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Tag: "iran"

The Long Play

[ 17 ] August 13, 2010 |

I’m not terribly interested in the project of calling Jeffrey Goldberg out as a propagandist; he’s Jeffrey Goldberg, so of course he’s a propagandist. As I suggested yesterday, I don’t find the claims put forward in the article particularly new or revelatory. Essentially the same argument was put forth in a “major” article in the January 2007 New Republic by Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi. I’d rather read Oren directly than have Goldberg as a mediator, but whatever. What I’m more interested in is the Israeli strategic mindset that Goldberg depicts. The two article have the same central argument: Iranian nukes pose an indirect threat to the long term survival of Israel, and the United States should do something about that.

First on timelines. Goldberg writes:

I have been exploring the possibility that such a strike will eventually occur for more than seven years… The reasoning offered by Israeli decision makers was uncomplicated: Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability (often understood to be the capacity to assemble more than one missile-ready nuclear device within about three months of deciding to do so)

Allowing that Goldberg emphasizes the period since July 2009, I have to wonder how long Israelis have been telling him that Iran is 1-3 years away from a bomb. To put it as delicately as possible, Israel has a robust history of either a) being wrong, or b) lying about Iran’s progress on a nuclear weapon. Assuming that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program (and I believe it does, even if I don’t believe it represents justification for war), it has progressed at a rate far slower than that predicted by the Israelis. Since I don’t believe that Israeli intelligence is really that bad, I have to conclude that the Israelis have consistently been lying about their estimates of Iranian nuclear capability. For example, the 2007 Oren and Halevi article asserted that “according to Israeli intelligence, Iran will be able to produce a nuclear bomb as soon as 2009.” I’m not naive; this is the international system, and even friends lie. There’s no injunction, however, to believing those lies or failing to call them out. What the nature of these lies indicate, however, is that the key purpose of these articles is to convince the United States to do something.

One of the key points of both the Goldberg and the 2007 TNR articles is that while Israelis are happy to tell the rubes in the United States that Iran is planning to commit national suicide by lobbing a nuclear warhead at Tel Aviv, they don’t actually seem to believe it:

The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me. “Several bad results would emanate from this single development. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.

“You’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area,” he went on. An Iran with nuclear weapons would also attempt to persuade Arab countries to avoid making peace with Israel, and it would spark a regional nuclear-arms race. “The Middle East is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear-arms race, it will become a tinderbox,” he said.

Other Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran—combined with the chronic menacing of Israel’s cities by the rocket forces of Hamas and Hezbollah—will progressively undermine the country’s ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, told me that this is his great fear for Israel’s future.

“The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” he said. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here.” This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, Barak said. “Our young people can consciously decide to go other places,” if they dislike living under the threat of nuclear attack. “Our best youngsters could stay out of here by choice.”

Three observations. First, I think it’s plausible that the Israeli strategic leadership really believes this. Although there’s good reason to believe that they’re exaggerating these claims in order to convince the United States to go to war, it’s hard to say something like this over and over again without coming to believe it. Second, by publicly making outsized claims regarding the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, they actually make the situation worse; if the problem is that people will believe the Iranians are insane and thus leave, then talking about how insane the Iranians are all the time doesn’t help the perceptual problem. Third, the belief that an Iranian nuclear weapon can destroy Israel by osmosis is palpably insane, regardless of how firmly Netanyahu believes it.

This last clearly bears elaboration. First, the actual mechanism of how the Iranian bomb is supposed to destroy Israel without being dropped are deeply suspect. I discussed the violence this argument did to reality back when the Halevi and Oren article came out, and nothing has changed since then. There isn’t the faintest reason to believe that any of the mechanisms that the Israelis discuss (more rockets, more terrorism, etc.) will actually be affected by the presence of an Iranian nuke.  The stability-instability paradox (the idea that high level nuclear stability produces low level conventional instability) is important, but doesn’t preclude response to conventional provocation by proxies.  The United States, after all, waged open war against several Soviet proxies during the Cold War.  I expect that the Israelis will promptly bomb the bejeezus out of Hamas and Hezbollah as soon as Iran goes nuclear, just to reinforce perceptions of “resolve” and “credibility.”

Second, an Israeli strike on Iran cannot solve the problem. If the issue is really a feeling of insecurity on the part of Israelis, then the very existence of an Islamic Republic of Iran with an interest in developing a nuclear weapon provides that insecurity, whether or not the weapon is ever developed. Israel could probably delay an Iranian nuclear weapon, but no one thinks that it can completely destroy the program. Barring either regime change or the annihilation of Iran (and even the former might not do the trick), the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon would do precisely the work that Israel’s leadership claims an actual warhead will do; create uncertainty. Nevertheless, Goldberg badly misrepresents the effects of the Osirak strike, suggesting that it ended Iraq’s nuclear program when in fact it appears to have accelerated that program. What ended that program was a major war in 1991 combined with a long campaign of sanctions and bombing, followed by another major war in 2003. This is beyond Israel’s capability, which is probably why the US is being so aggressively pushed towards war. Joshua Pollack details the nonsense of the idea that an Israeli bombing campaign could permanently prevent Iran from developing a nuke. The Israelis are proposing an extremely short-term solution to what they themselves assert is a problem that will play out on the scale of decades.

Finally, this entire concept rests on the notion that Israel has enjoyed some fundamental level of existential security that will be lost if Iran finds a nuke is, to reiterate, mind-boggling insane. It’s ISRAEL, for crying out loud. The entire national myth is built around the idea of existential vulnerability, just as the myths of the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars are predicated on the notion that if something had gone wrong, the Arabs might have pushed the Jews into the sea. The conflict with the Palestinians is invariably depicted in existential terms; Hamas cannot be negotiated with because it threatens Israel’s existence. The idea that some nebulous concern about an event that even Israel’s leaders do not believe likely will drive Jews to resettle elsewhere is absurd on its face. If the Swedes suddenly faced an existential crisis, I’d be interested in thinking about how that might affect Swedish society, immigration patterns, etc.   Israel was built around the idea of permanent existential crisis.

It’s also more than a little irritating that both the Goldberg and the Halevi/Oren articles try to construct the Iran situation as a US problem.  We are simultaneously asked to believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an existential threat to the state of Israel and to the survival of the Jewish people, AND that it really, really poses a more serious threat to the United States.  The best I can say about this is that it’s incoherent; no one will be moving out of the United States because of a fear of Iranian nukes.

And this is where it would have been useful to have somebody that wasn’t Jeffrey Goldberg conduct the various interviews. While I doubt that anyone unsympathetic to the case for war could have gotten the access that Goldberg enjoyed, it nevertheless would have been nice if Goldberg had brought up these objections.  They aren’t particularly complicated or novel.   What he did manage to do was transmit Israeli propaganda to a US audience.   I preferred the propaganda when it came directly from Israeli officials.

When is Commuting a Sentence to Hanging a Good Thing?

[ 2 ] August 13, 2010 |

When you’re on Iran’s death-row, which has seemingly been convinced to upgrade their standards of decency to the level exercised by my home state of Washington, at least in terms of method.

I’m not entirely comfortable, however, with the use of “commute” in “her sentence of stoning has been commuted to hanging”.  Technically correct, I suppose, if one accepts that hanging is a less severe form of punishment than stoning.

The Revelations, They… Don’t Seem Very Revelatory

[ 9 ] August 12, 2010 |

Michael Oren and Yossi Halevi:

An Israeli assault could only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not eliminate it. That’s because Israel cannot sustain an air campaign against such remote targets for days on end. This can only be accomplished by the United States, perhaps together with NATO allies, by mounting an ongoing series of air strikes similar to the “shock and awe” campaign conducted against Iraq at the beginning of the war. Israelis, though, are divided over the likelihood of U.S. military action. Some experts believe President Bush will attack, if only to prevent being recorded by history as a leader who fought the wrong war while failing to fight the right one. Others speculate that a politically devastated Bush will leave the resolution of the Iranian crisis to his successor.

If Israel is forced, by default, to strike, it is likely to happen within the next 18 months. An attack needs to take place before the nuclear facilities become radioactive; waiting too long could result in massive civilian casualties. Still, Israel will almost certainly wait until it becomes clear that sanctions have failed and that the United States or NATO won’t strike. The toughest decision, then, will be timing: determining that delicate moment when it becomes clear that the international community has failed but before the facilities turn lethal.

The linked article was published on January 27, 2007. By my count, it’s been 25.5 months since Israel should have been “forced, by default, to strike.” While I’ll have more on Jeffrey Goldberg’s breathless account of Israeli strategic thought tomorrow, I’m thoroughly unconvinced that it’s revelatory of anything new about Israel’s Iran policy. The core of this policy, as far as I can tell, remains “try to convince the US to attack Iran.”

Hawks Everywhere…

[ 5 ] August 5, 2010 |

Like I say, every country has its neocons:

In his first interview since his capture after the fall of Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s former top deputy Tariq Aziz tells the Guardian that it would be wrong for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq now. Speaking only days after Obama confirmed that the US would be ending its combat mission in Iraq this month with the withdrawal of thousands of troops, Aziz said the country was in a worse state than before the war…

Aziz goes on to mount a defense of his old boss, though he says he tried unsuccessfully to talk Saddam out of invading Kuwait in 1991. He also remains an Iran hawk:

“Now Iran is building a weapons programme. Everybody knows it and nobody is doing anything. Why?”

In fairness to Aziz, I suspect that the Weekly Standard would have come out in strong support of the invasion of Kuwait…

“Superpower?”

[ 34 ] May 31, 2010 |

I don’t want to interrupt Jeffrey Goldberg’s hand-wringing, but this really stood out:

Israel may face, in the coming year, a threat to its existence the likes of which it has not experienced before: A theologically-motivated regional superpower with a nuclear arsenal.

Really? We’re calling Iran a regional superpower now? Here’s some quick data on Middle East defense spending:

Saudi Arabia: $33.1 billion
Israel: $12.1 billion
Turkey: $11.6 billion
Syria: $6.3 billion
Iran: $6.1 billion

Now, it’s obvious that defense spending isn’t the entire issue; I doubt that anyone would take seriously the idea that Saudi Arabia is militarily superior to Israel. Nevertheless, the term “superpower” rather conveys “super” “power”; it seems odd that a regional “superpower” such as Iran gets outspent by four other regional countries. Does this make Saudi Arabia a regional “superpower”? Maybe Goldberg means “superpower” in some way that doesn’t actually reference the superness of a country’s power? This would be odd, given that the term came into common usage when there were two “super” “powers”, each of whom dwarfed any other potential competitors in total defense spending. Perhaps the nuclear weapons are doing the work here, although that would also be odd since he clearly uses “with a nuclear arsenal” as a modifier to “superpower”. Or perhaps Jeffrey Goldberg just really isn’t all that thoughtful about the Middle East balance of power…

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Soviet Era Query

[ 17 ] April 15, 2010 |

I’m in the midst of Charles Tripp’s excellent A History of Iraq, and I’m curious about the Russian interest in Persian Gulf stability during the war. The Soviets played footsie with the Iranians in the wake of the Revolution, but by 1982 sided decisively with Iraq. By 1988, the Soviets were joining the US in flagging Kuwaiti oil tankers to immunize them from Iranian attack. On the one hand, I can certainly understand Russian preference for Iraq. Iraq was ideologically much more congenial to the USSR than was Iran, and revolutionary Islam presented a substantial threat to Soviet operations in Afghanistan and in the Islamics Republics. However, I think it’s been established pretty decisively that low oil prices in the 1980s were a disaster for the USSR. Shouldn’t the USSR have had an interest in seeing the conflict become as destructive and wide ranging as possible, in order to drive up oil prices? Does anyone have a sense of whether the Soviet leadership thought about this question?

BUT WHAT DID HE HAVE TO SURRENDER11!/!?1/!??!!?

[ 7 ] April 12, 2010 |

Seems like progress, if sanctions on Iran are your thing:

President Obama secured a promise from President Hu Jintao of China on Monday to join negotiations on a new package of sanctions against Iran, administration officials said, but Mr. Hu made no specific commitment to backing measures that the United States considers severe enough to force a change in direction in Iran’s nuclear program.

In a 90-minute conversation here before the opening of a summit meeting on nuclear security, Mr. Obama sought to win more cooperation from China by directly addressing one of the main issues behind Beijing’s reluctance to confront Iran: its concern that Iran could retaliate by cutting off oil shipments to China. The Chinese import nearly 12 percent of their oil from Iran.

Mr. Obama assured Mr. Hu that he was “sensitive to China’s energy needs” and would work to make sure that Beijing had a steady supply of oil if Iran cut China off in retaliation for joining in severe sanctions.

I’m skeptical of sanctions working, if by “working” you mean to effect a direct change in Iranian behavior. However, I do think that sanctions can have a substantial atmospheric effect, to the extent that they convey the disapproval of international society, and consequently help to build international norms. In that context, getting Russia and China on board is a meaningful achievement for the liberal internationalist project.

Brookings Israel-Iran Game

[ 24 ] March 30, 2010 |

The New York Times published another article on the Brookings write-up of an Israel-Iran wargame conducted in December. The opening stages of the game were strikingly similar to the Patterson Israel-Iran game of last month; Israel attacks without notifying the US, Iran responds in measured fashion, tension builds between Israel and the United States, and Israel prepares for major assault against Hezbollah. At that point, however, there’s a major change; Iran launches a ballistic missile attack against a Saudi oil refinery, and begins mining the Strait of Hormuz. At this point the United States gets involved, and the game ends just before a major US attack on Iranian military assets.

The key difference here is the decision by the Iranian team to attack Saudi Arabia and mine the Strait of Hormuz. This action forces the hand of the United States, and essentially resolves tension between the US, Israel, and the Gulf monarchies. It also results in a very serious setback for Iranian military power. At Patterson, our Iran team considered but rejected the possibility of expanding the war, preferring instead to play it cool and let the US-Israel relationship fester. Here’s Kenneth Pollack’s explanation of the reasoning of the Iranian team:

The Iran team’s decision to mount attacks on Saudi targets requires some explanation. The Iran team concluded that the fact that many of the Israeli aircraft had traversed Saudi Arabia was proof of Israeli and Saudi collusion. Control allowed this because it decided that in the real world, the Iranian regime might reach such a conclusion, given how paranoid and conspiracy-minded it is. Interestingly, the Iran team believed that it could attack Saudi targets, including Saudi oil targets, without necessarily provoking an American military response. Ultimately, they did overstep, but the measured and balanced initial American response to these attacks convinced the Iran team that they were right in this assumption and caused them to push harder, to the point where they did cross an American red line and provoked the U.S. military response they had sought to avoid.

The Iran team tried hard to gauge American red lines. When they did not get strong resistance to one of their moves, they kept pushing forward until they did—and in the most important instance, actually overstepped a U.S. red line. While we suspect the real Iranian regime would be more cautious about attacking Saudi oil targets (especially given the historical American reaction to Iranian attacks on Persian Gulf oil exports during the 1980s), this still suggests that a highly aggressive Iranian regime may see approaches that the United States considers “even-handed,” “balanced,” or even “neutral” as invitations to escalate. (Of course, a less aggressive Iranian regime might be provoked to escalatory actions they would not otherwise take if they saw American assertiveness as a sign of malign intent rather than as the clarification of a red line and the demonstration of American resolve to defend that red line.)

Two thoughts:

  • The Iranian decision to attack Saudi Arabia is both odd and self-destructive. How an Iranian team could have convinced itself that the US wouldn’t respond to an attack on one of its chief clients is beyond me; up to that point, it seems to me that the Iranians are doing quite well by pursuing a moderate strategy. Although Patterson assumed a much lower level of damage from the initial Israeli attack than Brookings, the Iranians were still widely regarded to have been the “winners” of the simulation. Of course, a writeup of the Brookings exercise was available to our students, giving them the opportunity to learn from earlier mistakes. However, the results of the Brookings exercise are also available to the Iranians; the point of such exercises is to inform government policy, and it wouldn’t be that surprising if governments other than the US paid attention.
  • It’s interesting and somewhat troubling to learn that the Iran simulators thought about the United States primarily in terms of strength, resolve, and will. I’ll pre-emptively caveat this by saying that I have no idea how the Iranians would actual treat the United States after an Israeli attack, and that I have no idea the value that the Iranians put on questions of reputation and resolve. Given, however, that the Iran players here were Americans and not actual Iranian officials, I’m somewhat suspicious of how closely Iranian behavior tracks an unsophisticated theory of the importance of a reputation for strength. According the Pollack, the Iranian team saw any sign of moderation on the part of the United States as a signal of weakness and irresolution. This is the worst fear of American neoconservatives; engagement and moderation signal weakness, and invite aggression. In this formulation, an “aggressor” like Iran is extremely risk-acceptant, pushing the United States until it reaches a “red line.” Had the US taken a firm line at some point, by this account, the Iranians would have understood and desisted from further “aggression.” This theory of diplomatic behavior, however, is both logically problematic and empirically suspect. While it’s possible that states will interpret moderation as weakness, they can also interpret it in other ways; our team at Patterson, for example, saw US moderation as understandable caution and sought to exploit differences between the US and Israel. Empirically, it’s unclear that reputations for weakness or strength form in a manner that’s necessary for this theory to work. As Jon Mercer argues, reputation for resolve depends much more on prior belief than on recent observed behavior. Thus, I have to wonder whether the Iranian team was operating on an unsophisticated set of theories about how Iranians ought to act, rather than pursuing self-interest in a more or less rational way. I particular have to wonder this in the context of the attack on Saudi Arabia, which is really hard to believe.

To put it as clearly as possible: In the Patterson simulation, Iran did very well by acting with restraint. In the Brookings simulation, Iran was doing very well by acting with restraint until someone decided that US moderation was weakness, at which point the Iranians launched an absurd attack and got crushed. Given this, isn’t it worthwhile to take into account the possibility that Iran could “win” such a crisis by acting with restraint? Or does that possibility undermine the whole rationale behind attacking Iran? This is to say, if we allow that Iran can act with restraint AFTER being attacked by Israel, doesn’t that open up the possibility that Iran could, well, act with restraint BEFORE being attacked by Israel? And wouldn’t that make such an attack pointless?

Troubling Nonsense Coming Out of CNAS

[ 12 ] March 25, 2010 |

Why try to pretend that this should be taken seriously?

Second, it’s not just about drugs. The Venezuelan alliance is almost a classic geopolitical attempt to deny the US access to Latin America — probably including Mexico — and to gain access to our southern border. FARC is not only the world’s largest producer of cocaine, but continues to be a murderous terrorist insurgency. The cartels, which are fast becoming a worldwide concern, are not only about drugs, but also about control of territory and other criminal activities — murder, kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting, money laundering, among others. This is emphatically not the old, “comfortable” Mafia, and legalizing drugs, even if it were possible, would not make these trans-national criminal organizations go away, particularly when they have the support of narco-states like Venezuela has become. They will just shift to other sources of income.

I quite like Tom Ricks, but really, what’s with letting your blog become a platform for this nonsense? Venezuela and Iran are trying to seize control of Mexico and gain access to our southern border? “Narco-states” like Venezuela “will just shift to other sources of income” if drugs are legalized? What sources of income would those be? And how precisely are Venezuela and Iran and Cuba supposed to “deny US access” to Latin America, much less Mexico? Is it worth noting, at all, that Mexico has a population and economy which are each 4 times as large as those of Venezuela? And yet we’re supposed to be worried about magical narco-terror networks that can just create money whenever they want?

Why would anyone ever bother to pretend that any of this makes sense? It worries me that this garbage is coming out under the CNAS banner.

2010 Patterson Simulation

[ 0 ] March 1, 2010 |

On Friday and Saturday, the Patterson School conducted its annual policy simulation. This year, Patterson students simulated the 22 hours following an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, with a focus on the diplomatic consequences of such an attack. The University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications cooperated in the simulation, with students from thee SJT operating websites representing two news networks, Gulf News Service (an Al Jazeera clone) and International News Network (a CNN clone). A full summary of the simulation can be found at Information Dissemination.

What Leverage Does a Nuke Earn Iran?

[ 0 ] February 11, 2010 |

Kroenig, via Yglesias:

The United States’ global power-projection capability provides Washington with a significant strategic advantage: It can protect, or threaten, Iran and any other country on the planet. An Iranian nuclear weapon, however, would greatly reduce the latitude of its armed forces in the Middle East. If the United States planned a military operation in the region, for example, and a nuclear-armed Iran objected that the operation threatened its vital interests, any U.S. president would be forced to rethink his decision.

Really? Why? I can see how a US President might be forced to rethink a decision that would lead inevitably to the destruction of the Iranian state; in such a scenario, we might plausibly expect that there would be at least a chance that the Iranians would use a nuclear weapon, although of course the first step of any such intervention would be extremely heavy bombing attacks on all known or suspected Iranian nuclear weapon sites. But for anything short of actually conquering Iran and overthrowing its government, do nuclear weapons give Iran any additional leverage? Does anyone think that Iran would have used a nuke in protest of the US invasion of Iraq, or Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah? Or the establishment of US bases on Iran’s borders? Under what circumstances, exactly, would an Iranian nuclear weapon actual force the United States to reconsider some action it wished to take?

I understand the stability-instability paradox, the idea that the strategic stability produced by nuclear weapons can produce low level instability. If that’s the argument Kroenig is making (having a nuke will allow Iran more latitude in mucking about in Iraq or Lebanon or Gaza) then it should be made with greater clarity (and perhaps it is in the book). Even here, however, I doubt that the stability-instability paradox really holds; US conventional capabilities are so advanced that I very much doubt that any Iranian nuclear capability could survive a US conventional first strike.

Another way to think of this is to look to the example of Pakistan. The Pakistani nuclear deterrent hasn’t prevented the United States from overthrowing Pakistan’s client in Afghanistan, continuing the fight against that client for nine years (as the fight destabilized Pakistan’s border regions), and even launching a long campaign of attacks within Pakistan’s borders. It’s almost enough to make one doubt that nuclear weapons actually provide any serious leverage in ordinary diplomatic and military disputes.

Two questions for Glenn Reynolds

[ 0 ] January 12, 2010 |

(1)If Massoud Ali Mohammadi was killed by the Iranian government because he was reportedly sympathetic to opponents of it, would that terrorism?

(2) If on the other hand he was working an an atomic weapons program for the Iranian government, and was as a consequence quietly killed by the CIA, would that be terrorism?

This is an open book exam. Please be sure to support your answer with specific references to the relevant legal texts and doctrines.

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