Focal Points Blog

Showing Juntas Some Love

Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Thein Sein.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Thein Sein.

An Associated Press headline reads China vows closer military ties with North Korea.

China said Friday it would strengthen military ties with ally North Korea. … The vow follows a three-day visit to the North by the Chinese military’s top political commissar, Li Jinai, during which he told North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that China’s army wanted to enhance understanding and mutual trust and strengthen practical exchanges with the North Korean military.

Why now?

Although Li’s trip was likely planned in advance, recent remarks by President Barack Obama asserting the U.S. military’s continuing presence in Asia have riled Beijing. Chinese government-backed scholars and state media say they see the strengthening of America’s alliance’s with the Philippines, Australia and others as a new form of encirclement aimed at blocking China’s rising predominance in the region.

Meanwhile, last August, in that junta in democracy’s clothing known as Burma, reads a Guardian headline, Aung San Suu Kyi meets Burma’s president Thein Sein. Then, on Monday, November 14, the AP ran a story headlined: Suu Kyi says Myanmar government has taken positive steps toward reform, more needs to be done.

Thein Sein was prime minister under the junta led by Than Shwe and was elected president in 2010, when AP reports, “As expected, the polls brought to power a proxy party for the military.” Myanmar “democracy icon” Aung San Suu Kyi, as AP calls her, stated that she believed Thein Sein was committed to reforms.

“I personally believe that he is very genuine in his desire for the process of democratization,” Suu Kyi said.

Next, on Friday, November 18, a BBC headline read Suu Kyi’s NLD democracy party to rejoin Burma politics

On Friday her National League for Democracy said it would register to run in the as yet unscheduled by-elections. The party boycotted the last polls in November 2010, the first in 20 years.

On the same day a Reuters headline read Obama opens door to new U.S. ties with Myanmar.

“We want to seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America,” Obama said.

And the big news:

Clinton’s two-day visit from December 1 would be the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since a 1962 military coup ushered in 50 years of unbroken military rule that ended in March when a nominally civilian parliament was established.

The cherry on top: UN Supports Burma’s Selection to Chair ASEAN.

At the East Asia Summit Saturday, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed support for the decision by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to choose Burma to chair its meetings in 2014. … “Now the United Nations welcomes, just as ASEAN did, the recent developments of the situation under the leadership of [Burmese] President Thein Sein, releasing political prisoners and taking proactive initiatives to reform their political systems,” he said.

What’s the moral here — or, in the case of juntas — the im-moral? With NORK, simply that occasionally the tide of regional politics will turn in its favor. In Burma’s case, token reforms can be just enough to provide an opening for a Western world eager to trade for resources monopolized by China and India to poke through.

Believing the Worst About Iran Without Attacking

Apologism for Iran over its nuclear dreams doesn’t become progressives. Worse, it reinforces conservative preconceptions that we’re weak on national security. For their part, conservatives don’t need to accept that expelling greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causes climate change. But they would be advised to at least admit that continuing to do so isn’t a good idea for the quality of life of their families. In the same vein, wherever Iran stands in the development of nuclear weapons, progressives need to stop insisting on the best-case scenario: either that Iran abandoned its nuclear-weapons work or that the West and Israel can live with a nuclear-weaponized Iran.

We don’t admit that because it’s like waving a red cape at hawks. But, just between us progressives, the danger that will exist if Iran develops the capacity to build nuclear weapons and/or actually goes ahead and does so is worse than we thought. But that’s not necessarily because of Iranian — or even Israeli — politics, but because of the nature of the circumstances in which the two states will find themselves.

In an article titled “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran: The Limits of Containment” in the January-February 2011 Foreign Affairs, three members of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Eric S. Edelman, Evan Braden Montgomery, and Andrew F. Krepinevich, its president, explain. (No link — behind a pay wall.)

Writing in these pages last spring, James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, both of the Council on Foreign Relations, maintained that the United States could contain Iran even if it developed a nuclear arsenal by establishing clear “redlines” that Tehran would not be allowed to cross without risking some type of retaliation. … This argument reflects the public position of many senior U.S. and European officials, as well as a number of prominent academics and defense intellectuals.

After citing numerous reservations, they write:

The greatest concern [is] that either side [Iran or Israel] would launch a first strike on the other despite the enormous risks and costs involved. … Given Israel’s enormous quantitative and qualitative advantage in nuclear weapons … Tehran might fear a disarming preventive or preemptive strike. During a crisis, then, the Iranian leadership might face a “use them or lose them” dilemma with respect to its nuclear weapons and resolve it by attacking first.

For their part, Israeli leaders might also be willing to strike first, despite the enormous risks. Israel’s small size means that even a few nuclear detonations on its soil would be devastating. [Meanwhile] Iran’s nuclear arsenal is likely to be small at first and perhaps vulnerable to a preventive attack. … And the willingness to execute a preventive or preemptive strike when confronting a serious threat is a deeply ingrained element of Israel’s strategic culture, as Israel demonstrated in its attacks against Egypt in 1956 and 1967, against Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981, and against a suspected Syrian nuclear site in 2007.

In other words, both states would soon find themselves trapped inside the constricting world of nuclear strategy, where no good options exists, only horrific and, marginally less so, horrendous. Furthermore, given

… the close proximity of states in the Middle East, and the very short flight times of ballistic missiles in the region, any new nuclear powers might be compelled to “launch on warning” of an attack [retaliate before a nuclear attack is confirmed — Ed.]

Moving down to yet another circle of danger:

Their governments might also delegate launch authority to lower-level commanders, heightening the possibility of miscalculation and escalation.

As you can see, the danger is not only the politics of Iran and Israel and their jittery leaders, but the possible consequences of mutual possession of nuclear weapons of disparate quantity and quality between two states in close proximity. Hawks call for an attack on Iran because it ostensibly seeks to create an “existential” threat to Israel. Progressives condemn Israel for its eagerness to attack a state that may be seeking to arm itself with weapons that Israel itself possess. Both camps need to take a step back and acknowledge the regional security concerns of both states.

If we focused on the impartial problems that nuclear weapons create for their possessors in such a context, we might [editor enters dream mode] make some headway in ratcheting down tensions between Israel (in tandem with Western hawks) and Iran. Instead of pointing fingers at states, point out the hazards that the situation, independent of the protagonists’ intentions, creates.

Is Rick Perry Trying to Get Rid of Nuclear Weapons?

Running for the Republican nomination for president, Rick Perry has been prone to flubs that raise questions about his suitability for the office. (Hey, at least they draw attention away from the truly epic scale of his corruption, as chronicled by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.) His worst may have occurred at the November 9th debate, when he expressed his wish to eliminate three federal agencies.

Apparently, though, he failed to write them down on the palm of his hand a la Sarah Palin and was only able to remember two. Fifteen minutes later, after referring to his notes, he informed those in attendance that the third federal agency he would target was the Department of Energy. In fact, he calls for its abolition on a regular basis.

Aside from strangling government in general, why is the DOE high on the list of agencies condemned by Republicans? First, it exists to advance energy technology and innovation, which includes wind and solar, of little use to a party dependent on the funding of legacy energy like oil and gas. Also, Republicans can’t resist kicking the dead horse of Solyndra, described by the Washington Post as “the now-shuttered California company [which] had been a poster child of President Obama’s initiative to invest in clean energies and received the administration’s first energy loan of $535 million.”

It’s true, as IPS’s Robert Alvarez informs us, that “since 1990, Energy has remained prominent on the GAO’s list of high-risk federal agencies vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse.” But Perry — or his people, to be more exact — seems to have overlooked a key function of the Department of Energy. E.J. Dionne explains at the Washington Post:

Would [Perry] scrap the department’s 17 national labs, including such world-class facilities as Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Yes, the National Nuclear Security Administration is one of the Department of Energy’s divisions. Its stated mission is to “ensure the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile has been met through its Stockpile Stewardship Program.” Alvarez reminds us that Perry is not the first man who sought to abolish the Department of Energy while president:

When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, one of his first goals was to abolish Energy and eliminate the government’s role in the energy sector. But he was unable to kill the department because neither he nor his supporters could figure out what to do with the country’s sprawling nuclear weapons complex, a key part of Energy’s mandate. Ever since, nuclear weapon stewardship has dominated the department’s agenda.

Unfortunately my fantasy that shutting down the Department of Energy would deal a serious blow to the U.S. nuclear-weapons program is just that. More likely, the National Nuclear Security Administration would be privatized and wind up like Los Alamos and Lawerence Livermore Laboratory. At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson explains (no link — behind a pay wall).

Los Alamos National Security (LANS), a consortium headed by the Bechtel Corporation with the University of California as a junior partner, won the contract [to manage Los Alamos] in 2005. A year later, it also won the contract to run the lab at Livermore. To boost profits, Bechtel increased the management fee tenfold, rewarding its senior LANS officials. The budget was static but costs increased, resulting in heavy job losses at the Livermore Laboratory.

In other words, a privatized nuclear-weapons complex would live on, but with even more mismanagement and waste than when a division of the Department of Energy.

A Brief History of the Number Two

Cross-posted from Tikkun.

The poem is dedicated to my family friend Navenka Gritz, whose son David was killed by a bomb at Hebrew University in 2002.

For Navenka

Sometimes the same picture –
a young man’s wave
of horse chestnut hair, walnut eyes –
the photo again and again
on bookshelves, bedside table,
kitchen windowsill, dresser.

I can hardly stand to look
but the mother looks and looks,
drinks and drinks, listens
to the voice of her son
in the old cassette tapes
he made: Sibelius,
Led Zeppelin, Brahms –
while working in her studio,

winding the thread tight
and each finished piece
is for him, he lives
in this yellow bead, this thread
circling the bead, its sheen
is the son, its route on the board
the body the mother washed,
each hair she stroked
in the morning, waking him.

I want to wake him, her son,
and send the other boy –
the bomber – home
to his own mother.

I want to tell the bomber
to choose to live.

To live to drink tea
and care for his mother
as her knees give out
and her fingers cramp.
The cramped fingers
of the bomber’s mother
playing in the generous mass
of her son’s hair again.

Sarah Browning is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the director of the Split This Rock poetry project.

Israel’s Pickle: Iran (Part 2)

3.

Israeli Perceptions of Iran

Will Israel succeed in creating a second coming of the anti-Iranian front and dragging the United States and its NATO allies along with it? How far is it willing to go to shift the region’s priorities back in a direction which it prefers? What is it willing to do if it cannot resurrect the alliance?

If the evidence is lacking to substantiate the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, regardless, this has not dissuaded Israel from imagining its existence. With paranoia replacing analysis, the debate in Israel is not whether or not such a program is even being developed but how to attack Iran irrespectively.

It is clear that Iran’s current nuclear program – even one based upon the peaceful use of the atom – has provoked a level of insecurity in Israel. A nuclear Iran threatens Israeli self-confidence by crossing two “redlines” in the Israeli strategic psyche.

  1. First, the arsenal of a single country would pose an existential threat. Focusing on Iran’s ultimate destructive capability rather than its intentions, Israeli strategists therefore view a nuclear Iran apocalyptically.
  2. Second, many Israelis believe that the end of Israel’s nuclear monopoly would terminate the country’s ultimate insurance policy, fundamentally undermining Israel’s general deterrence posture.

Three schools of thought have emerged within the Israeli defense establishment concerning Iran crossing the nuclear threshold

  • The first school sees a nuclear Iran as a cold-mindedly pragmatic country, which represents the ultimate strategic challenge.
  • The second school perceives a nuclear Iran as a reckless, irrational regime, which constitutes a fully materialized existential threat.
  • The third – and smallest — school sees an opportunity for reconciliation through mutual disarmament.

The proponents of the first school – those who subscribe to the Cold War notion of mutual assured destruction (MAD) – would reconcile themselves to the new strategic environment. For political and operational reasons, the MAD school considers military action against Iran ineffective and impossible after Iran’s nuclearization.

Constructing a New Balance of Terror

Assuming that Iranian leaders are radical but reasonable, MAD proponents rely on Israel’s ability to influence Iran’s cost-benefit considerations. This tendency approximates the Iranian nuclear mentality to the Soviet one. They assume that a nuclear weapons program reduces Iran’s sense of vulnerability, thus enabling more constructive dialogue and a higher degree of stability despite significant differences in strategic cultures and ideologies.

Determined to construct a “balance of terror” model, the MAD school favors termination of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy. To them, revealing Israel’s nuclear capabilities, outlining its nuclear posture, and communicating redlines and the prices for crossing them to a certain extent bolsters the credibility of Israeli deterrence.

The second school – those subscribing to the hard-nosed doctrine of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — refuses to accept the new strategic environment, maintaining instead that Iran should be removed forcibly from the nuclear club, in much the same way as Israel approached Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981 and, reportedly, the Syrian reactor in 2007.

Many in this group view Iranian leaders as reckless decision-makers, ready to commit collective martyrdom or transfer nuclear weapons to radical proxies, and therefore they would consider nuclear deterrence irrelevant. Others argue that a stable MAD regime with Iran is impossible because Iranian decision-makers might misinterpret Israel’s strategic considerations.

Appealing to the history of the Arab-Israeli wars, several of which were preceded by inaccurate Arab strategic estimates, the proponents of this view emphasize the disproportionally higher price of miscalculation this time. Advocates of this school question the value of terminating the policy of ambiguity, arguing that even a “bomb in the basement” preserves sufficient deterrent power, whereas disclosure might expose Israel to international pressure and stimulate a regional nuclear arms race.

In light of the world’s unwillingness to intervene, members of the Begin school argue that Israel alone is responsible for preventing Iran from gaining the necessary technology.

Their optimism regarding the possible Iranian retaliation is based on the history of Israeli resilience in the face of Iraq’s scud attacks in 1991, and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s rocket strikes. Also, they take solace in the widespread belief in the inaccuracy of Iran’s missiles and would place their trust in Israel’s Arrow and PAC-3 missile defense capabilities.

The third school – a distinct minority – challenges prevailing views in the Israeli security establishment and among the public by calling for Israeli nuclear disarmament. These nuclear abolitionists suggest dismantling Israel’s nuclear capabilities as part of a comprehensive regional peace agreement, which would presumably enable regional cooperation and the construction of anti-Iranian security architecture. However, in order to verify their basic assumptions, many abolitionists might first gravitate toward the MAD school, which they would perceive as an intermediate stage on the path toward their final goal.

For political and operational reasons, the Israeli security establishments are reluctant to strike Iran without U.S. support. The three schools disagree on whether a nuclear Iran or a deteriorating relationship with the United States would pose a greater threat to Israel’s security.

The Begin school argues that when its existence is at stake, Israel does not need permission from anyone to determine its own fate.

The MAD group is probably opposed to an attack, in light of Washington’s reservations. After all, an Israeli strike might cause Iranian retaliation against U.S. regional targets, increase anti-Americanism worldwide, drag the United States into an undesired military confrontation. This was clearly spelled out few days ago by the US Secretary of Defense: disturb the oil market and shipping lanes, and eventually sour the special relationship between Israel and the United States, thus ultimately eroding Israel’s deterrence posture.

Developing a nuclear deterrence posture for the non-existing Iranian threat, would run counter to Israel’s long-standing view of the “bomb in the basement” as a last resort, to be used only when the country’s survival is threatened. Alternatively, if Israel chooses to maintain this traditional position, then it will be forced to develop a new and credible deterrence posture based on its conventional capabilities.

This group believes that the establishment of a communications channel between Iran and Israel, similar to that introduced by Moscow and Washington following the Berlin and Cuban crises, would be indispensable for developing a stable deterrence relationship and preventing deterioration due to miscalculations.

In order for Israel to live with Iran, its strategic mentality would have to adjust and its leaders would have to grapple with several cognitive dissonances. First and foremost, the Israeli government would have to wrestle with the image of Iran that it has constructed. Deconstructing and reworking the image will not be easy. For years, Israeli leaders have appealed to popular fears by cultivating the specter of a second Holocaust in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is equated with Hitler and Iranian leadership as fanatical and irrational.

If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the Israeli government will likely seek to assure its population that Israel possesses effective countermeasures and that a stable MAD regime is feasible. However, to make this explanation convincing, the Israeli establishment will have to spell out that Iran is a rational strategic player that can be deterred. Such a message would be confusing and disorienting for Israelis because it contradicts everything that the Israeli government has been preaching to itself, its citizens, and the world for decades.

Second, if the MAD school prevails, Israeli strategists will be forced to adapt to a new reality that runs against their very nature. Israel has long seen military superiority as the cornerstone of its security and its deterrence posture.

Third, given the regional redistribution of power, Israel’s military action would be relatively restricted and diplomatic channels might take on greater importance, upending the Israeli tradition of marginalizing diplomacy when it comes to matters of national security.

Fourth, Israel might have to project a new image of itself as a careful and composed actor rather than the “crazy when furious” reputation that the Israel Defense Forces have cultivated. In a nuclear standoff, this traditional image would not necessarily contribute to a stable deterrence regime.

Israel is dragging the world to the edge of a precipice. Let us hope that the more rational sources there win the day. The alternative is unthinkable.

Read Part 1.

Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint Ph.D. program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Israel Attacking Iran Is Like Kettle Bombing the Pot Black

Israel denouncing Iran for enriching uranium and working on nuclear-weapons technology is like a kettle calling the pot black. First, in the interests of clarity, this author is not an Iran apologist. But, however destabilizing, not to mention duplicitous, Iran’s nuclear-weapons R&D may be, it’s not necessarily illegal. At Race for Iran, Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett explain.

Iranian efforts to develop a “nuclear weapons capability”, as described by [Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency] may make American and Israeli elites uncomfortable. But it is not a violation of the NPT or any other legal obligation that the Islamic Republic has undertaken. While the NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states from building atomic bombs, developing a nuclear weapons capability is, in Baradei’s words, “kosher” under the NPT, see here. It is certainly not a justification—strategically, legally, or morally—for armed aggression against Iran.

Israel, of course, hasn’t signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and its refusal to come clean about its nuclear-weapons program is exponentially more duplicitous than whatever Iran has hidden about its nuclear-weapons work. To those states that have signed the NPT, Israel’s program is undeniably illegal. As reported by the Washington Post in 2005, former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani presented the view of Iran as an NPT signatory (fancy word for signer).

Allegations that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons were being made … “when Israel has stockpiled banned nuclear weapons without any protest or opposition from the IAEA.”

Israel scores as low on the legality of its nuclear-weapons program as the other non-NPT signers that possess nuclear weapons — North Korea, Pakistan, and India. But it scores high on the unwritten rationality index of illegal nuclear weapons states maintained by the West. North Korea — considered most likely to launch a first strike with its nuclear weapons as first strike — is at the bottom. In the middle, though sliding inexorably downwards, is Pakistan. Along with India, Israel occupies the top spot, despite its war-mongering, which begs the question of not only a pre-emptive strike against Iran but even, if desperate, a nuclear attack.

Yes, Israel’s “rational” leaders rattle their sabers at least as much as Kim Jong-il. As Simon Tisdall wrote at the Guardian:

Those glum doomsayers, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, defence chief Ehud Barak, and president Shimon Peres, are frantically ringing alarm bells like a trio of demented churchwardens.

Let’s review. Iran has signed NPT, possesses no nuclear weapons, and threatens to bomb nobody. Legality: However legalistically, its nuclear program passes. Rationality: Despite what many in Israel and in the United States believe, it seeks neither the decimation of the Jewish state nor a conflagration to pave the way for the return of the Mahdi. Thus, it passes. Cooperation: With the IAEA — juvenile … fails.

Israel, meanwhile, has never signed the NPT, may possess hundreds of nuclear weapons (possibly including the thermonuclear “H bomb”), and threatens Iran on a regular basis. Legality: Fails: Rationality: Fails. Cooperation: Questionable at best. Especially, if this “disclosure, made by insiders briefed on a top-secret meeting between America’s most senior defence chief and Benjamin Netanyahu,” as reported by the Telegraph on November 12, is true:

[The Obama administration] was rebuffed last month when [it] demanded private guarantees that no strike would go ahead without White House notification, suggesting Israel no longer plans to “seek Washington’s permission”, sources said.

A state that’s in possession of an illegal nuclear weapons program and that’s beating the drums for war with the manic intensity of a Japanese taiko drum group can stake no claim to the moral high ground. Nor does a state, such as the United States, that supports such a state. Ultimately the kettle needs to break out the lye and scrub off its own black before it can expect another state to come up shiny.

The Iranian Dilemma: Israel (Part 1)

The streets of Tehran.

The streets of Tehran.

1.

A bit odd.. a media leak reveals a conversation between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which the latter tells the former that he, Sarkozy is “fed up” with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and “considers him a liar.” This comes some six weeks after German Chancellor Angela Merkel “read Netanyahu the riot act” over the Israeli decision to build 1,000 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Gilo.

Netanyahu is not used to being kicked around that way, at least not by Israel’s European allies. Are Sarkozy and Merkel merely saying more or less out loud what Obama dares not say? Are they “giving Netanyahu a message” and if so, what? Merkel was annoyed (the word “infuriated” was circulated in the media) by Netanyahu’s settlement announcement, Sarkozy’s outburst most probably has to do with something else – French (and perhaps U.S.) frustration with the Israeli Prime Minister over a possible Israeli military strike against Iran. It could be that Sarkozy’s comment was a simple warning: Don’t Do It; Don’t Attack Iran.

What is clear is that Israel is in a pickle over Iran. It is considering its options, one of which, once again, is to attack the Islamic Republic to destroy its nuclear program. At least that is the commonly used pretext.

Israel Caught Off Guard

For decades before the advent of the Arab Spring, Israel has tried to capitalize on the lack of democracy (or its weakness) throughout the Middle East and Arab world. But when the democratic wave broke region-wide, Israel, like the United States, was caught off guard. Excepting a few isolated voices, there was no cheering on the Arab Spring in Tel Aviv.

To the contrary…

As the Arab Spring extended beyond Tunisia to the rest of the region, long-held alliances between Israel, Egypt and Turkey began to fray – if not unravel. Sympathy for the Palestinians surged and Israel’s status plummeted, not just in the Third World, but also in Europe to a great extent. If Israel could still count on the U.S. Congress to genuflect, it is no longer true of the American people, who have begun to have doubts, including in the American Jewish Community.

Along these lines, something else happened. The wind was taken out of the sales of the U.S.-Israeli anti-Iranian campaign. On the surface the anti-Iranian alliance is a curious hodgepodge uniting Israel and seeming allies like Saudi Arabia in a common effort to produce “regime change” in Iran. In less polite language, “regime change” refers to nothing less than combined effort to effort to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran by any means necessary.

Still, the anti-Iranian coalition lost considerable momentum over the past year, undermining Israel’s position in the region as the Arab partners have been pre-occupied. It turns out the argument Iran is a threat to the region – never convincing – is falling flat. The “threat” Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the region faced had nothing to do with Iran. Instead it had its roots in the socio-economic policies and U.S.-backed authoritarian regions which had long stifled development and democracy.

It should come as no surprise that as the Arab Spring extended far beyond Tunisia, that accordingly, the potency of the “Iranian Threat” shrank and nearly collapsed, this despite attempts of the Israelis and certain figures in the Obama Administration – Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden – both with long histories of close cooperation with Israel in particular, to revive it.

A strengthened Iran – nuclear or non – represents for Israel a kind of geo-political adversary that hasn’t existed in the region since the punch was taken out of Egyptian nationalism in the 1967 Middle East war. It will force a revision of Israeli regional strategic thinking, undermine its regional hegemony some, and force Israel, sooner or later to make concessions – including on the Palestinian question – that the Zionist state has long resisted.1

Attempting to recover from the initial shock, in something approaching desperation, Israel has tried to shift the agenda and contain the Arab Spring. At the heart of Israel’s current strategy is:

  • reviving the anti-Iranian alliance
  • contain the Arab Spring
  • regain some of its eroding political status and initiative
  • at a time when there are growing questions in Washington concerning the U.S.-Israeli alliance, remind the United States that Israel can still be an important strategic ally, essential for the U.S. to accomplish its strategic goals

The streets of Tel Aviv.

The streets of Tel Aviv.

2.

Recovering from the blow to its influence, Israel concluded that the best way for it to help the United States contain the Arab Spring was to resurrect the anti-Iranian coalition either as it existed before, or, perhaps with new arrangement (that would involve France, Italy more directly).

In order to prepare for its new anti-Iran campaign, obviously supported by the Obama Administration and a significant chunk of the media in the U.S., Israel still had much work to do. First it had to “calm the waters” fouled in recent years and has worked to do so in a number of ways:

  • The Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange was meant to temporarily downplay the Palestinian issue at this time. While it is true that the members of the recent Gaza flotilla were treated roughly, this time no one was killed. Timing not right.
  • Likewise, when Israel soldiers killed Egyptian border guards in a recent skirmish, Israel moved quickly to keep the issue from escalating into a more serious confrontation.
  • Although Israeli-Turkish relations have greatly soured, Israel offered Ankara emergency aid for its earthquake victims in Eastern Turkey.
  • Netanyahu has even floated thoughts – not to be taken too seriously – of re-opening negotiations with the Palestinians.

The overall theme of all these gestures is clear – to reduce tensions enough so that hopefully, with Israel’s urging, the pre-Arab Spring political constellations can be rebuilt, the Arab Spring contained and the Islamic Republic of Iran overthrown. Nor is this anything new. Both the United States and Israel have repeatedly tried to resurrect the Iranian threat at different times over the past decade, recently less effectively.

Indeed it is a stale, well-worn strategy.

More and more Iran in 2011 is beginning to resemble the build-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, this despite the fact that an Iranian nuclear program for military purposes remains unproven. So here we go again – same old, same old with a few new twists. Goebbel’s famous statement about repeating a frequently repeated lie finally being accepted as truth comes to mind. And as the myth of the Iranian threat has been so often repeated, who knows, it might work.

To Get the Fear-Mongering Rolling

To get the fear mongering rolling, the Israelis got a little help in jump starting the hysteria from the Obama Administration, specifically CIA director David Petraeus, who helped poison the air by floating the unlikely accusation that the Iranians, through a Texas used car dealer in tandem with a Mexican drug gang, were keen on assassinating the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. in Washington D.C.

While this was even too much for the U.S. media, in retrospect an important point was missed – this was the opening round of a new offensive against Iran to be followed by others. That the incident was rather sloppily fabricated did not in the least bother Petraeus (or Obama) since U.S. administrations have been creating such scenarios for decades.

Round two opens with the latest IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program. Even before the report was issued (November 8, 2011), the media has “somehow” grabbed hold of it. Frankly there is virtually nothing new in this report from previous ones. Everything concerning an Iranian nuclear weapons program is little more than innuendo. But now the IAEA is headed by Yukiya Amano, much more pliant to U.S. pressure than his predecessor, and the “suggestions” of the report more ominous.

As with the accusation of the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador, the new IAEA report proves little to nothing other than adding to the drumbeat for war. It should come as no surprise that Iran’s nuclear program is the lever Israel hopes to pull to bring its old allies back together into one happy war-mongering family.

And Israel raises the decibel level in a dangerous game in a region so overloaded with weapons and countries that don’t trust each other. But in part it is necessary to exaggerate the Iranian threat, first of all because none exists. So some kind of contrived major crisis is needed – with a bit more voltage than in the past – to bring the dangling elements of the alliance back in line.

Israel is dragging the world to the edge of a precipice. Let us hope that the more rational voices there win the day. The alternative is unthinkable.

Footnotes:

1The United States has its own reasons for opposing Iran, including the humiliation it suffered during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, Iran’s historic role as a pioneer of nationalizing (or trying to) oil resources, and the very fact that the Islamic Republic largely outside of U.S. political and economic influence. At a time of tightening oil supplies and future intense competition over energy sources, “disciplining” Iran to play the energy role more conducive to U.S. interests has become something of an obsession in Washington. “Taking out” Iran weakens China and gives the United States greater strategic leverage over global economy in general.

    Reference:

    Once More The Specter of a US and/or Israeli Military Attack Against Iran Looms, August 10, 2010

    Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint PhD program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

    U.S. to Bomb Iran to Keep Israel From Attacking It?

    At Foreign Affairs, three members of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, including the president, Andrew Krepinevich (the author, incidentally, of an eye-opening book: 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century), present rationales for a U.S. attack on Iran. In an essay titled Why Obama Should Take Out Iran’s Nuclear Program (and subheaded “The Case for Striking Before It’s Too Late”), they mention the obvious:

    If Iran became a nuclear power and the United States reacted with a policy of containment, nuclear weapons would only be more appealing as the ultimate deterrent to outside intervention. … Iran’s rivals for regional dominance, such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, might seek their own nuclear devices to counterbalance Tehran.

    But first they write that

    … the Obama administration has downplayed the findings of the new IAEA report, suggesting that a change in U.S. policy [towards Iran] is unlikely. Yet this view underestimates the challenges that the United States would confront once Iran acquired nuclear weapons.

    By “acquired,” one assumes the authors mean that Iran has gone beyond developing the capability to actually building nuclear weapons. In which case

    … the nuclear balance between these two antagonists would be unstable. Because of the significant disparity in the sizes of their respective arsenals (Iran would have a handful of warheads compared to Israel’s estimated 100-200), both sides would have huge incentives to strike first in the event of a crisis. Israel would likely believe that it had only a short period during which it could launch a nuclear attack that would wipe out most, if not all, of Iran’s weapons and much of its nuclear infrastructure without Tehran being able to retaliate. … Decision-makers would be under tremendous pressure to act quickly.

    In fact, the article isn’t as hawkish as the title and subhead suggest. The authors conclude not with an exhortation but with a warning.

    … the United States faces the difficult decision of using military force soon to prevent Iran from going nuclear, or living with a nuclear Iran and the regional fallout.

    Still, they suggest that the United States should consider bombing Iran not only to keep it from mounting a nuclear attack on Israel, but to keep Israel from attacking Iran. As a non-signatory to the nuclear non-Proliferation Act, Israel possesses a nuclear program that’s at least as much outside international law as Iran’s. Applying the concept of a preemptive or preventive attack equally, shouldn’t the United States attack Israel as well?

    U.S. Sends a Message to Iran With Arms Sales to Gulf States

    Cross-posted from the Arabist.

    The U.S. is not so much ignoring the Arab Spring (since it cannot be ignored), but viewing it in the larger context — i.e., our cold-hot war with the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1979 to the present. As one U.S. official told the WSJ when asked how arms sales to the U.S.’s Arab allies were being impacted by domestic unrest, the response was, “We in the military are poised to get back to normalcy,” i.e., arms sales that send a clear message to Iran (ironically, when Warren G. Harding first used that word in 1920, it was followed up by a major reduction of the U.S. armed forces’ strength).

    From Reuters:

    The Pentagon is considering a significant sale of [4,900] Joint Direct Attack Munitions [JDAMs] made by Boeing Co, adding to other recent arms deals with the UAE. These include the sale of 500 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles about which U.S. lawmakers were notified in September.

    The sale of Boeing-built “bunker-buster” bombs and other munitions to UAE, a key Gulf ally, is part of an ongoing U.S. effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran.

    The JDAMs are compatible with the UAE’s strike aircraft, specifically the U.S.-made F-16s that comprise a large part (3 squadrons, around 80 aircraft) of the UAE’s airforce, which sits astride Persian Gulf waters facing Iran. The U.S. airforce maintains a small logistics base in the UAE.

    The UAE, according to The National and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, was the world’s “fourth-largest arms buyer” in 2009, ranking ahead of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, particularhbly in purchases of fighter aircraft. The U.S. is the UAE’s main source of arms purchases, followed by France.

    While neoconservatives are increasingly blasting the Obama Administration for “green lighting” Iranian ambitions by appearing weak and indecisive, the U.S. has expanded arms sales to its Gulf allies since 2008. In 2010, a US$60 billion arms sale with Saudi Arabia went through, the largest single arms sale in U.S. history to a single country. The only stalled measure in this arena is that a US$53 million arms deal with Bahrain announced in October is now being held up pending a human rights commission’s report (expected to come out on November 23). The suspension is the result of U.S. embarrassment over the fact that weapons from an earlier US$200 million arms sale might have been used against demonstrators.

    In addition to these arms sales, preexisting and forthcoming contracts with the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia will see more missile defense systems heading to these states. Once the withdrawal from Iraq is completed, the U.S. will retains its important Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain, the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (which the UK also uses), the Indian Ocean Diego Garcia facility, and approximately 40,000 soldiers spread throughout GCC states. A planned “CIA drone base” aimed at the Horn of Africa and Yemen, but likely capable of participating in an action against Iran, is reported to be under construction somewhere in the region.

    It’s no NATO, but it’s got teeth. Whether it bites or not is another story.

    Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

    Do Iran’s Objections to the IAEA Report Deserve Consideration?

    Yukiya Amano, IAEA Director General

    Yukiya Amano, IAEA Director General

    Much of the U.S. media, with instigation from hawkish voices in Israel, France, the U.K. and the U.S., has been whipped into an anti-Iran frenzy over the last week surrounding the release of a much-ballyhooed report from the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The report, which expresses the Director General’s “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” has been dismissed by Iranian leaders as politically biased in favor of the U.S. administration, and lacking in any direct evidence of a weapons program.

    In a sentence now removed from the web version of the article in which it appeared (it can still be found in external links to the article, like the one here), the New York Times’ Robert Worth described the Iranian response thus:

    Professing outrage over the release of a United Nations report on Iranian nuclear ambitions, Iran’s leaders escalated their anti-American vitriol on Wednesday, calling the report a fabrication, denouncing its chief author as a Washington stooge and vowing that their country would not be bullied into abandoning its nuclear program.

    The same article refers to “voluminous evidence not previously disclosed,” and the Washington Post editorial board goes one step further, stating that the report “ought to end serious debate about whether Tehran’s program is for peaceful purposes.” But rarely do the scions of the informed public give their readers insight into what sort of evidence is used to support the report’s claims, where it comes from or how the Iranian regime has refuted those claims.

    A deeper look into just that, however, may cast serious doubts on the report’s objectivity and veracity, raising the question: just how far-fetched are Iran’s claims that the IAEA Directorate General is politically compromised?

    Prior to the release of the report on Tuesday, November 8, White House press secretary Jay Carney augured that the report’s findings would “echo and reinforce” the long-held U.S. stance that the Iranian government seeks to build nuclear weapons, contrary to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And indeed, Carney’s foresight was by no means preternatural: as evidenced in this 2009 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, the U.S. had secured the support of IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in its campaign against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as a quid-pro-quo for American support of his candidacy in the wake of Egyptian Nobel Laureate Mohammad El-Baradei’s resignation.

    But could one man’s personal bias really manipulate the IAEA’s evidence – what the Washington Post referred to as “over 1,000 pages of documents, interviews with renegade scientists who helped Iran and material from 10 governments”? Well, that depends.

    A devastating piece of reporting from Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service follows one of the main pieces of evidence cited in the report to its source. The report, Porter says,

    repeated the sensational claim previously reported by news media all over the world that a former Soviet nuclear weapons scientist had helped Iran construct a detonation system that could be used for a nuclear weapon.

    But it turns out that the foreign expert, who is not named in the IAEA report but was identified in news reports as Vyacheslav Danilenko, is not a nuclear weapons scientist but one of the top specialists in the world in the production of nanodiamonds by explosives.

    In other words, his legitimate reason for being in Iran from 1996-2002 was not a cover, it really was legitimate. As Porter points out, the Washington Think-Tanker who helped spread the word of this “renegade scientist” theory, David Albright, admitted the intelligence claims from an unidentified “member state” that spawned the theory almost certainly came from Israel. Later, that intelligence was incorporated into Amano’s findings without any independent verification.

    And Israel’s authority on nuclear non-proliferation should be completely null by now, considering that the Jewish State possesses a sizeable secret arsenal of its own and shared nuclear technology with the murderous apartheid regime of South Africa for years. But what about the other intelligence sources?

    Another fount of evidence supporting Amano’s report is likely the so-called “laptop of death” allegedly nabbed from an Iranian scientist by U.S. intelligence services in 2005. The smoking gun evidence on the laptop was all written in English, had no reference to official classification, and included graphs made on Microsoft PowerPoint. When this piece of evidence first surfaced in 2007 in connection to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program, it was largely dismissed by IAEA officials and international diplomats as a likely forgery. But that was before Yukiya Amano headed the agency. Indeed, Amano’s predecessor El Baradei publicly confirmed that Western Intelligence agencies had sought to exaggerate the threat of the Iranian nuclear program.

    At The Race for Iran, Flynt and Hillary Mann Levrett have put out a characteristically thoughtful piece on the report’s implications, putting the current belligerence of the U.S. and Israel in context.

    Whether or not it can be definitively stated that Iran seeks nuclear weapons capabilities, it should be understood that Iranian objections to the IAEA report are neither baseless nor hysterical. See for yourself the response of the Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA on Russia Today.

    Painting the Islamic Republic as an irrational actor, as was done to Saddam Hussein in 2003, serves to reinforce the case for war as a last resort. In reality, there are numerous steps short of invasion or even targeted air strikes that can and should be taken, if indeed Iran’s critics are mainly interested in avoiding nuclear conflict.

    V. Noah Gimbel is currently working on a book on Universities and Empire and can be reached at ngimbel@ips-dc.org .

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