Tag: Iran

Trying to Do Everything, Doing Nothing Well

One of the perennial laments about American strategy offered by people like me is that Washington seems incapable of setting out clear priorities in its foreign policy. Everything is urgently important. The business section of today’s New York Times highlights the unfortunate results of this orientation.

You may have heard by now that the United States and other allied countries are currently trying to strangle the Iranian economy to the point where the regime in Tehran feels enough pain—or, more accurately, fears for its survival enough—that it is forced to comply with the preconditions for negotiations and come to the table. This is deemed a Very Important Objective by the Washington foreign-policy elite.

But what you may have forgotten is that the United States is currently undertaking a “pivot” away from the Near East and toward the region where Washington believes the future of international politics lies: the Asia-Pacific. In pursuit of that objective, the United States is currently trying to pull together a coalition of junior partners to help diplomatically and militarily surround China so as to hem it in, should it have any ambition to take charge of the security environment in its region. This, too, is a Very Important Objective.

And before you get ahead of yourself, don’t forget about Poor Little Georgia, which got a chunk of its territory annexed after it lost a war to Russia in 2008. As President Bush pointed out, America’s vital interests and its deepest beliefs are now one. And surely our deepest beliefs don’t involve leaving a flawed-but-promising democratic nation to the tender mercies of a predatory and authoritarian Moscow regime, do they? So let’s agree that keeping Georgia safe is a vital interest.

The problem with this approach is that it’s very hard to pursue these difficult objectives at once. As the Times piece points out, the sanctions coalition against Iran conflicts with a number of these other objectives:

[N]ew threats to Iranian oil flow could have at least one beneficiary: Russia…

For Russian oil companies like Rosneft and Lukoil and the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP, the international tensions that began over Iran’s nuclear development program last autumn have meant a windfall. Analysts estimate that Iran jitters have added $5 to $15 a barrel to the global price of oil, which means an extra $35 million to $105 million a day for the Russian industry. And the taxes the Russian government has received from those sales have been a political windfall for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he campaigns to return as Russia’s president. The extra money has helped further subsidize domestic energy consumption, tamping down inflation.

“It’s good for Putin,” Mr. Mercer said. “In the United States, when oil prices go up, the president’s ratings go down. In Russia, it’s the opposite.”

So our Iran policy helps Russia and Putin, and that’s bad. But wait:

[A]t least one exemption [to the Iran sanctions] under discussion is meant specifically to limit the strategic benefits for Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of American and European strictures against Iran.

The United States and European Union are negotiating an exemption that would continue to provide the former Soviet state of Georgia—a nation that is now a Western ally—an alternative to Russian natural gas. The workaround allows payments to an Iranian company, Naftiran Intertrade, that has a share of the Shah Deniz natural gas field in the Caspian Sea.

The field, managed by the Western petroleum giant BP, is a supplier to Georgia. It is also a potential source for the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would be managed by a consortium based in Vienna and backed by some Western European governments to create European competition with Gazprom. But the pipeline, seen as a maneuver to weaken Russia’s hand in European energy politics, has been stalled in the planning phase for years.

So we’re carving out an escape hatch for Iranian natural gas to get to Georgia, because we have friends in Tbilisi. Oh, and what about that pivot to Asia? Any trouble on that front?

China, meanwhile, is expected to circumvent the Iranian sanctions with tacit American approval by settling its oil purchases with Iran through banks that have no dealings in the United States. India, for its part, has negotiated to barter wheat for oil, or pay Iran directly in rupees.

Hmm. Oh, and what about our war in Afghanistan, which has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with the meter currently running somewhere between $8 and $10 billion per month? What’s going on over there? Maybe the Post has something on that:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At one end of the flower-festooned table sat the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps the world’s most relentless America basher.

At the other end sat Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, who owes his nation’s survival to the United States.

And in the middle was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country’s complex relationship with Washington swings from pole to pole.

If there existed any conflict among the chief executives of the three neighboring Islamic nations, they certainly weren’t showing it Friday at the close of a trilateral summit in Pakistan’s capital. At a news conference Zardari hosted in his splendid official residence, the theme was fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region raging with war and terrorism.

It’s almost as if there are tradeoffs among our objectives.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

War Vets and the New Hampshire Primary

Like many Americans, a growing number of post-9/11 veterans care more about protecting and defending the United States and less about transforming failed states, democratizing the Middle East, protecting wealthy allies, and sacrificing more American lives in the name of global hegemony.

Last Friday, ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary, Gwen Ifill of the PBS Newshour interviewed five Granite State Republicans and independents about their views on the Republican presidential field. In alluding to the divergence between keeping America safe and fighting wars indefinitely in the war on terror, New Hampshire voter and Iraq war veteran Joshua Holmes told Ifill:

HOLMES: …We haven’t defined what it is that is going to satisfy basically victory in the global war on terror. And until we define victory, until we develop a plan to achieve that victory and then to end the war, soldiers are going to continue to die.

IFILL: And who [of the candidates] do you think has got a plan?

HOLMES: I think that Dr. Paul is the first person, the only person now that Gary Johnson is out of the race. All of the other candidates are planning on continuing the global war on terror without any objectives.

(Presidential contender Jon Huntsman also favors more limited and concrete counterterrorism objectives as well as reducing the active-duty Army and closing 50 overseas bases.) Moments later in her interview, Ifill circled back to Holmes and asked him why he thought Paul was doing better this year compared to four years ago, in terms of more attention, more support, and more money. He replied:

Well, simply, the things that he was talking about four years ago have - they’ve manifested. I mean, he predicted the financial meltdown back in 2001 and warned about it for almost a decade before it happened.

He warned about the consequences of the Iraq war, especially the long-term consequences. And now we’re actually seeing those consequences. And that opens people’s minds to the idea that this guy, who did warn us, might have the solutions.

Mr. Holmes is not alone, particularly on the subject of war. One in three veterans of the post-9/11 military believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. A majority, according to the Pew Research Center, think America should be focusing less on foreign affairs and more on its own problems.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates, however, seem all too willing to surrender more American treasure and possibly more American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen for preemptive strikes against Iran. Republicans would do best to appreciate the critics of intervention, a growing number of whom now reside within the post-9/11 military.

Iran’s Bluster and Weakness

Iran this week punctuated 10 days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts, and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.

The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined its ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms.

Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:

Iran … lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi’a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi’a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.

Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treat it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash President Obama for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to “contain” it, as if that required great effort.

Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping, and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.

The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble.  Although it’s not clear that an oil price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.

Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, Iran would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.

The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of Iran credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of its wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based air power along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million people already deters our invasion.

The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.

Cross-posted from the the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Newt Gingrich and the EMP Threat

The front page of yesterday’s New York Times features a story on Newt Gingrich’s “doomsday vision:” an attack over the United States’ airspace known as an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. Gingrich and a cadre of concerned national security analysts worry that terrorists or rogue states—Iran and North Korea—could detonate a nuclear device over the United States that theoretically could disrupt electrical circuits, from cars to power grids.

The Times does a commendable job of questioning Gingrich’s arguments and whether this is a legitimate national security concern. Despite the fact that a “National EMP Recognition Day” exists, the threat is in fact very, very low. But it may be unfortunate that such extravagant doomsday scenarios get placed on the front page of the Times.

I addressed the EMP threat in my 2010 book Atomic Obsession and I included a discussion of the views of Stephen Younger, the former head of nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos National Lab, as forcefully put forward in his 2007 book, Endangered Species:

Younger is appalled at the way “one fast‑talking scientist” managed in 2004 to convince some members of Congress that North Korea might be able to launch a nuclear device capable of emitting a high‑altitude electromagnetic pulse that could burn out computers and other equipment over a wide area. When he queried a man he considers to be “perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the world about such designs” (and who “was never asked to testify”), the response was: “I don’t think the United States could do that sort of thing today. To say that the North Koreans could do it, and without doing any testing, is simply ridiculous.” Nevertheless, concludes Younger acidly, “rumors are passed from one person to another, growing at every repetition, backed by flimsy or nonexistent intelligence and the reputations of those who are better at talking than doing.” [Emphasis in original.]

The 2012 presidential election should certainly contain a legitimate discussion of national security issues. But I don’t think it really needs to include a lot of breast-beating about the EMP “threat.”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Ignore the Hawks on Iran, Too

This week, experts at the (neo)conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report on how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran.

The authors argue that because of the “rising consensus” that a preemptive attack is unappealing, and that sanctions likely will fail, they recommend “a coherent Iran containment policy.” That approach entails, among other things, that America “work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.” Leaving aside the fact that Washington has already once “physically transformed the Tehran regime” – when alongside the British it overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and restored the Shah – there is a broader problem that comes with listening to proponents of the calamitous decision to invade Iraq.

Take, for instance, report co-author Danielle Pletka, who years ago decreed “Saddam’s entire Ba’athist government must be replaced.” Little surprise that someone who promoted a war based on a web of misleading information is now peddling the notion that Iran is less than a year from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

More credible voices suggest otherwise. The nonprofit Arms Control Association (ACA) observed that the most-recent IAEA report suggests “[I]t remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable.” Iran was engaged in nuclear weapons development activities until it stopped in 2003, and as Cato’s Justin Logan observes, the IAEA’s own report shows there is no definitive evidence of Iran’s diversion of fissile material.

When Pletka was called out for her “less than a year” prediction, she turned up her nose and snapped:

Quibblers will suggest that there are important “ifs” in both these assessments. And yes, the key “if” is “if” Iran decides to build a bomb. So, I suppose when I said “less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon,” I should have added, “if they want one.” But… isn’t that the point? Do we want to leave this decision up to Khamenei?

Confronted with ambiguous information, and forced to infer intentions, hawks evince the very same arrogance and overconfidence that helped open the door for Iranian influence in the region in the first place by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime (Pletka advocated repeatedly for this leading up to the 2003 invasion). Pletka and others who years ago had the gall to argue that Iraq “will end when it ends” are today worthy of being ignored on Iran.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Don’t Jump the Gun on IAEA’s Iran Report

It is unfortunate that an analytic frenzy has begun over a report that has not yet been published. It is impossible to analyze the contents of the IAEA report on Iran until we can read it.

Even absent the document itself, however, two points bear repeating. First, even if the cultivated panic surrounding the report’s release is well founded, the suggestion that a military strike against suspected nuclear weapons sites in Iran would solve the problem lacks strong support. The net effect of such an action is difficult to judge beforehand. However, military action seems certain to convince the Iranian leadership that the United States and Israel are implacable aggressors. We should also wonder whether purchasing a delay in Iran’s nuclear program would be worth the cost of making its government—and possibly its people—absolutely certain that the only way to stop aggression against it is the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Second, while the consequences of military action are uncertain, so too would be the consequences of a nuclear Iran. These consequences would be different for the United States than for Israel. While one hesitates to advise the Israelis on their national security policies, the nature of the relationship between the United States and Israel means that Israeli action would likely implicate the United States. And it is far from clear that the Israeli leadership believes the Obama administration holds any cards that it could play to constrain Israeli behavior. For this reason, Washington may not hold its regional destiny in its own hands.

Conservative Hawks Are Incoherent Regarding Iraq Troop Withdrawal

Prominent conservatives continue to sputter about President Obama’s announcement that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by year’s end. GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry charges that the president was “irresponsible” for making that announcement, thereby “letting the enemy know” the date when U.S. forces would leave Iraq. Council on Foreign Relations writer Max Boot makes a similar argument, as do several other neoconservative pundits.

But as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Obama did not set the December 31, 2011 deadline. George W. Bush did in an agreement with the Iraqi government that he signed in late 2008. One then has to ask whether Perry and other critics of Obama believe that Bush was being “irresponsible.” And if so, it is curious that virtually none of them have made that argument—or even hinted at such a conclusion.

That apparent double standard begs some other questions. The principal reason why Obama’s effort to modify the Bush agreement so that a residual U.S. force could remain after 2011 failed was that the administration refused to accept the Iraqi government’s demand that American troops be subject to Iraqi law. Are conservatives arguing that he should have made that concession? If so, their position is totally inconsistent with the position they have taken with respect to other countries that host U.S. troops. Indeed, fears that American military personnel might be subject to prosecution under foreign laws and in foreign jurisdictions have been a major reason for the intense opposition to U.S. involvement in the International Criminal Court.

Conversely, if Obama’s critics believe that U.S. troops should not be exposed to possible prosecution in a judicial system that has few of the due process protections that are considered the norm in the United States, how do they suggest that the administration get the Iraqi government to change its stance? Most of their criticisms on that front consist of little more than inane generalities that Obama should have shown greater leadership or engaged in more effective diplomatic bargaining. But how, precisely, should he have done that? Washington was not exactly in a position to order Baghdad to accept U.S. demands on the jurisdictional issue. And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki knew that he would be risking political suicide if he capitulated to U.S. pressure and accepted a policy that is wildly unpopular with the Iraqi people.

Are conservatives implying that the Obama administration should have overridden Iraqi objectives and just imposed our will? Ethical issues aside, that would certainly require far more than the limited number of troops the U.S. has in Iraq at the moment, and it would likely re-ignite a widespread insurgency directed against a continuing U.S. military occupation.

The utterly inconsistent and incoherent position that most conservatives have taken on the troop withdrawal issue underscores the bankruptcy of the overall Iraq policy that they’ve pushed since early 2003. They’re frustrated that the Iraq mission has not gone as planned, and they fear—quite correctly—that once U.S. forces have departed, the waste and futility of that mission will become glaringly obvious to all except a shrinking contingent of true believers. What we’re seeing now is a mixture of partisan politics and a temper tantrum in response to that disagreeable reality.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.