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

2012 debate banner

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

Fordow

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.


Timely questions on Libya attacks, Middle East at Strategic Survey 2012 launch

By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor

The recent attacks on US consulates in Libya and Egypt may shift the western perspective of what’s happening in the Arab world, but how things will play out within Libya and Egypt is a far more pressing question, argues Emile Hokayem, IISS Senior Fellow for Regional Security-Middle East.

On 11 September, US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi – possibly part of a pre-planned strike by a militant group – amid protests over a film about the prophet Mohammed. Protesters also stormed the US consulates in Cairo and in Yemen, and unrest continues to spread.

Hokayem, speaking at the press conference for the Strategic Survey 2012: The Annual Review of World Affairs launch in London, noted that while the details of the attack are still unclear,  it was worth considering what Stevens himself would have said about the situation:‘[He] would not want revenge or disengagement; he would have argued for renewed investment and attention in these critical periods.’ But what matters most in a strategic sense, Hokayem argues, is the reaction from the Libyan and Egyptian governments: ‘This will be the real test, especially for Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, in terms of their international credibility.’

Hokayem said the Libyan government was very clear in its condemnation, but Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi waited some time before making a statement. Whether the political elites in Libya and Egypt can effectively combat extremist sentiment is crucial for their international legitimacy. ‘This is the tragedy of mainstream Islamist movements,’ said Hokayem.  ‘They can easily be outflanked by more extremist factions that frame everything in terms of identity, and not in terms of public governance choices and not in terms of the need for international recognition.’

Hokayem responded to several questions on Libya and other regional security issues at the launch, where opening remarks by Dr John Chipman, touching on significant security themes in the volume, were followed by a Q & A session addressed to a panel of regional experts. Issues discussed included Middle East security – including Syria, Iran and Israel – terrorism in North Africa, China and Japan’s maritime tensions and the Eurozone crisis.

Another timely question dealt with the likelihood of a strike by Israel against Iran: ‘There is a possibility of an Israeli strike this autumn,’ said Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the IISS’s Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, in response. ‘But it is a reduced possibility, given the divergence of views in Israel.’

Fitzpatrick explained that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be acknowledging Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still maintains that Obama’s commitment is not credible.

‘There’s not a consensus in the inner Israeli security cabinet for a strike, and so it’s unlikely,’ said Fitzpatrick.

Watch the full press conference here.


Para-diplomacy with Iran and Russia

2012 Nuclear Security Summit Plenary Hall

2012 Nuclear Security Summit Plenary Hall. Copyright: IAEA Imagebank
Photo Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA

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

At a non-proliferation conference in Moscow on Friday, I questioned Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov about his interview with Interfax the previous day in which he claimed that Russia saw ‘no signs’ of a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme. Was this a misinterpretation, I asked. In English, ‘signs’ mean ‘indications’. Maybe he meant there was no proof?

There are plenty of indications, I added. The report by the IAEA last November included a 65-paragraph annex detailing the information the agency has assembled about Iranian nuclear activities of a ‘possible military dimension’. Most of the evidence concerned activities prior to 2004, but some suspicious activity took place after that time and possibly continues today. As I have put it elsewhere, surely the Russians are not blind to that evidence.

Answering in perfect English, Ryabkov doubled down on his insistence of ‘no signs, full stop’. Afterwards, two of my Russian friends privately shook their heads at this feigned ignorance. To put the best spin on it, I surmise that Ryabkov’s purpose was to dampen the heat that has been generated of late over the Iranian nuclear issue. But how far backwards is it seemly to bend in order to give Iran the benefit of the doubt?

The Iranian nuclear issue is assessed in detail in the newly published IISS Strategic Survey 2012. At the book launch this Thursday, I will be ready to offer an update on the latest diplomatic peregrinations, the state of Iran’s programme and the guessing game over Israel’s intentions. Will they or won’t they prematurely – and fatally – take military action? Sneak preview: probably not this year, but don’t bet the farm on peace prevailing next year. As we note at the end of the Iran section of Strategic Survey 2012: ‘No matter who won the US presidential election, the Iranian nuclear issue looked likely to reach a crisis stage in the coming year.’

At the Moscow conference, Ryabkov said Iran needs to cooperate more with the IAEA to remove doubt about their actions. He added that as difficult as the talks with Iran may be, ‘some talks are better than no talks’ and that for the first time Iran was discussing core issues. Russia had proposed a step-by-step plan that in the end would meet Iran’s demand for the lifting of sanctions and recognition of an Iranian right to enrichment. The sequencing is important, he added, and is one of the areas of disagreement with Iran.

In a luncheon address at the conference, Mustafa Dolatyar, Director General of Iran’s Institute for Political and International Studies, confirmed that Iran wanted these concessions up front. The soft-spoken diplomat/professor couched these demands in honeyed terms of good faith, respect for each other’s choices and transparency on the desired end game. As I see it though, agreement on the outcome should be the result of negotiations, not a precondition for meaningful talks.

Dolatyar also spoke about what he claimed to be America’s missed opportunities over the years at responding in kind to Iran’s offers of flexibility. Goodness knows there were too many such missed opportunities on all sides. His focus on America, though, was irritating to the representatives of other countries that share Washington’s concerns.

During the ensuing Q & A, rather than offer a point-by-point rebuttal of his accusations about past US actions, I asked a simple question about the present: Why does Iran refuse to meet bilaterally with the US and to respond to President Barack Obama’s offer of engagement? Since Iran is so focused on America’s position, would it not be good to sit down together? His answer – that talking together is not useful without a set agenda – left me unsatisfied. I have to agree with Ryabkov on this one, that talking is better than not talking.


Israeli war drums threaten autumn strike

A Boeing 707 aerially refuels three F-15 Eagles. Photography: Yonatan Zalk,  Israeli Air force

With limited air-refuelling planes, Israel cannot conduct a sustained campaign against Iranian nuclear sites

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

The debate about whether to attack Iran is again dominating Israeli media. The government speaks of a deadline measured in weeks. Although the national security establishment is solidly opposed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that the decision will be made by the political leadership. As yet, there is no consensus in the eight-member security cabinet for a strike, and apparently no majority either. The public at large is opposed to unilateral action (46% opposed, 32% in favour, according to one poll).

There is surely an element of bluff whenever Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak talk about the military option. Yet they also are determined not to allow Israel to fall under an Iranian nuclear shadow nor to put Israel’s security entirely in US hands.

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