Obama and Ahmadinejad: Rhetoric at the UNGA

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Photo Credit: UN

President Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Photo Credit: UN Photo Library

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

To my eyes, President Obama’s red line looks quite … red.

In front of the UN General Assembly yesterday, the president said the following:

And make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This is not new from the US President; last spring he started explicitly rejecting the idea that the United States could rely on a regime of containment against an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. I’m not sure it is correct that a nuclear-armed Iran couldn’t be contained, but it is pretty clearly the policy of the United States not to take the chance.

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Persian Gulf de-mining exercise sends message to Iran

International Mine Countermeasures Exercise banner (Photo: US Naval Forces Central Command/US Fifth Fleet

If you were a theocratic regime hell-bent on disrupting shipping in the Persian Gulf, how would you go about it?

Anti-ship missiles are selective but dangerous; torpedoes would need to be launched surreptitiously with a relatively small fleet of submarines. Perhaps the most effective method, and certainly the one concerning the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and its allies the most, is the possibility of mining areas of the Gulf.

Little wonder, then, that a huge multinational mine-countermeasures exercise is being held in the area, which began on 16 September and will continue until 27 September. The reasons for the exercises appear to be twofold. First, there is a genuine need to test and build multinational capacity in the region for mine-clearance operations. The number of different countries that might be involved in any rapid de-mining operations makes coordination supremely difficult, and hence testing the ability of navies to work together in assigned roles is vital. Read the rest of this entry »


Taking MEK off ‘terrorist’ list is a gift to Iranian regime

MEk rally in Paris

Supporters at the MEK’s annual rally in Paris, 13 June 2012.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

On 21 September, the State Department indicated that the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK – People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran) will be de-listed from the US foreign terrorist organizations list.

The news caused outrage and anguish in many quarters, particularly among reform-minded Iranians at home and abroad. They rightly fear that the tacit US legitimizing of the group will be used by the regime to discredit the Green Movement and other opponents.  As one US-based Iranian put it, the decision ‘feeds directly into the regime’s narrative: that the US is backing the MEK to launch attacks against Iran and undermine the territorial integrity of the country. MEK affiliation will likely become even more of an excuse for the persecution of students and activists’.

I have to agree with the National Iranian American Council that the decision is a gift to the Iranian regime.

The MEK is a quasi-cultish group that emerged in pre-revolution Iran with a curious blend of Islamist and Marxist ideological motives and an inclination towards violent tactics.  Their bombing and assassinations were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians and six Americans. It was the latter acts in the 1970s that earned their 1997 addition to the terrorist list.

The MEK is despised by most Iranians for having supported Saddam Hussein in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. The day the news was announced, Bahman Kalbasi, an Iranian journalist at the BBC, published a tweet commenting that ‘perhaps the only popularity contest the government of Iran can win is when its alternative is MEK’.

While many MEK members are exiled in Europe, several thousand have operated until recently from a self-sustaining camp outside Baghdad. Because they are dedicated to the removal of the current regime in Iran, the MEK have won friends in many Western capitals. In 2009, after years of lobbying, the Council of the European Union de-designated the MEK as a terrorist group.  But the group’s most prominent supporters are in Washington, where prominent politicians from across the political spectrum have waged a well-oiled campaign to promote de-listing.

Notwithstanding its deadly history, the MEK has done some good deeds.  Its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, was the vehicle through which Israeli intelligence in 2002 exposed previously hidden Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.  Despite the MEK’s low level of support in Iran it is also seen by some right-wingers as a means for inducing regime change in Tehran.  But some of the MEK’s high-profile advocates have also been motivated by more personal considerations.  At least one former politician has been under investigation for the lavish fees he received for supporting the MEK cause.

Critics credit the lobbying effort with having swayed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make the de-listing decision.  Indeed the pre-election timing of the decision does suggest a political motivation. But there are other factors she had to take into account.

One factor is the set of legal requirements for the terrorist listing.  To be designated, a foreign organization must be engaged in terrorist activity or have the intention to do so, and this activity ‘must threaten the security of US nationals or the national security of the United States.’  A case can be made that the MEK’s activities work against US foreign policy interests in that they undermine the cause of reformists in Iran.  But that’s a hard sell, given the primordial instinct that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.

With regard to intent, the MEK renounced violence more than a decade ago.  MEK operatives reportedly were responsible, with Israeli backing, for a string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear engineers and scientists.  While these assassinations fit some descriptions of terrorism, they did not threaten US lives.  On the contrary, they were intended to slow nuclear weapons development.

Clinton also had to take into account the American political scene, in which Iran’s nuclear program plays a huge part as the spearhead of the Republican Party’s attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy stewardship.  Keeping MEK on the terrorism list would have been seen as a sop to Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, even if in reality the regime benefits from the de-listing.  Given Iran’s intransigence in the nuclear talks this summer, there was no mileage in either politics or policy for not de-listing. If talks this summer had encompassed serious negotiations, Clinton would not have made this decision.

Those who criticise the de-listing should thus spare some of their anger for the Iranian regime. Tehran’s refusal to limit its enrichment program or to accept the transparency demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency incurs many costs beyond non-economic expenditures.  In addition to choking sanctions, political isolation and the prospect of war, the regime’s policies have triggered legitimacy within the US for the group that is most vehemently set on regime overthrow. Unfortunately, it is the Iranian people who will again suffer.


As ice disappears, commercial opportunities come into view

Arctic Sea ice

Arctic Sea Ice. Photo Credit: NASA/GSFC

By Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant

The annual summer minimum for Arctic sea ice has been declining faster than expected, with this year marking a record low.

On 16 September, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979, according to preliminary figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. At 3.41 million square metres, this year’s melt beat the previous 2007 record by 760,000 square kilometres. But while the decline of sea-ice extent is the most visible metric of climate change in the Arctic, another trend is even more worrying. For the third straight summer the total volume of ice set a new record low, and is now only 20% of the 2000 level.

It is too early to say whether this will be an annual phenomenon, but the speed of the melt has already exceeded prognoses. The record for minimum ice extent was already reached on 26 August, nearly one month earlier than the 2007 record. According to scientists, the rate of decline is faster than any models have been able to capture. Most experts previously thought it possible that the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer by 2050; now more and more scientists believe that may occur as soon as 2030, or even before 2020. Read the rest of this entry »


Iran’s nuclear power: what do we know?

The former US embassy, Tehran

The former US embassy, Tehran. Photo Credit:Flickr Creative Commons/ninara

Dina Esfandiary, research associate and project coordinator for the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament programme, has published an article titled ‘Iran’s Nuclear Power: What Do We Know?’ in Politique Etranger, the journal of the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI).

Amid competing opinions on Iran’s true motivations and capabilities, the US’s official assessment is that Iran has not yet decided to ‘go nuclear,’ Esfandiary writes. Yet there are many potential gaps in our knowledge of the issue. How can we be sure if governments have all the necessary intelligence to be certain about Iran’s intentions? In her report, Esfandiary ‘seeks to explore and explain’ how much we really know about Iran’s nuclear powers. She outlines the opposing views on Iran, how intelligence has been gathered and used in the past, and analyses how intelligence could detect whether Iran is attempting to weaponise its capabilities.

Read the full article.


US Congress: pinning hopes on the lame duck?

United States Capitol

United States Capitol. Photo Credit:Flick Creative Commons/Vince Alongi

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

As the presidential campaigns take centre stage, in Washington the conventional wisdom on preventing  $1.2 trillion automatic across-the-board cuts (‘sequestration’) is that Congress and the White House will strike a deal on an alternative debt-reduction plan in the so-called ‘lame duck’ legislative session – after the election and before the new year. But as the deadline approaches, this no longer looks like a certainty.

With half of the impending cuts slated for the defense budget, the US defense industry is feeling the tension. In July, Lockheed Martin CEO Robert J. Stevens testified before Congress that ‘the very prospect of sequestration is already having a chilling effect on the industry’. According to a Bloomberg Government report, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics spent $10.3 million on lobbying and spreading awareness on the possible effects of sequestration in the first quarter of 2012.  

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Afghanistan – A bloody weekend, but not necessarily a tipping point

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E' Ali, Helmand.

A soldier from the Mobility Recce Force of 1 Royal Welsh is pictured on patrol with colleagues from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Nad-E’ Ali, Helmand. Photo Credit:UK Ministry of Defence

By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare

It has been a week of bad news from Afghanistan, after further ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, fallout from video protests sweeping the Middle East and NATO announcing a temporary retreat. But in reality, the picture is more nuanced and there are reasons to be optimistic – provided tensions arising from the video can be diffused.

The headlines have suggested setbacks to the joint NATO/Afghan strategy of transition to Afghan leadership of security and withdrawal of NATO combat forces by the end of 2015.  In addition to the violent protests against the provocative ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, there was a well-planned and determined attack on the UK/US base at Camp Bastion in which six US and UK troops were killed by men in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) uniform.

NATO’s announcement that ‘in response to elevated threat levels…ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks’ has resulted in a reduction of low-level tactical partnering with the Afghan forces below battalion level has caused a predictable flurry of commentary and speculation in Western media.

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Mullah Omar’s Eid message

Muslims from throughout the world gather at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Nov. 16, for the start of Eid al-Adha, a religious holiday beginning after Hajj.

Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Eid al-Adha 2010. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/isafmedia

By Hameed Hakimi, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

A statement released by Taliban leader Mullah Omar to mark the end of Ramadan conveyed a tone of optimism for the Taliban’s tactical achievements, as well as a vision for the future and a statement of commitment to the Afghan people.  In the following weeks, facts on the ground have challenged both Mullah Omar’s assessment of Afghanistan and his claims about the Taliban’s intentions. But these realities should also serve as a reminder that ordinary citizens face conflicting messages and broken promises from both the Taliban insurgency and Afghanistan’s political leadership.

Mullah Omar’s Eid-ul-Fitr message was published on the Taliban’s website on16 August 2012.  In 34 points, it set out his vision for a post-2014 Afghanistan, and reiterated the movement’s criticisms about the presence of Western troops and the government in Kabul.  For those who lived under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a direct message from the reclusive Mullah Omar is a rarity. During its control of the country until 2001, the Taliban leadership’s communication with ordinary Afghans was restricted to public order commandments and moral judgments on points of Sharia law.

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Tehran’s nuclear balancing act

Tehran at sunrise, featuring the Miladi Tower.

Tehran at sunrise, featuring the Miladi Tower. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Afshin Rattansi

In an issue of the Security Times that coincided with the Cyber Security Summit in Bonn, Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, examined Iran’s nuclear balancing act.

There is no diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear ambitions yet, and while Iran has been somewhat hampered by sanctions and attacks designed to derail its nuclear program, it continues to enrich uranium. As the IAEA reported, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile grew to nearly 7,000kg. Iran is still months away from being able to make a weapons, but ‘the problem is that the redline separating nuclear-capable from nuclear-armed will become less clear as Iran’s enrichment program makes further advances,’ writes Fitzpatrick.

Diplomatic talks by the EU3+3 have failed. Differing perceptions of the threat by Israel and the US may have delayed more decisive plans, but in this atmosphere of uncertainty,  an Israeli strike cannot be ruled out. For now, a military attack still seems like the worst option, as well as counterproductive – because it may only derail Iran’s progress by two to three years, and ultimately accelerate Iran’s ambitions for a weapon. But Iran should not push its luck. The US seems to be unwilling to join Israel in an attack now, but could very well change its position in the near future. If Western intelligence agencies begin to perceive more of a threat, they could strike – which could lead to war.

Read the full article.


China and Japan: Nationalism rising?

Anti-China protest in Roppongi, Tokyo

Anti-China protest in Roppongi, Tokyo. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/ehnmark

By Christian Le Miere, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.Billy Joel

 In January 1930, Mao Zedong wrote a letter in which he repeated an old Chinese saying: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” Mao was referring to the possibility that the communist movement, although small at the time, had the potential to wage a successful revolution. The phrase is just as apt in the current situation, as protests sweep Chinese cities, with Japanese products and businesses being attacked in five different cities.

What is the source of the latest discontent? A long-running disagreement over the sovereignty of five small islands and three rock formations in the East China Sea that has recently risen once again to the top of the agenda. The decision by the central Japanese government to purchase three of the five islands from their private owner last week, although intended to limit potential damage that might have been caused if Tokyo’s nationalistic governor Shintaro Ishihara succeeded in his bid to do the same, inspired an intense reaction from China’s population.

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