August 26, 2009

Iraq after the death of 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim

'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim - healthy, and later with lung cancer

The death of 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim has created a power vacuum among the Shi'a of Iraq. Since his return in 2003 from exile in Iran, al-Hakim had emerged as the political leader of the nation's Shi'a, the majority group in the country. Although Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Saystani (Sistani) remains the most influential Shi'a religious figure in Iraq, al-Hakim had eclipsed him in the last few years in the political sphere.

Al-Hakim was the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) - known in the Saddam Husayn years as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The name was changed in 2007 to remove the word "revolution" after the fall of the Ba'th Party. SCIRI was started by al-Hakim's older brother Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. The younger al-Hakim was placed in charge of the SCIRI militia, the Iranian-trained and equipped Badr Brigade. The older al-Hakim was assassinated in Najaf, Iraq in 2003 - many (including me) believe that it was the work of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi) militia.

In addition to his leadership of ISCI, he headed the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA), a coalition of Shi'a Islamist parties that are hoping to dominate the January 2010 parliamentary elections. Thus far, Iraqi Prime Minister (and Islamic Dawa' Party leader) Nuri al-Maliki has not joined the coalition - he wants assurances that if the coalition wins that he will continue as prime minister. He has tried to assemble a group of non-sectarian parties to challenge the NIA, but al-Hakim had garnered the support of the Kurds and was generally favored by the Americans.

It appeared to me that unless there was a drastic change in the situation, the NIA (under al-Hakim) would emerge as the clear winners in the election. The Shi'a are easily the majority, although some are still backing the incumbent al-Maliki. If you add the Kurds in with the NIA, the numbers are clearly on the side of the NIA.

The recent increase in violence might have been one of those changes that might have changed the political landscape. Al-Maliki stood to gain from the violence if he handled it correctly. Insisting that American troops remain outside the cities (as called for in the Status of Forces Agreement) instead of asking for their assistance is not the way to do that. He was forced to re-install the blast walls around key government buildings after several truck bomb attacks, a clear demonstration that his forces are incapable of rooting out the remnants of the Ba'th Party and al-Qa'idah in Iraq. People were looking to the NIA, to 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, as a viable alternative.

With the departure of al-Hakim, the ability of the NIA to challenge al-Maliki in January is in doubt. Al-Maliki was successful in making political gains in the recent municipal elections. He hopes to translate that victory into maintaining his prime minister-ship come January, but municipal elections are not as contested as the parliamentary elections.

Al-Hakim, despite his closeness with Iran - al-Maliki is as well - was probably the best choice to be Iraq's new prime minister. He was popular among the Shi'a, supported by the Kurds and liked by the Americans for his moderate ideas. He did worry the Sunnis, from which the remnants of al-Qa'idah in Iraq and the Ba'th Party come.

Given the passing of 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, we should prepare for having to put up with Nuri al-Maliki for another term.

August 25, 2009

Hizballah fully rearmed - is anyone surprised?

Hizballah rocket launcher
Hizballah rocket launcher

The 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah ended with the adoption by Lebanon and Israel of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. According to the agreement, Israeli forces would withdraw from southern Lebanon and cease offensive operations. In return, Hizballah agreed to disarm its militia members south of the Litani River - the members themselves could remain in the area since many of them are residents there.

Additionally, the Lebanese Army was to deploy into the border area with Israel, supported by an augmented United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). French and Italian military forces were deployed to augment the "interim" force - it has been "interim" for over 30 years, having been created in 1978.

The Lebanese Army and UNIFIL were to ensure Hizballah's disarmament. However, that has not happened. Early on, UNIFIL stated that its role was not to disarm Hizballah, but to assist the Lebanese Army in that mission. The Lebanese Army refused to disarm fellow Lebanese. Thus, Hizballah was never disarmed.

Not only did Hizballah not disarm, almost immediately after the cease-fire took effect in August 2006, weapons began to flow again through the existing pipeline that starts in Iran and Syria, crosses the Syria-Lebanon frontier on the Beirut-Damascus highway and ends in the Biqa' Valley where the weapons are turned over to Hizballah for futher deployment. This has been going on since Hizballah's creation by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982.

Iranian Air Force 747 delivers Hizballah arms in the 1990s

There seems to be no disagreement about the current status in Lebanon. Israeli military intelligence officers, United Nations officials and Hizballah leaders all claim that Hizballah is better armed that it was prior to the hostilities. That armament is not only greater in quantity, but in quality as well. Hizballah claims - and Israeli officials believe - that Hizballah has acquired rockets that can reach Tel Aviv.

There have also been reports that Syria has trained Hizballah fighters how to operate the SA-8 mobile surface-to-air missile system. This system poses a moderate threat to Israeli aircraft operating over Lebanon. Thus far, the SA-8 has not been introduced into Lebanon. If it is, the Israelis will attack them - they did the same thing to the Syrians in 1982 when they introduced the SA-6 mobile system.

Everyone agrees that Hizballah has rearmed. Everyone knows that Syrian and Iran - in violation of UNSCR 1701 - is responsible. This happened under the noses - or with the complicity - of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL with its Italian and French augmentees.

Neither the UN nor the Lebanese military has been effective. Yet, the United Nations keeps asking for funding to continue to pay for the "interim" force. Why bother?

August 24, 2009

Iran - Quds Force commander named defense minister

In yet another move that will be less than well received in the West, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad named a controversial nominee as his new defense minister. The recently re-elected president named former special operations chief General Ahmad Vahidi to the position.

Click for larger image
Interpol poster - click for larger view

Vahidi is the subject of a 2007 Interpol detention order at the request of Argentina for his alleged complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. He is in stellar company - the order also includes former director of intelligence Ali Fallahian; former cultural attache at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires Mohsen Rabbani; and former diplomat Ahmad Reza Asghari.

Interpol also named Lebanese Hizballah operations chief 'Imad Mughniyah as allegedly involved in the incident, however, he was killed in a car bombing in Damascus, Syria, in February 2008. I have absolutely no remorse over the killing of Mughniyah - he was responsible for the death of hundreds of Americans going back to the 1980's.

Vahidi was the commander of the Quds Force, the overseas special operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He directly oversaw lethal operations in Lebanon, the Balkans and Chechnya, among others. He was in command of the Quds Force on July 18, 1994 when a truck bomb destroyed the five-story building which housed the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association - 85 people were killed in the blast and building collapse. The actual perpetrators are believed to be Hizballah operatives operating at the behest of the Quds Force.

The Quds Force is by almost everyone's definition, a terrorist organization. The forerunner of the Quds, the IRGC Syria and Lebanon contingent (IRGC-SL), was responsible for the creation of Lebanese Hizballah in 1982 - Ahmad Vahidi was part of that effort. It is possible that he was indirectly involved in the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983 in which 229 American military personnel (220 of them U.S. Marines) were killed.

The United States, which has sought to reach out to Iran under President Barack Obama, has said Vahidi's presence in the Cabinet would be "disturbing."

Disturbing? This ought to be the final straw in President Obama's efforts to engage the Iranian regime. The President has given the Iranian government ample opportunities to accept an improvement in relations between Washington and Tehran. At every turn, they have refused to do so.

This appointment is just another indication that the Iranians have no interest in improved relations with the West in general or the United States in particular. Look at the words of the chairman of Iran's parliamentary committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, "The allegations will not have any negative impact on the assessment, rather, it may increase his vote in the Majlis (parliament)".

These are the people Mr. Obama wants to deal with?

It is time to face reality that the Iranians are not interested in serious dialogue with us. They are intent on antagonizing the West, intent on developing nuclear weapons, intent on emerging as the principal power broker in the region. Mr. President, they do not want to talk to you. You are big on being "clear" - how clear do they have to make it?

It is time for this administration to consider supporting (or effecting) regime change in Tehran. As I have said before, that's change I can believe in.

August 22, 2009

Iraqi government gives in and rebulds blast walls

Following several weeks of increased violence around Iraq, the government has begun re-installing concrete barriers that had recently been removed. The order is recognition that there is still a viable insurgency in the country, despite a reduction in the level of violence over the last year. The increase in attacks coincides with the withdrawal of American forces to bases outside metropolitan areas and turnover of security to Iraqi police and military units.

Concrete blast wall in Baghdad before removal

After attacks on government targets, specifically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance are a direct challenge to the administration of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. These attacks symbolize how ineffective the Iraqi security forces are without American assistance. In accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement between Baghdad and Washington, U.S. troops have turned over almost all security in the country to the Iraqis.

Re-installation of blast walls

Al-Maliki's reversal of the policy of removing the barriers is an admission of a defeat for his security plan. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (a personal friend of mine) summed it up, "We have to face the truth. There has been an obvious deterioration in the security situation in the past two months." Al-Maliki was more political, saying, "I would like to assure the Iraqi people that the security forces are still capable of continuing the battle and achieving more victories despite all the loopholes that took place here and there." More victories?

There has been a lot of finger pointing among the various security, police, intelligence and military units in the wake of the two major attacks this week. Eleven senior Iraqi security officials have been detained for questioning. In a possibly related incident, Muhammad al-Shahwani (also a personal friend of mine), Director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service was fired; he has relocated to his previous exile location - Amman, Jordan.

A few words about al-Shahwani. He warned that there might be an attack on the sixth anniversary of the August 19, 2003 attack on the United Nations office in Baghdad. To consider this suspect is strange - analysis and warning are what intelligence services are supposed to do. I know al-Shahwani - he is a Turkman and former general in the Iraqi Special Forces. I was one of his CIA contact officers in Jordan during the aborted 1996 coup attempt against Saddam Husayn - I was with him and his wife when we learned that his sons had been caught and about to be executed. The man is an Iraqi patriot - to think al-Shahwani is working with the remnants of either al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) or the Ba'th Party is absolutely ludicrous.

As for the increased violence in Iraq. This comes as no surprise - many analysts (including me) predicted it. The insurgents - be they AQI, Ba'th Party, or Shi'a militias - knew that American forces were scheduled to withdraw to their bases on June 30. This is the danger of publicized "date certain" events. Telling the enemy that you will be withdrawing your forces on such-and-such date allows them to wait until you are gone, then attack.

Had al-Maliki had his country's best interests in mind instead of his own political future, he would have insisted that American troops remain in place until the situation warranted. He wanted the Americans off the street - fine. After months of relative calm prior to June 30, those streets are no longer safe.

August 20, 2009

Thoughts on the release of the "Lockerbie bomber"

The image above is a screen capture from the al-Jazeera web site - it was their lead story this morning. The news of 'Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi's release from a Scottish prison traveled not only around the Western world, but the Arabic-speaking world as well. You can tell from the photo the thoughts of al-Maqrahi's wife 'Ayishah, seen holding the sign.

The text of al-Jazeera's article was fairly subdued. The lead paragraph reads (my translation):

"Scottish Minister of Justice Kenny MacAuskill decided to release former Libyan intelligence agent 'Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi (age 57), convicted in the Lockerbie explosion case, for humanitarian reasons after learning of his impending death due to advanced cancer."

I have often expressed skepticism that al-Maqrahi was a major actor in the bombing attack that destroyed Pan Am 103, killing 270 people in December 1988. If that is the case, who do I think did it?

To answer that, I want to recall a few events that led up to the attack on Pan Am 103. In 1987, Iran and Iraq had been at war for seven years - casualties from the bloody conflict were approaching one million. Although there had been U.S. Central Intelligence Agency efforts to assist the Iraqi armed forces with intelligence information as early as 1984, these never proved to be effective, owing to mistrust on both sides. By late 1987, however, the Iraqis were beginning to falter under the relentless attacks by the numerically superior Iranians who mounted fanatical human wave assaults on Iraqi troops positions.

In early 1988, the Defense Intelligence Agency prepared an assessment that concluded Iran would likely emerge victorious if the conflict continued another year. Present Reagan declared that an Iranian victory was unacceptable to American interests - he directed the Department of Defense to take steps to ensure that victory did not happen. The result was a Defense Intelligence Agency effort to provide intelligence information to the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence. I was one of two officers assigned to execute this effort.

The effort was successful. With American intelligence information, along with the Iraqi use of modified Scud (al-Husayn) missiles and chemical weapons, Iraq was able to force the Iranians to accept a cease-fire in August 1988.

Iran Air Airbus EP-IBU - destroyed July 3, 1988

Just a month earlier, there was a critical event in the Persian Gulf. On July 3, an Iran Air passenger jet on a flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai was mistakenly identified as a fighter aircraft by the USS Vincennes and shot down, killing all 290 passengers and crew. I have met with several Iranian officers since that incident - they all believe the shoot down was intentional and intended to send a message to Tehran that the United States would not permit Iran to prevail in the war with Iraq.

When Iran accepted the ceasefire in August, they declared that they were capable of defeating the Iraqis, but not both the Iraqis and the United States. The Iranians have never forgotten our assistance to the Iraqis and the shoot down of Iran Air 655. Those are two reasons we should not have been surprised when Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers and Iranian-made weapons showed up in Iraq following the U.S, invasion in 2003.

Having failed to defeat the Iraqis, the Iranians wanted revenge against the "Great Satan." How better to avenge the death of 290 passengers and crew on an Iranian airliner than to destroy an American passenger jet. What better target than an airline that has the word "American" in its name?

Here is where the story - let's call it my analysis - takes on truly "bazaar" and bizarre dimensions. There are countries and groups that wish us ill, many for our support of Israel. One such group is the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), headed by Ahmad Jibril. Jibril's group had long been supported by the IRGC.

Who better to turn to than a known terrorist group with experience in explosives and hijackings? At some point in the fall of 1988, IRGC officers met with members of the PFLP-GC, possibly with Jibril himself. The Iranians certainly have enough money and other means of support that would be of interest to Jibril. In return, Jibril agreed to bomb an American airliner. In other words, the Iranians contracted out the hit, hoping to hide the Iranian role in the operation.

The PFLP-GC is in its own perverse way a very talented organization. Their bomb-makers have exhibited expertise in constructing improvised devices that are hard to detect. To bring down a pressurized commercial airliner flying at high altitude does not require a large explosive device. The trick is getting the device onto the aircraft and ensuring that the detonation occurs after the aircraft has reached a suitable altitude for a small device to be effective. The PFLP-GC bomb makers in Syria constructed at least five suitable devices - four were found, and I believe the fifth was the bomb that brought down Pan Am 103.

Depiction of cassette player-bomb

The explosive device used was concealed in a Toshiba cassette tape player. The explosive material was Semtex, the preferred explosives of terrorist organizations world wide. Until recently, the principal chemical components of Semtex, RDN and PETN, were hard to detect. It was also sold in huge quantities to Libya and Syria, among others.

In order to get the bomb onto the aircraft, the PFLP-GC may have enlisted the help of 'Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi and another Libyan intelligence officer accused but not convicted, al-Amin Khalifah Fahimah. The investigation revealed that the bomb, hidden in the Toshiba cassette player, was packed in a Samsonite suitcase. That suitcase was placed into the interline baggage system at Malta International Airport earlier that day aboard Air Malta KM180 which moved the bag to Frankfurt, where it was placed onto Pan Am 103A (a feeder flight), flown to London and later transferred onto the Boeing 747 that operated as Pan Am 103.

'Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi's cover position was as chief of security for Libyan Arab Airways (LAA); his intelligence service colleague Fahimah's cover was as LAA station manager at the airport in Malta. Certainly they played a role in routing the bomb-laden suitcase onto Pan Am 103. What is not known is whether al-Maqrahi and Fahimah acted alone for the PFLP-GC - who would not be adverse to recruiting the Libyans - or whether Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi sanctioned their participation.

The fact that Qadhafi gave up the two intelligence officers is persuasive to me that this was a rogue operation. If Qadhafi authorized the Libyan intelligence service to conduct the operation with the PFLP-GC and then gave up two of its officers, he broke faith with his intelligence service. We intelligence officers routinely broke the laws of other countries, knowing full well that our government would never break faith with us. For that reason, I tend to believe that the two were operating on their own, probably for a large amount of money, and got caught. Qadhafi gave them up and took the blame to make peace with the West.

Is al-Maqrahi guilty? Yes, of course. Is Fahimah also guilty? Most likely - their airline covers were crucial to getting the bomb on board the Pan Am jet. That said, it was probably not sanctioned by Qadhafi. The money Libya paid in compensation is minor compared to the benefits resulting from the subsequent suspension of sanctions and later restoration of diplomatic ties with the West, including the United States.

The bottom line: the unproven culprits who have never been brought to justice for the murder of 180 American and 90 others live free in Damascus and Tehran.

August 17, 2009

Syria - Bashar al-Asad has learned well

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad

Recent headlines underscore just how well Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has learned the rules of Middle East politics. It makes sense - he had an excellent teacher, his father Hafiz al-Asad. Just as Hafiz repeatedly outfoxed American presidents from 1970 until his death in 2000, including twice embarrassing Bill Clinton on my watch, his son Bashar now appears to have handed President Barack Obama another foreign policy setback in the region.

This is a setback that Obama does not need. It comes shortly after his overtures to Iran collapsed following the Iranian regime's reactions to post-election violence in that country. It is even more troubling since the Obama administration had planned to restart the moribund Middle East peace process through better relations with Syria.

The Obama administration hoped to be able to break the existing strong bonds, including a mutual defense treaty, between Syria and Iran. Yes, the same Iran the rebuffed Obama's overtures. Driving a wedge between Iran and Syria is a good idea in theory, but extremely difficult.

It was revealed this weekend that less than three months ago, what I call the "real axis of evil" - Syrian, Iran and North Korea - tested another jointly produced new missile in Syria. This test, which failed, was conducted at the same time Bashar was courting American visitors to Damascus. Those visits culminated in President Obama's decision to return an ambassador to the American Embassy in Damascus. That may not happen now.

The U.S. ambassador's post has been vacant since Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. I am of the the belief that the Syrians are not merely "complicit," I think they are just plain guilty. At that time, prior to the Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" that peacefully ended Syria's 30-year occupation of the country, these things did not happen without Syrian involvement, direction or approval.

The list of American visitors to Damascus hoping to sway Asad's thinking is impressive. George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, visited Syria several times. Also visiting were Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro, Mitchell assistant Fred Hoff (rumored to be on the short list as the new ambassador) and the U.S. Central Command Director of Plans, Strategy and Policy Major General Mike Moeller.

Of these people, only Feltman and Hoff have the wherewithal and experience to effectively engage Bashar al-Asad in this high-stakes game. Moeller's heavy-handed demand to Asad (stop allowing Iran to resupply Hizballah and Hamas via Syrian territory) was an exercise in naivete.

Given what we know now, it would appear that Asad was merely stringing the Americans along with no intention of making any serious changes in his relationship with Iran. On the same day that Hoff and Moeller met with Asad, the Syrian president announced that he was departing shortly for Tehran to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election and to strengthen ties between the two countries.

This should not have come as a surprise to the Obama administration. A key player in any progress in the peace process is Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made it quite clear that he has no intention of returning the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria, territory it has held since 1967. With no guarantee of regaining the Golan, no Syrian leader can or will move on the peace process. It is the proverbial show stopper.

Netanyahu knows this - so should Obama. Perhaps we should be trying to get the Israelis on board before pressuring Damascus into a deal it cannot accept.

August 14, 2009

Should we re-assess the U.S. role in Afghanistan?

US Troops in Afghanistan

The recent appointment of General Stan McChrystal to command American forces in Afghanistan, and his recent hint that he needs more forces, raises an important issue. Perhaps it is an appropriate time to re-assess our role and mission in the country. Rather than merely continue a mission because "we are there," a fresh analysis may be in order.

As we all know, President Bush ordered American forces into Afghanistan in October 2001, following the September 11 attacks on the United States. The invasion was a direct response to the attacks, yes, but also a response to the Taliban-led radical Islamist government of Afghanistan after it refused to turn over Usamah bin Ladin. The Taliban became a tactical enemy, but the strategic target was Usamah bin Ladin and his al-Qa'idah organization (tanzim al-qa'idah).

In 2003, President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. Because of my own personal history with the regime of Saddam Husayn in the 1980's, then Desert Shield and Desert Storm, followed by a tour with the CIA Operation DBACHILLES, I had no problem with the invasion. Since I had participated in the unsuccessful effort to overthrow the regime from inside Iraq, I knew that the only an external effort - an invasion - would be successful.

That said, there were many critics of the decision to remove Saddam Husayn when we had not yet captured Usamah bin Ladin and were still engaged in Afghanistan. Although bin Ladin had almost certainly relocated to Pakistan, American troops were still operating against al-Qai'dah and Taliban remnants. It was probably at this time when the mission in Afghanistan fell victim to what we in the military call "mission creep."

In this instance, mission creep meant the transition from pursuing al-Qa'idah and Usamah bin Ladin to nation building in the basket case that is, and his been, Afghanistan. Combat troops trained to close with and destroy the enemy were now tasked with creating a democratic form of government, rather than hunting down the organization that attacked the United States in 2001.

For the next few years, the primary focus of the American military was Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban reverted to an insurgent organization that challenged the fragile democracy created by the Americans. In the neighboring Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan, the Pushtun leaders, allied with their tribal brothers in Afghanistan, created a safe-haven for the al-Qa'idah fighters running from American troops in Afghanistan. it was not until the CIA began its armed drone operations that al-Qa'idah began to feel the pressure of American reach.

Faced with the expulsion from Afghanistan, relentless American drone attacks in the Waziristan area, increased Pakistani government operations against the Pushtun Islamists, the remaining al-Qa'idah fighters were ordered to relocate to Yemen and Somalia.

What is the situation today in Afghanistan? Are American forces engaging the enemy we set out to fight eight years ago? Are we attacking those who attacked us on September 11, 2001? No - we are fighting a domestic insurgency for the future of Afghanistan. Is that our mission? Is it even in the national interest? Does the failure of the newly-formed democracy in Kabul pose a threat to the United States?

I think those are all good questions. Soon after President Obama took office, he delivered an impassioned speech in which he spoke to al-Qa'idah - he told them we would defeat them.

That's the right answer.

Al-Qa'idah is the strategic enemy, the real target. Afghanistan and Pakistan may not be the place. Maybe we need to ask ourselves just what we are doing there.

August 13, 2009

Iran proposes no-attack agreement

Just when you think they have pushed the West as far as possible, the Iranians can still manage a surprise. Their latest tactic is a proposal for an international ban on attacks on nuclear facilities. They intend to introduce such a proposal at the September meeting of the 150 nations that belong to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

So let me understand this. Iran fails to comply with virtually all international demands that it stop enriching uranium and allow complete inspections of its suspected nuclear facilities. Then they ask these same international organizations to agree to a ban on any action that might be taken against them. I think the Israelis have a word for that - chutzpah.

Natanz nuclear facility

The conventional wisdom would indicate that the Iranians are concerned about a possible Israeli strike against its facilities. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyhau has been very clear that the Jewish state will not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons - "I promise that if I am elected, Iran will not acquire nuclear arms, and this implies everything necessary to carry this out."

Of course, the Iranians deny that this proposal has anything to do with a possible Israeli attack. Iran's representative to the IAEA, Ali-Asghar Soltaniyeh, stated that explicitly, followed by this bravado-laden claim, "Nobody dares to do anything against Iran." Say it enough and maybe you'll begin to believe it....

Let's not dismiss this as a hare-brained scheme. There is precedent for such a proposal. In 1990, the IAEA adopted a similar resolution named "Prohibition of All Armed Attacks Against Nuclear Installations Devoted to Peaceful Purposes Whether Under Construction or in Operation." Yes, that is the actual title - guess who drafted that resolution. Right, Soltaniyeh, the same Iranian who is the current delegate to the IAEA.

Should the Iranians be concerned, even though Soltaniyeh tells us that no one would dare attack Iran? There is precedent, as we all know. In 1981, Israeli war planes struck Iraq's French-made Osirak nuclear reactor at al-Tuwaythah, south of Baghdad. In 2006, Israeli planes hit a North Korean-made reactor in a remote area of northeast Syria.

As I have written in the past, it will be extremely difficult for Israel to successfully attack Iran's dispersed, hardened and well-defended nuclear facilities. That does not mean they will not try - senior Israelis regard a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to their country.

Iran hopes to divert attention away from the fact that it has defied repeated United Nations demands about its enrichment activities and hopes to focus the world on Israel. While the anti-attack resolution is debated in Vienna next month, the thousands of centrifuges at Natanz will continue to spin, continue to enrich uranium.

Pretty clever.

August 11, 2009

Syria's continuing "power struggle"

Syria continues to deal with an internal power struggle, but not the political kind. This struggle is about electrical power, or more accurately, the lack of it.

According to reporting in the official Syrian press, the country has a daily shortfall of almost 1000 megawatts (MW). That means power outages are the norm rather than the exception. The newspapers publish daily notices informing residents of when they can expect power outages and for how long. In the capital city of Damascus, it is normal for the power to be off for four hours per day - even more in the outlying areas.

When I lived in Damascus (1992-1995), power outages were common. While not so much a problem in the winter months, lack of electricity in the summer was sometimes unpleasant. Damascus is an oasis at an elevation of 2,000 feet and the summers are not as bad as other parts of the Middle East, but it still gets hot. More problematic was the difficulty in keeping frozen and refrigerated foods from spoiling.

The Syrian government has always been aware of the problem. Electrical power generation is one of the benchmarks used to assess how well a country is doing. The Israelis often scoffed that you could not really take a country seriously if it could not even provide electricity for its capital city. I can see the point.

A key part of the solution is obviously to build more power plants. The Syrians have been doing that steadily, although the process is very slow. They are playing catch-up after an unwise decision in the 1970's to focus heavily on hydroelectric power. After building dams and power plants along the Euphrates River, the Turks - who control the headwaters of the river - reduced the flow to the minimum amount required by treaty as they began to fill the huge Ataturk Dam (part of the Greater Anatolia Project). Likewise, as the Syrians built their dams, the Iraqis, further downstream, threatened military action if the Syrians continued to restrict the flow of the Euphrates.

Al Zala Thermal Power Plant

As the flow of the Euphrates was restricted, almost 70 percent of Syria's electrical capacity was threatened. Despite a major effort to construct oil-fired (and later, natural gas) power plants, supply has never caught up with demand.

The situation will not improve anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. The shortfall will continue - and worsen - until at least 2012. Although on paper Syria's power plants have the capacity to produce enough power to meet the current demand, the plants are aging and thus require maintenance and upgrading. Actual power generation falls at times as much as 20 percent below demand.

The demand will increase steadily over the next few years - Syria has a high birth rate. It will be increasingly difficult to provide jobs for all the Syrian youth entering the workforce - new jobs require increased energy capacity.

The required maintenance and new construction is also hampered by the latest sanctions placed on Syria by the United States in 2004. Although there has been a bit of a thaw in relations between Damascus and Washington, lifting of sanctions appears to be a long way off.

In the meantime, Syrians will have to deal with power outages and dim prospects for a better economy.