December 31, 2005

Goss, Ulfkotte, Erdogan (And A Military Option in Iran?)

Der Spiegel:

Recent reports in the German media suggest that the United States may be preparing its allies for an imminent military strike against facilities that are part of Iran's suspected clandestine nuclear weapons program...

...The most talked about story is a Dec. 23 piece by the German news agency DDP from journalist and intelligence expert Udo Ulfkotte. The story has generated controversy not only because of its material, but also because of the reporter's past. Critics allege that Ulfkotte in his previous reporting got too close to sources at Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND. But Ulfkotte has himself noted that he has been under investigation by the government in the past (indeed, his home and offices have been searched multiple times) for allegations that he published state secrets -- a charge that he claims would underscore rather than undermine the veracity of his work.

According to Ulfkotte's report, "western security sources" claim that during CIA Director Porter Goss' Dec. 12 visit to Ankara, he asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to provide support for a possibile 2006 air strike against Iranian nuclear and military facilities. More specifically, Goss is said to have asked Turkey to provide unfettered exchange of intelligence that could help with a mission.

DDP also reported that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and Pakistan have been informed in recent weeks of Washington's military plans. The countries, apparently, were told that air strikes were a "possible option," but they were given no specific timeframe for the operations.

In a report published on Wednesday, the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel also cited NATO intelligence sources claiming that Washington's western allies had been informed that the United States is currently investigating all possibilities of bringing the mullah-led regime into line, including military options. Of course, Bush has publicly stated for months that he would not take the possibility of a military strike off the table. What's new here, however, is that Washington appears to be dispatching high-level officials to prepare its allies for a possible attack rather than merely implying the possibility as it has repeatedly done during the past year.[emphasis added]

I'd take all this with a massive grain of salt, and also point out that some of this leakage may be purposeful (so as to remind people in Teheran a military option does remain on the table, and so try to put a bit more muscle into the Euro-troika's languishing diplomatic efforts on Iranian non-proliferation). Also, Der Spiegel, shall we say, has a tendency to engage in hyperbole when it comes to journalistic narratives about the rampant militarization of U.S. foreign policy and such. So color me pretty skeptical that the U.S. will be pursuing air strikes in Persia in the New Year, or later in Bush's term for that matter. Still, it's an interesting story, and I'd invite other thoughts on its level of verisimilitude in comments.

UPDATE: Nadehzda, in comments, points out that Darling was on this eons ago (blog-time-wise, that is).

Posted by Gregory at 11:23 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 06, 2005

I do not claim oracle

But it seems my Weekly Standard article (which was originally going to be named "General Zod" and kudos to those who get the reference) on Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani was oddly prescient, as a senior British official is now blaming Iran for the killing of the 8 British soldiers that the UK has lost in Iraq so far this year.

This issue has been building for several months now, ever since IRGC explosives started showing up in Iraq over the summer. That the British are now coming forward and publicly accusing the IRGC of orchestrating this turn of affairs is noteworthy, as the British have traditionally downplayed most US allegations of Iranian involvement in Iraq. They haven't denied it, but they certainly haven't been as eager to promote it as US officials.

As a result, when British officials start saying something like this, attention must be paid:

A senior British official said there was evidence the Iranians were now in contact with Sunni Muslim insurgents fighting the coalition forces in Iraq.

... Sunni Muslims linked to al Qaeda have been blamed for trying to ignite a civil war with the majority Shias. The official said he still believed it could suit Iranian interests to work with the Sunni insurgents.

"There is some evidence that the Iranians are in contact with Sunni groups," he said.

"If part of the aim was to tie down the coalition in Iraq, it would be entirely consistent with supporting those groups."

... A British Foreign Office spokesman said: "Iranian links to militant groups are unacceptable and undermine Iran's long-term interest in a secure, stable and democratic Iraq."

This is by no means surprising for those of us who have argued, much to the chagrin of many experts, that the Shi'ite/Sunni sectarian barriers are not a barrier towards cooperation between Iranian cooperation with al-Qaeda and its allies, particularly given bin Laden's explicitly anti-sectarian views on the matter of said cooperation. Or, to use the words of the 9/11 Commission report:

In June 1996, an enormous truck bomb detonated in the Khobar Towers residential complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that housed U.S. Air Force personnel. Nineteen Americans were killed, and 372 wounded ... While the evidence of Iranian involvement is strong, there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown.

... In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support - even if only training - for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security.

... Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures after Bin Ladin's return to Afghanistan ... Khallad and other detainees have described the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan.

The "Iranian security officials" in question are almost certainly members of the Revolutionary Guards, which is one of the reasons why I regard Brigadier General Suleimani's activities as being so important to understanding what is going on here. European court documents, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism officials (such as the French individual quoted in the AFP story linked above) have also provided a wealth of evidence on collaboration between al-Qaeda, Zarqawi, and Ansar al-Islam and the IRGC. Indeed, given Zarqawi's emergence as the #1 figure in the Sunni insurgency, who exactly does one think the "Sunni groups" referenced by the British official above are? Some will argue that there is no way that such a thing could be possible given Zarqawi's unambiguous bigotry towards Shi'ites and the commonly held view that the new Iraqi government is made up of little more than Iranian pawns. To which I reply: whatever Zarqawi's personal views on Shi'ites (and he has had to temper his public statements to a degree since openly pledging himself to bin Laden), his immediate superior Saif al-Adel is currently based inside Iran. As to why Brigadier General Suleimani would ever back someone like Zarqawi, al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted him as saying that the former man's actions served what he believed to be the interests of Iran. As long as he and is subordinates in the IRGC hold to that opinion, there doesn't seem to be much interest in the Iranian hierarchy of dissuading them of it.

Now before the predictable allegations start floating to the surface, let me be clear: the UK has no desire, let alone capability, to initiate military action, let alone a war, with Iran. Neither do American neoconservatives in my opinion, though I suspect that I'll get a healthy storm of rebuttals to that statement. So given that none of these statements serve anyone's political interest at this time, I would urge observers to deal with them on surface value rather than questioning whether or not they're part of some elaborate design. Bringing up the issue error with respect to WMDs is also a logical fallacy on two points: it does not follow that just because the US and UK were wrong on WMDs that they are wrong on this and in the case of the WMDs they were not being actively deployed against coalition forces at the time the claims were made.

How these British allegations more specifically connect back to Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani is reasonably simple. Suleimani is the head of Qods Force, the elite Iranian military unit charged with carrying out extra-territorial operations. He is also a special advisor to Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Khamenei on Iraq, which means that if the Revolutionary Guards want to do something in Iraq, he is the one who approves it and oversees its execution. That makes him the most direct person responsible for the deaths of British servicemen in Iraq and, lest we forget, one of these IRGC- charges killed 14 US marines back in August.

The Guardian adds some additional information:

The explosives initially used by Iraq insurgents after the March 2003 invasion were crude and British forces were, for the most part, able to shrug them off. The bombs they face now are of a different order. They were designed by Hizbullah, the Lebanese-based Shia guerrilla group that fought the Israeli army for almost two decades and eventually forced it out of southern Lebanon.

A senior British official said yesterday that the bombs were imported by Iran -which, along with Syria, provides financial and logistical support to Hizbullah - and then passed on to insurgents in Iraq.

The disclosure that Iran is supplying such sophisticated weaponry for use against British forces marks a new low in relations between the two countries. For the first two years after the invasion of Iraq, British officials repeatedly made a point of saying that Iran had not been interfering in southern Iraq.

Since the spring, the tone has changed. In August, a British official described as unacceptable the smuggling of weapons from Iran into Iraq after a cache was intercepted at the border.

It also notes the failure of the European approach with respect to Iran to date:

The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna voted overwhelmingly last month to declare Iran in non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a first step towards possible punitive UN sanctions. Iran denounced the IAEA vote, calling it "illegal and illogical". Government spokesmen raised the prospect of reprisals, including withholding energy supplies to western European countries and withdrawal from the NPT.

Increasing the pressure on British forces in southern Iraq was not listed publicly among Tehran's possible reprisals. But that may have become an option now being exercised covertly, officials suggested. In other words, after the Vienna vote, the gloves are off.

"Iran's motives certainly don't seem that benign," the senior British official said. "If Iran wants to tie down the coalition in Iraq, then that's consistent with supplying insurgent groups."

Britain's decision to take a tougher line in public may also reflect a realisation that its policy of "critical engagement" with Iran, which was pioneered by the late Robin Cook and doggedly pursued by his successor as foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has run into a wall.

That belief was strengthened by the landslide triumph of Islamic hardliners in Iran's presidential election last June. The rise to power of their candidate, Mahmoud Amadinejad, a little known former mayor of Tehran, is the other key development that appears to have changed the Anglo-Iranian dynamic. His speech at the UN summit last month dismayed western governments because of what they called its "confrontational tone".

The deterioration of bilateral relations comes at a crucial juncture in Iraq; a referendum on its proposed constitution is due on October 15 and parliamentary elections are scheduled for December.

A couple of reality checks need to be added here, not the least of which being that the IRGC arms shipments appear to have predated the Vienna vote by more than a month and may well have been a contributing factor in its outcome, so blaming the vote on the IRGC's latest antics would seem to be a real-time exercise in alternate history. As to the fact that Iran doesn't appear to have benign motives, I don't see how anyone who has paid attention to the repeated and universally acknowledged Iranian interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as described by either side can come away with the idea that they harbor benign intentions.

Another major point is that Ahmadinejad was not simply appearing "confrontational," he appeared to be a flaming lunatic whose conspiracy-ridden speech stopped just short of overt advocacy of what Abdul Qadeer Khan was doing.

As noted by Yael Shahar:

The Islamic regime’s determination to continue supporting terrorism has forced the Iranian Foreign Ministry to strive, under extreme international pressure, to offset the damage caused by this policy to Tehran’s economic and political ties. In recent years, Iran has made considerable efforts to cast off its negative image as a state sponsoring terrorism. This has been motivated mainly by the desire for the economic advantages that can be had by altering its appearance vis-a-vis the West. Iran does not deny its adherence to Khomeini’s “Islamic revolutionary ideology”, which supports all radical Islamic movements worldwide. However the regime insists that Iranian support for these movements does not go beyond cultural, moral and humanitarian aid. Tehran strongly denies any military and/or financial assistance to these movements. Upon hearing these denials, it is well to bear in mind the principle of taqiyya (concealing the faith), a concept deeply embedded in the Shi’ite tradition, and according to which untruth can be used as a means of protection against the persecutors of the Shi’ite faithful.

... The only change that did occur in the Iranian terrorism scene in recent years has been essentially a tactical one. Iran has been careful to adjust its terror policy to international circumstances, in the realization that such activity does not play well to a Western audience. Iran does everything possible to ensure that its own actions are not perceived to be part of international terrorism. Iranian agents rarely take an active part in terror attacks; instead, missions are “out-sourced” to proxy organizations, such as the Hizballah, a regular contractor and central player in Iran’s terror strategy. Often terrorist groups active in the target country are trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and commissioned to carry out terrorist acts against common enemies.

Once this truism is understood, much of the rest of Iranian foreign policy falls into place rather nicely. With the reformists crushed and the IRGC ascendant, the rather thin veneer of plausible deniability that Khatami and the Iranian foreign ministry worked so hard to construct over the last several years is finally starting to drop and the results are far from pretty.

And after the manner of my mentor Michael Ledeen, faster, please.

Posted by at 10:10 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

October 05, 2005

Introduction and Brief Commentary

First of all, an introduction is probably in order for those who don't already know me. As I'm too lazy to come up with a new one, here is the same one I sent Greg:

"Dan Darling is a consultant for the Manhattan Institute's Center for Policing Terrorism and an occasional contributor to the Weekly Standard magazine. He is also a 22 year-old student at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, where he is currently completing his undergraduate degree in political science."

That's about the long and the short of it. Not as detailed or qualified as Greg or Eric, mind you, but hopefully just as interesting. As noted above, I do write on occasion for the Weekly Standard and am fortunate enough to have a piece out today on Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani. Compiled entirely from open sources, the general point of the piece is that if even half of what the open source information says about the activities of Brigadier General Suleimani is to be believed, it is long past time we started including this element in the public discussion of how we deal with Iran.

Another thing that needs to emphasized with regard to Brigadier General Suleimani is that he is not a pariah as far as the Iranian regime is concerned. Indeed, it is he and his fellow travelers among the most radical elements of the Revolutionary Guards that were so key with regard to ascension of Ahmadinejad.

Posted by at 07:50 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 26, 2005

The Iran Conundrum

A Ledeenian cri de coeur!

This is not a war on terror, it is paralysis at best, and appeasement at worst. The hell of it is that it is costing thousands of lives, and will cost many more until the terror masters are destroyed, or we surrender. Those words were inconceivable for many years, but it is a sign of our present fecklessness that they are now entirely appropriate. We can still lose this war. And we cannot win it so long as we are blinded by our potentially fatal failure of strategic vision: we are in a regional war, but we have limited our actions to a single theater. Our most potent weapons are political and ideological, but our actions have been almost exclusively military.

Our main enemy, the single greatest engine in support of the terror war against us, whether Sunni or Shiite, jihadi, or secular, Arab or British or Italian or Spaniard, is Iran. There is no escape from this fact. The only questions are how long it will take us to face it, how effective we will be when we finally decide to act, and how terrible the price will be for our long delay.

Why so shy Michael, amidst all this discontent on Iran policy, to pepper your NRO pieces with more concrete policy proposals? Put differently, what exactly is "serious action"? Sanctions? 'Free Iran' safe havens? Carte blanche to Uzi Landau to rev up the IDF's finest for commando raids around Isfahan? Loudly pouring money to the democratic opposition, the better so they be crudely painted as collaborators of the Great Satan, and brutally put down while we helplessly wail on about it in the commentariat? With all respect to Michael, with whom I correspond in cordial fashion, can he please point me to a portion of his Iran oeuvre where he details a realistic, implementable Iran strategy (with specifics!).

Meanwhile, Drezner writes:

I'm not saying that a move to the Security Council won't make sense at some point. But given the oil market at present, Iran has more economic leverage than they might in the future.

"...given the oil market at present..." Points for understatement of the week, Dan!

More from Hoagland:

A decision by the Bush administration not to press for economic sanctions against oil-producing Iran was sealed by the destructive force that the two hurricanes targeted on U.S. refining facilities and the resulting leap in crude oil and gasoline prices [ed. note: Well, it could be worse]. "We were already moving toward asking the Security Council to do no more than put Iran's nuclear program on its agenda for constant review and prodding," says a senior European official. "The prospect of a call for sanctions driving oil above $100 a barrel seemed to kill any lingering enthusiasm in Washington for such a move now."

I think it was Goldman, a good while back when oil was still in the 40s, that called the real prospects of a super-spike price floating around $105/barrel. We're not there yet, but sanctions in Iran would be one way to get us north of $80 might quick. The problem is, I can't imagine oil prices going under $40 for linking pushing Iran sanctions to lower oil prices seems like something of a recipe for inaction for a long time indeed. But, regardless, would sanctions even work? I'm not persuaded they would have the intended effect, not by a long shot. They are just as likely to lead to less modernization, re-invigorated (yes, even more than current conditions!) oppression, xenophobia, nationalist re-awakening, etc etc. And did sanctions expedite Saddam's fall, or did they instead enrich his regime while, instead, his people suffered? Why would it be different with the mullah's (but wait, it's the post-Volker era!)?

Let's throw this out to comments. Has the time for resucitating a dialogue with Iran come? If it 'worked' (just perhaps!) for NoKo, mightn't it for Iran? Or are we just going to rag on those fuddy-duddy Euros for not being able to get results in their troika-rounds--while stewing helplessly in the Beltway with no better strategy really on offer?

P.S. I still think this is the best way forward.

...better for Washington to propose to Teheran a "compartmentalized process of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement. The U.S. should identify the discrete set of issues where critical U.S. and Iranian interests converge, and must be prepared to make progress along separate tracks, even while considerable differences remain in other areas."

The key tracks? 1) Iran's role in Iraq and 2) Iran's nuclear weapons capability. Of less immediate urgency, in my view, (though still obviously of significant import) are 3) Iran's support for terror groups like Hezbollah and 4) democratic reforms within Iran.

Yes, I know that we've pretty much had zero formal diplomatic relations with Iran since they took over our Embassy in 1979. We've singled them out over the years, and rightly so, for particular opprobrium. But that was over a quarter century ago, and limited engagement needs to, at least, be seriously debated, no? What's the (serious) alternative? Why not a Chris Hill for Teheran? We've got lots to talk about, after all....or would that be signaling 'weakness'--as compared to the bravura performance (Rumsfeld saying mean things about us in press conferences!) that is so cowing the mullah's at present?

UPDATE: Michael responds via E-mail:

I have given those proposal so many times that I gasp when you ask for them yet again. They were already in "The War Against the Terror Masters," which was published months BEFORE we went into Iraq. I said at that time that Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia constituted a united front, that they "came bundled," and that they were planning a terror war against us in Iraq, modeled on what they did to us in Lebanon in the eighties. And so it was. I wanted, and still support, political action against Iran first, and then a primarily political campaign against Saddam and Assad.

I know that nobody gets credit for being right, but I do think that good policy rests on good analysis, and if the analysis was correct maybe my policy ideas have some merit.

The policy proposal is to do to them what we did to the Soviets (and
Milosovic, Marcos, Baby Doc, et al): support democratic revolution. There are many ways to do this, including open support to the dissidents, building a strike fund for the workers, especially those in transportation and the oil fields, getting the pro-democracy groups good communications gear like servers and laptops, and shaming our Western allies into defending the human rights of the political prisoners, from journalists to professors and students.

You seem to have bought into the myth that if we loudly defend the
dissidents, it only goads the regime into taking more brutal action. But that is wrong. Ask the victims, they will tell you. Even prisoners in the Nazi death camps had a markedly higher survival rate if they were singled out for support from the Allied countries. Prisoners who got presents and letters lived longer than those who remained anonymous to the world at large. Don't you think that Akbar Ganji is alive today because of the (fairly modest) campaign on his behalf? On these matters, we should trust the victims, and they want our support, just as the Ginsburgs, Havels, Walesas, Bukovskys and Sharanskys did during the Soviet tyranny.

Silence equals complicity, in my view, and you should be ashamed at trying to ridicule active support for pro-democracy forces. Anywhere. Anytime. Support for democracy should always be at the center of American foreign policy.

I am against sanctions, they don't work against hostile regimes and they only further punish the innocent.

Lots of people disagree with my advocacy of democratic revolution, mostly arguing that it won't work and it may make things worse for the people I want to help. But they said the same thing in the eighties, when I joined the Reagan Administration because of the president's determination to bring down the Soviet Empire. It took about ten years, didn't it? And we did it with a relatively small minority of the Soviet population willing to say they wanted to be free. In Iran, even the regime's own public opinion polls show more than seventy per cent of the people hate the regime.

Faster, please.

MORE: Dan Darling's w/ Ledeen on this one.

Posted by Gregory at 05:20 AM | Comments (31) | TrackBack

July 14, 2005

Lede of the Week..., it's not Rove-related. It's this Iran related gem:

Iran will resume uranium enrichment if the European Union does not recognize its right to do so, two Iranian nuclear negotiators said in an interview published Tuesday.

Got that? It's a tad, er, circular....but jaw-jaw better, right?

Posted by Gregory at 03:59 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

June 25, 2005

What Next for Iran?

Guy Dinmore in the FT:

US "hawks", he [Ken Pollack] said, had a bizarre preference for Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a fundamentalist and hardliner, over Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who sought to establish his more pragmatic credentials in part by making overtures to the US during his election campaign.

For the US hardliners, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, Mr Rafsanjani presents the danger of exacerbating the divisions between the US, which is essentially trying to contain Iran, and Europe which favours the engagement approach.

The US hawks also believe that a convergence of hardliners in Iran with the victory of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is more likely to precipitate the collapse of the Islamic regime through popular unrest than the "Chinese model" of social pacification likely to be embraced by Mr Rafsanjani. One hardline official told the FT he saw no evidence that Mr Rasanjani was less committed to developing nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, he said, harboured deep scepticism over the prospects of success in the nuclear freeze talks with Iran led by France, Germany and the UK.

Well, Ahmadi-Nejad "won." But I'm far from certain that a "convergence of hardliners" is "more likely to precipitate the collapse of the Islamic regime." Frankly, I doubt it. I wonder what people like Michael Leeden or Danielle Pletka think? I'd wager Michael is probably not unhappy that Ahmadi-Nejad assumes the Iranian Presidency--believing the ultra-conservative Teheran mayor better presents the true 'face' of Iran to the world. And that a Ukraine scenario becomes more likely as Khatami-like incremental reforms have now been effectively quashed--leading to greater resentment in the country. Regardless, what is now pretty sure is that the prospects of a break-through in U.S.-Iranian relations are now hovering around less than zero with Ahmadi-Nejad's "victory" (though slight apertures for possible constructive dialogue can not be wholly discounted). Skeptics will say good, and that no real deal could have been struck with Rafsanjani anyway. Better that the "Shark" didn't hoodwink naive Euro-troika diplos and a too soft Foggy Bottom, the thinking goes. But with relations with Iran likely to be heading south, and with U.S.-Syrian relations fraught with tension--regional dynamics look to get increasingly difficult over the coming months.

A quick word on the electoral results themselves. I agree with Publius that turn-out was lower than many MSM outlets made it sound; and clearly there was much electoral malfeasance (for starters the whole permitted field of candidates was picked by the Mullah's from the very get-go). But there is an irony in all of this, of course. Bill Maynes, President of the Eurasia Foundation, recently wrote:

What was the most damaging charge one could make about another person during the Cold War and what is the most damaging charge one would make now that we have entered a Post-Cold-War world?

In the Cold War, the most damaging accusation would have been that one was disloyal to one’s country. The charge that one helped the other side was certainly career-ending and at times even life-threatening. Governments rose or fell in spy scandals.

In the Post-Cold-War world, the most damaging charge that can be leveled against an official is that he is corrupt. It is the charge of corruption that today threatens the stability of governments everywhere. Indeed, the allegation of corruption is as explosive in the West as it is in the East. [emphasis added]

Despite the electoral shenanigans, despire the corruption of Khamenei's circle (that Ahmadi-Nejad will duly serve)--it is likely that there was a good deal of genuine support for Ahmadi-Nejad's stemming from his ascetic image (contra the wealthy Rafsanjani's) and his anti-corruption platform. Such factors did sway many voters to his camp. Worth noting perhaps, I disagree with some observers who believe his support stemmed from a nationalist backlash because of U.S. troops on both of Iran borders and pressure on the nuclear issue. There may have been some of that, to be sure, but I think the much larger factor was how fed up Iranians are with corruption.

The Economist reports:

WAS it a backlash by Iran’s devoutly Muslim poor against a corrupt elite? Or was it a massive fraud perpetrated on the people by the hardline clerics? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the margin of victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iran’s presidential election, on Friday June 25th, was striking. Mr Ahmadinejad, the mayor of the capital, Tehran, and a hardline religious conservative, garnered around 62% of the vote, despite having gone almost unnoticed in the field of seven candidates who had contested the first round of voting, a week earlier...

...So what happened? At the end of the first round, one of the defeated reformists, Mehdi Karrubi, complained that the vote had been fixed. There were indeed some suspicious circumstances: for example, in South Khorasan province, home to many disgruntled Sunni Muslims, the official turnout was an improbable 95%; yet Mr Ahmadinejad, the candidate most associated with the assertive Shia Islamism of Iran’s clerical regime, won more than a third of the votes there. And while Friday’s second-round vote was still going on, Mr Rafsanjani’s aides were complaining of “massive irregularities”, accusing the Basij religious militia—in which Mr Ahmadinejad used to be an instructor—of intimidating voters to support their man.

However, whatever the extent of any vote-rigging, it seems unlikely that it was the only reason why Mr Rafsanjani did so badly. Conservative-minded Iranians, especially the devoutly Muslim poor, seem to have warmed to the austere Mr Ahmadinejad because of his modest lifestyle, his personal honesty and his reassuringly insular vision.

Mr Ahmadinejad presented himself as a committed follower of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and he pledged to put the interests of the poor at the top of his priorities. In this he seems successfully to have tapped popular resentment at the country’s elite, widely held to be enriching itself corruptly. The wheeler-dealing and allegedly highly wealthy Mr Rafsanjani is seen as the very embodiment of that elite. Whereas Mr Rafsanjani argued for improved relations with America and increased foreign investment in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad insisted there was no need for any rapprochement with the “Great Satan”, as official Iranian demonology labels the superpower.

Commenters are invited to predict what is next for Iran now that it is likely what we might have called Rafsanjani's nationalist, pragmatic "China" model is the road not taken. Will Ukraine style stirrings now become more likely, with younger Iranians increasingly disenchanted with the consolidation of power by ultra-conservatives? Or will a North Korea scenario take place, with a reactionary circle intent on becoming a nuclear power brutishly and successfully stamping out domestic dissent? Or something else?

Posted by Gregory at 02:21 PM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

June 16, 2005

Vakil Trumps Pletka

Underwhelmed by Danielle Pletka's boiler-plate, cliched op-ed piece in today's NYT? Have no fear! The FT--which incidentally, and for my money, produces significantly higher quality opinion journalism in its pages, day in; day out, than the New York Times--has a much more, er, nuanced Iran analysis from Sanam Vakil (subscription required):


The emergence of a reformist movement with mass support forced the clerical elite, Mr Rafsanjani included, to acknowledge the link between demography and democracy. With 70 per cent of the population under the age of 30 and with no memory of the revolution or its nationalising ideology, the government recognised that it was sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Mr Rafsanjani's re-emergence signifies an essential and often overlooked change in Iran's power structure - a weakening in the position of the rahbar or supreme leader.

It is common knowledge that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, did not want Mr Rafsanjani to re-enter the political scene. Instead, he wanted a unified conservative bloc of support behind the more popular conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the former police chief. Mr Rafsanjani is proving to be a thorn in Ayatollah Khamenei's side.

Moreover, Mr Rafsanjani's presence in the election complicates the outcome. Even Dr Mustafa Moin, the former culture and higher education minister and a reformist candidate, is considered more palatable to some conservatives than Mr Rafsanjani. If elected, Dr Moin could be overpowered by the conservatives who dominate every institution, including the parliament. Such a scenario would replicate the second term of President Mohammad Khatami, the outgoing reformist president.

As a born-again pragmatist, Mr Rafsanjani has abandoned his revolutionary ideals for national-interest oriented objectives. Potential rapprochement with the US - an anathema for many traditional revolutionary adherents who fear American interference in Iranian affairs - is an idea Mr Rafsanjani has flirted with for years and is now one of the main pillars of his campaign. Increased economic liberalisation is another policy issue that reveals the ideological divide between Mr Rafsanjani and the clerical apparatchiks. Both of these issues are not only on his agenda but critical for gaining mass popular support.

Yes Ms. Pletka, I know Rafsanjani is a big, bad "shark"! I certainly know he's no angel too. But we have to operate in the real world, not cubicled-away in think-tanks dreaming of regime change, like, yesterday--and if we carefully embark on a relationship with Rafsanjani (of course initially through our Euro proxies) with our eyes wide open--so that we don't get hoodwinked or bamboozled--I think some interesting developments on the U.S-Iranian bilateral relationship might very well be in the offing during Rafsanjani's tenure.

More here:

Iran's conservative bloc is riddled with factions and their contradictions. But whereas reformers and conservatives differ over domestic issues, the divisions within the conservative faction chiefly relate to critical foreign policy issues. Stalwarts of the Islamic revolution launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 still control Iran's judiciary, the Council of Guardians (the constitution's watchdog), and other powerful institutions, as well as key coercive groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic vigilantes of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah. The hard-liners consider themselves the most ardent Khomeini disciples and think of the revolution less as an antimonarchical rebellion than as a continued uprising against the forces that once sustained the U.S. presence in Iran: Western imperialism, Zionism, and Arab despotism. Ayatollah Mahmood Hashemi Shahroudi, the chief of the judiciary, said in 2001, "Our national interests lie with antagonizing the Great Satan. We condemn any cowardly stance toward America and any word on compromise with the Great Satan." For ideologues like him, international ostracism is the necessary price for revolutionary affirmation.

The pragmatists among Khomeini's heirs believe that the regime's survival depends on a more judicious international course. Thanks to them, Iran remained a regular player in the global energy market even at the height of its revolutionary fervor. Today, these realists gravitate around the influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and occupy key positions throughout the national security establishment. One of the group's leading figures, Muhammad Javad Larijani, a former legislator, argues, "We should not have what I would call an obstinate policy toward the world." Instead, the pragmatic conservatives have tried to develop economic and security arrangements with foreign powers such as China, the European Union, and Russia. In reaction to the United States' overthrow of two regimes on Iran's periphery--in Afghanistan and Iraq--they have adopted a wary but moderate stance. [ed. note: 'Wary but moderate' Read: There are a lot of U.S. troops on our borders! Even with our difficulties in Iraq, this induces some realpolitik in Teheran, believe me]. Admonishing his more radical brethren, Rafsanjani, for example, has warned, "We are facing a cruel and powerful U.S. government, and we have to be cautious and awake."

No, he's not going to be our best buddy. Far from it. He'll be canny as hell, and the danger is of course being snookered by his economic 'pragmatism' and such so as to let the Iranians have their cake and eat it too (get economic benefits while still pursuing their nuclear program and not making any real re-adjustments on their support for terror etc etc). But if we approach this dialogue like sharks too, which I trust we will, there could be some very interesting areas of mutual interest to explore indeed. It's certainly at least worth a try. After all, just for starters, I can assure you that if we followed some of the policy prescriptions Pletka is cheerleading (somewhat blindly) in the Times today--Iran would quickly retaliate by ramping up the trouble-making in Iraq in a big, big way. After all, of course, they haven't played all their potential Iraq cards yet, and are holding quite a bit in reserve...

Posted by Gregory at 08:51 PM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

March 24, 2005

Iranian Influence in Iraq

Is less than advertised.

Iran has the potential to do great mischief in post-Saddam Iraq, but despite wide-spread allegations, actual evidence of attempts to destabilise the country is rare and evidence of achievement rarer still. Instead, Iran's priority has been to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat to it, which means preventing both outright failure in Baghdad or clear success...
Iran's strength lies elsewhere. Having fought a brutal eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, its security agencies are highly familiar with Iraq's physical and political terrain and are able to sustain an active intelligence presence in southern Iraq, Baghdad and Kurdistan. Iranian levers of influence include a widespread network of paid informers, the increasingly assertive Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, or Pasdaran), and petro-dollar funded religious propaganda and social welfare campaigns. Most importantly, Tehran has tried to influence Iraq's political process by giving support, in particular, to SCIRI. Even then, and while the record of the past two years suggests a solid Iranian motive to interfere in Iraq and plenty of Iranian activity, it also suggests little resonance, and, therefore, a negligible impact, on Iraqi society. This is because of a deep suspicion and resentment on the part of many Iraqis toward their neighbour.

The starting point to understand Iran's role must be a proper assessment of its interests. These are relatively clear and, for the most part, openly acknowledged. Tehran's priority is to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat, whether of a military, political or ideological nature, and whether deriving from its failure (its collapse into civil war or the emergence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan with huge implications for Iran's disaffected Kurdish minority) or success (its consolidation as an alternative democratic or religious model appealing to Iran's disaffected citizens). Iran consequently is intent on preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, avoiding all-out instability, encouraging a Shiite-dominated, friendly government, and, importantly, keeping the U.S. preoccupied and at bay. This has entailed a complex three-pronged strategy: encouraging electoral democracy (as a means of producing Shiite rule); promoting a degree of chaos but of a manageable kind (in order to generate protracted but controllable disorder); and investing in a wide array of diverse, often competing Iraqi actors (to minimise risks in any conceivable outcome) [emphasis added]

Check out the bolded section above. Except for last prong, U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq seem rather aligned! Yes, I'm being a tad facetious, but there is clearly room for cooperation here. More fodder for the Zbig 'grand bargain' crowd post Takeyh-Pollack Thermidor, doubtless...

UPDATE: The estimable Dan Darling has more. I'll be reacting to his lengthy post soon (I hope!).

Posted by Gregory at 05:40 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

February 25, 2005

More On Iran

With Tehran divided over how to balance its nuclear ambitions with its economic needs, Washington has an opportunity to keep it from crossing the nuclear threshold. Since the economy is a growing concern for the Iranian leadership, Washington can boost its leverage by working with the states that are most important to Tehran's international economic relations: the western European countries and Japan, as well as Russia and China, if they can be persuaded to cooperate. Together, these states must raise the economic stakes of Iran's nuclear aspirations. They must force Tehran to confront a painful choice: either nuclear weapons or economic health. Painting Tehran's alternatives so starkly will require dramatically raising both the returns it would gain for compliance and the price it would pay for defiance.

In the past, dissension among the United States and its allies allowed Tehran to circumvent this difficult choice. Throughout the 1990s, the United States pursued a strategy of pure coercion toward Iran, with strong sanctions and a weak covert action program. In the meantime, the Europeans refused even to threaten to cut their commercial relations with Tehran, no matter how bad its behavior became. Iran played Europe off against the United States, using European economic largesse to mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions, all the while making considerable progress with its clandestine nuclear program.

Today, the situation is different. A fortunate result of Iran's unfortunate nuclear progress is that Tehran will now have a much harder time hedging. Revelations that Iran has moved closer toward producing fissile material over the past two years could help forge a unified Western position. In the 1990s, Europeans could ignore much of Iran's malfeasance because the evidence was ambiguous. But with the IAEA recently having uncovered so many of Iran's covert enrichment activities--and with Tehran subsequently having admitted them--it will be far more uncomfortable, if not impossible, for Europeans to keep looking the other way. It is still unclear just how seriously Europe takes Iran's nuclear activities, but in public and private statements, European officials no longer try to play them down. Moreover, when during negotiations with the EU in November Tehran requested that 20 research centrifuges remain active, the Europeans refused. Such resolve marked a drastic departure from Europe's fecklessness during the 1990s. That Tehran quickly complied was a sure sign that it fears incurring the wrath of its economic benefactors.

Ken Pollack and Ray Takeyh, writing in Foreign Affairs.

Bush has certainly grasped the reality that Pollack/Takeyh sketch above about the critical import of a united Euro-Atlantic front on Iran strategy. Indeed, Bush repeated the need for a unified Iran policy like a mantra from Brussels to Bratislava during his recent Euro-tour. He correctly calculates that allowing Teheran to play, say, Paris off Washington only allows the clerics more room for maneuver in moving forward Iran's nuclear program by helping keep painful economic ramifications at bay.

This Foreign Affairs piece is one of the better ones I've seen in a while and you should definitely read the whole thing if you have any interest in Iran policy. Particularly good, in my view, was the quite succinct tour d'horizon of the divisions within Iran's non-reformist political powers centers:

Iran's conservative bloc is riddled with factions and their contradictions. But whereas reformers and conservatives differ over domestic issues, the divisions within the conservative faction chiefly relate to critical foreign policy issues. Stalwarts of the Islamic revolution launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 still control Iran's judiciary, the Council of Guardians (the constitution's watchdog), and other powerful institutions, as well as key coercive groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic vigilantes of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah. The hard-liners consider themselves the most ardent Khomeini disciples and think of the revolution less as an antimonarchical rebellion than as a continued uprising against the forces that once sustained the U.S. presence in Iran: Western imperialism, Zionism, and Arab despotism. Ayatollah Mahmood Hashemi Shahroudi, the chief of the judiciary, said in 2001, "Our national interests lie with antagonizing the Great Satan. We condemn any cowardly stance toward America and any word on compromise with the Great Satan." For ideologues like him, international ostracism is the necessary price for revolutionary affirmation.

The pragmatists among Khomeini's heirs believe that the regime's survival depends on a more judicious international course. Thanks to them, Iran remained a regular player in the global energy market even at the height of its revolutionary fervor. Today, these realists gravitate around the influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and occupy key positions throughout the national security establishment. One of the group's leading figures, Muhammad Javad Larijani, a former legislator, argues, "We should not have what I would call an obstinate policy toward the world." Instead, the pragmatic conservatives have tried to develop economic and security arrangements with foreign powers such as China, the European Union, and Russia. In reaction to the United States' overthrow of two regimes on Iran's periphery--in Afghanistan and Iraq--they have adopted a wary but moderate stance. Admonishing his more radical brethren, Rafsanjani, for example, has warned, "We are facing a cruel and powerful U.S. government, and we have to be cautious and awake.

In a similar vein, the issue of Iraq is also fracturing the theocratic regime. In the eyes of Iran's reactionaries, the Islamic Republic's ideological mission demands that the revolution be exported to its pivotal Arab (and majority Shiite) neighbor. Such an act would not only establish the continued relevance of Iran's original Islamic vision but also secure a critical ally for an increasingly isolated Tehran. In contrast, the approach of Tehran's realists is conditioned by the requirements of the nation-state and its demands for stability. For this cohort, the most important task at hand is to prevent Iraq's simmering religious and ethnic tensions from engulfing Iran. Instigating Shiite uprisings, dispatching suicide squads, and provoking unnecessary confrontations with the United States hardly serves Iran's interests at a time when its own domestic problems are deepening. As a result, Tehran's mainstream leadership has mostly encouraged Iraq's Shiite groups to participate in reconstruction, not to obstruct U.S. efforts, and to do everything possible to avoid civil war. Hard-liners, meanwhile, have won permission to provide some assistance to Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite rejectionists.

Teetering between the two camps is Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. As the theocracy's top ideologue, he shares the hard-liners' revolutionary convictions and their confrontational impulses. But as the head of state, he must safeguard Iran's national interests and temper ideology with statecraft. In his 16 years as supreme leader, Khamenei has attempted to balance the ideologues and the realists, empowering both factions to prevent either from achieving a preponderance of influence. Lately, however, the Middle East's changing political topography has forced his hand somewhat. With the American imperium encroaching menacingly on Iran's frontiers, Khamenei, one of the country's most hawkish thinkers, is being forced to lean toward the pragmatists on some issues. [emphasis added]

This last point goes unnoticed too often. Rather than fully radicalize Iranian leaders, the reality of U.S. GI's on both their East and West has proven something of a reality check as compared to the old days when the merits or demerits of dual containment were debated in far away Washington think tanks. Put simply, when you have approximately 200,000 American troops near your borders, hyper-revolutionary zeal and saber-rattling takes a back seat to sober statecraft--if still occasionally on the zealous side. Also worth noting is how the Rafsanjani wing of hard-line pragmatists has historically focused on fostering cooperative arrangements with the Berlins, Moscows, and Beijings. These days, this is becoming less of an option, heightening the pressure on Iran to entertain serious compromises on issues of key concern to important Western capitals. In this regard, it's important too to get Russia and China more on board with the increasingly unified Euro-Atlantic view. And I think Bush made good headway, on that score, in Bratislava today with Vladimir Putin.

Are Pollack and Takeyh too optimistic that taking advantage of divisions amidst the hardliners, in combination with economic sticks and carrots, might help slow or stop Iran's nuclear weapons program? Well, truth be told, probably a little. But it's one of the better takes on where we are vis-a-vis Iran that I've seen of late. Put differently, if you are going to wave big sticks around; proffer a few big, juicy carrots on view too. The results just might surprise. A full-blown attempt to stoke a counter-revolution in Iran (safe-havens, major support to dissidents, thinly veiled military threats, covert action etc) could backfire in a huge way. Emboldened students could be the first to feel the wrath of Mullahs spinning all the activity as a Zionist-American plot to deny Iran a nuclear weapon and sparking a nationalist backlash. And who would protect them as they were slaughtered? In addition, risking unleashing massive destablization in Iran just might upset the regional apple cart. By any judicious measure, we have our hands more than full in Iraq (and Afghanistan) at this juncture. Therefore, and unless the hardest of hard-liners rush to brazenly thrust an Iranian bomb on the international community, a military option must be deemphasized in favor of robust, coordinated diplomacy. I think everyone (including, if reluctantly, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith) in the Administration get this. Bush certainly seems to.

Posted by Gregory at 02:32 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

December 03, 2004

Counterproliferation Watch

A new site for all you Iran junkies out there.

Posted by Gregory at 04:19 AM | Comments (1)

November 19, 2004

Pavlovian Reaction


I'd forgotten Ken Pollack has a big new book out warning us about Iran. I'm sure we can look forward to his numerous appearances on chat shows saying diplomacy is the best solution, but absent that war is probably a better choice than doing nothing. Rumsfeld will deny that there are any "war plans on his desk," giggling as our press fails to note that he neither bothers to make any plans nor does he actually use a desk. Andy Card will comment that one waits until after Labor Day to roll out any new product. Judith Miller, the current Queen of All Iraq, will develop exciting new sources within the new Iranian National Congress. With any luck, the balsa wood drones of death will reappear, as will scary plans for weapons of mass destruction which look like they'd been scribbled by a 5 year old. And, it'll all hit the fan right before the midterms as the Dems once again run and hide. Wake me up, please.

Atrios didn't deign to read the book , of course, as this blogger points out. Hell, he didn't even read the book review, it seems.

Michiko Kakatuni:

Mr. Pollack's recommendations for dealing with Iran turn out to be a lot less hawkish than the sort he proposed for Iraq in ''The Threatening Storm.'' In these pages, he argues against invading Iran (''unless Iran commits some truly egregious act of aggression against the United States on the order of a 9/11-type attack''), calls for a flexible approach that would take into account fluctuations in Iranian foreign policy (caused by internal tensions in the country between hard-liners and pragmatists) and discusses the uses of containment and carrot-and-stick incentives.

Tsk tsk. How glib, partisan, and hacky (in an amusing way, of course).

How, er, Atrios...

(Might this be a new sub-variant of Laphamization? "I knew what the book said, before I even read it!")

NB: No I haven't read Pollack's book yet either. But I'm not shouting, erroneously, the book's supposed Iran policy prescriptions from the rooftops.

Reality based community, indeed.

For my take on what our Iran policy should be, go here.

And, relatedly, read this too. The author argues that the Mullahs are mulling over variants of the so-called China model, ie "limited economic liberalization in exchange for political acquiescence." He argues in the article (only a preview avail at link above) that there are two China models, in effect, under consideration: 1) one, insincere and unserious in the extreme, characterized by little genuine interest in real economic reform, basically "a form of crony capitalism that spends state resources on political patronage of key constituents, including security services (see Saudi, Syria, Egypt and so on) and 2) a more bona fide effort at real, if limited, economic liberalization involving more foreign and private sector investment (Option 1 basically uses oil revenues to "dole out subsidies to the population and interest-free loans and cash to their supporters"). High oil prices are making that strategy particularly easy for the hard-liners right now. But note the international community could be better positioned to employ economic carrots/sticks should crude go south of $40 in midterm.

Finally, note the author espies large-scale political apathy in Iran, at the moment (cynicism, fatigue, people cowed by crackdowns etc etc). I don't think that's the consensus view, necessarily, but it's interesting to note.

Calling Michael Leeden....does he agree there is widespread apathy in Iran now? Doubtless, he doesn't. But is he right that counter-revolutionary fervor is in the air more than fatigue, apathy and cynicism? Hard to tell, really. And, of course, latent nationalism will rear its ugly head should foreign adventures there be nigh...

July 21, 2004

More on Iran

More Iran-related teasers from the 9/11 Commission report to be released tomorrow:

The report also concludes that al Qaeda's relationship with Iran and its client, the Hezbollah militant group, was far deeper and more long-standing than its links with Iraq, which never established operational ties with the terrorist group, said officials familiar with the document.

Among the newest findings is evidence, disclosed in media reports this week, that as many as 10 of the Sept. 11 hijackers transited through Iran before the hijackings...

...Commission and government officials stress there is no evidence indicating that Tehran knowingly aided in the Sept. 11 plot. But Iran's apparent willingness to allow al Qaeda members to roam across its borders underscores the complicated relationship that emerged between them despite historic animosity between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. There is compelling evidence that Shiite Iran continued to give al Qaeda leaders haven even after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the commission report and other intelligence sources.

There's nothing really new in all of this.

But we need to very carefully assess this last underlined portion. Just how wide-spread and long in duration (rather than episodic and highly transient) was the provision of safe harbors to al-Q terrorists?

Regardless, given the political climate right now, with even some on the Left beating the Iran war drums--the 9/11 Commission findings will doubtless raise the temperature on Iran within the Beltway.

Me, I'm waiting to read the fine print.

Especially with hyper-opaque Iran (the situation there is much more complicated than a bunch of mad Mullah's blowing things up, sorry to say)--the devil is in the details.

Also worth noting, just for the record.

I supported the war in Iraq not because of potential contacts with al-Q.

Or even a possible nuclear program--which I thought was not very close to development (though yes, their reported attempt(s) to secure uranium alarmed me).

I supported intervention there based on Saddam's historic recklessness (two regional wars, SCUD's launched hither dither, assassination attempt of Bush 41, grotesque human rights violations) AND (critically) because I believed he possessed material stockpiles and/or easily re-startable programs in the biological and chemical sphere (this last prong not wholly disproven).

Given the post 9/11 risk environment, given his long history of contravention of U.N. resolutions, given the material violations of 1441--I felt, enough is enough.

And, not least, we sent a powerful signal to the international community that we would be proactive in this new post 9/11 world--before getting punched in the face--especially with rogue actors who had run afoul of the international community for years and actually used WMD.

All this to say, I'm not sure the Iranian leadership is as irrational and dangerous as Saddam was. They haven't, for instance, used WMD on their own people. That's part of the reason why I blogged the case for limited engagement yesterday.

More soon.

Posted by Gregory at 01:41 PM | Comments (29)

July 20, 2004

Iran Watch

The CFR has issued a task force report on Iran (warning: PDF--albeit not a mega one).

Note Laura Rozen has some thoughts on the report worth checking out too.

The major take-ways from the Task Force report:

1) the Task Force found that "despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not on the verge of another revolution" (correctly, in my humble opinion);

2) from that finding flows the conclusion that engagement is likelier a better policy option than military action right now (especially given how we are not, er, particularly well positioned right now to mount a regime change operation in Iran);

3) an ambitious "grand bargain" or, even, a more modest "roadmap" style delineation of the going forward relationship is not likely to be achieved at this juncture ("A quarter-century of enmity and estrangement are not easily overcome, the issues at stake are too numerous and complex, and the domestic political contexts of both countries are too difficult to allow the current breach to be settled comprehensively overnight.")

so therefore;

4) better for Washington to propose to Teheran a "compartmentalized process of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement. The U.S. should identify the discrete set of issues where critical U.S. and Iranian interests converge, and must be prepared to make progress along separate tracks, even while considerable differences remain in other areas."

Let me tell you what "tracks" matter most for me: 1) Iran's role in Iraq and 2) Iran's nuclear weapons capability.

Of less immediate urgency, in my view, (though still obviously of significant import) are 3) Iran's support for terror groups like Hezbollah and 4) democratic reforms within Iran.

On "1", I think (like Les Gelb has proposed elsewhere) that we need to call for, at the appropriate juncture, a regional conference comprising all of Iraq's immediate neighbors (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran).

The main goal would be to achieve pledges of non-interference (particularly territorial) with Iraq from each of its neighbors.

Skeptics will argue that the pledges wouldn't be worth the paper they were written on. And that having diplomatic contacts between Iranian and U.S. officials, at this level, would be giving Teheran one carrot too many.

But, given the critical import of the Iraq project to U.S. foreign policy objectives--and given the immense trouble-making so many of Iraq's neighbors could cause there--I think it behooves us to start moving this "non-interference" idea along in a more institutional framework.

Especially as, when U.S. troop levels begin to diminish in Iraq, the temptation of Iraq's neighbors to fill the vacuum will be even greater.

Not least, of course, Iran's.

We need to start this "track" to see if Teheran, acting rationally in its national interest (rather than purely through ideological lens), will make real compromises here (recall they were helpful to us during the Bonn 'loya jirga' process re: Afghanistan).

Now, unlike the Task Force members, I'm not so sure that it is in Iran's interest to necessarily have Iraq remain unitary (might they not simply wish to carve out some Shi'a lebensraum instead?).

But chaos isn't in their interests either.

And given that many Iraqi Shi'a feel a sense of residual Iraqi nationalism--even among some of the more religious, pro-Iran crowd--carving out parts of Iraq is not necessarily in Iran's best interest given that real conflict could result between and among some Shi'a factions.

On the nuclear issue, recall, as the CFR report points out, that a nuclear Iran enjoys wide support across the Iranian political spectrum--including many of the reformists.

An Osirak style operation in Iraq, even if feasible (the facilities are better concealed), would inevitably have the impact of re-invigorating nationalist sentiment through the Iranian body politic.

And, to be sure, any Israeli action will be seen to have taken place with tacit American approval (whether true or not). So Iran would be more apt to trouble-make in Afghanistan or Iraq--negatively impacting U.S. interests in both countries.

So while a military option (whoever undertakes it) can't be taken off the table all-together--it's certainly not an easy option that, willy-nilly, we or the Israelis should feel free to pursue whenever we think the planets are aligned just so.

A few final points.

Some will be angry with me that I downplay the importance of reform within Iran. Here is why--I'm concerned we simply can't back up all the rosy talk.

Put simply, I'm worried that students might die in large number while the U.S. stands pretty helpless on the sidelines.

On Hezbollah, as Richard Armitage has said, we do owe them a "blood debt."

But, compared to the nuclear issue and Iraq, and given that they haven't been attacking U.S. targets of late, I have to think we need to prioritize the other two "tracks" (Iraq, nukes) right now.

Last, there has been a lot of talk of late, pending the 9/11 Commission's report, that the real links between al-Q and a state were, not with Iraq--but with Iran.

A lot on the left, quite stupidly in my view, are now saying: "So, show us you are now going to go after the real culprits."

Look, I think it's quite likely that some al-Q terrorists were given 'safe passage' through Iran at various junctures.

But I would be astounded if Iran had foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot.

If they did, that changes everything.

But, in my view and until proven otherwise, they didn't.

And that's pretty important to keep in mind when figuring out next moves re: Iran policy.

Note that, in some ways at least, an alliance between al-Qaeda and Iran is even more unlikely than one between al-Qaeda and Baathist, secular Iraq. After all, Saddam was a Sunni.

Many radical Sunni movements, like al-Q, view the Shi'a as nefarious heretics to be viewed as, it's true, even worse than the Jews:

Radical Sunni Islamists hate Shi`ites more than any other group, including Jews and Christians. Al-Qaeda's basic credo minces no words on the subject: "We believe that the Shi`ite heretics are a sect of idolatry and apostasy, and that they are the most evil creatures under the heavens." For its part, the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment expresses similar views. The fatwas, sermons, and statements of established Saudi clerics uniformly denounce Shi`ite belief and practice. A recent fatwa by Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, a respected professor at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University (which trains official clerics), is a case in point. Asked whether it was permissible for Sunnis to launch a jihad against Shi`ites, al-Barrak answered that if the Shi`ites in a Sunni-dominated country insisted on practicing their religion openly, then yes, the Sunni state had no choice but to wage war on them. Al-Barrak's answer, it is worth noting, assumes that the Shi`ites are not Muslims at all.

Still, especially in this region, 'the enemy of my enemy' can often be a friend--if just one of short-standing.

Or, as the CFR report puts it: "Nonetheless, both al-Qaeda's operational leadership and the radical hard-liners who dominate the senior ranks of Iran's security bureaucracy have demonstrated in the past a certain degree of doctrinal flexibility that has facilitated functional alliances, irrespective of apparent ideological incompatibility."

Well have to wait to see how "functional" (or "collaborative", to use an in vogue term for such things) that alliance was.

As I said, Iranian governmental foreknowledge of 9/11 would change everything--but I believe it highly unlikely.

But until that's conclusively disproven, I'll have to reserve the right to go all Mike Ledeen on you...

...until then, jaw jaw!

UPDATE: The view from Andrew "Bombs Away!" Sullivan....


Thanks for the "always-worth reading" kudos, Andrew. I wish that were the case on a daily basis, but I fear it often isn't (especially given a day job that keeps me way too busy to write as much as I'd like)!

Posted by Gregory at 12:00 PM | Comments (22)

June 30, 2004

We Get Comments

In fairness to Michael Ledeen, whose Iran policy prescriptions I've been critical of of late, I should point out he's commented at my original post here:

Part of Ledeen's note excerpted:

On Iran, it is not fair to suggest that I am inciting the students. I am trying to incite my government to support the students and others who have often demonstrated their contempt for the mullahs. And while you are, God knows, quite right to say I have been compulsive/obsessive about Iran of late, this is the view I have always held toward people living under tyranny who wish to be free. We should help them.

My issue is, given that we simply are not marching into Teheran anytime soon (for a variety of reasons), I'd be curious to hear specifically how we can apply pressure to Iran to democratize in a fashion that will not imperil the lives and futures of the students (and also, it bears mentioning, without Iran more actively sabotaging us in Iraq).

Also, of course, there is the 800 pound gorilla of the nuclear question looming in all of this too.

So let's maybe put the question a bit differently.

What is more important to the American national interest right now?

A democratic Iran?

Or a nuclear-weapons free Iran?

We might, God forbid, not be able to have both (or either!) just now--indeed achieving just one might prove very, very hard.

I'd suggest we should be concentrating, very intently, on Iran's nuclear capability right now (less so on their support for Hezbollah, their domestic policies, the latest clerical rabble-rousing pronunciamentos).

Laura Rozen is right--this issue (barring NoKo testing a nuke or total melt-down in Iraq) will likely be the issue of '05 (particularly given Iran's attendant trouble-making capabilities in Iraq).

Are policymakers ready? Er, not by a long shot.

P.S. Someone over at the FT recently opined we need a Bosnia style "contact group" to address Iraq (by way of making Chirac step up to his obligations and provide a specialized high profile multilateral fora to handle matters Iraq).

Question: might we need one, more urgently, for Iran instead?

UPDATE: Don't miss Ardeshir Zahedi's (no link available) Iran op-ed in today's WSJ-Europe. Zahedi, a former pre-revolutionary Iranian Foreign Minister, makes some pretty succinct points. He structures the op-ed by trying to answer the question "what is to be done" by first addressing what can't.

In this latter category: 1) Iran "cannot be forced to unlearn knowledge accumulated since the 1950s" (nuclear physics etc); 2) Iran must have the right to develop nuclear energy (with Iran's economy growing at 8%/annum all of Iran's oil production might be needed for domestic consumption by 2010); 3) we cannot force Iran to separate its nuclear technology into two halves (civilian/military) as all nations "with a civilian nuclear base are capable, if they so decide, of moving into the military sphere of nuclear technology as well."

Zahedi than basically goes on to say that the Soviets and Americans had been pretty sanguine about letting the Shah potentially develop a "surge capacity" (know-how, infrastructure and personnel to develop a nuclear weapon in a very short time frame without actually doing so) as, per Zahedi, Iran under the Shah was viewed as a pretty well behaved nation-state (no land war since encroachments on Herat in the 1850s!).

So, much like Michael Ledeen, Zahedi then poses the question thus:

Anyone with any knowledge of Iranian politics would know that the present regime in Teheran is strategically committed to developing a nuclear "surge capacity" if not a full arsenal of nuclear weapons. The real question, therefore, is whether the region, and the rest of the world, feel comfortable with the idea of a revoluntionary regime, claiming a messianic mission on behalf of Islam, arming itself with nuclear weapons.

Per Zahedi, a 'peaceful' Iran with nukes would be as inoffensive as England with nukes. This is Zahedi's way of saying--this isn't about Iran's nuclear capabilities writ large--it's about those brutish Mullahs.

So, in the evolving, what the f%&*k to do about Iran debate--look to see the Ledeen-Perle-Zahedi wing argue that, at the end of the day--it's all about regime change, stupid.

Le plus ca change.....

P.S. This begs the question, do we hint to the great Iranian public that we would accept a nuclear Iran, were it not for the presence of those dastardly Mullahs?

Posted by Gregory at 01:25 PM | Comments (19)

June 24, 2004

A Critical Moment in Nuclear History

Brent Scowcroft is right, of course.

We are at a critical juncture:

The absence of an effective international response to North Korean efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability may already have resulted in the entry of another country into the ranks of nuclear-capable powers. North Korea not only can be presumed to have reprocessed enough plutonium this year for an additional six to eight nuclear weapons, it reportedly also is working on a uranium enrichment capability to accompany its existing ability to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel rods.

Should Iran now be permitted to develop the capability to enrich uranium, it is almost impossible to imagine that other countries could be dissuaded from creating their own enrichment capabilities and consequently the capacity to produce weapons-grade material for nuclear weapons.

We are at a critical moment. Are we serious in our efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, or will we watch the world descend into a maelstrom where weapons-grade nuclear material is plentiful and unimaginable destructive capability is available to any country or group with a grudge against society?

Good questions all.

Similarly to North Korea, and despite the lack of material progress in forcing concessions from Pyongyang so far--we need to now present a very serious and united front to Iran consisting of a joint U.S., U.K, Russian, French and German position (well beyond ad hoc Euro ministerial troikas jetting about willy-nilly).

And we must de-link the issue of Iran's nuclear program from all the other (very important) aspects of our bilateral relationship with Iran (terrorism, Iraq, reform, etc).

The nuclear issue is simply too critical. Right now, we have to live with their trouble-making in Iraq and elsewhere and concentrate, like a laser, on the nuclear issue.

Also, of course, we need to deal with the Brazilian uranium enrichment issue that Scowcroft also mentions.

Why? The international community must understand that we (or, indeed, the above named concert of powers, perhaps with China and India added) are serious about not letting any other power develop nuclear weapons that doesn't already possess them.

Call it a nuclear domino theory.

For instance, if Iran goes nuclear, there will be a huge hankering for an "Arab" bomb (Egypt? Saudi?) to enhance the two "Islamic" bombs of Pakistan and Iran.

There will also be more movement in Asia (see Japan) to perhaps go nuclear given China and North Korea's capabilities.

Brazil (and, perhaps, Argentina) will then also be sure to pursue their nuclear programs with more alacrity.

A contrarian might think that we should replicate mutually assured destruction type nuclear parity (ie, U.S.-Soviet Union) through various regions (Asia: Japan/China); (Middle East: Iran/Israel); (Lat Am: Brazil/Argentina).

But there are too many terror groups out there and too many seepage issues--even assuming rational actors would always be at the helm of the governments of a materially larger nuclear club (an assumption that I wouldn't bet a dime on).

Let's also not forget that terrorists almost killed 20,000 people (at least, I've heard King Abdullah put the figure closer to 80,000) in a chemical bomb plot in Jordan recently.

They would, of course, kill millions in Manhattan or London the moment they could.

Keeping the nuclear club capped would be a major part of helping avoid such a horrific calamity that might throw the world into decades long turmoil--at least on par (and likely worse) than the horrifically bloody centuries of past.

As always, some will point to double standards (if Israel can have nukes, why not Brazil? Or Iran--especially if a democratic goverment were ushered in going forward?).

Ideally, we should have a WMD-free zone (ultimately including Israel) in the Middle East.

But Israel faces existential theats on varied fronts.

And, bottom line, history has marched on. It has nukes--period.

We can't reverse this development. Ditto Pakistan and India.

Israel could only be asked to pursue a nuclear disarmament move, in my view, pursuant to a comprehensive generalized mega-Middle East peace settlement--one presided over and monitored by the full range of fora of the international community.

And, needless to say, we aren't there by a long shot.

An aside. A British man recently touted to me the party line that Blair is lost and lonely because of Iraq. That history will simply remember him for kow-towing to Bush.

No, Blair will be remembered by history as the leader who, perhaps in a more intellectual, nuanced and pragmatic manner than Bush, realized that the threat of the 21st century is and will remain transnational terror groups getting their hands on WMD.

This concern, includes, of course, nuclear weapons that are, for instance, provided by disgruntled intelligence services of a country (like Iran, Pakistan, NoKo) that want to try to bring the U.S. or U.K. to its knees with a devastating blow to one of their major metropolises.

Scowcroft's op-ed reminds us (it's shocking, really, that we need reminding) again of these stakes.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Gregory at 01:20 PM | Comments (5)

June 23, 2004

Some Brass Tacks Common Sense--From Michael Ledeen!

Here and there, I've taken a little pot shot at Michael Ledeen in this blog.

My biggest gripe(s)?

I'm worried about those who, in tiresome fashion, cheerlead the need for a "regional war" (especially when we don't have the resources to conduct one-- even if it were smart policy--which it isn't).

Or those so obsessed with the Iranian angle (the "terror masters", in Ledeen lingo). For Ledeen, the entire apparatus of Middle Eastern terrorism appears run out of a couple offices in downtown Teheran.

Are there no other terror hotbeads? Does Teheran control the Salafists in Algeria? GIA? Abu Sayyaf?

And isn't it a bit much to espy a Caracas-Teheran terror axis (it's not just B.A. and Mexico City!)

Or that a Chalabi-cheerleader can say something like this (seemingly straight-faced and without blushing):

..the refusal of the American government to provide Chalabi with support and protection for the past decade is what drove him to find a modus vivendi with Tehran in the first place.

Pretty rich, huh?

But really, I can live with all that. To each their pet projects, concentrations, world-views.

What really gets me, though, is those who will boisterously talk up fanning student revolts in Iran to overthrow the mullahs.

While I emphatize with reformist students, applaud their courage, and wish them every success in their endeavors-I am, finally, very scared that we get them too excited the cavalry is coming in and then leave them in the lurch.

Because, as we all know, there is no cavalry to send in right now unless we are planning further troop reductions from South Korea or such.

You know, it's easy to sit around Dupont Circle (or your favorite blogging terminal or station) saying/keyboarding: More support for the students! Beam in VOA! Send cash!

But, at the end of the day, if such a movement caught fire, the Mullahs would get very nervous. And likely engage in Tiananmen style crackdowns.

Quite bloody ones, in fact.

And while the student's blood would be getting spilled in the streets of Iran, we could continue attending little conclaves at AEI or hitting the keyboard in Belgravia.

And, finally, I think that is reckless and morally defunct.

Regardless, the students in Iran are smart. They realize that, after their initial euporia/emboldenment resulting from having major U.S. troop deployments to both their West and East, that we are busy on both the East Front (whither UBL? A find that could decide the election) and West Front (security as 'critical enabler' in Iraq). So they are lying low right now.

You know, if things had gone swimmingly in Iraq; perhaps I'd be the first person calling for more robust encouragement of student dissent in Iran.

But we're not there right now. And, of course, students need to attract labor and other societal segments to their camp. Many of Ledeen and ilk's policy prescriptions make it so very easy for the Mullahs to tar the students as traitors and American agents.

But, as the title of this post suggests, I actually have something nice to say about Leeden!

Here's something that Leeden wrote that I can definitely agree with:

First, the matter of the "abuses" of the prisoners. Maybe the temperature of the rhetoric has cooled enough for us to address the most important aspect of the debacle: Torture and abuse are not only wrong and disgusting. They are stupid and counterproductive. A person under torture will provide whatever statements he believes will end the pain. Therefore, the "information" he provides is fundamentally unreliable. He is not responding to questions; 99 percent of the time, he's just trying to figure out what he has to say in order to end his suffering. All those who approved these methods should be fired, above all because they are incompetent to collect intelligence.

Torture, and the belief in its efficacy, are the way our enemies think. And remember that our enemies, the tyrants of the 20th century, and the jihadis we are fighting now, are the representatives of failed cultures. Our greatness derives from the superiority of our culture, and we should, as the sports metaphor goes, stick with what got us here.


Posted by Gregory at 11:34 PM | Comments (5)