June 28, 2010

Iranian sanctions - "mere ink on paper"

مجرد حبر على ورق

That phrase is a common in the Middle East - it translates to "mere ink on paper" and pretty much sums up the new sanctions on Iran passed by both the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. Congress. Despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's exhortations, they will have little effect on Iran's quest for a nuclear weapons capability.

That is not just my opinion, it is also the considered judgement of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, an Obama and Clinton insider. On the Sunday talks shows - which is a standard tactic for getting not-so-popular news subtly out to the American public - Panetta made some rather startling conclusions.

First, he stated that Iran now has enough low enriched uranium (if further processed) to construct two nuclear weapons, and that those weapons could be ready and deliverable in two years. The hard work is mostly done - acquiring the fissile material is usually the show-stopper for countries who desire a nuclear weapon.

The other important factor, perhaps the key factor in acquiring a nuclear capability is national will - there is no doubt that the Iranians possess this. Despite their constant claims that their program supports a future electric power generation capability, virtually everyone believes this is merely a rather transparent front for a weapons program.

The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which claims that Iran stopped working on a nuclear weapon in 2003, has largely been discredited. Most analysts, including the intelligence services of the United Kingdom and Israel, disagreed with the assessment when it was published. Both candidates in the 2008 presidential campaign claimed that Iran was developing a nuclear weapons capability, undermining the validity of the report. It seemed like the only people who did not know that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon were the U.S. intelligence community.

Panetta's statements this weekend merely reinforce how ludicrous that NIE was. There is a new NIE in preparation - let me guess the conclusion: the Iranians have enough fissile material, that when further enriched, is sufficient for two nuclear weapons, and that they could have a deliverable weapon in two years. How much more do you need to know to take action?

Panetta also ventured into the area of the new sanctions on Iran - imposed by the United Nations and followed by additional sanctions by the United States (and others). Again, he said what most people with any background in this area believe - sanctions on Iran are not going to deter the Iranians from pursuing nuclear weapons.

History is not on our side. A study prepared by a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory holds that every nation that has sought to acquire a nuclear weapons capability has been successful, except in one case: Iraq. That program was halted by an Israeli military strike in 1981. South Africa voluntarily disbanded its successful program, and Libya voluntarily halted its nascent program after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Despite the Director's assessment on nationwide television, Secretary of State Clinton is still touting her "success" in obtaining the watered-down sanctions at the United Nations and U.S. Congressional sanctions replete with waiver authority for the President to keep his promises to Russia and China for their support in the Security Council. Not exactly the "crippling" sanctions we were promised....

Clinton's words: “We are committed to fully implementing this legislation in a manner that advances our multilateral dual-track strategy of engagement and pressure." Her remarks that the sanctions "underscore the resolve of the international community to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to hold it accountable for its international obligations” fly in the face of the analysis of our own CIA director and press reports that the Chinese are reconsidering their support for the sanctions.

Given Panetta's assessment just this weekend, I have to ask Mrs. Clinton, "So how is that engagement and pressure strategy working out so far?" I think we know the answer. Unfortunately, people are beginning to view the President's and Clinton's statements with about the same credibility as those of the Iranians.

Thus far, every attempt we have made to engage or pressure the Iranians have had no effect whatsoever. The latest round of sanctions is not likely to result in a diplomatic solution to the issue either.

Again, these sanctions are "mere ink on paper." Some time ago, I asked the President what he was prepared to do to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. I hope this isn't his final answer.

UPDATE: After I posted this article, a news item appeared in the European press that Russia has complained to the United Nations that Germany has intercepted Russian materials destined for the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The Russians are unhappy that unilateral American, European and Australian sanctions go beyond the United Nations sanctions and that is not in line with their understanding of the protocol. With this "support" from the Russians, sanctions do not look like they are going to stop the Iranians from anything.

June 24, 2010

On Afghanistan - a few things, Mr. President


Mr. President, now that you have relieved General McChrystal of command of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, a few things you might want to consider.

Before that, though, I do want to say that I fully support your decision to accept General McChrystal's resignation. He clearly stepped over the line. See my earlier General McChrystal - what were you thinking?

That said, his frustrations with the situation in Afghanistan needs to be addressed. Obviously, if a general of McChrystal's standing and experience voices the opinions reported in the Rolling Stone article, you have a problem within your national security team in general and your Afghanistan policy team in particular. The lack of judgment exhibited by General McChrystal is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is your policy and its execution.

I think part of the policy problem is your confusion between the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa'idah, which is not in Afghanistan. Let's read some of your words from the statement you made when you announced your acceptance of General McChrystal's resignation. I have highlighted some phrases.

"I have a responsibility to do what is — whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa'idah. I believe that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team. And I don’t think that we can sustain that unity of effort and achieve our objectives in Afghanistan without making this change. That, too, has guided my decision.

"We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qa'idah and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same. That’s the strategy that we agreed to last fall; that is the policy that we are carrying out, in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

First, if your overarching goal is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa'idah," you have deployed upwards of 100,000 American troops where al-Qa'idah is not. Just what is the rationale for the huge increase in troop levels when the real enemy - al-Qa'idah - has left for other venues? They can be found in Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa and Somalia, and to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia and Iraq where they have been almost eradicated.

If you want to defeat al-Qa'idah, unleash American forces (military or CIA) on them where they are. I applaud your expansion of the use of drone-launched Hellfire missiles against al-Qa'idah and Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani) targets in Pakistan, and the use of U.S. military strikes in Yemen - do more of that there and anywhere else you find al-Qa'idah targets.

As I have been saying for years, this is the only way to deal with al-Qa'idah. You cannot negotiate with them, you cannot reason with them - they are committed to their cause. You must hunt them down and and kill them. I have been critical of many of your policies, so to be fair, I offer my compliments on the air strike efforts. See my earlier Legal Justification for Drone-Launched Missile Strikes, A sound Obama policy - missile strikes in Pakistan, and U.S. Air Strike in Yemen - kudos to President Obama.

Probably your worst policy failure and most frustrating to any professional military officer is the arbitrary date that you have set for the beginning of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. All you have done is telegraph the victory date for the enemy - they know they must survive to that date and then launch their major assault. If they are smart, they will lay low until American forces depart and then seek to achieve their goals.

Your hand-picked successor to General McChrystal, General David Petraeus, has had to "tap dance" when questioned by members of Congress. His remarks just a few weeks ago prefaced with the phrase "in a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timeliness" were a weak attempt to reconcile a bad policy with his orders. Stand up to your left-wing base and side with the men and women you have put in harm's way. Start by reversing this gross error.

Then there is the obvious problem with the civilian side of the team. I'll let you address that as best you can. Again, if General McChrystal was frustrated with the likes of Vice President Joe Biden, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and your envoy Richard Holbrooke, there is a reason. Again, you need to treat the disease, not the symptoms.

You have an opportunity to reevaluate and repair your Afghanistan policy with the naming of a new commander. Please take it.

June 22, 2010

General McChrystal - what were you thinking?

After the McChrystal-Rolling Stone article story hit the newsstands today, the initial question from anyone who has ever worn a uniform was, "What was General McChrystal thinking?" You do not make, or allow your staff to make, public statements belittling the President and Commander in Chief.

Whether the statements have merit or not is immaterial - it is not conducive to the mission of the armed forces for four-star generals to publicly question the chain of command. Privately, however, I would expect the general to make his objections and opinions known to the leadership, but once the decisions are made and the orders given, you salute and execute. Regardless of personal opinion of the qualifications of those in the chain of command, it is still the lawful chain of command. Executing those orders is part of the oath you take as an officer or member of the U.S. armed forces.

That said, perhaps there is more to this story than a mere faux pas on the part of a 30-year career soldier, a man who has not only served with some of the most elite special operations forces in the world, but commanded them in combat and yet-unheralded black operations. It is inconceivable to me that General McChrystal did not consider what he was doing when he granted almost unfettered staff access to a third-rate, avowedly anti-war publication like Rolling Stone. He had to know that the coverage would be unfavorable at best, and outright defamatory at worst.

There are precedents of generals not agreeing with the Commander in Chief - Truman and MacArthur, Johnson and his generals during Vietnam, Carter and his generals over his disastrous handling of the Iran crisis and the return of the Panama Canal, Clinton and his failure to approve requests for proper support for American forces deployed to Somalia, Clinton and his generals on the lack of response to terrorist attacks, etc. For the most part, these objections were raised in private via the chain of command - the proper way.

Unfortunately, many Presidents lack any military experience and have little grasp of the complexity and gravity of military operations - President Obama is the poster boy for this group. His deliberations and slow decision making process on a proper strategy for the war in Afghanistan are indicative of these characteristics. These presidents view war as just another political activity, usually with disastrous results for the men and women who have to carry them out.

The prime example of a president and politicos that "don't get it" is the fixed withdrawal date. (See my earlier Gates gets it - the others, not so much....) A fixed withdrawal date is nothing more than a signal to the enemy of how long they have to hold out or merely wait until the Americans leave and they can launch the real offensive to achieve their goals. It is to the antagonist a date that the victory begins.

President Obama has dictated date certain withdrawals in both Iraq and Afghanistan, against the counsel of both Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and anyone in a uniform. In Iraq, fortunately a surge during the last years of the Bush Administration and increased capabilities of the Iraqi military and security forces have made the withdrawal date irrelevant.

Unfortunately, that is not the case in Afghanistan. As General McChrystal has said, the Afghan forces are not yet capable of providing security over areas taken from the Taliban by American forces - the recent operation in Marjah is but one example. Their poor performance is the reason the expected offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar has been delayed.

Complicating this is the Obama Administration's failure to provide the manpower and resources that General McChrystal has requested to accomplish the mission assigned to him by the President. The Commander in Chief not only provides the mission, he must provide the resources. President Obama did the former, but not the latter.

I can only surmise that General McChrystal has determined that given the current set of circumstances, he cannot accomplish the mission given him by the President. Rather than preside over a losing combat operation, he has chosen to resign and to go out in a way that might actually change the situation. His interview in Rolling Stone has certainly taken over the news cycle and focused the country's attention on the war in Afghanistan. If he falls on his sword, but there is a public outcry for the President to properly resource the war effort, perhaps his actions were not in vain.

If that was his intention, he may succeed. If not, I have no idea what he was thinking.

June 21, 2010

Can you spell W-A-G-T-H-E-D-O-G?

US Navy aircraft carrier transits the Suez Canal

Now that the United Nations has passed a watered-down fourth sanctions protocol against the Iranians, and governments in Europe and the United States are working on unilateral sanctions that allegedly go further to punish the regime in Tehran, Iran should be soon announcing its compliance with demands of the rest of the world, right?

Hardly. The Iranians remain defiant, even to the point of announcing the construction of more nuclear facilities and the intention to inspect foreign ships in the Persian Gulf if merchant ships bound for or departing Iran are stopped and searched by powers enforcing the UN sacntions. I doubt anyone is surprised by this reaction from Tehran.

There have been other, more subtle things happening that bear watching. One is a statement by U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates that American efforts are still aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons rather than containing a nuclear-armed Iran. Gates, as Secretary of Defense, has a vested interest in not having to develop measures to contain a nuclear-armed state run by a repressive government dominated by Islamic fanatics hell-bent on destroying a U.S. ally.

Now that Gates has defined America's policy towards Iran, just how does the Obama Administration plan to accomplish that task? Thus far, every effort that the Administration has tried has abjectly failed. The policy of engagement and sanctions has failed to yield any results other than increased Iranian production of enriched uranium and increased defiance of the rest of the world.

Even normally stalwart American allies in the region, most notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have determined that the Obama Administration does not have a viable plan to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, let alone containing the country once it gains the capability. (See
Saudi frustrations with Obama's foreign policy failures.) Many fear that American weakness and failure to lead on this issue actually creates instability in the region and may in fact trigger a nuclear arms race - Saudi Arabia and Egypt might be concerned enough about a nuclear Iran to develop their own capabilities.

Time for a negotiated diplomatic solution to this problem is fast running out. I think by now even those in the U.S. intelligence community responsible for the ludicrous conclusion in the
2007 National Intelligence Assessment that Iran had stopped its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon are convinced that Tehran means to do just that. Candidates Obama and Hillary Clinton said as much during the presidential campaign in 2008. If those analysts still cling to that assessment, they are pretty much alone.

Perhaps there is some credibility to media reports that 12 U.S. Navy warships (most likely a carrier strike group), with at least one Israeli naval vessel, transited the Suez Canal last week from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea presumably en route the Persian Gulf. If so, that would add to the already fairly robust U.S. military presence in the region - the movement of an Israeli warship is also of note.

I received an email from a former colleague with many years of experience in intelligence and policy matters. He asked if perhaps President Obama "wants to distract us from his astute handling of the oil spill fiasco by starting WWIII?" I said that would be reminiscent of the movie "Wag the Dog" that parodied President Bill Clinton's motivations for not aggressively hunting down Usamah bin Ladin.

I sincerely hope we are wrong. If the President is moving American military forces into the region to further pressure the Iranians into compliance with international demands, I support and applaud that action. I also hope he is prepared to use that force if necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and triggering an arms race in the region.

If he is using the Iranian nuclear issue to divert attention from the Gulf oil crisis, he will have failed to solve either issue.

June 15, 2010

Saudis deny airspace open for Israeli attack on Iran

Responding to press reports citing an "unnamed U.S. defense source," the Saudis have again denied that there is an agreement between the Kingdom and Israel that would permit Israeli aircraft to transit Saudi airspace on their way to attack Iranian nuclear targets. Reports of this "agreement" surfaced about a year ago, and was denied then by both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Your first thought might be to outright dismiss the idea that an Arab country, especially a Muslim theocratic kingdom, would allow fighters of a Jewish state free passage to attack a fellow Muslim country. Remember, though, this is the Middle East - strange things happen here. (See
Saudis give nod to Israeli raid on Iran ? – not so far-fetched.) An old Arabic adage often holds true - the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The Saudis have no desire to see Iran with a nuclear weapon. The rivalry between Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia and Shi'a Persian Iran goes back as long as the two nations have existed. At one point, both were allies of the United States - friendship with the two was a cornerstone of the Nixon "Twin Pillars" doctrine.

That all changed with the fall of the Shah and the Iranian revolution in 1979. With growing Iranian animosity towards the United States, Saudi Arabia's alliance with America grew closer. Along with the other Gulf Arab states, the Saudis were protected under the American defense umbrella. That umbrella was demonstrated as the Gulf Cooperation Council countries allied with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other members of the coalition to defend Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion of that small country.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Saudis cooled a bit in their relationship with the United States. That slow cooling increased with the advent of the Obama Administration and Saudi assessments that the new President's policy of engagement with Iran was a recipe for failure. The Saudis' fear that the United States under President Barack Obama will be unable - or unwilling - to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. (See
Saudi frustrations with Obama's foreign policy failures.)

The Saudis have no desire to have to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran. If the United States cannot or will not stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear capability, the job will necessarily fall to the Israelis. If the Israelis know they can transit Saudi airspace safely, it makes their attack planning much less complicated.

The flight route to targets in Iran from Israel over Saudi Arabia is about 1,400 miles. That is at, or in excess of, the maximum combat radius of Israel's F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft. To carry enough ordnance to make effective strikes on Iranian nuclear targets, ideally the Israelis will be able to conduct aerial refueling of the strike aircraft. That requires a permissive air defense environment.

While the Israelis might be able to reach the targets without aerial refueling, there is absolutely no margin for errors in navigation, course deviation for bad weather or having to engage hostile fighters. It is almost in the "too hard to do" category. If the Israelis feel they have no other option, they might try it anyway. (See my 2006 analysis,
Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options.)

Of course the Saudis deny the notion that they will turn a blind eye to Israeli use of their airspace to attack Iran. However, as I said a year ago: if there is an Israeli strike against Iran, all the Arab and Muslim countries will condemn Israel in public - most will smile in private.

June 11, 2010

Obama wants weaker sanctions on Iran?

Russian S-300 air defense system

After securing what his Secretary of State hailed as "significant" sanctions on Iran in the United Nations, President Barack Obama now is asking the U.S. Congress to water down pending legislation imposing additional, unilateral sanctions. Normally this would come as a surprise - after all, once the United Nations laid the framework with its sanctions, the United States and the European Union would follow through with additional restrictions, convincing Iran to reconsider it nuclear program. These would be the "crippling" and "biting" sanctions we were promised, right?

The whole sanctions story has taken far too long and has been characterized by the wheeling and dealing of a Persian bazaar, or Chicago. The American effort to convince Iran to stop enriching uranium began as soon as President Obama took office. According to his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, the policy of engagement coupled with the threat of additional sanctions would force the Iranians to comply with international demands. That was in January 2009. The engagement process lasted through the first year of the Administration, but was rebuffed at every turn by the Iranians.

You would think that after a year of the Iranian's ignoring several of Obama's arbitrary deadlines that the Administration would get the message that the Iranians are not serious about being "engaged." The Iranians only pretend to talk when they believe it will prolong the standoff with the West - all the while, they continue to enrich uranium. The Administration actually played right into the hands of the Iranians by giving them additional time to further their program. This was a foreign policy success - for the Iranians. (See Iran again outmaneuvering the West.)

During Iran's deflection of Obama's engagement efforts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to garner support for what were biiled as "crippling" sanctions in the United Nations. That basically boils down to convincing the Russians and Chinese to forgo their lucrative commercial dealings with Iran and support an additional round of sanctions. It took 18 months and has yielded another weak, voluntary and impossible to enforce set of restrictions on Iran. It took a lot of compromise, and more egregious, a series of undisclosed backroom deals with the Chinese and Russians. (See
Iran sanctions and the backroom deals....)

For example, in the United Nations sanctions that were passed, there is a huge loophole, confirmed by the U.S. Department of State, that allows the Russians to sell the S-300 air defense system (photo above) to Iran. This is a capable system that will complicate any Israeli attack plans, and are a surprising omission in a sanctions regime that prohibits selling arms to Iran. The Russians have stated that according to their interpretation of the sanctions they supported, they determine what items they are prohibited from selling to Iran. That does not sound "crippling" to me.

It gets better. President Obama has asked Congress to put a provision in the unilateral sanctions legislation that grants him "the authority to waive penalties against companies that sell gasoline or other refined oil products to Iran if those companies are based in countries that have cooperated in imposing U.N. sanctions on Iran." Translated into "transparency" language, that means Obama can exempt Chinese and Russian companies from American sanctions.

Call me cynical, but this is what it looks like to me: Obama and his cronies promised his Russian and Chinese counterparts that in return for their support for a weak United Nations sanctions resolution, he would make sure that American unilateral sanctions did not stop them from selling air defense weapons and refined gasoline to Iran. They did their part, now we are seeing the President attempting to do his.

So we cotniue to have no effective sanctions. Iran's centrifuges have not even slowed down - I doubt that they will.

June 9, 2010

Iran sanctions - Kabuki dance, part four

On Tuesday. June 8, with great fanfare and an obvious reference to the Obama Administration's talking points, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice hailed what they believed was going to be a successful Security Council vote on the imposition of another round of sanctions on Iran. Clinton and Rice both claimed the sanctions will have a "significant" impact on Iran.

On Wednesday, June 9, the Security Council voted 12-2 in favor of the sanctions resolution. Brazil and Turkey, current members of the council, voted against it in support of their May sham agreement with Iran on control over a portion of Iran's low enriched uranium (LEU). That agreement, in which Iran agreed to ship some of its LEU to Turkey, may now be in jeopardy with the passage of the new sanctions. Lebanon abstained on the vote, no surprise given the influential role of Iran-backed Hizballah in the government there.

The two American diplomats had reason to be confident that the the sanctions resolution would garner enough votes to pass, and that it would not be vetoed by any of the five permanent members (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China). The United States has spent months trying to convince Russia and China to go along with yet another round of sanctions on Iran - the earlier three rounds have done nothing to slow Iran's nuclear program.

So what deft diplomacy brought the Chinese and Russians to the table? Did our State Department convince the two skeptical powers that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose a threat to the world? Did we offer enough evidence to overcome the lure of lucrative business deals for Chinese and Russian commercial enterprises? Did Moscow and Beijing go along out of solidarity with Washington?

Hardly. This sanctions regime is nothing more than a Kabuki dance, just more political theater - the playbill for which has been massaged and watered down so much that it is almost meaningless. In fact, the Chinese and Russians were stalling as late as the day before the vote in the Security Council, wordsmithing the already watered down text to be even weaker than it already was. Now instead of the "biting" sanctions we were led to expect by the Administration, we end up with text laced with phrases like "states are urged to" and "parties area called on to" in the resolution.

More significant are the backroom deals by the Administration which exempts many Chinese and Russian companies from any unilateral American sanctions in return for support at the United Nations. It appears that in its desperation to get something passed by the Security Council we have effectively defanged our own unilateral sanctions on Iran.

Are these sanctions going to be any more successful than the last three rounds? Does anyone believe that another resolution is going to convince the Iranians to slow their quest for nuclear weapons? I don't. The cartoon at the top says it all - Iran sits on a sea of oil. The world's economy runs on oil, and as long as Iran has it to sell, countries will make deals with them. As long as Iran has money to spend on technology that advances its nuclear ambitions, countries and companies will make deals with them. The Iranians have shown themselves to be adept at evading the existing weak sanctions, and I expect they will continue to be in the future.

Back to the American diplomats. Ambassador Rice comments that the United States is still committed to the "dual-track approach, pressure through sanctions coupled with negotiations." I hate to use a trite phrase, but how is that working so far? The pressure through sanctions has failed and Iran has been very clear (the President is big on clarity) that it is not interested in negotiations with us.

As I did in mid-May, I ask, did I miss the "crippling" sanctions on Iran? No, I didn't - because there aren't any. The dance begins....

June 7, 2010

Iranian commandos to escort aid ships to Gaza?

It just gets better and better.

IRGC gunboat

Two announcements from Iran promise to keep the so-called Gaza "freedom flotilla" confrontation with Israel in the headlines - and possibly divert attention from the expected Iran sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council.

First, the Iranian Red Crescent said that is has decided to send two aid ships to Gaza, and the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that the Iranians will deploy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval units to the Mediterranean Sea to escort aid convoys attempting to run the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

These two announcements are not a coincidence - this is part of an Iranian government plan to divert attention from itself and its nuclear program. That program is currently the subject of sanctions deliberations in the United Nations. By maintaining the region's and world's focus on Israel and the blockade of Gaza, the debate in New York is no longer front page material.

The pronouncements and bluster from Tehran are one thing, but let's inject some reality into this.

The Iranian Red Crescent might be able to charter aid ships - the Iranians have the funds to make it happen. They might even get a crew willing to attempt to pass through the Israeli blockade, but it's doubtful they will find a captain willing to challenge an Israeli navy order to turn back. There is precedent for this - a few years ago Iran chartered a vessel to attempt a similar trip, but it was turned back without incident.

Of course, the whole idea that Iran needs to use aid ships to get supplies into Gaza is laughable. The IRGC has been smuggling weapons - which are heavier than relief supplies - into Gaza for years. Although the Israelis have occasionally attempted to interdict the flow of arms, it has largely been unsuccessful.

Now we come to the IRGC naval arm operating in the Mediterranean. First, of course, they have to get there with enough vessels and maybe supporting air assets that have the wherewithal to confront one of the most formidable navies in the region. The thought that the IRGC's gunboats are going to challenge the Israeli navy in its own backyard is ludicrous.

This is yet again Iranian posturing to deflect attention from themselves. It has worked before and they hope it will work again.

June 6, 2010

Gaza: The Turks should look in the mirror

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been vocal and extreme in his rants against Israel's enforcement of its embargo/blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Granted, nine Turks were killed - needlessly in my opinion - in an altercation on a Turkish flagged vessel participating in the so-called "freedom flotilla" last week. In one of his statements, Erdogan accused the Israelis of "state terror."

Interesting comments from the leader of a country that at best has a dubious record on human rights and an atrocious legacy of genocide against the Armenians and Kurds at worst.

Let's talk about the Turks and the Kurds. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world who do not have their own country. It's not that they don't want one, it's just that no one will allow them to have one - they sit on some pretty valuable real estate. The closest they have come is the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq comprising three governorates along the Turkish and Iranian borders.

The only reason the Iraqis wrote the autonomous regions provision into their post-Saddam constitution was American insistence, a means to repay the Kurds for their assistance and loyalty to Washington over the years. It was common knowledge that the Kurds would be the first to take advantage of this provision. By way of disclosure, I served with the CIA in northern Iraq in 1995 and 1996 working with the Kurds against the Saddam government. It was one of the most rewarding assignments of my career. I fully support Kurdish autonomy.

Click on image for larger view in a new window
The area inhabited by the Kurdish people extends far beyond the borders of Iraq into what is now Turkey, Iran and parts of Syria and Armenia (see map above). None of these countries are remotely inclined to provide an independent homeland for the Kurds. In fact, in Turkey and Iran, they are not officially referred to as Kurds, but as either Turkish or Persian "highlanders."

Of the estimated (no one knows for sure and it is doubtful that any of the host countries are going to conduct a true count) 20 million Kurds that live in this region, well over half live in Turkey. Kurds in Turkey claim that their numbers are much greater, comprising between 10 and as much as over 20 percent of the total population of the country. Again, reliable numbers are not available.

Since as early as 1920 (shortly after the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917), the Turks have attempted to assimilate the Kurds into Turkish culture and society - the recent programs have been called "Turkification" of the Kurds. This effort is reminiscent of the "Arabization" (ta'rib) program attempted by Saddam Husayn in Iraq in the 1980's and 1990's. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have died in the two countries as a result of these programs.

Now we are treated to a lecture by the likes of the Turkish prime minister, with questionable rhetoric like, "Gaza is a historical cause for us," (why?) and "we object to those who force the people of Gaza to live in an open-air prison...we will stand firm until the blockade on Gaza is lifted, the massacres cease and the state terror in the Middle East is accounted for."

Perhaps we should revisit the Turkish activities against the Armenians and Kurds over the last almost 100 years. Then we can talk about open-air prisons, massacres and state terror - and especially about accountability for past actions. The Turks still refuse to accept responsibility for the Armenian genocide. While we're at it, we could also advise the Turks that if they are serious about some sort of alliance with Iran and Syria, we might support the idea of an independent Kurdish homeland.

Mr. Erdogan, before you start accusing Israel of heinous activities, you might want to refresh your recollections of Turkish history. The reflections in that mirror are pretty ugly.

June 4, 2010

Turkey - U.S. ally or policy spoiler?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Israeli military confrontation of the so-called "freedom flotilla" earlier this week has precipitated a crisis not just between unlikely allies Israel and Turkey, but between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. As the two American allies start a verbal clash, the Obama Administration is finding itself in the middle.

This is just another event in a series of events that have been festering between Ankara and Washington as Turkey gradually changes its focus from being a European Union contender to a regional power broker between Israel, the Arab countries, Muslim/Turkic states of the former Soviet Union and Iran.

Looking at a map of the region, Turkey occupies a key location in a strategic part of the world. It truly is the bridge between East and West - mediator/broker is a good role for the Turks to play, assuming they can pull it off. Their efforts so far have merely alienated one group or the other - not exactly successful mediation.

The latest poke in the Ankara-Tel Aviv spat came today as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Hamas - a group committed to the destruction of Turkish ally Israel - as "resistance fighters." He failed to mention that if Hamas or its affiliated groups had refrained from launching over 8000 rockets into southern Israel over the last five years, the Israeli-imposed embargo would not have been necessary and the recent incident, not to mention last year's IDF incursion into the Gaza Strip, may not have taken place.

Erdogan's words go further: "Hamas are resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land." Defend it from whom? The Israelis have no designs on the Gaza - they were happy to be rid of it in 2005, the settlers not withstanding. There are no Israeli troops in the Strip as there are on the West Bank. The only Israeli military operations in Gaza are generally retaliatory air strikes following the unending Qassam rocket attacks on southern Israel. (See Sderot - Israel's "Rocket City".)

Turkey's spat with Israel is not the only thing that appears to undermine American foreign policy in the region. In an effort that was contrary to the Obama Administration's goal of gaining international support for tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, Turkey, along with Brazil, negotiated a sham nuclear deal with Tehran. Turkey has also proposed a Turkey-Syria-Iran alliance - a move that certainly would not be viewed in Washington as the action of an American ally.

For decades, Turkey was a stalwart ally of the United States and NATO. It allowed the coalition in 1990-1991 to use its bases and airspace to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey looked toward Central Asia as its rightful sphere of influence.

During the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, in what many American military planners regard as reneging on a commitment, Turkey first allowed U.S. Army forces to move through Turkey to the Iraqi border, only to change its mind at the last minute, forcing the United States to withdraw an entire mechanized division and redeploy them via the Arabian Peninsula. Again, not the actions of an ally.

Turkey needs to decide whose side they want to be on. Right now they are trying to be all things to all sides while addressing increasing Islamist pressure at home. Unless the Turks determine where Turkey stands, they are likely to become part of our foreign policy issues and not a foreign policy partner.

June 3, 2010

Syria arming Hizballah - is this news to anyone?

I read with some bemusement reporting in the British press earlier this week claiming that Syria was involved in the arming of Hizballah. Surely this is not news to anyone - the Syrians, and the Iranians via Syria, have been arming and re-arming Hizballah since the group was founded by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982. See my earlier piece, Hizballah fully rearmed - is anyone surprised?

Hizballah rocket launcher

Hizballah rocket launcher

According to the reports, Hizballah is using Syrian army depots to stockpile weapons from Syria and Iran before moving them into Lebanon. One of these depots is identified as a compound in 'Adra,a short drive northeast of Damascus. I would not be surprised at the use of 'Adra - when I was the air attache in Damascus, we often drove through the area.

'Adra is home to a notorious prison, military parachute training areas, a huge cement factory, the major Syrian customs facility, a large Syrian military hospital, air defense cantonments, and acres and acres of industrial compounds. We often suspected that many of the compounds were used to house and train militants of various Palestinian organizations opposed to Yasir 'Arafat's dealings with the Israelis.

It would be a logical place to store Hizballah weaponry being taken from Syrian military stocks. Military materiel arriving from Iran by air is not likely to be stored at 'Adra - the Syrians and Iranians did not seem to be concerned if anyone observed cargo being off-loaded from Iranian air force B-747 cargo jets. The jets unloaded their military crates at the civilian terminal and onloaded them into trucks bearing the Hizballah logo on the doors. They immediately set out for the Lebanese border and the Biqa' Valley - the 30-mile trip from the airport to the border takes only about 40 minutes on the interstate-style Beirut highway.

Here is a quote from the article, "The revelation adds to growing fears in the West that the regime of Bashar al-Asad, the President of Syria, is becoming increasingly close to Hezbollah and its main supporter, Iran." A revelation? I don't think so - this has been going on for almost 30 years. It has been no secret, despite at least two United Nations Security Council resolutions to halt the flow of weapons to Hizballah.

The most recent resolution, UNSCR 1701, adopted to end the fighting between Israeli forces and Hizballah in 2006, forbids the resupply of Hizballah. The ink was not dry on the document before convoys again crossed the Syria-Lebanon border with arms to replenish Hizballah's depleted stocks of rockets. Israeli military intelligence officials confirm Hizballah's claims that they have more and better rockets now than they did prior to the fighting in 2006.

At times, Israel has threatened to attack the resupply convoys, but has yielded to American requests to allow the Obama Administration's engagement efforts with Damascus to bear fruit. I initially supported the Obama effort to engage Syria, hoping that his Secretary of State or one of his numerous Middle East envoys would be able to convince Bashar al-Asad to rethink Syria's relationship with Iran (see Obama to "engage" Syria - why not?). Despite alienating the Israelis (which I did not support), there has been no progress with Syria, in fact, the situation is a bad as it has been since 2006.

Also from the article: "Jihad Maqdisi, the spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in London, insisted that all military sites in Syria were exclusive to the Syrian military." I understand that this is journalism, but what did you expect him to say? Oh, well, you caught us - you're right, we've been violating international agreements for over a decade now. I don't think so. Syrian government claims are about as trustworthy as those of Iranian officials (think nuclear program).

The bottom line: Syria and Iran have been funding, training and arming Hizballah continuously since its inception in 1982. They continue to do so. This is not news.

The "freedom flotilla" and world outrage

Following Israel's May 31 raid on the so-called "freedom flotilla" that attempted to run the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, world opinion has jumped on the bandwagon to condemn the Jewish state. Little attention is paid to the fact that the "humanitarian supplies" included bullet-proof vests, night-vision goggles and gas masks.

That said, Israel botched this operation. There are reasons for Israel to enforce an embargo on Gaza, or more specifically, on Gaza while under Hamas control. However, fast-roping a small team of naval commandos armed primarily with paintball guns onto a large vessel loaded with anti-Israeli activists is asking for a confrontation. Presenting the unarmed - well, no firearms, anyway - activists with overwhelming military force actually prevents loss of life.

The other vessels in the convoy were stopped by Israeli sailors fouling the propulsion and steering mechanisms - the Mavi Marmara was too large for such tactics. Certainly the Israeli navy is capable of stopping a vessel without killing nine people. By trying to use crowd control devices rather than the threat of military force, the Israelis caused more violence to occur. In defense of the Israeli troops, however, once the crowd began using steel bars, clubs, knives and sidearms taken from the commandos, all bets were off - troops do what they have to do.

Unfortunately, nine people died. The loss of life is, of course, tragic, and only plays into the hands of Israel's critics. The television coverage of funerals in Turkey inflames public opinion in what was Israel's only ally in the region causes European countries to denounce the blockade of Gaza as inhumane, and has the United Nations Secretary General demanding that Israel lift its blockade, calling it "counter-productive, unsustainable and wrong."

Perhaps Ban Ki-moon might read some recent history to put this in perspective.

Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, after removing hundreds of Israeli settlers by force. On the afternoon of the final day of the withdrawal, Hamas militants fired homemade rockets from one of the abandoned settlements into Israel. Since that day, over 8,000 rockets have been fired into Israeli towns on the border with the Gaza Strip - most landing in the town of Sderot.

I visited Sderot last year. When I returned, I wrote this piece:
Sderot - Israel's "Rocket City". Perhaps someone on the Secretary General's staff could get a copy to him. Maybe he could also demand Hamas stop bombarding Israel, calling it "counter-productive, unsustainable and wrong."

One would have to assume that the Secretary General is too busy imposing "crippling" sanctions on Iran. Well, one could hope....

June 1, 2010

Israel's underwater wild card

Recent press reports have cited a little-known Israeli military capability - its submarine force. There have been submarines in the Israel Defense Forces since Flotilla 7 was formed in 1959.

The current Israeli inventory consists of five German-built Dolphin class diesel-electric submarines - the latest two are equipped with a very quiet air propulsion system. Some of the submarines were purchased using American military assistance funds - which required special dispensation - and some were donated by the German government.

For years, the top students in Israeli high schools were selected to be fighter pilots, while the second tier were selected to serve in Israeli military intelligence. Over the last few years, however, the second tier have been named to serve in the submarine force, earning those selected the nickname "fighter pilots with glasses" since pilots are required to have perfect vision, and submariners are not. This change underscores the value Israeli military leaders place on a viable underwater capability.

The German-made submarines are excellent vessels - the Israeli fleet easily outclasses the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of its Arab neighbors, but the real threat to Israel comes not from the likes of Syria, but from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anyone who has read anything about the Middle East for the past five years understands that Iran is feverishly developing a nuclear weapons capability, and has continually made bellicose threats against the Jewish state.

On my last two visits to Israel, virtually every government and military official with whom I had contact stressed the "existential threat" posed by Iran. Whether or not the United States seriously considers the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, the Israelis do. In response, the Israelis have planned and exercised for an air strike on Iran.

Launching an air strike on Iran will be pushing Israeli aircraft capabilities to the absolute limits - there is no room for error. (See my earlier articles, Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options, updated by Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options Update.) An attack on Iran has a high likelihood of failure, but if the Israelis believe the Iranians are on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, they will strike regardless.

There are very few options for the Israelis, but one weapon that has been overlooked is the submarine fleet. There is a reason for that - Israeli submarines can easily operate in the Persian Gulf, well within weapons range of Iranian nuclear facilities. The submarines can carry a variety of cruise missiles, however, they are limited in the number and size of warheads. The submarines will certainly be complementary to any air operations, but by themselves cannot achieve the level of destruction necessary to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

There is a wild card, however. I will preface my next statements with the assumption that most people believe that the Israelis have nuclear weapons. It would be illogical to assume that the Israelis have not produced nuclear warheads for their submarine-launched cruise missiles. Of course, use of nuclear weapons is a major step and would only be taken under the gravest of conditions.

Certainly if Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel, there would be instant nuclear retaliation, although that threat does not seem to have deterred Iranian rhetoric. In fact, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to welcome the end of the world and what the Shi'a believe will be the return of the Mahdi. More than a few Israeli military officers have expressed the opinion that Iran cannot be deterred - the threat must be neutralized.

On the other hand, many senior Israelis have made the calculation that Israel cannot wait for an Iranian nuclear attack to take action. They have assessed that Israel may not be able to survive the massive damage to not only the country, but to a sizable portion of the Jewish people. Should they determine that the Iranians are about to act, they will act first.

The question is - will the Israelis use nuclear weapons (either air or submarine delivered) first? If the very existence of Israel is at stake, the question is more than just academic.

Interview in Iraqi Kurdish newspaper

This is the text of an interview I did with Kurdish newspaper. Read the online version here.

US withdrawal from Iraq is a mistake, ex-CIA officer to Kurdistan says
By Hawar Abdul-Razaq
May 29, 2010

ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Lt Col Rick Francona is a former officer working in Iraqi Kurdistan for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. His work started in the 1990s after the Iraqi Kurds were granted a safe-haven, known as “No-Fly Zone” in the north of Iraq.

Since 1991, the Kurdistan region has been governed by two parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Massoud Barzani, president of Kurdistan, and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, who holds the ceremonial post of Iraq’s president. “I worked with the KDP and PUK – relations were excellent with both,” said Mr. Francona.

“I worked more closely with the PUK, but that was a factor of how our team worked. I did intelligence liaison with the PUK and a colleague of mine worked more with the KDP.”

Mr. Francona has been involved in a number of sensitive operations including the escape of the family of an Iraqi nuclear scientist in 1995.

“We received a tasking from CIA headquarters directing us to arrange for the escape of the family of Dr Khidhir Hamza, a scientist who had formerly worked in Saddam’s nuclear weapons program. We executed that operation and brought the family out.”

Though Mr. Francona now has nothing to do with the CIA, his background values his views on the post-Saddam Iraqi politics. Here is an interview that Rudaw’s correspondent Hawar Abdul-Razaq conducted with Mr. Francona. He says President Obama failed to solve any issues in the region and the possible withdrawal of US forces is a mistake.

Q: How do you see the future of Iraq? Isn’t it going to be portioned at the end of the day?

Francona: The future of Iraq remains a question, although I am optimistic that the Iraqis will figure out how to manage the diversity that comprises the population. The primary issue is security – ending the violence, be it between Sunni and Shi’s, or between ethnic groups (Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, etc.). That includes hunting down and eliminating all vestiges of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Then the Iraqis can start the healing process to become one country.

I worry about Iran’s closeness to the Shi’a parties – that is one reason I was glad to see my friend Iyad ‘Allawi win the election. Iraq must emerge as a secular state again – a religious-based or dominated government only plays into the hands of the Iranians. Although I would do everything I could to minimize Iranian influence in the country, I am not sure President Obama will.

I hope there is some coalition building that allows Sunni participation in the governance of the country, otherwise, there will be resentment against the Shi’a and inevitably violence.

I do not see Iraq being divided – the location of the natural resources (primarily oil) do not allow an equitable distribution of the wealth, so a division into Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish areas will likely not work. Again, the Sunnis will feel disenfranchised and strike out.

Q: Given the Shiite domination of Iraq, don’t you think that Iran is ultimately going to be the actual winner of the Iraq war?

Francona: I hope not, but given the failure of the Obama Administration to resolve any issues in the region, I fear that Iran may emerge as the key power broker in not only Iraq but the entire Persian Gulf region.

The US does not “have to withdraw” from Iraq, but is choosing to – a mistake in my view. Two reasons. We should never have announced the exact withdrawal date - all that does is tell your opponents how long they need to wait to realize their goals. Also,www.ekurd.netI believe that an American presence in the region is required to offset Iranian ascendancy in the area – Iraq is the perfect place to have that presence.

Q: Former Director of the Turkish Intelligence agency known as MIT, Mahir Kaynak, says that US is in favor of dividing Iraq and would do so. Is this possible?

Francona: I don’t put much stock in what the Turks, especially their intelligence services – and I have worked with most of them – say.

I don’t think this is the American plan, since we have always stated our desire that the territorial integrity of Iraq remain intact. Despite Kurdish wishes, I do not envision an independent Kurdish state. The Kurdish Autonomous Region is as good as it is going to get.