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.

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.

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.

from Ian Bremmer:

Fallout is just beginning in North Korea

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.

While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side -- and a promotion to four star general -- is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.

That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring -- for real or for show -- anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.

Nuclear bombs and the Israeli elephant

-The views expressed are the author’s own-

For the past four decades, there has been an elephant in the room whenever experts and government officials met to discuss nuclear weapons. The elephant is Israel’s sizeable nuclear arsenal, undeclared under a U.S.-blessed policy of “nuclear opacity.”

It means neither confirming nor denying the existence of nuclear weapons. “Deterrence by uncertainty,” as Israeli President Shimon Peres has called it. The United States became a silent partner in Israeli opacity with a one-on-one meeting between President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on Sept. 26, 1969.

That policy made strategic and political sense 40 years ago but it has outlived its usefulness, conflicts with Israel’s democratic values, is counter-productive and should be abandoned. So argues Avner Cohen, one of the world’s leading experts on Israel’s bomb, in a new book “The Worst-Kept Secret”, which delves deeply into the history and strategic and political implications of the policy.

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