Khamenei douses hopes for nuclear talks

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

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

He is a mad mullah after all – mad meaning angry, that is. Following the positive notes sounded by US Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich last week, it did not take long for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to quash any optimism over the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the international community. These are scheduled to take place in Almaty on 26 February.

In a speech on 7 February, Khamenei ruled out holding bilateral talks with America on his country’s controversial nuclear programme so long as Washington continued pressure tactics. He claimed the US was proposing talks while ‘pointing a gun at Iran’, adding that: ‘Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America [but] negotiations will not solve the problems.’

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Forward? Barack Obama’s second term

By Chris Raggett, Assistant editor

Although foreign policy played a small role in the US presidential campaign late last year, the way Barack Obama handles Iran before 2016 could determine how the president goes down in history. So argues Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the IISS’s non-proliferation programme, speaking at a discussion meeting last week about Obama’s upcoming second term.

Over the weekend, Iran signalled it might return in late February to talks with the international community over its disputed nuclear programme. However, the country has also recently notified the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, that it will be installing new, more efficient centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. This would dramatically shorten the time it would take Tehran to ‘break-out’ and make a nuclear bomb after expelling IAEA inspectors. Fitzpatrick, who believes there is the chance that some sort of military action ‘may come into play’ in the next four years to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, has said the installation of new centrifuges would be a ‘game changer‘.

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Bushehr fears stem from Iran’s nuclear deceit

Bushehr nuclear reactor. Photo: Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran

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

Let’s not exaggerate. Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is not another Chernobyl in the making. Unlike the ill-fated Ukrainian facility, Bushehr’s fuel rods are moderated and cooled by water, not flammable graphite. Bushehr also benefits from modern design improvements, including automatic control and containment systems.

Nor is Bushehr likely ever to suffer the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. The shallow Gulf waters bordering Bushehr cannot produce the kind of massive tsunamis that inundated Fukushima’s electricity and backup cooling system.

It should also be clear by now that Bushehr is not a proliferation threat. The reactor is used for electricity production and the spent fuel will be returned to Russia so the plutonium will not be available for reprocessing for weapons, if Iran were to obtain that technology. In any case, no country has ever used spent fuel from power plants for weapons purposes.

But let’s not sweep aside the environmental and safety dangers either, as Iranian officials are wont to do. Bushehr is located on an earthquake fault. The dust and heat of the local climate contributed to construction delays because of the difficulty of keeping equipment clean and cool. The grafting of a Russian-designed reactor onto the remains of an incomplete German structure and Iran’s contractual requirement for Russia to employ 35-year-old, leftover German pumps and other equipment made for other glitches.

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An Iraqi strongman calls

Nuri al-Maliki on his cellphone. Photo Kurd NetBy Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

As ‘Genghis Khan with a telephone’ in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin routinely picked up the receiver late at night to issue instructions that led to the imprisonment or execution of millions. Author Toby Dodge probably wouldn’t compare current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to the brutal Soviet leader; at the launch of his new book last week he steered away from describing Maliki as despotic as former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, Dodge’s portrayal of the Iraqi premier is of a man with ‘clear dictatorial ambitions’ who understands the utility of the telephone.

Dodge’s just-released Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism recounts how the PM’s office in Baghdad has subverted the military chain of command, directly ‘ringing up mid-ranking officers and issuing orders to them on their mobile phones’. It is one of the methods by which an initially unremarkable, ‘grey’ politician has managed to centralise power in the weak office of the Iraqi prime minister since his appointment in early 2006.

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US still ultimate ‘offshore balancer’ in the Gulf

General James Mattis, Commander of US Central Command at the Manama Dialogue 2012

General James Mattis, Commander of US Central Command, at the Manama Dialogue 2012

In this latest post by one of the ‘Young Strategists’ attending the Manama Dialogue, Jean-Loup Samaan,  a researcher for the NATO Defense College, looks at US engagement in the Gulf through the prism of a Cold War concept.

Although Syria was undoubtedly the biggest issue on the agenda of the 2012 Manama Dialogue, another one was in the air: the seeming erosion of US leadership in international affairs in general and in the Gulf in particular.

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Ruppersberger: Russia can help on Syria, Iran

It wasn’t all about Syria in the Q&A at the end of the First Plenary Session – but it certainly led the discussion. Senator John McCain was critical was critical of US inaction: ‘In Syria … everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened,’ he said. Fellow panellist Charles Ruppersberger, on the other hand, was optimistic about the role Russia could play not only in Syria but also in negotiations with Iran. ‘Sometimes negatives turn into positives and I think this relationship that we can work with Russia will help us,’ he said.

Participants also spoke about various wider regional and geopolitical risks generated by the Syrian conflict. The discussion provided a remarkable insight into the current situation and of US thinking on the processes taking place in the Middle East.

Energy issues were not forgotten. David Butters of Chatham House provocatively asking the panel: ‘How long are the American people prepared to continue to bankroll the security of Chinese oil supplies?’

Read the first part of Alexander Vysotsky’s account of the session: Day 1 at Manama: view from the floor


Manama Voices 2012: all about the Dialogue

The conflict in Syria will be one of the main themes of the 8th IISS Regional Security Summit, which is taking place in Manama this weekend (Friday 7 to Sunday 9 December 2012). Members of the Syrian National Coalition, the new unified opposition group, will be at the Manama Dialogue for a special debate on the civil war engulfing their homeland. Other sessions will explore the US role in the region, security in the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and increasing sectarianism.

Delegations from more than 30 countries will attend the Manama Dialogue. ‘While we bring together a huge amount of government delegations and very senior government officials’, says IISS Director-General and CEO Dr John Chipman in the above welcome video, ‘we also bring together leading strategists, academics and leaders of NGOs to engage and challenge the political leaders on the points they make.’

Stay tuned to this blog for more this week. News relating to Middle East security will be covered in the run-up to the conference; during the proceedings we will have reports, video clips and commentary from all of the sessions.


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