Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Commentary by Bruce Riedel: A nuclear Iran is no existential threat

Important commentary by Bruce Riedel, former official in the National Security Council, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He has advised four U.S. presidents on the Middle East and South Asia.

Commentary by Bruce Riedel: A nuclear Iran is no existential threat

Thursday, January 19, 2012

God’s Way of Teaching Americans Geography

Juan Cole has an excellent post today on his Informed Comment reminding us of a poll that tested Americans on their geography and knowledge. "Three quarters of Americans could find neither Israel nor Iran on a map. Despite the US being at that time the occupying power in Iraq, some two-thirds couldn’t recognize that one, either."

Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Syria's Brotherhood rejected Iran-mediated deal

Reuters News Agency, BEIRUT | Wed Jan 18, 2012

Iranian officials contacted Syria's Muslim Brotherhood to try to mediate a political solution to a 10-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad but their efforts were rebuffed, a senior Brotherhood member said on Wednesday.

The unrest in Syria is threatening to slide into civil war as Assad's forces try to crush a protest movement. In recent months, armed rebels backing the protesters have brought the fight increasingly to security forces.

A senior Muslim Brotherhood member, Melhem al-Droubi, told Reuters that the group had seen no details of the Iranian offer made on December 20 but that it would not deal with Tehran unless it revoked its support for Assad.

"They (Iranian officials) asked about the possibility of the Brotherhood visiting Tehran, or Iran sending mediators to meet our leadership," said Droubi. "We didn't hear details about the offer and we didn't open an opportunity for them to discuss it.

"We refuse to either go there or receive them until they clearly stop their support of the regime and take a neutral position between the Syrian people and Bashar al-Assad. As long as they remain a party in this struggle, we will refuse to meet them."

Another high ranking Brotherhood official was quoted by the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat on Wednesday as saying Iranian mediators had proposed a deal offering control of the government in Damascus if President Bashar al-Assad could remain president.

But the Brotherhood refused to hold talks with Iranian negotiators or the Syrian government, Brotherhood secretary general Tayfour Farouq told al-Hayat.

It said that Iranian mediators offered a plan in which the Brotherhood would head up four government ministries but gradually obtain full control of the government.

Over 5,000 civilians and army defectors have been killed by Assad's forces during the uprising, by a United Nations count.

Damascus says it is fighting Islamist militants steered from abroad and blames them for the death of more than 2,000 members of its security forces.

Al-Hayat also cited Farouq as saying that his movement's relations were almost completely severed with the Islamist militant group Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood still officially headquartered in Damascus with Assad's support.

Hamas has drawn down its presence in Syria but has refused to take a stand for or against the anti-Assad protests.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Iran, the U.S. and the Strait of Hormuz Crisis

Great analysis by STRATFOR Global Intelligence that discusses the sources of conflict between Iran and the United States, and its impact on the region.

Iran, the U.S. and the Strait of Hormuz Crisis

Monday, January 16, 2012

“ABC News Exclusive: The Secret War Against Iran“, ABC News, 3 April 2007

It is useful to re-visit this special report by ABC News broadcast in April 2007 that talked about some of the covert operations inside Iran. The report opened with the following:

"Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News. The group, called Jundullah, is made up of members of the Baluchi tribe and operates out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan, just across the border from Iran. It has taken responsibility for the deaths and kidnappings of more than a dozen Iranian soldiers and officials."

We now know that the agents were not American, but Israeli agents posing as American !

Murder in Tehran

Farideh Farhi has an excellent essay on the dehumanizing manner in which the media and pundits have talked about the assassination of the Iranian scientist. A highly recommended reading. Farhi is an Iran expert, and an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.


Murder in Tehran

Farideh Farhi
Jan 16, 2012
MUFTAH

I do not know who killed Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, the procurement director at Iran’s Natanz Enrichment facility. Washington has categorically denied involvement and while Tel Aviv has, as usual, been coy about its role, Israeli President Shimon Peres shed doubt on his country’s culpability in a CNN interview. Adding further confusion, “Western intelligence sources” have told Time Magazine that Israeli Mossad was responsible for the assassination.

In reality, it really does not matter who killed the young man and his driver as they sat in Tehran traffic. For all we know, given the mileage the Iranian government has gotten out of the murder, forces inside Iran could have been responsible. Nevertheless, in light of the public discourse on Iran in the United States, Israel, and even Europe, it has been quite difficult for the leadership of these governments to convince the world and, even more so, the Iranian public that they are not responsible for Ahmadi-Roshan’s murder.

After months of chuckling over the murder of several other Iranian scientists – with pundits and politicians declaring that economic sanctions against Iran, even crippling ones, are not enough, and that “covert war” is better than overt war, killing better than doing nothing – it is hard for Western leaders to suddenly plead innocence. The Israeli government, of course, has the added complication of really wanting the world to think that this is its doing. The image of an all-menacing intelligence service with extensive reach is, after all, an integral part of Mossad’s bravado.

Promising revenge, Tehran is doing its part to add to the drama. The culprits shall pay, says the intractable Sardar Massoud Jazayeri, the deputy head of Iran’s Joint Chiefs of Staff who is never at a loss in his use of bombast. The Iranian government has already sent a letter to the British government reminding it of statements made by MI6 head, Sir John Sawyers, who in October 2010 said, “stopping nuclear proliferation cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy. We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons.” A letter has reportedly also been sent to the United States via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran regarding the “credible documents” that allegedly show CIA’s “guidance, support, and planning” with the “direct involvement of dependent agents.”

In many ways, Tehran has already taken its vengeance. It was not long ago that the Obama Administration accused Iran of planning the assassination of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. That case has already left our collective consciousness given the Administration’s inability to sell its plausibility. Now Tehran has an actual murder for us to savor with the United States and United Kingdom standing accused notwithstanding their vehement denials.

Tehran was quite ready for this. No bloodied picture of the murdered man was shown; no routine passport pictures. Instead Farsnews, the mouthpiece for Iran’s hard-line political camp, immediately posted a photo of Ahmadi-Roshan with his adorable young son, both sweetly gazing at the camera. The picture went viral and, with it, a rather explicit message: America, Britain, and Israel, have killed a human being; they have killed a father and made a son orphan. It must have been pure fortuity for Tehran that, on the same day, a video of American marines urinating on dead Afghan bodies also took the internet by storm.

I remember when in 2009 the image of another murdered Iranian went viral. Most of us had no doubt that the image of the bloodied Neda Agha-Soltan was a testimony to the cruelty of the Iranian government. Since then, many others have died in Iran and many more imprisoned for their political views. But today it is the inhumanity and immorality of U.S. policy and public discourse that is on display. A murdered Iranian father looks into the camera and shames our flippant discussions of the killing of Iran’s nuclear scientists and our proclivity for using sanctions and other forms of collective punishment to hold an entire nation responsible for the alleged crimes of its leaders. Meanwhile, we in the United States wonder at the kind of military training that teaches soldiers to delight in urinating on emaciated, faceless, and already dehumanized dead bodies.

Some Iranians inside and outside the country have tried to highlight the immorality and ineffectiveness of the Iranian intelligence service, which displays outmost strength in interrogating and imprisoning Iranian citizens for their political views and peaceful activities but has proved powerless in securing the country against acts of terrorism. In the current international climate, however, it is not hard to understand why these voices have gone unheard.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jim Lobe: The False Flag Story and Provocations

Jim Lobe is The Washington Bureau Chief of the international news agency Inter Press Service (IPS). This piece was published on his Lobelog.


The False Flag Story and Provocations

January 14th, 2012


By now, I’m sure most readers of this blog are informed about Mark Perry’s blockbuster story Friday on Foreign Policy that describes how Israeli Mossad agents posed as U.S. spies to recruit and use members of the Jundallah group to carry out what the State Department and others have called a campaign of terror against Iran focused in particular on the largely Sunni province of Sistan va Balochistan. If you haven’t read it, you must, and you can find it here.

This story naturally raises a host of questions, among them, why Jundallah was not put on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list before November 20, 2010; how much control the Mossad has exercised over Jundallah and its operations; whether Mossad may be operating another “false-flag” operation with PJAK, the Iraqi Kurdistan-based Iranian branch of Turkey’s PKK. (PJAK was designated an FTO 15 days after Obama’s inauguration, reportedly as a gesture to both Ankara and Tehran, and, as Mark reminded me Friday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly recommended last summer that Israel begin providing assistance to the PKK in retaliation for Ankara’s decision to downgrade relations with Tel Aviv.) And hanging over all this is the big question of why, if Washington knew of Israel’s sponsorship of one or more FTOs, particularly one as bloody-minded as Jundallah, did it not do more to discourage that relationship? Deliberately averting one’s eyes to terrorist activity is, after all, a form of complicity, particularly if you know that this terrorist activity is being done in your name.

Meanwhile, a remarkably and unusually candid discussion of Israel’s strategy of provocation for a mainstream medium took place yesterday with an interview by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews of former CIA officer Robert Baer can be seen here. It runs about five minutes. Baer makes clear his view that these assassinations, about which I hope to write more later, have little to do with setting back Iran’s nuclear program in any meaningful way, but are rather designed to provoke an armed response that would increase the likelihood of a U.S. or U.S./Israeli attack.

I think that these two forms of terrorism — support for Jundallah and possibly other terrorist groups, and the assassination of scientists associated with Iran’s nuclear program — share the same goal. (Killing a handful of scientists will not stop Iran’s nuclear program, and Jundallah is essentially a ragtag group with no hope of seriously destabilizing the regime.) The primary aim of these programs, therefore, appears to be provocation. And, so long as the U.S. is seen as supportive of or at least complicit with these efforts (as Israel clearly wishes the U.S. to be seen), hard-line forces in the Iranian regime will always have a leg up in internal discussions about whether Washington can be trusted in any negotiation. That’s why it seems to me that it’s incumbent on the Obama administration, if indeed it wishes to avoid war, to make as clear as it possibly can that it has absolutely nothing to do with these covert programs. In that respect, public denials, no matter how categorical, by Clinton, Panetta, and the White House to that effect are not nearly sufficient.

Israel's Iran strategy--US Embassy Cable- August 17, 2010 Cable

In this US Embassy Cable dated August 17, 2010, Undersecretary of State Nick Burns meets with Mossad chief Meir Dagan and discusses the Israeli perspective on a range of Middle East issues including Iran's nuclear ambition. According to the cable, Dagan mentions five pillars to Israel's Iran strategy: “Political Approach,” “Covert Measure,” “Counter-proliferation,” “Sanctions,” and “Force Regime Change.” Immediately following the conversation on this issue, there is line that states “Dagan and the Under Secretary agreed not to discuss this approach in the larger group setting.”

In light of what has been happening in Iran, it is useful to re-visit this Cable to see how thestrategy outlined in this document has been implemented.

US embassy cables: Israel grateful for US support

Friday, 31 August 2007, 12:45
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 TEL AVIV 002652
SIPDIS
SIPDIS
EO 12958 DECL: 08/24/2017
TAGS PREL, PTER, MARR, MASS, KNNP, UNSC, PK, IR, IZ, ZP">ZP,
JO, EG, RS">RS, CH, LE, SY, IS
SUBJECT: U/S BURNS' AUGUST 17 MEETING WITH ISRAELI MOSSAD
CHIEF MEIR DAGAN
Classified By: Ambassador Richard H. Jones. Reasons: 1.4 (b)(d).

Summary

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1. (S) In an August 17 meeting, Israeli Mossad Chief Meir Dagan thanked Under Secretary Burns for America's support of Israel as evidenced by the previous day's signing of an MOU that provides Israel with USD 30 billion in security assistance from 2008-2018. Dagan provided his assessment of the Middle East region, Pakistan and Turkey, stressing Israel's (a) concern for President Musharraf's well-being, (b) view that Iran can be forced to change its behavior, and (c) sense that Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are unstable with unclear futures ahead of them. Dagan probed for more detail about U.S. military assistance to the Gulf states, and -- while signaling agreement with the U.S. approach to the Gulf states vis-a-vis Iran -- cautioned that they may not be able to absorb significant military assistance. Dagan reviewed Israel's five-pillar strategy concerning Iran's nuclear program, stressed that Iran is economically vulnerable, and pressed for more activity with Iran's minority groups aimed at regime change. Dagan urged caution in providing assistance to the Siniora government in Lebanon, noting Syrian and Iranian efforts to topple the GOL.

2. (S) Under Secretary Burns cited the MOU as tangible evidence of the USG's commitment to Israel, and stressed that the U.S. would support all of its friends -- Arabs included -- in the Middle East, and will remain engaged in the region for the long term. He described U.S. efforts to support the Musharraf and Karzai governments as they face opposition from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and explained that the Gulf Security Dialogue is meant to bolster Gulf states facing threats from Iran. The Under Secretary reviewed U.S. efforts to isolate Iran and increase pressure on it, stressing that the U.S. is currently focused on the diplomatic track. He shared USG thinking about the Siniora government in Lebanon, and urged that the U.S. and Israel continue to consult on Lebanon. END SUMMARY.

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THE SECURITY ASSISTANCE MOU AND ISRAEL'S QME

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3. (S) Dagan observed that the signing of the MOU on security assistance could not have come at a better time, and stressed that Israel appreciated America's support. The Under Secretary agreed about the timing, noting that the U.S., Israel and like-minded countries were facing multiple threats around the world, and that the Middle East is a very dangerous region. He said that the MOU serves as a concrete reminder that the U.S. stands by its long-term security commitments to its friends, and is ready to help them with their needs. The Under Secretary noted that the Middle East is now at the heart of American interests. Because Egypt also plays a vital role in the region, the U.S. would also renew its security assistance commitment to that country. U.S. relations with the Gulf states were longstanding, and America would stay true to those friendships, as well. The Under Secretary stressed that the USG is committed to Israel's QME. He noted that the majority of systems and equipment that the U.S. would sell to Egypt and other Arab partners would replace items that had been sold to those countries in the past.

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DAGAN REVIEWS MIDDLE EAST, PAKISTAN, TURKEY

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4. (S) Assessing the region, Dagan said Israel sees itself in the middle of a rapidly changing environment, in which the fate of one Middle Eastern country is connected to another. Dagan then said he was concerned about how long Pakistani President Musharraf would survive: "He is facing a serious problem with the militants. Pakistan's nuclear capability could end up in the hands of an Islamic regime." Turning to Iran, Dagan observed that it is in a transition period. There is debate among the leadership between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad and their respective supporters. Instability in Iran is driven by inflation and tension among ethnic minorities. This, Dagan said, presents unique opportunities, and Israelis and Americans might see a change in Iran in their lifetimes. As for Iraq, it may end up a weak, federal state comprised of three cantons or entities, one each belonging to the Kurds, Sunnis and Shias.

5. (S) Dagan said that the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are concerned about the growing importance of Iran and its influence on them. They are taking precautions, trying to increase their own military defensive capabilities. Referring to the Gulf Security Dialogue (GSD), Dagan warned that these countries would not be able to cope with the amount of weapons systems they intend to acquire: "They do not use the weapons effectively."

6. (S) Dagan said that Jordan has successfully faced down threats from the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and that Egypt is struggling with the question of who will replace President Mubarak. He said he sees no hope for the Palestinians, and that Israel looks at Syria and Lebanon, and sees only instability. Further afield, it looks at Turkey and sees Islamists gaining momentum there. The question, he asked, is how long Turkey's military -- viewing itself as the defender of Turkey's secular identity -- will remain quiet.

7. (S) If Israel's neighborhood were not unstable enough, Dagan observed, it did not help that Russia is playing a "very negative role" in the region. He observed that all of these challenges have to be addressed globally -- they could not be dealt with individually. Returning to Jordan as an example, he noted that the more than one million Iraqi refugees in Jordan were changing Jordanian society, and forcing it into a new relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is evidenced by Saudi King Abdullah's recent visit to Jordan, which implies greater understanding between the Jordanians and the Saudis.

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DISCUSSION OF THE GULF SECURITY DIALOGUE

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8. (S) Turning to the Gulf Security Dialogue (GSD), Dagan said that enhancing the capabilities of the Gulf states "is the right direction to go," especially as they are afraid of Iran. Such a U.S. commitment will be a stabilizing factor in the region. Dagan clarified that he would not oppose U.S. security assistance to America's Arab partners. He expressed concern, nevertheless, about the current policies of those partners -- especially with regards to Syria and Iran. Dagan added that if those countries must choose between buying defensive systems from the U.S. or France, then he would prefer they buy systems from the U.S., as this would bring them closer to the U.S.

9. (S) Dagan observed that the challenge facing the U.S. now is how to unite the Gulf states under a shared policy, and pointed to Qatar as the weakest link in the chain, trying to play all sides. Under Secretary Burns replied that the U.S. is trying to get Qatar and its neighbors to look at issues from a regional perspective, and to focus on threats in a unified way. Acting PM Assistant Secretary Mull expressed understanding for Israel's frustration with how the region looked, but stressed nevertheless that if America did not engage the Gulf states through the GSD, the situation would become much worse. It is critical to get the Gulf states focused on the Iran threat, and to adopt a regional approach to countering it. Encouraging and supporting their counterproliferation efforts would be crucial. Dagan said he agreed with this approach, stressing that the threat of radical Islam is real.

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IRAN: DAGAN REVIEWS ISRAEL'S FIVE PILLAR STRATEGY

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10. (S) Dagan led discussion on Iran by pointing out that the U.S. and Israel have different timetables concerning when Iran is likely to acquire a nuclear capability. He clarified that the Israel Atomic Energy Commission's (IAEC) timetable is purely technical in nature, while the Mossad's considers other factors, including the regime's determination to succeed. While Dagan acknowledged that there is still time to "resolve" the Iran nuclear crisis, he stressed that Iran is making a great effort to achieve a nuclear capability: "The threat is obvious, even if we have a different timetable. If we want to postpone their acquisition of a nuclear capability, then we have to invest time and effort ourselves."

11. (S) Dagan described how the Israeli strategy consists of five pillars:

A) Political Approach: Dagan praised efforts to bring Iran before the UNSC, and signaled his agreement with the pursuit of a third sanctions resolution. He acknowledged that pressure on Iran is building up, but said this approach alone will not resolve the crisis. He stressed that the timetable for political action is different than the nuclear project's timetable.

B) Covert Measures: Dagan and the Under Secretary agreed not to discuss this approach in the larger group setting.

C) Counterproliferation: Dagan underscored the need to prevent know-how and technology from making their way to Iran, and said that more can be done in this area.

D) Sanctions: Dagan said that the biggest successes had so far been in this area. Three Iranian banks are on the verge of collapse. The financial sanctions are having a nationwide impact. Iran's regime can no longer just deal with the bankers themselves.

E) Force Regime Change: Dagan said that more should be done to foment regime change in Iran, possibly with the support of student democracy movements, and ethnic groups (e.g., Azeris, Kurds, Baluchs) opposed to the ruling regime.

12. (S) Dagan clarified that the U.S., Israel and like-minded countries must push on all five pillars at the same time. Some are bearing fruit now; others would bear fruit in due time, especially if more attention were placed on them. Dagan urged more attention on regime change, asserting that more could be done to develop the identities of ethnic minorities in Iran. He said he was sure that Israel and the U.S. could "change the ruling regime in Iran, and its attitude towards backing terror regimes." He added, "We could also get them to delay their nuclear project. Iran could become a normal state."

13. (S) Dagan stressed that Iran has weak spots that can be exploited. According to his information, unemployment exceeds 30 percent nationwide, with some towns and villages experiencing 50 percent unemployment, especially among 17-30 year olds. Inflation averages more than 40 percent, and people are criticizing the government for investing in and sponsoring Hamas, saying that they government should invest in Iran itself. "The economy is hurting," he said, "and this is provoking a real crisis among Iran's leaders." He added that Iran's minorities are "raising their heads, and are tempted to resort to violence."

14. (S) Dagan suggested that more could be done to get the Europeans to take a tougher stand against Iran. Under Secretary Burns agreed, and suggested that Israel could help SIPDIS by reaching out to the Europeans. Dagan said that Israel is already doing this, and would continue to do so. Dagan reiterated the need to strike at Iran's heart by engaging with its people directly. Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts are important, but more radio transmissions in Farsi are needed. Coordination with the Gulf states is helpful, but the U.S. should also coordinate with Azerbaijan and countries to the north of Iran, to put pressure on Iran. Russia, he said, would be annoyed, but it would be fitting, as Russia appears bent on showing the U.S. that it cannot act globally without considering Russia.

15. (S) Under Secretary Burns stressed that the USG is focused on Iran not only because of its nuclear program, but also because it supports terrorism and Shiite militias in Iraq. The U.S. approach is currently focused on the diplomatic track and increasing pressure on Iran through sanctions. Work in the UNSC helps to define the Iranian nuclear threat as one that affects international security, and not just that of Israel. While UNSC members Russia, China and Qatar will water down efforts to increase pressure on Iran, it is still worthwhile to push for a third sanctions resolution. In the meantime, the U.S. will encourage the Europeans, Japan and South Korea to implement unilateral sanctions against Iran outside the UNSC framework. The U.S. will continue to encourage banks and financial institutions to slow down their operations in Iran and financially isolate it. Regarding military pressure, the Under Secretary noted that the U.S. has deployed 1-2 carrier battle groups in the Gulf over the last six months, and that President Bush has stated that he will interrupt Iran's activity in Iraq. As for outreach to the Iranian people, the VOA is now broadcasting programs in Farsi, and the USG is trying to get more Iranian students to visit the U.S. to promote people-to-people relations.

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PAKISTAN: ISRAEL WORRIED ABOUT MUSHARRAF

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16. (S) On Pakistan, Dagan said that President Musharraf is losing control, and that some of his coalition partners could threaten him in the future. The key question, Dagan said, is whether Musharraf retains his commander-in-chief role in addition to his role as president. If not, he will have problems. Dagan observed that there has been an increase in the number of attempts on Musharraf's life, and wondered whether he will survive the next few years. Under Secretary Burns replied that South Asia has assumed vital importance in American foreign policy since September 11. The U.S. is committed to denying Afghanistan as a safe-haven for Taliban and Al-Qaeda activity. The USG will continue to support Pakistani President Musharraf, and is seeking to boost his military defensive capabilities. At the same time, the U.S. is encouraging Pakistan and Afghanistan to work with each other militarily. Turning to India, Under Secretary Burns noted that U.S.-Indian economic cooperation is growing, and that the USG is working effectively to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan.

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LEBANON: DAGAN URGES CAUTION

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17. (S) Dagan urged caution with respect to Lebanon, noting that the results of efforts there to bolster the Siniora government would impact Syria and Iraq. The U.S. and Israel, he said, are on the edge of achieving something in Lebanon, and so cannot afford to drop their guard. What is necessary is finding the right way to support PM Siniora. "He is a courageous man," Dagan said. Syria, Iran and Hizballah are working hard against him. Dagan noted that much of what is animating the leadership of Lebanon to take on Syria is personal: "Hariri, Jumblat and others had their parents executed by the Syrians." This anti-Syrian sentiment has forged an alliance based on personal and national interests. Siniora has worked well with the situation, but Dagan suggested that the odds are against him. Under Secretary Burns replied that the U.S. is trying to give PM Siniora as much support as possible, and that we would continue to consult closely with Israel on Lebanon. He noted that he would return to Israel in October.

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MEETING PARTICIPANTS

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18, (SBU) Accompanying Under Secretary Burns in the meeting were: -- Ambassador Richard H. Jones -- Acting PM Assistant Secretary Stephen Mull -- Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Mary Beth Long -- NEA/IPA Deputy Director Nicole Shampaine -- Embassy Tel Aviv Counselor for Political Research -- Embassy Tel Aviv Political-Military Officer (notetaker)

19. (SBU) Accompanying Mossad Chief Meir Dagan in the meeting were: -- Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Salai Meridor -- Advisor to Foreign Minister Livni Omer Caspi -- Two unidentified Mossad officials

20. (U) Under Secretary R. Nicholas Burns cleared on this cable.

********************************************* ********************

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Origin Of The Term "Arab Spring"

Iran's Supreme Leader & the Poison chalice

When the founder of the Islamic Republic and its spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini finally had to accept a UN arranged cease-fire between Iran and Iraq in July 1988, he compared the decision and the acceptance of the cease-fire terms as being equivalent to drinking “a poisoned chalice.” After eight years of insisting on Saddam Hussein's removal as a condition for ending the Iran- Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini had to accept the terms that not only kept Saddam Hussein in power, but also came at an enormous cost to Iranian economy and its international status.

Now tensions over Iran's nuclear ambition are taking the country toward a major crisis point. Iranian Revolutionary Guards have threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz. In response, the United States sent a blunt warning to the Supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei that such an action will result in serious consequences for Iran. This comes on the heal of the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist by a sophisticated bomb attached to his car, marking the seventh attempts of its kind that point to the involvement of Israeli agents. The assassination comes after a major explosion at an Iranian missile compound that killed a senior Revolutionary Guards commander and dozens of people in the base. Now a radical paper in Tehran has issued a statement calling for retaliation in kind. Combined with the imposition of tough sanctions, it is not an exaggeration to conclude that a dirty war has started with Iran that carries potentials for further military escalation in the Persian Gulf.

The Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei finds himself cornered into the same position as his predecessor the late Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988.This is the most serious challenge facing Khamenei since he was selected as a Supreme Leader in 1989. While his Revolutionary Guards commanders issue blunt warnings that they will not allow U.S. ships to return to the Persian Gulf, and the United States insisting that such action will not be tolerated leaves Khamenei in a no win position since it Iran is no match for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards people know this, but the question is whether they are capable of accepting a compromise solution at this late stage, and find a respectable exit when it is hard to couch it in anything but a defeat for Iran.

My reading of the situation is that the Iranian leadership realizes that they have pushed the country into a corner, but there is no consensus on how they can get out of it without endangering the credibility of the regime. Perhaps they can borrow a chapter from their own history, and allow the Iranian parliament to come up with a solution similar to how Ayatollah Khomeini started the process of negotiation for the release of American hostages in April 1980.

In any case, history may repeat itself here, and Khamenei has no choice but to drink from the poison chalice. As Gary Sick aptly stated in his latest opinion piece, "when two important countries appear to be goading each other into a dangerous and meaningless war, it can be useful to take a deep breath, lay the rhetoric aside for a moment, and go back to basics."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Economist: Far from “appeasing” Iran, did Barack Obama give up on diplomacy too soon?

Jan 14th 2012 | from the print edition

WITH the glaring exception of Ron Paul, most of the Republicans who want to be president agree on one thing. Barack Obama has been soft on Iran. Mitt Romney calls Iran “the greatest threat we face” and accuses Mr Obama of a woeful failure to understand the danger. Newt Gingrich, who spends a lot of time reminding voters of his hitherto overlooked role (along with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II) in the downfall of the Soviet empire, says that as president he would put together a similar plan to topple the regime in Tehran. Rick Santorum, on the stump in the old mill towns of New Hampshire, takes time out from the economy to alert voters to the perils of Shia theology. He and Mr Gingrich agree with Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that under its present leadership Iran is to be understood not as a rational actor but as an apocalyptic suicide cult which, if it built a nuclear bomb, would not be constrained by the usual logic of deterrence. Mr Santorum promises that if he were president and Iran did not submit, he would send in the bombers.

The Republican focus on Iran makes sense on two levels. First, Iran is unarguably dangerous. It is uttering threats against American warships in the Strait of Hormuz. It is developing the wherewithal to make a nuclear bomb. It has spent years ignoring United Nations instructions to stop enriching uranium. It says it wants Israel to disappear. Second, Iran is a national-security problem that Mr Obama has so far failed to solve. He may have killed Osama bin Laden, decimated al-Qaeda and helped to rid the world of Libya’s grotesque Muammar Qaddafi, but the hand he stretched out to Iran three years ago was in the end met with a clenched fist. Here at least, foes at home have concluded, is one area in which he can be safely accused of “appeasement”.

And yet that is a strange choice of word—unless you believe that the very act of talking to an enemy is tantamount to appeasement, a view that would have astonished the sainted Reagan during his long chats with Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. It is an especially strange word given the unprecedented pressure Mr Obama has methodically persuaded the world to apply to Iran. That pressure, it is true, has not yet achieved its aim: Iran continues equally methodically to enrich uranium. But Mr Obama, who insists that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, appears to be trying every means short of war (including, some say, sabotage, cyberwar and the assassination of scientists) to stop it. And if all else fails, war could follow. He has made a point of saying that “all options” remain on the table.

Sure, Mr Obama has made mistakes. While promising that all options are on the table, he has let successive defence secretaries say that bombing Iran would be futile and dangerous, which may be true but blurs the message. He also fumbled his response to the popular demonstrations that followed Iran’s fraudulent presidential election of June 2009. Having worked hard to start a dialogue with the Iranian leadership, and calculating that the Green movement would not be able to topple the government, he was slow to denounce the crushing of the protests. That looked weak. But the Republican claim that this squandered an opportunity to fell the regime is questionable. In contrast to Egypt, where America had influence on both Hosni Mubarak and the army it had helped to equip, it had no serious leverage on the ground in Iran, and its verbal support might have damaged the credibility of the very people it was trying to help.

Iran’s internal crisis also paralysed decision-making in Tehran and so killed a confidence-building deal that might have created more time for nuclear diplomacy. The idea was for Iran to ship 1,200kg of its low-enriched uranium overseas to produce fuel for a research reactor, thus leaving the country for a while with too small a stockpile with which to make a bomb. After the election this idea became too hot for the regime to handle, especially after one of the reformists’ leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, denounced it as a “surrender” to foreigners. Turkey and Brazil resuscitated the deal in the spring of 2010, but by then Iran’s stockpile had grown and Mr Obama was on the point of guiding a new, hard-won sanctions resolution through the Security Council. After the work he had invested in bringing Russia and China on board for the new resolution, the president seems to have decided that he could not risk letting the sanctions unravel.

Why not try again?

While Republicans accuse him of appeasing Iran, Mr Obama faces critics from the opposite direction who say his biggest mistake was to withdraw his outstretched hand too soon. In a thorough new history of the president’s engagement with Iran (“A Single Roll of the Dice”), Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC, regrets Mr Obama’s failure to accept the proposal from Brazil and Turkey. Having chosen to pursue diplomacy and pressure simultaneously, he bet all the diplomacy on a single roll of the dice, and when that got nowhere was left only with the pressure—which may in time also fail. If diplomacy is ever to succeed, Mr Parsi says, America must not retreat at the first sign of Iranian intransigence or congressional opposition, both of which are inevitable. The trouble, he concludes, is that the 30-year enmity between Iran and America is no longer a phenomenon, “it is an institution”.

Inside both countries, accusations of appeasement have become part of the institution. Mr Obama has not yet “failed” on Iran: Iran grew stronger on George Bush’s watch and has grown more isolated on his. Among all the options supposedly still on the table might be another go at diplomacy. But time is short, and this week’s Republican ruckus from New Hampshire will make it hard to try again until America’s election season is over.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Assassination in Iran

Professor Paul Pillar is Director of Graduate Studies at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia.

In this post, he talks about the consequences of covert operations in Iran.


January 11, 2012
National Interest
Paul R. Pillar

The killing of an individual foreigner overseas, if carried out for a political or policy purpose by either a non-state actor or clandestine agents of a state, is an act of international terrorism. At least that is how U.S. law defines it , for purposes such as the State Department's annual reports on terrorism. This form of terrorism is part of what put Iran on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Iranian regime perpetrated numerous assassinations of exiled Iranian political dissidents, in Europe as well as in other countries of southwest Asia. The Iranians effectively ended this assassination campaign about a decade and a half ago, largely to improve relations with the European countries on whose soil many of the assassinations occurred and perhaps also because by then Iran had bumped off nearly all of the people on its hit list. We should assume, however, that Iran retains the capability to assassinate far-flung targets again, and that it would consider doing so if searching for ways to strike back at adversaries that are striking it.

Iran itself has been a victim of this form of terrorist violence. This has included some instances, such as the killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan, in which Iranian interests have paralleled those of the United States. It has included during the past two years the killing in Iran of several nuclear scientists, the most recent of whom died this week from an explosive placed on his vehicle. Actions are more important than nomenclature, so if you prefer not to apply the T-word to these killings then just imagine what the reaction would be if something similar were occurring in the United States. Imagine the response if even just one scientist (let alone four or five) who was employed, say, at one of the U.S. national laboratories had been been similarly assassinated and a foreign hand was suspected. There would be screams of “act of war” and the U.S. president would be hard-pressed to hold back impulses to strike back forcefully. Now put yourselves in the Iranians' place. Not only do they face the serial assassination of their scientists, but they face it amid an environment filled with numerous other indications of foreign hostility, including the economic warfare, the saber-rattling, and the contest among American politicians to see who can shoot the most rhetorical venom at Iran. From this perspective, aptly described by Vali Nasr, it should hardly be surprising if Iran strikes back while it sees more reason than ever before to develop a nuclear weapon in the hope of deterring U.S.-led aggressiveness.

I don't know, of course, who is responsible for the assassinations of the scientists. I do not believe my own country is, and Secretary of State Clinton has explicitly denied “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.” Although over the last thirty years the United States has edged away from the strict prohibition on assassination embodied in Executive Order 12333, we Americans are still morally (and esthetically) squeamish enough about such things that the kind of hit job that took place this week on a north Tehran street doesn't seem to be our thing. We assassinate people, but in addition to euphemizing the act by calling it “targeted killing,” we limit the targets to people we are convinced are themselves terrorists, not scientists or something else. We also use means that we can think of as “war,” preferably means that can be employed from several thousand feet in the air so we don't get too close to the bloody reality. The one time we did get close to it, last May, we still used military means and that was to eliminate the most notorious terrorist in the world.

My hunch about responsibility for the killing of the Iranian scientists is similar to that of Trita Parsi, who says [6] the assassination “was likely conducted by a regional actor who prefers a military confrontation with Iran over a compromise that would permit Iran to retain nuclear enrichment capabilities, even if it doesn’t build a bomb.” The trouble for the United States is that because it so obsequiously does the bidding of the regional actor in question, it is seen as responsible for anything that actor does and can be expected to share in any resulting opprobrium or retaliation for what that actor does. This gets back to Iran's continued presumed capacity for making assassinations a tit-for-tat business. Do not be surprised if it endeavors to do exactly that, although Tehran will pick its targets, timing, and methods carefully to achieve a degree of deniability. The last confirmed official Iranian involvement in committing a terrorist act that killed Americans—the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996—left tracks well enough covered that it took years of investigation to determine the Iranian role. Possibly the caper last year involving the DEA informant and the used car salesman from Texas was intended as a reprisal for earlier assassinations of Iranian scientists, but the public story of that supposed plot is still so murky that any Iranian role can hardly be considered “confirmed.”

A further tragedy in all of this is that it is a stretch, to put it mildly, to think that murdering some scientists would delay the oh-so-feared Iranian nuclear weapon, as if the only plans and knowledge useful to the program resided in the heads of the murdered men. And this is entirely in addition to the moral dimension of what has taken place. What do we know about Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan that makes him any more worthy of being a victim of assassination than counterpart scientists in the United States or elsewhere would be?

The proper U.S. response to all this is to pursue—vigorously—negotiations with Iran, with the starting point being the most recent Iranian proposal for a new round of talks with the P5+1. That is the only way out of the larger spiral of mutually reinforcing hostility of which the assassinations are only a part. And if, as Parsi suggests, the most recent act of terrorism was intended at least partly to scuttle such talks, that is all the more reason to negotiate in earnest. To do otherwise would be, to use a hackneyed phrase, a victory for the terrorists.

Letter from Iran: Christmas is No Time for an Iranian Revolution

Hooman Majd is the author of recently published book entitled The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge. As he points out in this Foreign Affairs piece, "The government is less powerful than it was, but the regime itself is firmly in control. The nuclear program continues; Iranians go about their business, grumbling as they do. But a nation that weathered a revolution, an eight-year war with Iraq, and more than 30 years of sanctions and the enmity of the West is not about to crumble, nor to change direction."

The "Shadow War" against Iran

The "Shadow War" against Iran

Another nuclear scientist has been assassinated in Tehran. This is the 3rd scientist killed in the past year by assassins who use sophisticated bombs attached to their cars in the middle of traffic. This press round up summarizes the tensions in Tehran, and the uniform consensus that Israel and the United States are engaged in a "shadow war" covert operation inside Iran.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor provides a good picture of this shadow war. Heightened tensions "have driven oil prices higher, with Brent crude up more than 5 percent since the start of the year to above $113 a barrel."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Majid: Why America Matters to Muslims

Anouar Majid, the author of Islam and America: Building a Future Without Prejudice, and a professor at University of New England ( Maine) has a very good piece on why America matters to Muslims.



Why America Matters to Muslims
http://www.juancole.com/

One thing that is striking about the recent revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain is the absence of any anti-American slogans or denunciations of the Great Satan, as the Iranian regime refers to Uncle Sam. On the contrary: signs of pro-American sensibilities abound. Democracy protesters carried homemade placards displaying slogans and statements (sometimes translated into French) of fundamental American rights. The United States’ republican culture, founded in the late eighteenth century, and given a brief burst of energy during the early days of the Obama administration, walked side by side with the protesters. President Obama expressed support for the demonstrators, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned Arab leaders that they were sinking in the sand the day before Ben Ali fled Tunisia. One should not forget also that the Tunisian revolt was sparked by the dispatches of U.S. diplomats revealed by WikiLeaks. For many, WikiLeaks was proof that the United States was an imperial power whose consuls never ceased to keep an eye on the world’s nations and their doings; to Arabs and Muslims, however, the leaks were further proof that their regimes had no credibility whatsoever and that they were, indeed, sinking. That’s because the consular reports reflected America’s belief in freedom and equal opportunity; they expressed contempt for palace corruption even as they did business with Ben Ali and other rulers to safeguard their nation’s interests. And then, of course, the United States helped dislodge Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi from power through its military intervention.

This is a great moment for both the United States and Muslims around the world to reassess their relations and change negative perceptions that hinder a better dialogue. Americans should try to get out of the crusading mindset that they had inherited from Christian Europe. We may think that the old clashes between Christianity and Islam are things of an ancient past, but all anyone has to do is listen to what many evangelical leaders today say about Islam and its prophet to get a sense of this legacy. Islam, in such speeches and sermons, is portrayed as evil, whereas the Judeo-Christian tradition is considered God’s truth. This religious attitude has a lot to do with the stalemate in Israel and Palestine, for the belief that God has promised Palestinians to Jews and, ultimately, Christians, is well entrenched in these evangelical circles and informs a lot of U.S. policy making. One way to temper such prejudices is to highlight the positive contributions of Arabs and Muslims to American culture, whether through the scientific and commercial advances that were introduced to the West in the Middle Ages, or though the work of Arab or Muslim immigrants. To be sure, American presidents never fail to express pride in America’s Islamic component, but Americans need to do more to show that they care about Muslims in their midst. Maybe Hollywood could help change attitudes.

Muslims, on the other hand, have a lot more work to do. One problem in American-Muslim relations is the old American conviction that Islam fosters tyranny. This view was widely shared by America’s Founding Fathers as they saw, righty or wrongly, that the Muslim world, with its despotic sultans and caliphs, was antithetical to the republican spirit of liberty. No sooner was the United States created than it had to contend with the harassment of U.S vessels on trade missions by Muslim corsairs in the Mediterranean. The so-called Barbary states of North Africa demanded tribute for safe passage, but leaders like Thomas Jefferson were at a loss to understand why his newly liberated nation had to pay protection money. This encounter, with its ransoms, skirmishes, and eventual defeat of the Muslims in Tripoli, further strengthened America’s belief in the superiority of its system and worsened its prejudice against Muslims. American missionaries would later flock to the Middle East to convert the locals and, in the process, introduce modern education and health care systems. Americans praised Muslim civilization when warranted, modernized Egypt’s army, and laid the foundations for a new Arab nationalism. The United States was so highly admired during the late 19th century that some Arabs didn’t mind being part of an American mandate. This is one of the glorious moments in American-Muslim relations, one that needs to be widely known. The discovery of oil and the establishment of Israel, however, affected this relationship negatively, and things have spiraled out of control since then.

For relations to be restored to a level of high trust and mutual respect, Muslims need to face the facts and realize that old perception of their societies as despotic had some basis in truth. They need to understand that they have only themselves to blame now for their backwardness in almost every cultural and scientific endeavor and that their future rests on rethinking their approach to religion. Sunni Muslims must speak out against the wanton murders of Shiites and Christians in their midst, not just complain about Westerners. They also must accommodate themselves to the historical reality of Israel and realize that all nations—including many Muslim ones today—were born out of violence against native populations. (Many Berbers in my native Morocco still resent Arab invasions to this day.) The history of nation-making is a bloody one, but we can still turn tragedy into an opportunity. Israel has a lot to teach Muslims with its know-how and democratic spirit, while Israelis need to temper their biblical prejudices and break out of their quarantine and tap into the huge Arab market to grow stronger and more stable.

So much could be done with the right attitude, but hanging on to the dysfunctional methods of the last five decades would be a colossal waste of opportunity at this historical juncture. Belligerence will help no one—not Americans, not Muslims, and not Israelis. Americans can still teach Muslims how to build nations that keep religion and politics safely apart and how to unleash the creative spirit of enterprise, but the United States must also get its house in order, too, and fix its fast deteriorating social structures without delay. When a nation is a city upon a hill it can’t afford to neglect its affairs. As President Obama would say, this is the time for change. We can’t afford to wait.”

Monday, January 9, 2012

Guardian Editorial--Iran: Time for cool heads

Monday 9 January 2012


This would be a good time for the US and Europe to decline the ayatollah's kind invitation to be his faction's re-election agent


The following three propositions are all true: in March, Iran is facing one of the most crucial elections in the history of the regime; it is doing so in an atmosphere which has become militarised, not just externally, but internally too – the Revolutionary Guards control Iran's oil industry, key business interests, the nuclear programme and the oil and gas infrastructure; and the more militarised the election gets, the more it will benefit the hardliners around the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He himself has called the vote a potential security challenge. Given this, why are the US and EU about to impose oil sanctions, which even if they do not go as far as Ron Paul's "act of war" will squeeze the source of 60% of the regime's revenue?

Ayatollah Khamenei's reaction to the forthcoming sanctions has been to breathe fire. On Monday he said Iran would not falter in the face of the western-imposed sanctions and, to reinforce the point, Iran announced it had begun uranium enrichment at the Fordo plant, a bunker built into 90 metres of mountain rock near the city of Qom. If the recent sabre-rattling over the Straits of Hormuz had not been enough, Iran said it intended at Fordo to enrich uranium to the highly sensitive 20% enrichment level, regarded in the industry as the technical threshold for bomb-grade material. The ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guards appear to be going out of their way to provoke a western response.

The moderates in this forthcoming election, a relative term at the best of times, are President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and the "deviant group" around them. Whether these men have taken over the banner of reformism within the elite is debatable. But outside it, the opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who turned the last poll in 2009 into a major domestic crisis, are languishing under house arrest, and a campaign to boycott these elections will be easy for the regime to ignore. The Guardian Council, a conservative body of clerics and lawyers, will this week publish the names of those candidates who have been approved by the regime. Faced with the overwhelming superiority of the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad has got three cards to play: he is unpredictable, he claims to have compromising information on his political opponents, and the ministry of interior will hold the elections.

Given the stakes, this would be a good time for the US and Europe to decline the ayatollah's kind invitation to be his faction's re-election agent in Iran. Fordo remains under IAEA inspection. No tanker is being prevented from passing through Hormuz. Another round of nuclear talks with Iran could be in the offing. This is a time for cool heads.
What values drive the Arab movements of revolt?

Where is the UN Secretary Gerneral Ban Ki-moon ?

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has remained surprisingly silent and out of sight during the rising tensions between Iran and the United States. The only statement I have seen from UNSG is a statement issued last week in which he "asked the parties to resolve their differences through peaceful means, but stressed that it is Tehran's responsibility to prove their nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only." It is clear that the UNSG is not interested in utilizing the UN Secretary General's office to mediate between Iran and the Western powers. It is useful to compare his approach to his predecessor Javier Pérez de Cuéllar who served as UNSG during the eight year war between Iran and Iraq. He was an active UNSG who mediated between Britain and Argentina in the aftermath of the Falklands War, helped with a peace process in Central America, assisted in the negotiation with the independence of Namibia, and even tried to resolve the intractable conflict in Cyprus. But his most important accomplishment was opening the path of negotiation for Iran by traveling to Tehran several times and engaging the Iranian government and encouraging it to go for the UN Resolution 598 that called on Iran and Iraq to "cooperate with the Secretary- General in implementing this resolution and in mediation efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and honourable settlement, acceptable to both sides, of all outstanding issues in accordance with the principles contained in the Charter of the United Nations." But most importantly, Pérez de Cuéllar's engagement with the Iranian leadership gave him the understanding of how important it is for them to have the United Nations acknowledge the injustices committed by Saddam Hussein and the fact that it was Iraq who started the war in 1980. Article Six of the Resolution requested that "the Secretary-General to explore, in consultation with Iran and Iraq, the question of entrusting an impartial body with inquiring into responsibility for the conflict and to report to the Security Council as soon as possible."

The South Korean diplomat was elected Secretary General in 2006, was re-elected for a second term in June 2011 without any competition. He is clearly pro-American and campaigned very hard for the position of UNSG. With the exception of Darfur situation in which he took a strong position and pushed for peacekeeping troops to enter Sudan, Ban Ki Moon has not tried to use his office and position to mediate any conflict, particularly if such involvement may upset his supporters in Washington and London. The case of Darfur is obviously very popular in US Congress, so he did not have to run the risk of alienating anyone in Washington. But mediating between Iran and the Western powers takes courage and leadership, requiring a person with a long-term vision and commitment like Pérez de Cuéllar. It is not surprising that one UN official has criticized him for "leading the global institution into an era of decline."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Fareed Zakaria GPS Program on Iran

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT DEBATES IRAN ON CNN’S GPS with Fareed Zakaria

The National: Iran’s threats are real but so too is its dependence on oil

In this perceptive piece, Afshin Molvai draws our attention to Iran's capabilities and vulernabilities, questioning whether the Iranian leadership is irrational enough to cut off its only source of revenue (oil sales) by closing the Strait of Hormuz. As he states, "an Iranian attempt to shut down the Strait of Hormuz would be akin to a man purposely blocking a coronary artery, preventing blood and oxygen from reaching his heart. Such a man would immediately experience myocardial infarction – a heart attack – and die."

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC, and senior adviser at Oxford Analytica.

Afshin Molavi
The National
Jan 9, 2012

Chest-thumping threats by senior Iranian officials in recent days to close down the Strait of Hormuz sound like the proverbial cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Iran’s economy is overwhelmingly dependent on oil sales, most of which moves through the Strait to markets in Asia and Europe. A shut-down of the Strait would largely close the taps on Iran’s own oil sales.

But it’s far more serious than that. We need a new metaphor. An Iranian attempt to shut down the Strait of Hormuz would be akin to a man purposely blocking a coronary artery, preventing blood and oxygen from reaching his heart.Such a man would immediately experience myocardial infarction – a heart attack – and die. Without oil sales, Iran, too would experience a heart attack. Its government would become
insolvent, and possibly face a chaotic and ugly collapse with regional destabilising effects.

Oil accounts for some 80 per cent of Iran’s hard currency earnings and some 60 per cent of fiscal revenues. Oil lubricates Iran’s economy,masks structural distortions, creates oil “rent” competition among political elites, and pays for the security apparatus that keeps the increasingly restive and frustrated Iranians in check. Iran’s balance sheet is literally smothered in crude oil.

Thus, Iranian threats must be taken in their proper context. Even in the height of the tanker war of the 1980s during the brutal Iran-Iraq war, Tehran never tried to shutter the Strait. It mined the Strait and harassed ships and took some heavy casualties of its own, but it never made an effort at closure. It did not want a heart attack.

This is important to remember as we enter the most critical phase of Iran’s showdown with the United States, the European Union, and several Arab states over its nuclear programme.In 2012, Washington and Brussels are taking aim at Iran’s oil sales through a series of measures that include banning the purchase of Iranian oil, sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank (which processes oil payments),penalising
companies that buy Iranian oil, and possibly even a European embargo of Iranian crude.

The targeting of Iran’s oil sales represents the most serious escalation of a growing tide of multilateral and bilateral sanctions squeezing the Islamic Republic’s economy. The squeeze is biting. Last week, the Iranian currency, the rial, went into a free-fall before the Central Bank intervened. Capital is fleeing. Investment is down. Unemployment is up. Factories are shuttered or shuttering. Banks have been effectively isolated from world credit markets. Corruption -always a mainstay of the Islamic Republic – has taken on a shocking air: one embezzlement ring is accused of stealing $3 billion (Dh11 billion).

Still, despite all of these problems, there is always oil. One Iranian economist once described the Islamic Republic’s economy as a garden full of excrement (though he used a more colourful term). “Oil is the water hose that cleans (it) but it stays in the soil, only to creep up again, covering the flowers, until the oil hose comes in and cleans it up again.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had quite a hose at his disposal. In his first four years in office, Iran earned more in oil sales than the previous 16 years combined. Rising oil prices provided a boom to a badly mismanaged and structurally distorted economy.

The first quarter of 2012 will be telling. China has already cut its purchases of Iranian oil by half. Japan is looking for other suppliers. South Korea has sanctioned Iran’s banks and might also be looking for other suppliers. And India has been talking with Saudi Arabia about increasing its purchases of Saudi crude.

Between them, those four countries account for six out of every 10 barrels of Iranian oil sold on the market.

Most of the other four barrels go to Europe, including Turkey. New EU sanctions on the horizon, however, are even more draconian than US congressional legislation. The EU move could effectively bar all oil purchases from Iran. More oil will thus flow East, and Iran will be forced to offer discounts to Asian buyers.

Yes, the oil price will go up, and this has a short-term benefit for Iran, but this largely benefits other producers; Iran is often forced to offer discounts and it has a hard time getting paid for its oil owing to US Treasury sanctions that have effectively isolated Iranian banks.

Often, policy-makers wonder if sanctions work. This depends on your definition of “work.” If “work” means that sanctions make Iran’s government and its economy pay a heavy price for their nuclear program, then it is clear: sanctions are working. If by “work” we mean sanctions will get Iran to halt its nuclear programme, that answer is still in the negative.

By going for the jugular, Washington and Brussels are forcing an answer to that question about sanctions. In the end, Iran could always survive financial and trade sanctions, but oil sanctions are a different matter. By attempting to cut off Iran’s oxygen, the US and the EU are pushing Iran deeper into a corner, which could result in three scenarios: tactical retreat, reckless defiance or something in between.

It’s the “something in between” that Iran often chooses at moments of crisis, offering neither resolution nor reconciliation, but doing enough to, as one Iranian Foreign Ministry official once put it, “avoid getting our skirts caught in the fire.” That is not much of a foreign policy doctrine. It favours tactics over strategy and puts Iran in a weak long-term position. It’s also a dangerous game, but one that the Islamic Republic has played without any fatal burns for 33 years.

Still, the embers simmer, the fires are gathering, and “the something in between” strategy might not suffice in a year that could be fateful for Iran and the region’s future.

FT: Bahrain to host meeting of Jewish and Islamic scholars

According to this report in the Financial Times, the government of Bahrain has decided to host an inter-faith conference between Jewish and Islamic scholars. Bahrain has always showed an interest in organizing conferences on Islamic finance and banking, but now the embattled country is trying to do what Qatari government has been doing in the hope of building its reputation. But holding a conference on tolerance while the regime represses a pro-democracy movement in the country will not help the regime's image.

Financial Times
January 6, 2012

Bahrain to host meeting of Jewish and Islamic scholars

By Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Bahrain has pledged to host a meeting of Jewish and Islamic scholars later this year as the embattled Gulf state reinforces its image of tolerance amid a continuing crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, said the first bilateral Jewish-Muslim dialogue in the Gulf aims to build trust by finding common religious ground between the two groups as an essential precondition for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As tensions in the Gulf increase amid fears that Tehran could acquire nuclear weapons, Rabbi Schneier says Arab leaders are telling him that Israel and the Arabs share a common enemy in Iran.

“There is no question that Iran is an existentialist threat to Israel, and is becoming an existentialist threat to the Arab states,” he told the Financial Times. “We all share a common enemy – perhaps that can bring reconciliation.”

The move comes as Bahrain faces continued demonstrations across areas dominated by the majority Shia, who are leading protests against the minority Sunni government.

Bahrain, which has a small domestic Jewish minority, has touted its tolerance of a multi-faith expatriate population. However, Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, says the country’s impressive history of religious tolerance has been tarnished, especially with the destruction of Shia religious sites
during the crackdown.

“The crisis in Bahrain has political roots but has become increasingly sectarianised,” she said, noting the absence of dialogue between Sunni and Shia clerics. “It is this critical issue of Sunni-Shia sectarianism that Bahrain really needs to address, going beyond PR efforts.”

The Bahraini government blames Iran for fomenting the unrest, even though an independent commission into abuses found no “discernible link” between Iran and the protesters.

Opposition activists have distanced themselves from Iran, saying the uprising aims to end political and economic discrimination while promoting democracy.

Rabbi Schneier said King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa joked with him at their recent meeting in Manama, saying Jews and Arabs have their differences, “but we are cousins,” referring to shared Semitic roots.

Members of Bahrain’s tiny Jewish population have been vocal supporters of the king throughout the crisis, which saw Saudi Arabia lead Gulf troops onto the island to back a violent clampdown, followed by a campaign of arrests, torture and sackings against the mostly Shia protesters.

Shrugging off such concerns, Rabbi Schneier said King Hamad had assured him of Bahrain’s commitment to reform.

Describing Bahrain as a regional “model” for religious tolerance, progress in bridging religious differences between the monotheistic religions could only help ease sectarian Muslim tensions, he said.

The government is changing laws to promote freedom of expression and has hired foreign experts to reform the security forces and set up a mechanism to hold officials to account, but activists say progress is slow and hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain behind bars.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


AN IRANIAN PERSPECTIVE ON THE MIDDLE EAST AND ITS PROSPECTS

The Economist: Despite its sabre-rattling in the Gulf, Iran’s options are limited

Jan 7, 2012

AS IRAN’S ten days of muscle-flexing naval exercises in the Gulf drew to a close on January 2nd, the price of Brent crude rose by 4% to $112.13, the highest since mid-November. The increase reflected nerves over the bellicose tone of Iran’s pronouncements that accompanied its show of strength, amid fears that tension with America was becoming dangerous.

On December 28th Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the commander of Iran’s navy, boasted that closing the Strait of Hormuz, through which tankers carry a fifth of all oil traded worldwide (nearly 17m barrels a day), would “be easier than drinking a glass of water”. This was swiftly followed by a warning from Washington that any attempt to close the 35-mile-wide strait would “not be tolerated”.
In this section

A few days later, Iran’s army chief, General Ataollah Salehi, raised the temperature another notch. After an American aircraft-carrier, the USS John C Stennis from the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, passed through the strait, General Salehi said: “Iran will not repeat its warning…the enemy’s carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasise to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf…we are not in the habit of warning more than once.”

There is little doubt that the naval exercises, known as Velayat 90, were intended as a response to the tightening of Western sanctions triggered by the November report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog, which pointed to “strong indicators of possible weapon development” by Iran.

A new round of sanctions may be having an effect even before they come into force. On December 31st Barack Obama signed into law measures passed with large majorities in Congress that included barring foreign firms dealing with the Central Bank of Iran, the agency for half the country’s oil-related transactions, from access to America’s financial system. The value of the Iranian rial against the dollar promptly fell by 12%, though it has since recovered after the heavy intervention of Iran’s central bank.

The intended effect of this new sanction, which allows the president some discretion over its implementation, is to force countries such as Japan and China that are big purchasers of Iranian oil to choose between continuing to buy it and keeping access to the American market for their exports. In practice, Mr Obama is likely to allow big trading partners at least a temporary waiver to give them and the world oil market time to adjust. But Iran, which gets 80% of its revenues from oil exports, will be hard hit. If the European Union goes ahead with its own sanctions against Iranian oil exports, which is likely, the sense of being under siege will grow.

Judging how Iran will react in such circumstances is difficult. For all its sabre-rattling, it lacks the military clout to close the Strait of Hormuz for more than a few days. Nor would it be in its interests to do so unless oil exports had been cut to a trickle by sanctions. However, although the regional dominance of the Fifth Fleet is not in question, not to mention the other military assets America can deploy from local bases, Iran has invested shrewdly in a formidable capability for asymmetric warfare specifically designed to counter American technological superiority.

To that end, it has emphasised the procurement of numerous types of guided missile, many of them placed on light, highly mobile and relatively cheap platforms on land, in the air and at sea. These range from the mass-produced Seraj-1 missile and the Zolfaqar speedboat, which can travel at 80mph (130kph) and carries the Nasr anti-ship cruise missile, to a growing fleet of Ghadir midget submarines, the Karrar armed drone and mobile shore-based missile batteries. The Iranians believe that with “swarming” tactics in confined waters they may be able to overwhelm even the sophisticated defences of an American carrier group.

Iran could also strike at American economic interests in the Gulf, such as oil facilities and tankers, and block ships by laying mines, as it did during its war with Iraq in the 1980s. And it might deploy its paramilitary allies elsewhere in the region, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and insurgent groups in Afghanistan, to create as much mayhem as possible.

Even so, Iran’s options are limited. The plight of the embattled Assad government in Syria has weakened its links to Hizbullah and Hamas. And although the government in Tehran knows it cannot risk an all-out confrontation with America, nor can it be easily confident of stopping just short of such a cataclysm if it continues to raise the stakes. Despite Iran’s recent bluster, caution will probably prevail. But the chances of miscalculation are already quite high—and getting higher.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Maloney: Washington is Sliding Toward Regime Change

Suzanne Maloney: How Washington is Sliding Toward Regime Change
Foreign Affairs
January 5, 2012

Tensions between the United States and Iran have spiked once again. Last week, responding to planned U.S. sanctions against Iran's central bank, Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping gateway for one-fifth of the world's oil. U.S. President Barack Obama, pressed by Congress' near-universal support for tough new measures to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, decided to go ahead with the sanctions and signed them into law on Saturday. Fully enforced, they would slash one of Iran's foremost state revenue streams and virtually excise one of the world's leading oil exporters from the marketplace.

Read the full article here

Can Iran count on China ?

China is one of the largest buyers of Iranian oil. If EU imposes an embargo, this means that China or other Asian countries like South Korea have to pick up the 20 percent shortfall. But as reported by Peter Ford, Iranians cannot count on China to help them offset the impact of EU oil boycott.



EU's Iran oil ban: Will China help Tehran?
By Peter Ford
The Christian Science Monitor
January 5, 2012

Beijing

While China may not like the EU move toward an Iran oil ban, it may not rush to help Iran by buying more of its oil, say analysts.
If Iran is hoping that China will buy more of its oil to make up the exports it is slated to lose because of a European embargo on Tehran’s crude it will be disappointed, Chinese analysts here predict.

Beijing “will not take the risk for Iran’s benefit” of angering the United States and becoming too dependent on one source of oil, says Ma Xiaolin, a commentator on Middle East affairs and head of the Beijing-based BLSHE economic consultancy.

The European Union agreed in principle on Wednesday to ban oil imports from Iran, ratcheting up Western efforts to pressure Tehran into negotiating an end to its alleged nuclear-bomb program.

RELATED: Test your knowledge of China – take our quiz.

Iran denies it has such a program, and Iranian Vice President Mohammed-Reza Rahimi recently threatened that Iran would block shipping in the Straits of Hormuz if sanctions were imposed on its oil exports.

Iranian officials also say they have alternatives in place should the threatened EU embargo actually be enforced. “We could very easily replace those customers” by selling more oil to China, other Asian nations, and Africa, S.M. Qamsari, head of the international department of the National Iranian Oil Company, told Reuters news agency.

Experts here are dubious about that, however. “I don’t believe China would buy more from Iran in the event of a European embargo,” says Li Guofu, an Iran expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government-supported think tank here. “China has a number of sources of oil, and regular contracts.”

In a sign that Beijing bases its crude purchases on commercial, rather than political, grounds, China’s imports of Iranian oil this month are expected to fall dramatically, traders say, as it haggles over the terms of its 2012 contracts with Tehran, which are due to be renegotiated by the end of January.

China is Iran’s best international oil customer, taking 22 percent of its exports during the first half of last year, according to the US Energy Information Administration. EU countries bought about 18 percent in 2010.
Playing fair?

Though China is unlikely to help Iran off the hook of the threatened EU embargo, it is strongly opposed to the latest US effort to put pressure on Iran.

Last Saturday, President Obama signed a bill that would ban foreign financial institutions that deal with Iran’s Central Bank from operating in US financial markets.

That would make it impossible for Chinese refiners to pay Iran for the oil they buy unless their bankers are prepared to forgo doing business in the world’s largest financial market.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei lashed out at the new law Wednesday, saying that “China opposes the placing of one’s domestic law above international law and imposing unilateral sanctions on other countries.

“China maintains normal and transparent energy and economic cooperation with Iran, which does not violate UN Security Council resolutions and these interactions should not be affected,” he added.

China would be particularly affected by the US law, since not only does it rely on Iran for about 9 percent of its oil imports, but it sells Tehran about one-third of the gasoline Iran needs, since Iran does not have sufficient refining capacity itself.

A way around the embargo in Asia?

Japan and South Korea, among other big importers of Iranian oil in Asia, have also expressed reservations about the new US law.

“There are many questions to address with regard to such sanctions, including substitute suppliers of oil for Iran and whether it is possible to find ways to settle transactions other than through the Iranian Central Bank,” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters earlier this week.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is due to travel to Japan and China next week to discuss “continued coordination with international partners in the region to increase pressure on the government of Iran, including financial measures targeting the Central Bank of Iran,” a Treasury Department statement said Wednesday. He is not expected to receive a very warm welcome here.

Still, there is some hope for compromise. Chinese analysts note that the US law does allow Obama to issue waivers, exempting financial institutions from the law’s requirements if they come from countries important to US national security.

“I cannot predict what Obama will do” about Chinese financial institutions, says Professor Li, “but it will depend on how he regards relations with China.

“If the US uses domestic law to impose its will on international affairs,” Li adds, “that kind of method will be America’s problem, not China’s.”

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Iran's internet cafe clampdown is an effective way to dissuade dissidents

The Iranian government has launched another assault on internet users in Iran. A new law requires all internet cafe to register their customers with full name, address and contact information. As tensions build up with the West, internal repression will only increase.

By demanding cyber cafes take people's details, government is free to focus on other methods of internet censorship.

Charles Arthur
guardian.co.uk
January 5, 2012

The registering of customers' details at cybercafes is just one of the Iranian government's moves against internet freedom.

The dream of dictatorships – to control communications within their borders – has got harder and harder as the internet has become more and more pervasive. Fifteen years ago, cutting off the internet was easy: internet providers used modems and you could simply seize them. Now it's more complex: smartphones may even be able to connect to telephone data services across borders. A determined person can get a message out in all sorts of ways: one of the smartest is to hide coded data inside the pixels of what looks like a perfectly innocent photograph, a method called steganography.

The Iranian government's latest controls, in which it is demanding that internet cafes take the personal details of anyone using them, are calculated not to stamp out anonymous use of the internet, but to dissuade the far larger body of average people from any thought of dissent. As Patrick McGuinness says in The Last Hundred Days, his semi-autobiographical novel about the last days of Ceauçescu's communist Romania, in a society where you know that you are being watched, eventually you will watch yourself, and save the authorities the trouble.

Monitoring the free internet is too big a task for any government. But by using the threat of monitoring, Iran's administration can free itself to focus on words or phrases, or people, it knows to distrust.

But Iran's government has been taking other steps too to discover dissidents and track their movements. It may be following North Korea's lead in creating an "intranet" – an internet that works only inside its borders. Only a few thousand people in North Korea have any connectivity to the outside world.

Iran seems to be looking to protect its most valuable information from the wider internet, fearing a repeat of the Stuxnet computer virus attack of 2010 – though that was brought into the country via infected USB sticks from Russia, which were plugged into the nuclear network. An intranet wouldn't stop that.

The government is also trying other methods to monitor dissent. Last year, an Iranian hacker broke into one of companies that issues "digital certificates" – a sort of seal indicating that a site is what it says it is. Among the false – but to a receiving computer, completely real – certificates that the hacker created was one for Google's webmail product, Gmail. A few months later, the certificate was discovered being used in Iran to fool people who were accessing Gmail into thinking that their connection was secure; in fact any suitably equipped hacker could have monitored their emails. Significantly, a dissident would be more likely than the average Iranian citizen to use Gmail.

In response, some outside groups have tried to set up methods to let people inside Iran bypass the filtering being used on the computing and telephone networks. The so-called "internet in a suitcase" project, backed by the US government, is designed to carry systems that would let people create their own ad-hoc wireless phone networks, eventually linking out of the country to services such as satellite internet providers or mobile phone networks across borders.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Gary Sick: Who's Afraid of the Ayatollahs ?

This thoughtful piece by Iran expert Dr. Gary Sick puts the whole picture of Iranian nuclear threat in perspective, questioning the logic of those who continue to emphasize the urgency of dealing with Iran now regardless of whether Iran is capable of threatening the U.S.

January 4, 2012
Who’s Afraid of the Ayatollahs?
http://garysick.tumblr.com/

Politicians and pundits are curiously schizophrenic when discussing Iran. On one hand, they are prepared to declare, as Mitt Romney did, that the “greatest threat that Israel faces, and frankly the greatest threat the world faces, is a nuclear Iran.” To deal with this threat, he says as president he will “restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously… .increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region.” Further, he is willing to consider “blockade, bombardment, and surgical military strikes.”

At the same time, when Iran actually issues a threat, such as the recent suggestion that it would close the Strait of Hormuz if its oil exports were interrupted, pundits and analysts from all sides rushed to assure Americans that in any showdown, Iran would be no match for the U.S. military. The mismatch in forces is so one-sided, they contended with good reason, that Iran would never dare attempt such a misguided action that would bring them into conflict with the mightiest military in the world.

The implication is that Iran, if it ever acquired a nuclear weapon, would be an intolerable threat to the United States and Israel (which have a combined total of well over 8000 operational nuclear weapons), but in the meantime Iran’s leaders are afraid to confront the United States because they are out-gunned.

Without questioning the logic of this proposition, just how worried should we be about Iran? How much harm can Iran actually do to us?

This question is important since, despite all the scare talk, the United States and its allies are actually conducting their relations with Iran as if they were entirely immune to any retaliation. Such policies include the use of drones for both reconnaissance and attack; covert (or officially deniable) actions, such as the Stuxnet worm introduced into the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and/or assassinations of suspect individuals; displays of military force; and destructive unilateral sanctions.

War by Stealth

President Obama deserves admiration for the skill with which he has moved the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts off the front pages, at the same time that he was moving soldiers out of the war zones. This, it is worth remembering, was what he was elected to do.

But as he was ending the most visible part of America’s ongoing wars, he was shifting to stealth warfare: drone reconnaissance and attack, assassinations, cyber warfare, and highly specialized small unit operations. It is certainly true that these tactics are less expensive than large scale combat, and they are less likely to produce negative political responses, at least among Obama’s voting constituencies. But they rely on a perception of impunity that is misleading and ultimately dangerous.

Drones are useful to track the activities of relatively primitive opponents, specifically opponents who have no significant air defenses or technological counter-measures. Over the barren skies of Afghanistan, Waziristan and Iraq, they can operate with little fear of interception or interference.

That is not true in a country with more sophisticated defenses. Recently, a stealth drone was downed in Iran. Iran claims that it spoofed the aircraft into believing it was returning to its base, when in fact it was landing in Iran. The Iranian story is credible, though we may never know all the facts. At least two other U.S. drones had previously been downed over Iran, though they were apparently shot down, not commandeered.

Losing a drone, however embarrassing, is not as costly as losing a manned aircraft. That is the appeal. But the fact that we were flying drones over Iran suggests we thought we could do so with impunity. Did we overestimate our own technological prowess? Did we underestimate Iran’s? Either way, it should be a lesson to those who are now assuring us almost daily that a surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could be conducted with little cost and manageable repercussions.

Little noticed was the Iranian announcement that it had rolled up a CIA espionage ring in Iran. If true, this is the third time since the revolution that a major U.S. spy ring was neutralized.

Cyber Blowback?

The introduction of the Stuxnet worm into Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz probably slowed Iran’s production of low enriched uranium for a period of time, but enrichment never really stopped and within several months it had recovered to its previous level. It was a clever ploy, apparently created by one or more national cyber warfare laboratories. Whether true or not, Iran believes it was done by Israel and the United States, and Iran’s interpretation will shape its response.

Whoever planted the Stuxnet worm (and apparently a new version called “Duqu” that has showed up in recent months), probably assumed that its originators were immune from retaliation. Is that really true?

Iran has a very highly developed cyber warfare capability of its own, with a battalion of young, skilled IT engineers. Until now, they have focused primarily on putting down the incipient revolt that followed the contested elections of 2009. In that effort, they were much more efficient than the Egyptians, or Syrians or other Middle East nations who have tried to stop use of the internet for social and political mobilization. But what happens next?

The United States and all other developed industrial states rely on computer-driven systems for their most mundane and most sensitive services, everything from waste disposal sites to dams to nuclear plants. Cyber warfare specialists are openly worried about the vulnerability of these systems to a sophisticated cyber attack. And such attacks, if well planned, leave no discernible fingerprints.

As in the case of the stealth drone, are we as invulnerable as we thought? What if a power plant in your vicinity suddenly and mysteriously exploded or ran amok? You probably would not blame your national security officials, but you might be wrong. In cyber warfare, the playing field is much more level than in conventional warfare.

Are Sanctions the Answer?

More recently, the U.S. Congress has been insisting on sanctions against Iranian banks that, in effect, make it impossible for Iran to sell its oil. That is the equivalent of a military blockade of Iran’s oil ports, arguably an act of war. And these sanctions are being imposed unilaterally, without reference to the United Nations Security Council. Members of Congress can go home to their districts and boast about how tough they can be on Iran, and in an election year that is worth a few votes. President Obama seems unwilling to buck the tide, despite his better judgment.

Iran has responded with harsh words, indicating that if Iran’s oil lifeline is cut off, others will also find their access to world oil markets imperiled. Iran does not need to close the Strait of Hormuz to make a point. Its words make it clear that an act of war by the United States will be treated as such by Iran. Even the threat of a confrontation immediately drove the price of oil above $100 per barrel, which has effects on economies struggling to recover from the recession.

The main reason why Iran’s putative threat to close the Strait of Hormuz was dismissed is because Iran also relies on the Strait to export its own oil. But if Iran’s oil revenue – fifty percent of its budget – is cut off, they would have little to lose by striking out at those they hold responsible, including passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran cannot defeat the U.S. Navy, but the swarms of cruise missiles they could fire both from shore and from their fleet of speedboats could create havoc, as could the flood of mines they could put into the fast-moving waters of the Strait.

If pressed to the wall and facing collapse of its economy, Iran might reasonably try to make life as miserable as possible for those it holds responsible, including the loading facilities and refineries of the U.S. Arab allies across the Gulf from Iran. Iran’s cruise missiles can be used at targets other than ships.

Iran would eventually lose this battle, but the rest of the world would have paid a very high price. A prolonged period of oil prices above $200 and the uncertainty about when normal supplies could be resumed would do real damage to the fragile and recovering economies of Europe and the United States.

I’m sure the members of Congress who are trying to outdo each other in anti-Iran bravado spent little time worrying whether they and their constituents might be harmed in various ways by an Iran that sees itself under attack. Some openly welcome the idea of a third Middle East war, whatever the consequences.

Slouching Toward War

These are the same illusions of righteousness and impunity that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As General Zinni memorably noted, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re going to love Iran. Those who suggest that a U.S. military confrontation with Iran would be surgical, limited, and one-sided are many of the same people who eight years ago assured you that the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk.

Remember that Iran has been developing a nuclear enrichment capability for more than twenty years – more than thirty if we include our nuclear cooperation with the shah – all the while as members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. They almost certainly experimented with development of a nuclear weapon during the days of Saddam Hussein, but according to U.S. intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) those experiments stopped with the fall of Saddam in 2003. The latest IAEA report, based on the observations of their own inspectors at key Iranian sites, found no evidence that Iran is diverting nuclear material to build a bomb.

The alarms that some are sounding as they openly try to push the United States into another truly catastrophic war in the Middle East are based on the fact that Iran MIGHT choose at some point in the future to build a bomb. Advocates of war try to transform that into a certainty that Iran WILL build a bomb and then use it, probably against Israel. That fear of a suspected nuclear capability as a rationale for going to war should by now sound familiar to most Americans. It is exactly the same argument that got us into Iraq.

An impeccable array of U.S. and Israeli security officials have spoken openly of the absolute folly of going to war with Iran and have warned against exaggerating either the threat or Iran’s intentions. Those voices include the top military leaders and intelligence officials in both the United States and Israel.

After a decade of war and trillion dollar deficits, the United States should be well aware that such adventures can do us real harm. An important set of experienced voices continue to call for a return to negotiations. Iran says it is willing. We risk greatly and unnecessarily if we ignore the chance.