Tag: Iran

Eagle Claw and Honey Badger

“As health concerns for former President Carter mount,” Caleb Brown noted recently in this space, “it’s nice to be able to look back on his time in the White House and see something remarkably positive.” Indeed, our 39th president doesn’t remotely merit the bad rap he gets from conservatives and libertarians. As I wrote a few years back, “at its best, the Carter legacy was one of workaday reforms that made significant improvements in American life: cheaper travel and cheaper goods for the middle class.” For loosening controls on oiltruckingrailroads, and airlines, he should, Daniel Bier suggests, be thought of as “the Great Deregulator.” It’s in no small part thanks to him that conservatives can cry in their microbrews over the sorry state of the 2016 Republican field.  

So the man from Plains has a lot to be proud of. In the coming months, I hope he’ll have the consolation of seeing the record corrected and his historical reputation start to rise. 

Judging by his recent press conference announcing his illness, however, Carter shares a widely held misconception about where his presidency went wrong. Asked about his regrets, he answered: “I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages and we would have rescued them and I would have been re-elected.” Carter was referring to “Operation Eagle Claw,” the aborted Iranian hostage rescue attempt in April 1980. If you’re old enough, you probably remember: the operation never got past the initial “Desert One” rendezvous point, due to the mechanical failure of three helicopters, and eight US soldiers were killed during departure when a helicopter collided with a transport plane. 

The botched rescue attempt definitely contributed to Carter’s defeat. But the mission failed during the “easy” part; when you look at what was supposed to come next, it’s hard not to think the whole operation would have been the Bay of Pigs meets Black Hawk Down.

Writing in the Air & Space Power Journal in 2006, war gaming professor Charles Tustin Kamps observed that “the things which did cause the mission to abort were probably merciful compared to the greater catastrophe which might have taken place if the scenario had progressed further than the Desert One rendezvous.” “In the realm of military planning there are plans that might work and plans that won’t work,” Kamps writes, “In the cold light of history it is evident that the plan for Eagle Claw was in the second category.” It would have required “the proverbial seven simultaneous miracles” to succeed. 

North Korea Remembers Libya, So No Iranian-Style Deal

The Obama administration’s success in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran has led to hope that a similar agreement might be reached with North Korea. Halt your program, dismantle some of your capabilities, and accept intrusive inspections in return for “coming in from the cold.”

Unfortunately, there’s virtually no chance of that happening. As I point out in National Interest online: “The North already has a nuclear capability and views preservation of a nuclear arsenal as critical for domestic politics as well as international policy. Moreover, the West’s ouster of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy is seen in Pyongyang as dispositive proof that only a fool would negotiate away missile and nuclear capabilities.”

In word and action the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has demonstrated its commitment to being a nuclear state. Moreover, even a good offer for denuclearization looks suspect in light of U.S. and European support for the ouster of Libya’s Khadafy, who negotiated away his nuclear, chemical, and long-range missile programs.

President George W. Bush promised that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” Khadafy was feted in European capitals. Tripoli was cited as a model for Iran and North Korea to follow.

However, four years ago the U.S. and European governments saw their chance. Under the guise of humanitarianism, Washington and Brussels promoted low-cost (to them) regime change.

Alas, the self-satisfied celebration of Libya as a “good war” quickly dissipated after that nation suffered post-war atrocities, loosed weapons across the region, generated rogue militias, spawned two governments, descended into incipient civil war, and became another battleground for Islamic State forces. 

Now Libya also stands as a stark warning against nonproliferation, at least for any government believing itself to be in Washington’s gunsights. Had Khadafy possessed nukes, chemical weapons, and/or missiles, the allies almost certainly would have kept their planes and drones at home.

The North Koreans took immediate note. The Foreign Ministry observed:  “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm and then swallowed it up by force.”

Pyongyang has no reason to believe that the allies would not take advantage of a similar opening against the Kim dynasty.

Nevertheless, the Iranian negotiations have revived hopes that the DPRK might be enticed into following suit. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman suggested that implementation of the Iran agreement “might give North Korea second thoughts about the very dangerous path that it is pursuing.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Iranian deal was an “active model” for the North.

Alas, Kim Jong-un took power only a couple months after Khadafy was killed in rather gruesome fashion. That event likely was imprinted upon his consciousness. Kim isn’t likely to give up his most important weapon to deter outside intervention.

After announcement of the Iranian agreement, the North Korean foreign ministry issued a statement explaining that the situation of the North was “quite different” from that of Iran and that Pyongyang was “not interested at all in the dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze or dismantle its nukes unilaterally first.”

After all, the DPRK was a nuclear state and faced ongoing threats from the U.S. Thus, its nuclear deterrent was not “a plaything to be put on the negotiating table.”

This should surprise no one. Author Mark Fitzpatrick contended that the Iranian deal showed that the U.S. “treated the Iranians as equal negotiating partners, according them respect and collegiality.” But Washington treated Libyans that way too. Which didn’t stop the U.S. and its allies from ousting the same government a few years later.

It never was likely that the DPRK would yield up its nuclear weapons. But the Obama administration’s Libyan misadventure makes that prospect even less likely. Washington may rue this precedent for years to come.

Survey: 58% of Americans Favor Iran Nuclear Agreement, but Worry about Its Efficacy

A new Cato Institute/YouGov poll finds a solid majority—58%—of Americans supports the main components of the Iran nuclear deal, in which the United States and other countries would ease oil and economic sanctions on Iran for 10-15 years in return for Iran agreeing to stop its nuclear program over that period. Forty percent (40%) oppose such a deal.

Americans also prefer Congress to allow such a deal to go forward (53%) rather than block the agreement (46%). Support declines slightly when the deal is described as an agreement between the “Obama administration and Iran.”

Full poll results found here

Despite support for the deal, Americans remain skeptical it will stop Iran’s nuclear program. Fifty-two percent (52%) of Americans say the agreement is “unlikely” to “stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” including 32% who say it’s “extremely unlikely.” Conversely, 46% believe the deal is likely to achieve its primary goal.

However, Americans are more optimistic the deal will delay Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The poll found 51% of Americans think the deal will likely “delay” Iran’s nuclear development while 47% disagree.

The survey also offered Americans an opportunity to select which one of several policy options would be “most effective” in reducing the likelihood Iran develops nuclear weapons. Doing so found a plurality –40%— think the Iran nuclear agreement would be more effective than taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities (23%), imposing new economic sanctions against Iran (23%) or continuing existing sanctions against Iran (12%).

Ultimately, 63% of Americans say it would be a “disaster” if Iran developed nuclear capabilities while 32% say the problem could be managed and 5% say it wouldn’t be a problem. Nevertheless, Americans tend to have confidence that the Iran nuclear agreement may be the next best step toward reducing that possibility.

Iran and the Global Oil Glut

Today’s Iran deal is a victory for U.S. nonproliferation efforts, and while it may not be perfect, it goes a long way towards ensuring that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons, and that the IAEA will regain crucial oversight access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. But though it is fundamentally an arms control agreement, some of the biggest impacts may in fact be felt in global oil and gas markets, as easing sanctions allow Iran’s hydrocarbon sector to reopen to the world.

Much of the text of the deal focuses on the sanctions which will be lifted in exchange for Iranian concessions on nuclear enrichment and processing. These include agreement by both the U.S. and EU to permit the import of oil and gas, as well as lifting asset freezes and bans on the export to Iran of technology and equipment for oil and gas extraction. More importantly, bans on investment, financing and service provision in the industry will be lifted, paving the way for European and American firms to provide technical services and invest in the country.

Oil prices have been volatile since the deal was announced, falling almost two percent before recovering. The initial price drop reflects the expectation that Iran may release some of its approximately thirty million reserve barrels of oil onto the market as soon as it is able. Iran also has the potential to impact oil prices in the long-term, holding the world’s fourth-largest reserves of crude oil, and second-largest gas reserves. Production has been depressed by sanctions, but once they are lifted, it is plausible that Iran could increase production to its pre-sanctions levels (2-3 million barrels a day) within several years.

Operation Decisive Failure

A front page story in today’s Washington Post highlights that the failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen is already becoming apparent:

Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

Foreign Policy makes similar points:

Through its backing of Saudi Arabia—with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities—and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

None of this should be surprising. Yemen’s history is replete with tribal conflict and failed invasions, as I highlighted yesterday in the New York Times. Yemeni insurgencies have defeated the British, the Egyptians, and the Saudis in the last 50 years alone.

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

The Iran Policy Clownshow

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.