).

If you can imagine it, the movie is a Turkish-American romantic story set in the city and environs of Van, in eastern Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in the opening days of World War One. At the time, Van was a city with a majority Armenian and Kurdish population. The Armenians were arming themselves and forming militias, knowing full well that war was coming, and they would likely be caught between the Ottoman and the Russian armies. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany in October 1914.

The love triangle in the movie, which I found to be unlikely, involves an American doctor (Josh Hartnett) working in an American-sponsored hospital in Van, established and run by an older doctor (Ben Kingsley). An American nurse (Hera Hilmar), who met the young doctor while he was in the States on a fundraising trip, decides to bring much-needed medical supplies and a truck to the hospital. A bit far-fetched.

Bringing the supplies to eastern Anatolia requires permission from the Ottoman authorities. Ottoman Army Lieutenant Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman) is assigned to escort the nurse to the hospital in Van. You see where this is going - young doctor, young nurse, young officer.

As someone whose professional focus has been the Middle East, I find the historical aspects of the lead-up to World War One of interest, and was curious as to how the producers were going to treat the obvious issue: the Armenian genocide that began in 1915.

The disappointing answer: the producers either ignored it or adhered to the official Turkish government position. I should have known how this was likely to be handled since the major investors in the project are Turkish, the production companies are Turkish, and the final cut of the movie was done in Turkey.

The film treats the Armenians as the cause of the problem - blame the victims. In the Turkish view, Ottoman attacks on Armenians were reactions to armed Armenian gangs roaming the countryside raiding travelers and Ottoman villages. The killings of Armenians were part of this violence, unorganized in nature, but in no way an organized government genocide.

After I watched the movie, I did more research and discovered that there is a school of thought that this movie was a response to another movie - The Promise - that depicts the Armenian genocide as just that, an organized attempt to eliminate the Armenians in what is now Turkey. I plan to watch and review it. Where this movie smacks of denial, perhaps The Promise will better address the issue.

It is hard to generate any sympathy for the Turks, given the recent actions of their megalomaniac president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In July of this year, he revoked the museum status of the Hagia Sophia, the sixth century church and later mosque, into a mosque. The Hagia Sophia houses some of the world's greatest Christian art, which will now be recovered. Just last week, he did the same thing to another former church/museum, the Chora Church. (See my article: "Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque.)

Add to that, Erdoğan's actions in Syria since 2015 have been unnecessary, unhelpful, and dangerous. It appears to many of us Middle East observers that he is tacitly supporting the Islamists in Syria, much as he facilitated the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in their earlier years. Think not? How did all of the foreign fighters in Syria actually get to Syria?

Now the self-styled sultan is trying to expand what I call his neo-Ottoman reach to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, has established a military base in Qatar. (Read more of my articles on how unhelpful Erdoğan has been.)

If you're a fan of Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you may like the movie. Otherwise, save yourself the 106 minutes.

It is available on Netflix.

August 21, 2020

"Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque

Following the re-conversion of Istanbul's world-famous Hagia Sophia museum to a mosque earlier this year, Turkish President "I want to be the Sultan" Erdogan does the same to the Chora (Kariye) Church Museum, also in Istanbul.

At least I was able to see the fabulous art before they cover it again.

The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora is considered one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine church. In the 16th century, the church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman rulers, and it became a secularized museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes. It is listed as one of the top 30 “must-see museums” in the world.

The original church was built in the early 5th century to the south of the Golden Horn, and stood outside of the 4th century walls of Constantine the Great; it became incorporated within the city's defenses later that century.

The frescoes and mosaics, plastered over by the Ottomans, are being restored. They are stunning, almost overwhelming. I have seen mosaics in other early Christian Churches throughout the Middle East, but nothing like these.

See my photographs of the art that is about to be lost to the world.

August 17, 2020

United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize relations - my thoughts

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid, President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu

In a surprise announcement last week, President Donald Trump revealed the successful conclusion of an agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the State of Israel that will lead to the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

My first reaction: this is a good thing. The Gulf Arabs are coming to the realization that Israel does not pose a threat to them unless they pose a threat to Israel. There is no reason for the Gulf states to threaten Israel except for the myth of Arab - and in some cases Muslim - solidarity against the self-described Jewish state "for the sake of the Palestinians."

Having lived and served in a variety of these countries for many years, I assess that they are tired of the Palestinian "cause" and self-victimization, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanese Hizballah, and Hamas, to name a few. They are fearful of Sunni extremism (al-Qa'idah, ISIS, etc.), yes, but much more wary of Iranian support for Shi'a terrorist groups - the aforementioned Hizballah, as well as Iraqi Shi'a militias.

These Gulf Arab nations do not live in fear of Israel. For the most part, Israel tries to conduct itself as a member of the international community when permitted to by an overwhelmingly anti-Israel United Nations and European Union. In private, many senior and influential leaders of these Arab countries, those I would call "the enlightened" ones, actually want to be more like Israel.

The Arabs only have to look at Israel's advances in science, technology, medicine, and yes, weapons. Israel enjoys a qualitative edge in virtually every category when compared to the Arab countries. Many ask why this is the case, and the tired explanation that it is only the support of the United States for Israel that allows them to be so successful is losing its voice.

The United Arab Emirates has been blessed with a decades of enlightened leadership. Even during the presidency of Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayyan, he allowed the next generation the leeway to try and change the Emirates into a modern society. One only need look at Dubai when I served as the acting Defense Attache to the U.S. Embassy in the UAE in 1992, and when I visited two years ago - night and day.

As part of my duties, I dealt closely with the UAE Ministry of Defense and its armed forces. I found them to be well-educated, well-motivated, and for the most part nonpolitical. That extended to their views of Israel and the Palestinians. Most were more concerned with the self-styled Shi'a hegemon just a few miles across the Gulf - Iran. You will note I am not calling it the Persian Gulf - that's one of the things about which the Gulf Arabs can get a bit testy.

At the embassy, located in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, I was the acting chief of the Defense Attache Office, the USDAO. Another section in the embassy was the security assistance office (SAO), now called the Office of Defense Partnership. These are the U.S. military officers who are there basically to sell U.S. weapons and training to the UAE. Fine officers and at time rivals - we jokingly referred to each other as the "spooks" (me) and "merchants of death (them)."

While there certainly was cooperation and coordination, at times we were acting at cross purposes. My role was to observe and report on UAE military capabilities, and to act as an intelligence liaison with the UAE Military Intelligence Directorate. Keep in mind that military attaches worldwide are declared intelligence officers, work for their country's military intelligence service - in my case, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency - and are accredited to the host country's chief of military intelligence.

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I made an office call on the Director of Military Intelligence, who later introduced me to Minister of Defense (since 1971 and still today) Shaykh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktum. If that name sounds familiar, it should - he is now Vice President of the UAE, Prime Minister of the UAE, Emir of Dubai, and as I said, Minister of Defense of the country.

"Shaykh Mo," as he asked us to call him, and I struck up a conversation about the Gulf War and my service as Central Command chief General H. Norman Schwarzkopf's interpreter. I think since we were fairly close in age, he asked if I would give him my analysis and opinion on the future of the UAE's armed forces. I knew he had been in rather heated discussions with representatives of the embassy's SAO over weapons purchases. At that time, the U.S. defense industry was pushing sales of the M-1 Abrams main battle tank and the Patriot air defense missile system.

Perhaps this is when I should have consulted with the security assistance people....

I told the shaykh/minister that in my opinion, and stressed that this was just my opinion, not the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, that he should pattern the UAE armed forces on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with one exception - the Israeli Army. Did I just note that the U.S. defense industry was pushing the M-1 tank?

I explained that as I saw it, the UAE's primary adversary was, and likely to be for the foreseeable future, Iran, or at least as long as it remained the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unless Iran was to develop a massive amphibious assault capability, there was little chance of a land invasion - special operations raids on oil and gas facilities, maybe, but a major ground assault? Unlikely.

Iran's major threats would come from the air, the sea (either the Gulf or Gulf of Oman), or terrorism. On point, in 2019 there was a terrorist attack on four ships in Emirati territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of the Emirate of al-Fujayrah.

What the UAE needed, at that time and now, was a world-class air force, an effective air defense/anti-missile system, and a regionally competitive navy/coast guard. Ground forces like a national guard should suffice to face the minimal ground threat, and they needed to develop a serious counter-terrorism effort against Iran.

What the UAE did not (and does not) need is an armor-heavy army that should never deploy to fight an expeditionary war, or have to defend the territory of the UAE. They have strayed a bit from where they should be in Yemen, and I think they have learned that deploying their ground forces is not wise.

That said, buying M-1 tanks? Not a problem, but not a priority. Acquiring Patriot missiles? Yes, a high priority. F-16s? Absolutely the highest priority - get the best money can buy, and the UAE can afford it. I am satisfied to see that the UAE Air Force now flies some of the most advanced F-16s in the world.

It was a wide-ranging conversation - the shaykh was well-informed and cognizant of the current situation. I think my comments were merely confirmatory to his own thinking. However, reports of my conversation with the shaykh reached the ears of the SAO people at the embassy. I was immediately called to meet with the chief of the SAO, a soon-retiring U.S. Army colonel obviously looking for a position at Raytheon (Patriot missiles) or General Dynamics (M-1 Abrams tanks). Both are great weapon systems, but were they right for the UAE?

The security assistance function of the Department of Defense has always been suspect to us foreign area officers and intelligence specialists. Senior officers recommending ("selling") certain weapons systems to countries where they have served and then retire and end up working for companies named Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, etc. It just sounds too convenient.

I told the shaykh what I thought he needed to know, not what the defense industry contractors (or the SAO officers) wanted to sell him. I was immediately challenged by the Army colonel who was chief of the embassy security assistance office. All in, he was a fine Army officer just doing his job, but peddling unnecessary arms to an ally did not seem to be kosher (pun intended) to me. Since we labored for different masters, we parted on rather icy terms.

As I said, I am pleased to see that the UAE has developed a very capable air force - if not world-class air force, it is certainly among the best in the Middle East. They have also developed a good naval and coast guard capability. I am disappointed that they have attempted to use their military as an expeditionary force in Yemen and Libya. I find it hard to believe that the Shaykh Muhammad of 1992 is allowing his forces to be used this way in 2020. The force structure we had talked about in 1992 was never meant to operate in this manner.

Still, the UAE has been a key American ally for decades. The use of the al-Dhafra air base outside Abu Dhabi has been an integral part of American air operations in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

I often wonder why we have positioned U.S. Central Command (Forward) at the al-'Udayd (Al Udeid) air base in Qatar. Qatar is an ally, yes, but much more aligned with Turkey and its support for Islamist groups in Syria. Let's not forget that the anti-American satellite news network Al Jazeera is based in Doha, Qatar. For those of you who watch Al Jazeera English, the Arabic language network and the English language networks are totally different - the Arabic-language broadcast is exponentially much more anti-American and anti-western than the English language content. I digress.

What is driving the change in the UAE that they are willing to normalize relations with Israel? Easy - Iran. I guess we owe a debit of gratitude to former President Barack Obama and his terminally ineffectual Secretary of State John Kerry.

If Obama and Kerry had not spent so much time and treasure on the ill-advised Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia would not be so worried about a potential nuclear-armed Iran. (See my article from earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and China nuclear cooperation - is Riyadh seeking nukes?) The prospect of a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration and the probability of another ill-advised American effort to befriend the world's leading sponsor of terrorism is of great concern to our Gulf Arab allies.

I hope the United States is able to work with the leaders of Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait to follow in the UAE's footsteps. Saudi Arabia, who also cooperates with Israel silently, may take a bit longer.

The Israelis are smart to try and work with the Sunni Arabs. They share a common threat: the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shi'a syndicate in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

August 8, 2020

Saudi Arabia and China nuclear cooperation - is Riyadh seeking nukes?

Saudi DF-3A missiles on parade (2014)

A recent story in The New York Times claims that the U.S. intelligence community believes Saudi Arabia is working with China on a program that could potentially lead to a nuclear weapons capability. According to the paper, Saudi Arabia may be in talks with China to develop an indigenous nuclear fuel production capability, a step often seen as the initial phase of a nuclear weapons program.

American intelligence agencies have discovered at least two facilities in the kingdom that may be undisclosed nuclear facilities. In addition to a small nuclear research facility near Riyadh, the Saudis are in discussions with five companies to build two reactors, with a plan to have 16 reactors on line by 2030. While the United States may believe Saudi Arabia with nuclear energy is no problem, it is concerned that a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia might trigger a wider acquisition of the weapons in the area.

I think that puts the cart before the horse. It is not Saudi Arabia's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons that will catalyze a regional arms race - it is Iran. Most sane people are under no illusion that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. Despite the Obama Administration's ill-advised and abysmally-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, the Iranians have continued their quest for a nuclear weapon.

Skeptics will claim that the International Atomic Energy Agency, tasked with monitoring Iranian compliance with the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has found no evidence of Iranian violations of the agreement. Absence of proof is not proof of compliance, it merely means the IAEA has not found any violations. How could they? Although the JCPOA allows inspections of Iranian military facilities, the Iranians refuse to allow access, and the IAEA will not call them on it. Why not? The answer: pressure from the Europeans. The Europeans are not worried about an Iranian nuclear weapons program - Iran is not threatening them or their allies. So-called Iranian "compliance" with the JCPOA allows them to peddle their wares to the world's leading sponsor of terrorism.

Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability will trigger an immediate Saudi response. While I deplore the release of classified documents by the Wikileaks crowd, some of the information is interesting. Here is an excerpt from a February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the Secretary of State. (10RIYADH178, SCENESETTER FOR SECRETARY CLINTON'S FEB 15-16 VISIT TO SAUDI ARABIA, classified SECRET NOFORN. (My highlighting.)

9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help. The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials have also gone public, stating to a The New York Times reporter, "It would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the Kingdom."

Unlike some of the intelligence analysts who fear Riyadh might turn to China for the technology to develop weapons, or try to just acquire them from China, I don't find that likely. Why do some analysts think that the Saudis may turn to Beijing? Here we need to go back a few decades to 1987. I remember this well - I was with the Defense Intelligence Agency and followed this very closely.

In 1987, commander of the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces, Lieutenant General (Prince) Khalid bin Sultan bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud made several secret (or so he thought) trips to China. For those who do not understand Saudi names or know the leaders, let me elaborate. Khalid is the son of then-Minister of Defense Sultan, son of then-King Fahd. Khalid was later the commander of the Arab/Muslim troops in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Khalid was in China to acquire ballistic missiles. In 1987 and 1988, Iran and Iraq had been at war for over seven years. In 1988, Iraqi engineers modified the Soviet-provided Scud missiles into a longer range missiles dubbed the al-Husayn (after Muhammad's grandson and imam, not Saddam Husayn) by increasing the size of the fuel tank and decreasing the size of the warhead.

Tehran and Baghdad became almost nightly targets in early 1988. Having been in Baghdad in 1988 on the receiving end of Iranian Scud missiles, and later in Riyadh in 1991 on the receiving end of Iraqi al-Husayn missiles, I can attest to the impact on the population.

The Saudis wanted their own ballistic missile capability, but were not able to convince the United States to supply it. So, they turned to China. The Chinese provided Saudi Arabia with about 30 DF-3A medium-range missiles, armed with conventional warheads. The missile is very inaccurate, but since it was designed to carry a nuclear warhead, that was not an issue. It was the beginning of what today is known as the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force. The inaccuracy, as well as the time and difficulty in refueling the liquid-fueled missiles, led to the decision to not employ them during Desert Storm. It would have caused unnecessary civilian casualties and achieved very little militarily. Coalition airpower was much more effective.

The Saudi DF-3A missiles had not been seen publicly until they were displayed at a military exercise in 2014. The photo above is from the parade at the end of the exercise. Watch the video here - the caption reads: His Highness the Crown Prince attends the closing ceremony of Exercise "Sword of 'Abdullah" in Hafr al-Batin.

Why buy an inaccurate missile if you were not going to acquire the nuclear warhead that makes the system viable? I think it was just the first step in a long-range plan.

If the Saudis are not going to get nuclear warheads for the their Chinese-made missiles, where would they get them? Many of us who have followed events in the Kingdom for years believe the Saudis have had a plan for years. They will acquire the warheads from Pakistan. After all, they funded the Pakistani nuclear weapons program.

According to retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the completion of the nuclear weapons program. It is possible that the Saudis provided the finding with the proviso that if needed, the Pakistanis would provide warheads for the DF-3A. Notorious Pakistani engineer AQ Khan revealed that Pakistan has the capability to produce such compatible warheads.

If Iran develops a nuclear weapons capability, it is almost certain Saudi Arabia will acquire that capability as well. It will not be limited to Saudi Arabia - other countries will do the same. I suspect we will see research and development in Turkey and Egypt, and possibly the United Arab Emirates.

Look for the Saudis to go shopping in Islamabad, not Beijing.