Opinion

The Great Debate

Syria as dress rehearsal: Securing WMD in midst of civil war

As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.

As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk.  Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.

Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents.  Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today.  Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.

Pakistan stands out as the country of greatest concern.  First, its nuclear arsenal is sizable.  Islamabad stores more than 100 weapons, fed by several reactors and enrichment plants. The country also has a small but growing nuclear power sector.

But what makes Pakistan particularly dicey is that its dysfunctional government is confronting persistent terrorist violence — including attacks on military installations believed to house nuclear weapons components.  The unrest prompted Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff Ashlaq Kayani to say in August that the country could face civil war.

So what is Romney’s foreign policy?

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave his “Mantle of Leadership” speech Monday – his third major attempt in a year to outline his views on foreign policy.

In a speech filled with rhetoric rather than substance, and with repeated and false accusations about President Barack Obama’s national security record, Romney once again talked about how he would “strengthen our partnerships” – and once again failed to explain how he would manage relations with our friends in Europe, with whom we work closely on every major global challenge.

One central thesis in Romney’s speech, and in his criticism of the administration overall, has been that under Obama the U.S. has abandoned its allies. In addition to providing no evidence to support this claim, Romney barely mentioned the closest U.S. allies: our North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. In fact, this neglect has been a consistent theme throughout Romney’s campaign.

The verdict that shook Iran and Europe

They say a good news story is like an onion. The more one peels it, the newer and fresher are the layers that surface. If depth and longevity are the gold standards for a news story, then the assassinations of four Iranian opposition members at the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin in September 1992 surpasses that standard. That story is more like a cluster bomb: 20 years later, it continues to explode. The verdict that was issued in Germany five years after the killings, and the subsequent decision by the European Union to cut ties with Tehran in 1997, achieved what perpetual threats of war have not.

What was the achievement? To a multitude of Iranian exiles, first and foremost, it was the bestowing of an elemental human gift – safety. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s henchmen were methodically killing a list of 500 dissidents – artists, writers, intellectuals and opposition members – against whom the Ayatollah had issued fatwas. These “anointed” individuals were not safe whether they were in Washington, Rome, Paris or Geneva.

As European governments turned a blind eye, the assassins crossed border after border and accomplished their diabolical missions one after another. With dozens dead, a generation of patriotic and brilliant future leaders was lost. Until the Berlin court’s 1997 verdict, which implicated Tehran’s top leadership in masterminding the killings, the luxury of European Union safety belonged only to its native citizens.

Don’t forget Iran’s record of deception

Optimism that this week’s talks in Baghdad about Iran’s nuclear weapons program could produce a deal should be tempered with extreme skepticism and caution in light of the Islamic Republic’s long record of lies and deception.

The international media is awash with speculation that some kind of agreement is in the offing between the six nations that make up the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) and the Iranians.

Such a deal, we read, would require Iran to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent and ship its stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium (currently estimated at more than 100 kilograms) out of the country. Enrichment at the reinforced underground facility in Fordo, near Qom, would have to stop.

from Paul Smalera:

What real Internet censorship looks like

Lately Internet users in the U.S. have been worried about censorship, copyright legalities and data privacy. Between Twitter’s new censorship policy, the global protests over SOPA/PIPA and ACTA and the outrage over Apple’s iOS allowing apps like Path to access the address book without prior approval, these fears have certainly seemed warranted. But we should also remember that Internet users around the world face far more insidious limitations and intrusions on their Internet usage -- practices, in fact, that would horrify the average American.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world has come to accept censorship as a necessary evil. Although I recently argued that Twitter’s censorship policy at least had the benefit of transparency, it’s still an unfortunate cost of doing global business for a company born and bred with the freedoms of the United States, and founded by tech pioneers whose opportunities and creativity stem directly from our Constitution. Yet by the standards of dictatorial regimes, Internet users in countries like China, Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service. As we are seeing around the world, chances are, unfortunately, it won’t.

Consider the freedoms -- or lack thereof -- Internet users have in Iran. Since this past week, some 30 million Iranian users have been without Internet service thanks to that country’s blocking of the SSL protocol, right at the time of its parliamentary elections. SSL is what turns “http” -- the basic way we access the Web -- into “https”, which Gmail, your bank, your credit card company and thousands of other services use to secure data. SSL provides data encryption so that only each end point -- your browser and the Web server you’re logging into -- can decrypt and access the data contained therein.

What does Iran want?

Dennis Ross, until recently in charge of Iran in the Obama White House, has outlined why he thinks strengthened sanctions have created an environment in which diplomacy may now work to block Tehran’s development of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it is being reported that Iran has finally responded to a European Union letter requiring that renewed talks focus specifically on ensuring that the Iranian nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.

These are important developments, but they leave out half the equation. What can Iran hope to get from nuclear talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — plus Germany? Iran will certainly seek relief from sanctions, which have become truly punishing. But they will want more.

It is clear that Tehran’s first priority is an end to American efforts at regime change. This is not an issue Americans know or think much about, but it obsesses the Iranians. They believe that Washington has tried to bring about regime change in Tehran for decades. Iranian officials can entertain you for hours with stories about American (and Israeli) assistance to Azeri, Baloch and Kurdish rebels. The Arab Spring uprisings took their inspiration in part from Iran’s own “Green Movement,” which protested fraud in the 2009 presidential elections before being brutally repressed. While some in Congress view President Obama as insufficiently supportive of the Greens, the regime in Tehran thought the Americans were behind the whole movement.

from Ian Bremmer:

The truth about Israel’s rumored strike on Iran

At a time when President Obama has moved troops out of Iraq and is moving them out of Afghanistan, it’s looking increasingly like our worries in the Middle East are far from over. Maybe it’s not unprecedented, but it’s highly unusual for a sitting secretary of defense to worry in print (to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) that Israel could launch a strike against Iran as early as this spring. The point of the Israeli attack, according to Ignatius and Panetta, would be to stop Iran before it begins building a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is saying that it would find such a move foolhardy, and yet also reassuring both the Israeli and American publics that it is committed to Israel’s security.

But it’s probably not Israel’s true intention to strike Iran anyway.

According to Ignatius and many others, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe that waiting for the U.S. to strike Iran is an unwise stance. That’s because the U.S.'s threshold for sufficient proof of a nearly finished or completed Iranian nuclear weapon is likely much higher than that of Israel. If such proof came to light, only the U.S. at that point would have the capacity to take out the leadership in Tehran singlehandedly. But such an operation would create a leadership vacuum and leave whoever was running Iran with the bomb. Right now, Israel feels that it can make a dent with its own operation, heading off Iran’s bomb-making before it becomes an issue only the U.S. can deal with. But the window for that option is rapidly closing.

Despite Panetta’s public warnings, and despite Israel’s sudden silence (which many are taking as a sign that it’s gearing up internally for such a mission as this one), an attack on Iran isn’t as likely to occur in the spring as Washington or Tel Aviv would have us believe. That’s because even though new U.S. sanctions on the country went into effect this week, the real test of Iran’s economic fortitude will come around July 1, when the European Union's gradual introduction of a ban on oil from the country takes full effect. Unfortunately, even those sanctions are unlikely to do much to deter Iran, as India, China and African nations will likely continue to buy much of Iran’s oil production, and they will gain some concessions on price due to the artificially limited market. Nevertheless, Israel will presumably wait to see what happens.

To build a bridge to Iran, tap the diaspora

By Alidad Mafinezam
The views expressed are his own.

The online opening earlier this month of the “Virtual United States Embassy, Tehran, Iran” was billed by the U.S. government as an attempt at building a “bridge between the American and Iranian people.” Since the two countries haven’t had diplomatic relations for over three decades, this could mark the beginning of a proactive approach by the U.S. government toward Iran, suggesting a new focus on engaging the Iranian people and their government, an attempt at opening a new chapter in the hitherto fraught relationship between the two countries.

Yet, true to form, the Iranian government rejected the U.S. move, immediately blocked access to the site to those inside Iran, and called the initiative an attempt at spying on Iranians. Thus the opening of what was intended as a bridge between the two countries has turned into an exercise in information warfare and cyberspace competition.

The relationship between the American and Iranian people is too important to be left to governments alone. It is the Iranian diaspora in general, especially the million-strong Iranian- American community, who constitute the main human bridge between the U.S. and Iran, and they hold many of the solutions to Iran’s currently antagonistic relationship with North America and Europe.

Why the U.S. couldn’t stay in Iraq

By Christopher R. Hill
The opinions expressed are his own.

So be it. In a perfect world, the United States and Iraq would have worked out an arrangement by which some U.S. forces would have remained – probably considerably less than 10,000 – to continue to train Iraqi units, to cooperate with Iraqis on anti-terrorism operations, and to provide the necessary signal to all the neighbors – and not just Iran – to keep their hands off Iraq. But this isn’t a perfect world.

Why the deal didn’t happen had little to do with the so-called immunity issues that the U.S. insisted on, protections that our troops have when deployed to many other far-flung countries in the world. The reason was very simple: even Iraqis who benefitted enormously from the security provided by our troops, and for whom the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the happiest moment of their lives, could not, in the end, support a continuation of foreign troops in their country. Call it visceral. Call it cultural. The fact is, no one likes to be invaded and occupied, and for eight years, told what to do and how to behave. To extend the stay of even just a few U.S. troops was to extend what many Iraqis, mindful of their country’s history, considered another occupation. In the end, Prime Minister Maliki got very little support from any other Iraqi political identity. The Sunnis opposed the extension. So did the Shia. The Kurds, the third element in Iraq’s body politic, may have supported an extension, but they could not carry the day without the Iraqi Arabs.

What happens next, of course, is what everyone wants to know. President Obama talked positively about counting the days until Christmas when the troops will be home. But for many Iraqis, there has been a longstanding, deep-seated view that somehow the Americans, like the many previous foreigners in their lands, would never leave voluntarily. Those Iraqis, many of whom are on the violent fringes of Iraq’s politics, are about to learn something new about these latest “occupiers.”

America, Iran and a terrorist label

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Who says that the United States and Iran can’t agree on anything? The Great Satan, as Iran’s theocratic rulers call the United States, and the Islamic Republic see eye-to-eye on at least one thing, that the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) are terrorists.

America and Iran arrived at the terrorist designation for the MEK at different times and from different angles but the convergence is bizarre, even by the complicated standards of Middle Eastern politics. The United States designated the MEK a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997, when the Clinton administration hoped the move would help open a dialogue with Iran. Thirteen years later, there is still no dialogue.

But the group is still on the list, despite years of legal wrangling over the designation through the U.S. legal system. Britain and the European Union took the group off their terrorist lists in 2008 and 2009 respectively after court rulings that found no evidence of terrorist actions after the MEK renounced violence in 2001.

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