September 30, 2009

Whispering in the wind - talking to Iran

France's Sarkozy, America's Obama and the UK's Brown

The much-awaited P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) talks with Iran are set to begin in Geneva on Thursday, October 1. I note that the Obama Administration is already attempting to lower expectations before the talks start. That's probably a smart thing to do - the chances of anything positive coming out of these talks is remote.

In a press conference, Obama's spokesman reiterated that although the Iranians have said their nuclear enrichment program is not a topic of discussion for these talks, the United States intends to raise it. A State Department spokesman went on to say that the President was not in a hurry to impose further sanctions on Iran, that the Administration was not going to make a "snap judgment" in the wake of Thursday's talks.

Not make a snap judgment? How much time are we willing to give the Iranians before at the minimum imposing some real sanctions? This looks very much like our earlier approach to North Korea - talk, negotiate, impose ineffective sanctions, verbally threaten, etc. Then act surprised when either the Iranians detonate a nuclear device or Iranian President Ahmadinejad announces that they have developed a deliverable warhead for their medium range ballistic missiles? Then there's no reason to negotiate - just watch the unavoidable proliferation as nations in the region seek their own capability, realizing that the United States is no longer going to protect them.

Iran's Shahab-3 is capable of striking targets in Israel or American military bases in the Middle East. They are the world's major supporter and practitioner of terrorism. They are supplying, funding and training groups that are killing American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. How much longer are we going to wait until we actually do something?

The Iranians continue their demonstrably successful nuclear policy. Despite being under three rounds of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the centrifuges at Natanz and who knows where else continue to spin, continuing to enrich uranium unimpeded. They have accurately assessed the international coalition against them as weak and feckless - they know full well that Russia and China are not likely to allow the imposition of serious sanctions against them, just as they know the Obama Administration is so confrontation-averse that - rhetoric to the contrary - there is no military option on the table.

The Iranians are having a bit of sport with this. It fits into their strategy of delay, appear to talk, delay, agree to talk some more, all the while continuing to enrich uranium. Ahmadinejad said that the upcoming talks will be a "test" of the group's "respect for Iran's rights." He also said the talks give an "exceptional opportunity for US and a few European countries to correct the way they interact with other world nations." Are we to thank them for this unique opportunity?

At the same time, according to British and Israeli intelligence, the Iranians are refining the design of a warhead for their missiles. U.S. intelligence still clings to the ridiculous assessment that Iran stopped its weapons program about five years ago and has not restarted it. I don't know of anyone - President Obama included - that believes the U.S. assessment.

Until Russia and China agree to tough sanctions on Iran's energy sector, any other sanctions will be as ineffective as the current sanctions regime. Neither of the two countries are likely to agree to tougher sanctions - Russia has lucrative energy and military contracts with Iran, while China is a major consumer of Iranian oil and a major supplier of Iran's refined gasoline and diesel.

So where are these talks taking us? The Iranians have outmaneuvered us. Our choices now:

- a. accept the fact that Iran is going to have a nuclear weapon and plan for that eventuality, including the new arms race in the region, or

- b. take military action, or support Israeli military action. That's not going to happen with this White House and Pentagon.

I guess it's Plan A.

September 28, 2009

Brzezinski and Talabani comments on Iraqi airspace

As the debate over the Iranian nuclear program gains more attention, the possibility of an Israeli military strike is more in the news. A look at a map of the region indicates that Israel will have to fly over a great distance, some or all of it - depending on the route they take - in hostile airspace.

Several of the possible attack routes involve the use of Iraqi airspace. Any military planner would find that a useful option.

You can fly to Iraqi airspace via Turkey, Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Of the three, Turkey is probably the least confrontational - Turkey and Israel have a defense cooperation treaty - but does add some distance. Distance, of course, complicates the mission and would require more aerial refueling. Using Jordan, Syria or Saudi Arabia risks having to engage the military defenses of those countries. None really possess the ability to defeat the Israeli air force, but could cause a mission abort. For the Israelis to fly all the way to the target successfully, they cannot risk an engagement along they way.

If I was an Israeli air force officer planning an operation to strike targets in Iran, I would get my aircraft into Iraqi airspace as soon as feasible. Why? Who controls Iraqi airspace? We - the United States - do.

That realization prompted some interesting comments from former National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski served under Jimmy Carter and was instrumental in several policy debacles - Iran's 1979 takeover of the U.S.Embassy in Tehran, the botched rescue attempt at Desert One and the virtual dismantling of the Central Intelligence Agency's Clandestine Service. We have yet to recover from the damage done to our human intelligence capability.

Brzezinski's reaction to a possible Israeli overflight of Iraqi as part of a military strike on Iran? He implied that American fighter aircraft should intercept the Israeli aircraft.

His words: "We are not exactly impotent little babies. They have to fly over our airspace in Iraq. Are we just going to sit there and watch?"

Several comments. It's Iraqi airspace, not ours. Yes, we control it, but in the end, it is Iraqi airspace. Does he really expect the United States to engage Israeli aircraft, which in effect puts us in the position of defending Iran? Amazing - let's have a military confrontation with an ally and defend the world's premier sponsor and practitioner of terrorism who is intent on developing (and maybe actually using) nuclear weapons.

Israel's possible use of Iraqi airspace also drew comments from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Jalal Talabani and the author in northern Iraq - 1995

Talabani issued a warning that Iraq will not allow Israel to use its airspace to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. I like "Mam Jalal," as I respectfully call him. He is an astute politician - this warning is purely for domestic consumption in Iraq and probably in Iran as well. He also knows full well that Iraq's airspace is under the total control of the American military.

Talabani also suggested that the six major powers that will meet with Iranian negotiators this week conduct "a real negotiation" with Iran and guarantee Tehran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. He also said he believes that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon because of inherent Islamic values. Has he heard of Pakistan, more accurately the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?

Iran has already made up its mind to pursue a nuclear weapon. All the talks are a delaying tactic as the centrifuges continue to enrich uranium. Sanctions are unlikely to work.

As I have said before, we need to address this issue now.

September 25, 2009

Iran - the stakes go up

One day after one of the strangest United Nations General Assembly and Security Council sessions, Iran admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it has been operating an undeclared nuclear facility. The revelation was prompted by the fact that the Iranians had discovered that their secret was a secret no more, that American and French intelligence services had been monitoring the site for over a year.

That begs the obvious question - why didn't President Obama reveal this little gem when either addressing the General Assembly or chairing the Security Council meeting on, of all things, nuclear proliferation? That would have been a perfect opportunity to put the Iranians on the spot, on the defensive. For whatever reason, the President opted to keep the information to himself.

Fearing that the information was about to be released, the Iranians decided to take control of the release and notify the IAEA. This prompted a three way announcement from President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, condemning Iran's failure to abide by international agreements and Security Council resolutions.

Iran is already under economic sanctions, ineffective though they may be. There are talks scheduled for October 1 between the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany on one side and Iran on the other. Iran had provided a rambling document on what it has agreed to discuss, insisting that the nuclear program was not up for negotiation. The revelation of the new, undeclared nuclear facility may change that.

France came to the United Nations meeting not in favor of tougher sanctions on Iran. After the Iranian acknowledgement of its failure to abide by the rules, the French may go along with an American and British call for the new sanctions. The most effective sanctions will be a cut off of Iran's imports of refined gasoline.

The key to effective sanctions will be Russia and China. Russia is now favorably disposed toward the United States after President Obama's surprise cancellation of the ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. There may have been a quid pro quo - we dismantle the missile defenses and Russia supports sanctions on Iran.

That leaves China. China has recently begun shipping gasoline to Iran. China has been against any increased sanctions on Iran. At best they will not support tougher sanctions, at worst they will veto the attempt. In any case, sanctions are not likely to be effective.

This is not happening in a vacuum. The Iranian oppossition group Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK) claims that Iran is working on detonators for nuclear devices. Once regarded as alarmists with no credibility, the MEK was the first group to provide accurate information on the Iranian nuclear program. If this information is equally accurate, it shows that the Iranian program is nearing the weapons design stage. Once they have enriched enough uranium to the level required for weaponization, they will be able to construct a crude device.

The Israelis are of course aware of all this information. They have been uncharacteristically vocal about their intentions to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. If there is no effective United Nations or other international action that prevents Iran from developing a weapon, the Israelis will attempt a difficult, complex military operation.

The consequences of military action against Iran will reverberate around the world. Iran is not only positioned between two deployed American forces - Iraq and Afghanistan - they are providing weaponry to both sets of enemies. Additionally, they are the world's premier supporters and practitioners of terrorism. Expect increased activity on all these fronts.

Sanctions are unlikely to deter Iran, so military action - most likely from Israel since the current American administration seems unwilling to really "engage" Iran - seems unavoidable.

The stakes have gone up. Now is the time to address the Iranian problem - it has been festering since 1979. I hope President Obama is up to the task. Given his track record thus far, I am unconvinced.

September 24, 2009

Druze cross Syrian-Israeli border - that's change

In a surprising turn of events, given the current state of relations between Syria and Israel, over 500 Druze men and women from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights were permitted to cross the de facto border into Syria for a five-day visit. The Druze crossed the line of demarcation drawn in 1974 following negotiations after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

The point of crossing was the United Nations checkpoint in the city of al-Qunaytirah, the same checkpoint through which hundreds of Druze brides have passed over the years, never to return to their families in the Golan Heights.

Once the young women entered Syria, there was no return permitted. This practice was made famous in the movie "The Syrian Bride."

This recent crossing represents a major change in both Israel's and Syria's positions. For many Druze trapped on the Israeli side of the cease-fire line, this is the first chance they have had to visit family on the Syrian side since Israel seized the Golan Heights in the Six Day War of June 1967.

Many of the Druze will make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Habil (Abel), considered by the Druze to be one of their prophets. This is the only picture I was able to take of it, as it sits on the other side of a Syrian air defense radar site at Zabadani, about 30 miles from Damascus. The guards hold all cameras (well, almost all) at a checkpoint while you visit the shrine.

Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad spurned American attempts to restart peace talks between Syria and Israel. Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that he had no intention of returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

Why the two sides were able to put aside the tense relations between them and arrange this crossing and visit is a mystery, but it certainly is a positive step. Who knows where it might lead?

Saudi Arabia's first coed university - really?

With much publicity and fanfare, Saudi Arabia opened its first coeducational university, the King 'Abdallah Science and Technology University (KAUST). The king declared that the school will be a "beacon of tolerance."

That would be a welcome change in a kingdom that is known for its intolerance of things not Islamic. Hopefully, this is one of the reforms ordered by the monarch earlier this year - see my article, Saudi king orders long overdue reforms.

I was excited when I saw the headline, "Saudi Arabia inaugurates its first coed university." This would represent a major change in attitude toward post-pubescent mixing of the genders. As they say, however, the devil is in the details.

First, the campus is located in a remote seaside location about 50 miles north of the major port city of Jiddah. Jiddah is one of the least conservative areas of the kingdom - conservative, yes, but not nearly as repressive as the more traditional capital of Riyadh. Locating it away from a major metropolitan area keeps it from the public eye. Having men and women - reportedly unveiled - attending the same classes will surely raise eyebrows in the kingdom that houses the two holiest sites in Islam. It is important to note that in Arabic, the king is not referred to as the king, but as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Sites."

Second, the great majority of the students and faculty are foreigners. The initial 800 students are from more than 60 countries - the enrollment is expected to increase to 2000 in the next decade. Of the 800 students enrolled this year, only about 100 are Saudis. It would be interesting to know how many of the Saudi students are women. That little but critical detail was missing from the reporting.

If any of the female students at KAUST are Saudis, that would be an almost revolutionary change. It has not been that many years since women were permitted to attend school, let alone study certain subjects. If they are allowed to sit in the same classroom with men and not be veiled and covered, I will be shocked. I suspect that the female students at this institution will be foreigners.

Saudis are slow to change, especially when it comes to women's rights. Women can work only under strict rules. Most female workers in the Kingdom are foreigners - it's just easier. All of the female flight attendants for Saudia, the national airline, are from other Arab or Muslim countries. I remember being on a Saudia flight from Riyadh to Cairo when one Saudi passenger was irate that the flight attendant, a young Turkish woman, could not speak Arabic.

Third, Saudi curricula in any of its institutions is strictly controlled by the government. Repeated American attempts to convince the Saudi government to change its virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Christian lesson plans have failed. It will be interesting to see if this new institution with its highly-paid foreign faculty actually practices academic freedom. That freedom includes contact with educational institutions around the world, something Saudi schools have up until now prohibited. Since KAUST has a relationship with the University of California (Berkeley), it will be interesting to see if there is a free exchange of ideas.

If the Saudis have changed, it is welcome news. I suspect, however, that this will be an isolated show campus that portends no real change in Saudi academic circles, certainly not in its curricula.

September 23, 2009

Syria - confusing reports and regime stability

Syrian security forces in action

There are some confusing - and surprising - reports emanating from Syria that raise questions. According to an opposition web site, 30 senior members of the Iraqi jaysh al-mahdi (JAM) residing in Damascus were killed by unknown gunmen. The JAM is a Shi'a militia led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Interestingly, there appears to be no coverage of the alleged incident in the Syrian press, Arabic or English. This is not surprising since all the media in Syria is government controlled and/or regulated. This is not the type of story that the regime of Bashar al-Asad would want made public.

Syria prides itself on excellent internal security. I lived there for almost three years, and they do have excellent internal security. There is little crime and the only public disturbances are either orchestrated by the regime or punished severely. As in Saudi Arabia, the low crime rate comes at a price - all you have to do is forgo freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc.

Back to this incident. Why are members of the Iraqi Shi'a JAM living in Damascus? Syria is one of Iran's only allies, and its only Arab ally. The JAM is funded, equipped and trained by the Iranians. Senior members of the JAM seeking refuge in Syria is not surprising.

What is surprising is the murder of 30 of their number in Damascus. Given the relationship between Iran and Syria, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian security or intelligence services were involved. This immediately focuses suspicion in the illegal Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated fundamentalist Sunni groups who have mounted opposition to the secular Ba'th government for decades.

When I was in Damascus, there were incidents involving the Brotherhood. None were of this magnitude - there was just too much security and pervasive surveillance for this large of an operation. Normally the incidents involved a small group - eight to 10 men, who inalmost all cases had to be killed since they would not give up.

If the Brotherhood or some other anti-government group mounted this operation, it may indicate that the government is not the fearsome entity it once was. This also cannot help Iraqi-Syrian relations, already strained since Syria recently refused to hand over Iraqis suspected of funneling lethal aid to the remnants of al-Qa'idah in Iraq and the Saddamist Ba'th Party.

In any case, the coordinated murder of 30 people in Damascus raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is - who is in charge?

September 22, 2009

Commander in Afghanistan wants more troops - now what?

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan

A classic battle between an anti-war administration and the military is forming. President Obama, elected in part on a platform to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now finds himself in an awkward position between his constituency and the military he commands.

Soon after taking office, he committed to winning the war in Afghanistan. Actually, he committed to defeating al-Qa'idah in general and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are inherent problems with this strategy. There are almost no al-Qa'idah fighters left in Afghanistan - in fact, there have not been any significant numbers of al-Qa'idah in the country since their flight from Tora Bora in December 2001.

There has been a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, thanks to the neglect of the Bush Administration. The new administration has committed to the defeat of the Taliban - I am not sure why. The Taliban pose no threat to the United States, however, they do pose a real threat to the fledgling Afghan government.

The real enemy is al-Qa'idah, not the Taliban. Where is al-Qa'idah? They have moved. Initially they resettled in the lawless tribal region in Pakistan along the Afghan border. After the Pakistan branch of the Taliban became a credible threat to the government in Islamabad, the Pakistani military moved into the area and has contained - but not defeated - them. Al-Qa'idah moved much of its membership to Saudi Arabia. After some attacks against the government there, Saudi security forces decimated the organization - the remnants have now moved to Yemen and Somalia.

Al-Qa'idah is not in Afghanistan. We are, however - a military force with possibly the wrong enemy. So what we have now is a commitment of the new president to intervene in an Afghan civil war. Accusations by President Obama and his supporters that the previous administration took their "eyes off the ball" no longer hold water.

That is exactly what has happened here. To his credit, Obama has recently warned of "mission drift." Perhaps that is what the President means when he says he needs a strategy review. Unfortunately, he has already augmented the force level to almost 70,000 troops. In effect, he "owns" the war.

Now that the President has given the mission to his commanders, he smartly asked them what they need to do the job. The answer is simple - more troops. Read General McChrystal's assessment.

I do not know General McChrystal personally, but I know people who have served with him. No doubt he has provided an accurate assessment of what military force will be required to accomplish the mission - to defeat the Taliban. Whether or not that is the right mission is another question. The general believes he needs 240,000 troops (total, not just American) to accomplish the task.

The President is caught in his own trap. Does he now change the mission because it is politically difficult to send more troops to Afghanistan? The political difficulty is obvious - Defense Secretary Gates has told McChrystal not to ask for more troops until the end of the year. What he actually said was that the Pentagon was working out how the general would ask for more troops. What a joke - ever hear of a phone call or message? It happens thousands of times every day.

Crunch time is here, Mr. President. You have to decide if you have defined the right mission, then decide if you are going to support the troops you have tasked to accomplish it.

September 21, 2009

The coming showdown with Iran

The tap dancing - by all players - of the last few years over Iran's nuclear program is about to come to a head. There is a convergence of events coming regarding Iran's nuclear aspirations that goes far beyond the Persian Gulf. The players in this drama are not just Iran and Israel, not just the regional powers Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, but encompassing Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as the United States.

For several years now, the West has attempted to convince Iran to clarify its intentions about it nuclear programs. While Iran is completely within its rights to conduct nuclear research, even to the point of the development of a nuclear power generation capability, the scope of the multiple Iranian uranium enrichment programs appears to far exceed that required for energy.

For example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that the goal of the nuclear program is solely to develop electrical power plants. Actually, Iran burns more energy as waste natural gas from its oil wells than it could ever produce even if all its nuclear facilities were used to produce electricity.

The program is obviously too large, too dispersed, too hardened and too well defended to be merely for nuclear power generation. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (authored primarily by two State Department intelligence analysts with an obvious agenda) in late 2007 assessed that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program a few years earlier. Neither the administration at the time nor the two major candidates for President - Senators Obama and McCain - bought it.

Now President Obama unequivocally states that Iran is conducting a nuclear weapons research and development program. The United Nations' normally ineffective nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency agrees, releasing an assessment that Iran already has the capability to produce a nuclear device, though not yet in a missile warhead. The President also stated that it is "unacceptable" that Iran develop and possess such weapons, and that he will use all elements of American power to prevent that from happening.

There has been speculation that a series of meetings and events are aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring these weapons. If true, good for Mr. Obama - if not, it just highlights the administration's previous naivete - it has been consistently outfoxed by the regime in Tehran since taking office earlier this year.

First, we have the aborted delivery of S-300 (SA-10, SA-12 or SA-23, depending on version) air defense missile systems to Iran on the allegedly hijacked merchant ship Arctic Sea, despite Russian official claims to the contrary. Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have made several trips to Moscow before and after the "recovery" of the vessel. Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issues a statement that he has been assured by Netanyahu that Israel is not planning a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. This, of course, has been denied by the Israelis, who maintain that a military strike is still an option.

There's more. Last week, Obama and his secretary of defense announced that they were cancelling the installation of a ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe based on a new National Intelligence Estimate that Iranian missiles now pose less of a threat than previously believed. This is from the same group that last year assessed there was no active Iranian nuclear weapons program. Why do we assume they have it right now? Is is reliable enough to literally let down our defenses?

Now the Obama Administration is going to participate in talks with the Iranians, albeit in partnership with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (P5+1). This represents a major change in the American position that Iran must first halt its uranium enrichment activities before any talks with the United States. Again, outfoxed by Tehran?

I hope that in return for reversing plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia has agreed to exert its influence over Iran to enter into serious dialogue with the P5+1. Up until now, Iran's strategy has been to delay by talking about dialogue while still enriching uranium.

The upcoming talks with Iran may be the last chance for a peaceful resolution to the crisis - and it is a crisis. If Iran does no agree to halt its uranium enrichment and the group does not impose tough sanctions that force a change in Ian's behavior, the Israelis will likely turn to the military option. Maybe just coincidence, but several U.S. Navy ships with the latest American anti-ballistic missile systems are en route Israel.

There will have to be a resolution to this soon. The events of the next few weeks will be interesting.

September 15, 2009

Talks with Iran - let's not get too excited

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The foreign policy chief of the European Union and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator have agreed to an initial meeting between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

If you read the Obama Administration's version of events, the talks will deal with Iran's nuclear program, specifically to convince Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium at least until international concerns about the full extent of the program are addressed. Few analysts accept the Iranian regime's explanation that the nuclear program is for electrical power generation - most believe it is an attempt to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

President Obama is under a lot of pressure to show at least some results after eight months of an "engagement" policy with the Islamic Republic that has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. We have failed to change Iran's behavior at all in that period.

According to an administration spokesmen, the American representative at the meeting will "confront" Iran and accuse it of conducting "an illicit nuclear weapons program." Tough talk, but not exactly the reality of what is happening.

The Iranians and the EU have agreed only to have a meeting. There is no agenda or ground rules. The Iranians have won the first round already, though, by providing a five-page package of proposals that in effect sets the agenda. The package is Tehran's response to the July meeting of the G-8 in Italy which established a deadline for the beginning of negotiations over the nuclear issue.

The document is laughable. It is titled "Cooperation for Peace, Justice and Progress: Package of proposals by the Islamic Republic of Iran for Comprehensive and Constructive Negotiations." I would say read it for its entertainment value if it was not so serious a subject.

The document, in excellent English, begins with an assessment that praises the end of "ungodly ways of thinking" in the past, obliquely criticizes the West and the United States, and proposes changes in the international structure, including the United Nations. It also seeks cooperation in combating global terrorism - this from the world's major state sponsor of terrorism.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of the nuclear program - the U.S. Administration's stated reason for the meeting. Both Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have declared the nuclear enrichment program - described as a "sovereign right" - is not up for discussion.

So why have a meeting? This is merely a continuation of what has been a major foreign policy success for Iran and Ahmadinejad. See my earlier article, Iran's Foreign Policy Success.

The Iranians sense that there is increased concern and are reacting as they always do - let's have a meeting, but not about the issue at hand. The West always views this as an opening - and it always results in failure. All the while the Iranians are talking about talking, and talking about having meetings, and defining the topics of those meetings, the centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility continue to enrich uranium.

The Iranians have not stopped processing uranium since their program began - despite years of threats from Washington and European capitals. Every time there has been a chance for effective sanctions, Iran either successfully appealed to their protectors on the Security Council - China and Russia - or agreed to some form of talks that never amounted to anything.

I doubt this round will be any different. Iran will continue to enrich uranium, and the West will continue its feckless rhetoric.

September 14, 2009

Iraqi shoe thower - symptomatic of ingrates

The Iraqi coward who threw his shoes at President Bush in 2008 is due to be released from a Baghdad prison tomorrow. While the sentence was arguably somewhat severe, it is his near canonization and the fanfare surrounding his release that is troubling.

Muntazar al-Zaydi, an unknown television reporter before the incident, is being hailed a hero among Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims for his insult to the president and commander in chief of the country that freed his country from decades of dictatorship under Saddam Husayn. Al-Zaydi screeched at Bush (in Arabic), "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." At the same time, he threw both of his shoes at President Bush who was standing beside Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

In the Arab countries, calling someone a dog is a gross insult. Shoes are also regarded as an instrument of insult. Merely showing the soles to another is regarded as rude. I have heard Arabs shout at each other, "You are are shoes." (It loses something in translation.) The juvenile act of throwing the shoes at an American president is an extension of that sentiment.

Yet, Iraqis are embracing this coward as a folk hero. At the family home in Baghdad, there were celebrations in progress. There are posters that read, "Release the one who regained Iraqis' dignity." Iraqi dignity? They should be ashamed and embarrassed by al-Zaydi's actions.

Let's put this into some perspective. What do you think would have happened if al-Zaydi had thrown his shoes at Saddam Husayn. Or more to the point, would this "hero" have even dared to raise his voice to Saddam? I sincerely doubt it. When I lived in Baghdad in the late 1980's, it was impossible to find any Iraqi that did not profess adulation for Saddam - reports of criticism were dealt with swiftly and severely.

When al-Zaydi's release was delayed for a day, his family threatened to stage a sit-in and stop traffic outside the military installation where al-Zaydi is being held. How would that have been treated during Saddam's reign?

So, Muntazar, you criticize, insult and assault the man who engineered your right to do just that. You remind me of another ingrate standing on a corner in post-invasion Baghdad with a sign that read, "Where is my freedom?"

As I explained then, the mere fact that an Iraqi could hold up that sign is the answer. Hopefully, most Iraqis realize that without George Bush, they would still be living with the regime of Saddam Husayn. The Kurds in northern Iraq certainly do - perhaps the Arabs will at some point.

Celebrating this coward's actions are in insult to the memories of the over 4,200 American troops who gave their lives so that he could insult those troops' commander in chief.

September 8, 2009

Israeli settlements expansion and prospects for peace

The Israeli government under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has approved the construction of 400 new housing units in Jewish settlements on the West Bank, a move sure to inflame both Palestinian residents and Western critics of the Israeli policy. This decision may set the tone for Arab-Israeli relations for the near future.

Israeli settlement on West Bank - surrounded by anti-terrorism barrier

The Israeli decision to continue the expansion of settlements comes after numerous attempts by the Obama Administration to curb such activity in the hopes of re-starting the stalled Middle East peace process. Despite these requests, Netanyahu is more concerned with garnering support of the more conservative elements of his governing coalition than appeasing an American administration that many Israelis perceive as pro-Arab at best and anti-Israeli at worst.

There is some justification for that perception on the part of the Israelis. Israeli media constantly report on President Obama's overtures to Iran and Syria, regarded by Israeli officials as their two major threats, some even calling Iranian aspirations to acquire a nuclear weapon an "existential" threat to the state of Israel. While American envoys are in Syria trying to improve relations with Bashar al-Asad, Israelis believe their interests are being sacrificed. Syria, even after Obama's overtures, remains firmly in the Iranian camp.

Israeli settlement separated from Arab village by anti-terrorism barrier

As might be expected, Israeli settlements on the West Bank are a major issue with the Palestinians who live there, as well as other Arabs who are using the Israeli policy as a reason to not enter into any discussions with the Israelis on a variety of topics. It would seem that halting the expansion of settlements would be an easy way to improve relations with the Palestinians and the Arab countries.

Given the Israeli assessment that the current American administration's stance toward Israel is neutral at best and hostile at worst, it makes sense (to them) that Israel would attempt to expand its presence on the West Bank before it is either reined in by a change in American foreign policy or international pressure too great to resist. Once Israel legally expands its settlements, they become de facto Israeli territory, a part of Israel. In the future, these settlements will be assimilated and defended as part of the Jewish state.

Why do the Israelis - or perhaps more accurately, the government of Binyamin Netanyahu - feel a need to expand their presence on the West Bank? A look at the history of Israeli withdrawal from areas it has taken by force of arms might provide an answer.

Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. Soon afterwards, Hizballah fortified the area and began launching attacks into northern Israel. A border incident in 2006 led to a month-long Hizballah-Israel conflict. That conflict resulted in Israel's decimation of Hizballah, but popular opinion in both Lebanon and Israel gave the edge to Hizballah for standing up to the Israelis. By 2009, despite United Nations resolutions to the contrary, Hizballah had been fully re-armed by Syria and Iran.

Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Hamas and Islamic Jihad immediately began launching homemade and imported rockets into Israel - and still does. Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006 - in 2007 they expelled any remaining Fatah members from the Strip in a bloody conflict. By the end of 2008, Hamas had acquired longer range rockets, now reaching as far as Ashdod, halfway to Tel Aviv. This set up the confrontation that resulted in the Israeli invasion of Gaza in late 2008 and 2009. That conflict has yet to be resolved.

Given these experiences, Israel is wary of a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a plateau overlooking northern Israel, realizing that such a commitment is a requirement for peace with Syria. It was from positions on the heights that Syrian artillery batteries shelled cities in the Hula Valley, including Qiryat Shimona, Tiberias and Metulla.

Israel has occupied the area since seizing them during the 1967 Six Day War. Although military technology has largely negated the geography of the Golan - Syria has missiles that can reach almost any part of Israel from launch positions well north of Damascus - Israelis still are uncomfortable with the thought of Syrians again on the bluffs overlooking their cities. Possibly more importantly, Israel is reluctant to turn over to Syria control of the headwaters of the Jordan River - one of its primary water sources, a key factor in its economy and survival - to the Syrians.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with the author

From my own interactions with the Israelis (certainly not a scientific poll), it appears they are almost evenly split on returning occupied lands in return for peace. I have sensed a slight decrease, however, in the number of Israelis willing to give up occupied territory since the conflict with Hizballah in 2006 and the operation in Gaza earlier this year.

Netanyahu has said that he will not support of return of the Golan Heights to Syria. That has effectively halted the Syrian track of the Middle East peace process. Expanding settlements in the West Bank has effectively halted talks with the Palestinian Authority about any "two-state" solution.

What's the answer then? Netanyahu once told me about the "no-solution" solution - he is willing to live with the situation as it is. Israel maintains administrative control of the occupied Golan Heights, protecting the headwaters of the Jordan and the cities of northern Israel, and continues to farm the fertile plateau. It also continues to develop its existing settlements on the West Bank inside the anti-terrorism barrier. As long as the two are kept apart, there is greatly decreased violence.

For now, that's solution enough for many Israelis.

September 7, 2009

Presentation in Sequim, Washington

Ex-intelligence officer talks of water wars and terror

Article published Sep 5, 2009

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM -- Rick Francona took Rotarians on a head-spinning tour of his own "axis of evil" and touched down on a problem people in Sequim -- and elsewhere on the North Olympic Peninsula -- can relate to.

Israel occupies the Golan Heights -- a spine of border land along part of Syria -- because they provide access to the Jordan River, which Israeli farmers can't do without.

"Water is their lifeline," just like "oil is ours," said Francona, who should know.

A retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, he served in just about every nation in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Syria to Iraq.

In his 90-minute speech to the Rotary Club of Sequim on Thursday, Francona offered his opinions on U.S. involvement in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan and on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

And unlike former President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea the axis of evil, Francona considers Iran, North Korea and Syria more dangerous to global security.

"Iran is the largest supporter of terrorism in the world, bar none," he said.

And "Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon," despite Iranian assertions to the contrary.

"Syria is the ally of Iran," he added, so if one is attacked, the other will join the ensuing conflict.


Across the Middle East, "everything is intermingled," with Syria and Israel locked in a stalemate over the Golan Heights, among other things.

And while the international media do sweeping coverage of nuclear arms development, petroleum prices and terrorism -- again Francona should know since he was an NBC news analyst from 2003 to 2008 -- he seeks to boil things down to a human scale.

The Golan Heights is a strategic position not just in terms of military buildup, Francona said, but also because if Israel gave them back to Syria, Syria could choke off Israeli access to the Jordan River.

"They won't tell you that," said Francona. But "Israel has turned the area into a bread basket," an agricultural Eden with vineyards providing grapes for Israeli wine, among other products.

To gain a sense of what life is like on both sides of the heights, Francona recommended the movie, "The Syrian Bride," about a woman who crosses over.

Mona, the bride, lives in a Golan village and is engaged to marry Tallel, a television comedian who works in Damascus, Syria. Once they marry, Mona will become Syrian and never see her family again.

Francona spoke next of what he calls the "Islam bomb." It's not a nuclear weapon, he said; it's the birth rate among Muslims.

Birth rates

"Jewish families average two or three children," he said. "Arabs average seven or eight kids per family . . . by 2050 or 2060, Israel is going to be an Arab country because of the birth rate."

After discussing Israeli-Palestinian strife, Francona worked his way over to Afghanistan.

"[President Barack Obama] did the right thing by sending in 28,000 more troops," he began. "We're seeing more casualties because we're being more aggressive . . . and I'm not an Obama fan, but he's done the right thing here, by killing the bad guys," and disrupting the al-Qaida structure in the region.

"We still need to hunt them down," Francona added, now that al-Qaida operatives are on the move.

Finally, he returned to Iran, which lies at the center of the region the United States still depends on to provide the oil that can stabilize prices on the world market.

"We are fast losing leverage in that part of the world" because of our dependence on foreign oil, he said.

Francona reminded the Rotarians of 1973, when they probably waited in lines at gas stations amid that era's energy crisis.

Now as then, Francona said, what this country must do is come up with a coherent national energy policy.

That, he believes, is the primary task before President Obama -- along with defusing nuclear-weapons development in Iran, disabling al-Qaida and dealing with the rest of the tangled Mideast web.

Sequim-Dungeness Valley reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at
All materials Copyright © 2008 Horvitz Newspapers.