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Tag: "iran"

Iraq Did Not Have F-14s

[ 17 ] February 5, 2011 |

It’s kind of a minor point, but if a Democratic Senator made a similar error (especially in the context of arguing for military disengagement) I suspect that we’d hear no end of rage and mockery from the right wing milblogger crew. I’d also add that the United States did actually get paid for most of the weapons that it shipped to Iran, both before and after the fall of the Shah.


Explaining Variance

[ 23 ] January 31, 2011 |

Ok, so let’s assume that Mubarak takes the easy way out and heads for healthier climes.  What explains the difference between the failure of the Green Revolution and the success of the Egyptian?  Some potential hypotheses:

  1. Ahmadinejad, whether or not (or by how much) he adjusted the election results, still had greater popular support than Mubarak.  A larger percentage of the population was either tolerant or enthusiastic about his rule.
  2. The existence of the Revolutionary Guard provide the Iranian state with a parallel security apparatus to the Army.  While the loyalty of the latter might have wavered, the loyalty of the former meant that any further revolutionary effort would have been extremely bloody.
  3. The Iranian state provides more avenues for democratic participation than the Egyptian, thus blunting the force of the protests.
  4. The ambivalently pro-transition position of the US in both cases resulted in different implications.  In Iran, the regime could use tepid US support of the Green Movement to play the patriotism card.  In Egypt, anti-Americanism wasn’t an option for Mubarak, especially as it became clear that the US wasn’t excited about the possibility of his ouster.

Other thoughts?

About Those Missiles…

[ 15 ] December 1, 2010 |

One of the more interesting cables revealed by Wikileaks involved a meeting between Russian and US diplomats that touched on the question of Iran-North Korea collaboration. One of the key charges made by the Americans was that a number of BM-25 ballistic missiles had been shipped, in various states of construction, from North Korea to Iran in 2005. If you read the cable, you’ll note that the Russians are surprised by the claim, and refuse to give it much credence. The Russian objections seem quite sensible to me, although the US diplomats have some decent responses. An article in the WaPo today gives some detail about the motivations of both sides, and puts into severe question the claim that 19 whole missiles were transferred.  This degree of doubt (and, you know, reporting) was utterly absent in the New York Times coverage of the same cable, which failed to even note Russian objections to the US claims.  See also.

I also kind of have to wonder whatever happened to this report, which involved essentially the same missile.

David Broder is a Terribly Stupid Man

[ 39 ] October 31, 2010 |

It’s not as if there are a lot of good arguments for war against Iran, but Broder has constructed what has to be the worst.  Duss does the necessary demolition work. Prepping for war against Iran in order to improve the economy is not unlike staying in on a 2-7 offsuit in order to maximize your chances for a straight flush.

The Iran Bits…

[ 12 ] October 23, 2010 |

There’s obviously much of interest in the Wikileaks Iraq release; for the moment the Iran stuff holds the bulk of my attention:

But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the American military. The political struggle between the United States and Iran to influence events in Iraq still continues as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has sought to assemble a coalition — that would include the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr — that will allow him to remain in power. But much of the American’s military concern has revolved around Iran’s role in arming and assisting Shiite militias.

Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, “explosively formed penetrators,” or E.F.P.’s, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include powerful .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a portable Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, according to the reports, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in east Baghdad in July 2007.

As the article notes, the release doesn’t provide conclusive evidence as to the extent of Iran’s role in Iraq over the past eight years (although I think that both the direct and circumstantial evidence of such involvement is exceedingly strong) because we don’t have Iranian or Iraqi documents; the release is simply the view of the US military. It does confirm, however, that US claims of Iranian influence weren’t simply strategic; the US military really believes that Iran has supported Iraqi militias, conducted operations based on such belief, and isn’t exclusively using such claims to either blame US failures or Iran or lay the foundation for military action against Iran.

This last part is particularly interesting, because as far as I can tell there has been relatively little support within the uniformed military for direct action against Iran. Almost all such calls have been made by hawkish civilians, and not through the channels that the military normally uses to make its views known. I don’t doubt that there are some within the military who believe that direct action within Iraq would be sensible, but there doesn’t seem to have been an institutional consensus to that effect. This is mildly surprising, because in other cases where an insurgency has derived support from actors across international borders (Taliban using Pakistani havens and receiving support from ISI, NLF and PAVN using Cambodian sanctuaries in the Vietnam War) military attitudes on the appropriateness of cross-border strikes have been rather strongly affirmative. Indeed, in a non-COIN case, civilian reluctance to escalate the Korean War across an international border provided the setting for one of the most dangerous civil-military conflicts in American history.

In this case, the military seems to have been resigned to fighting Iran within Iraq, in spite of the presence of a civilian faction strongly in support of direct attacks on Iran. I find that somewhat surprising; if there’s any evidence to the contrary (that the military did support cross-border operations against Iran), I’d like to see it.

…to be clear, while I’d be reluctant to suggest that Iran had a moral or legal right to intervene in Iraq, I consider it utterly unsurprising that Iran did so; attempting to manage the political situation in a neighboring country, while simultaneously weakening a potential enemy, is something that countries do.  Indignation about Iranian intervention is absurd.

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…


[ 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?


[ 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.

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