Israeli air strikes add to fog of Syrian war

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By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

Israel’s recent air strikes on Syria were intended as a warning to both Syria and Iran, and to stop weapons falling into Hizbullah’s hands – but they have increased the likelihood of a regional conflict.

Last week, the Israeli air force struck two targets inside Syrian territory. The first seems to have been a shipment of surface-to-surface missiles destined for the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah (the Fateh-110 is more accurate than anything Hizbullah is known to currently possess, and with a 300-kilometre range has much of Israel within its reach). The second was a major research centre and important storage facility near Damascus, which is administered by units of the elite Republican Guard. Israel had already struck this installation – the Centre of Scientific Studies and Research in Jamraya – in January, allegedly destroying shipments of anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hizbullah.

These strikes add to an already complex political and military landscape in Syria. The Assad regime has deployed its full arsenal of conventional capabilities against the Syrian rebels – and may have even used chemical weapons on a small scale. The rebels are consolidating their hold over much of Syria, but remain too ill-equipped and poorly organised to win the struggle on the battlefield.

The rise of Islamist and jihadi factions has further complicated the picture: better organised and funded, they often spearhead rebel attacks on key regime facilities across the country. They may eventually seize some of the regime’s advanced weaponry.

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Are we living through a second Nixon era?

Kevin Rudd at the Manama Dialogue

‘Historical analogies are often perilous and they are always inexact,’ IISS Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs Dr Dana Allin admitted, when posing a question to Australian MP and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (above) during the Fifth Plenary Session at the recent Manama Dialogue. Nevertheless, Allin continued, ‘I have long been intrigued by some parallels between the challenges facing the Obama administration and those that faced the Nixon administration 40 years ago.’ He ticked off a list: a war-weary American public; an economic crisis; a political crisis (although ‘largely selfinflicted by the Nixon administration and I do not think you can say the same thing about the Obama administration’); a major Middle East crisis; and the view that figuring out a relationship with China was vital.

How could America make a difference, he wondered. Was more energetic diplomacy going to be enough?

Rudd responded that he also saw ‘extraordinary parallels with the Nixon period’, partly because he was a keen China watcher. He said he had spoken to President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ‘a lot’ about dealing with the major challenges that American administration faced.

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How Iran learned to love the atom

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

Iran has seen its nuclear programme as a route to modernity since the time of the Shah, journalist and author David Patrikarakos says. Appreciating this attitude towards nuclear technology is essential to understanding modern Iran and its current diplomatic clash with the West.

Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, and speaking on a IISS panel this week, he painted the country as one preoccupied with strengthening its geopolitical position after decades of perceived weakness and Western hostility. As in other developing nations, nuclear technology was perceived as a way to address a ‘prestige deficit’ in relation to the West.

Major Western powers and Israel have been concerned in recent years by Tehran’s high level of unnecessary uranium enrichment and other activity pointing to its possible development of nuclear weapons. Fellow panellist Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, a lecturer on Contemporary Middle East and Iran at the University of Manchester, said it was hard to assess Iran’s real intentions for its nuclear programme – whether it planned to produce nuclear weapons or not – because the programme had been ‘jostled’ around by different governments and state organisations, which lacked a cohesive strategy.

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Key question for the next US president

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In the run-up to the second presidential debate, to be held in a town-hall-debate format in New York state this evening, we thought it worthwhile drawing attention to a contribution by the IISS’s Mark Fitzpatrick to a piece in Canada’s Global Brief magazine. Asked what key question he would put to the candidates, the director of the institute’s non-proliferation and disarmament programme queried whether they would ‘launch another war in the Middle East in order to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons’.

Tehran’s ‘actual production of nuclear weapons can be deterred’, Fitzpatrick believed, but the potential for diplomatic miscalculation was rife.

Read more of his thoughts on the judgement calls the next president might have to make on Iran, including  ‘whether to join an Israeli attack, despite the huge drawbacks – including that it may not set back the timelines more than two to three years’.


Iran’s refusal on concessions renews the threats of war

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Fordow Uranium Enrichment Facility, North of Qom. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Podnox

Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, wrote an op-ed in The National published on 10 October examining how a prolonged stalemate in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme could lead to a strike.

Iran is ‘so far from making concessions’, writes Fitzpatrick, that there has not yet been any need for the E3+3 (France, Germany and the UK plus Russia, China and the US) to grapple with the issue of sanctions relief.

As a confidence-building measure, the E3+3 asked Iran to stop production of 20% enriched uranium, ship out the accumulated 20 per cent product and shut down its enrichment facility at Fordow.  Iran is only willing to consider stopping 20% enrichment, in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions. The trade from Iran’s point of view has been characterised by former Iranian negotiator Hossein Mousavian as amounting to ‘diamonds for peanuts‘. But for the E3+3, what Iran is offering is similarly unpalatable: ‘With the lower level of enrichment, Iran could get to the bomb in only a slightly longer time than if it started with a 20 per cent product,’ writes Fitzpatrick.

A change in Iran’s position could be ‘too little, too late’. Sanctions are having a devastating effect on Iran’s economy, but there is not likely to be another meaningful meeting between the negotiating powers until after the US election – and it is possible concessions won’t be made until after Iran’s own presidential elections in June 2013, and even then, these may merely be tactical. If a new Iranian president isn’t ready to make a deal next year, Israel may attack.

Read the full article.


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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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.


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