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Iran: The ongoing debate

In an attempt to make transitioning back into posting articles here as smooth as possible, this first update is simply a collection of interesting articles regarding the strikingly public debate about a possible military strike on Iran.

Foreign Affairs

Israeli policymakers are ignoring several of the potential longer-term aspects of a strike: the preparedness of Israel’s home front; the contours of an Israeli exit strategy; the impact on U.S.-Israel relations; the global diplomatic fallout; the stability of world energy markets; and the outcome within Iran itself. 

As part of a larger package on the Iranian debate, Foreign Affairs recently posted an article titled ‘What Happens After Israel Attacks Iran.’ The author begins by reminding the reader of the Israeli strikes of 1981 and 2007 on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors, which notably did not lead to a larger conflict. He quickly shifts attention to the main topic of his article: for all its preparedness for ‘the day after’ a military strike, Israel is not properly considering the longer-term effects of an attack. The arguments on each of the points alluded to in the quote above are cogent, historical references to past Israeli military action abound, and Mr. Eiran gives a nice insight into the minds of senior Israeli officials.

Al Jazeera (video)

 The so-called ‘Iranian Threat’ is a narrative being constructed by the US media all by itself – with scant public support from the Obama administration.

Al Jazeera’s Listening Post takes a look at the misinformation being spread in America through the media’s oftentimes sensationalist conjecture on Iranian capabilities and intentions. The report draws damning parallels with media coverage leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Here’s one telling fact: 7 out of 10 Americans believe that Iran has a nuclear weapon.

The Economist

Short of occupation, the world cannot eliminate Iran’s capacity to gain the bomb. It can only change its will to possess one. Just now that is more likely to come about through sanctions and diplomacy than war.

The author concedes that a nuclear-armed Iran is in no other nation’s interest and has the very real potential of setting off a a regional and perhaps multi-regional nuclear arms race. However, he argues, a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities will only delay and not entirely prevent the Persian nation from acquiring a bomb. Indeed, while in the short term an air strike could set back Iran’s nuclear progress several years, more significant longer-term issues arise. The program would ‘figuratively and literally’ go underground and the nuclear ‘know-how’ of Iranian scientists would be unaffected. Additionally, a strike would further galvanize already-popular support for the nuclear program and could serve as a much-needed boost to the low popularity of Iranian leaders.

Photo credit: lead image

Iranian nuclear aspirations under further scrutiny


[…] the Agency remains concerned about the possible existence in
Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.

– From IAEA report of May 24, 2011

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano

On Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Yukiya Amano stated that his organization had received further information involving Iran’s nuclear program that seemed to point to potential military dimensions of the program. [IAEA] The nuclear watchdog last month published a report citing seven ‘particular areas of concern’ including ‘developing, manufacturing and testing of explosive components suitable for the initiation of high explosives in a converging spherical geometry.’ [IAEA] This ‘area of concern’ no doubt relates to the conventional explosives used to initiate criticality in an implosion-type weapon.

Meanwhile this week, western media began scrutinizing a Republican Guard article originally published on the elite military organization’s website in April. The paper, titled ”The Day After the First Iranian Nuclear Test — a Normal Day’, raised eyebrows as a signal of the military’s support for an Iranian nuclear weapon. Experts cite a number of reasons for the article ranging from a form of retaliation against the computer virus attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities to a strategy of seeking to ‘slowly acclimatize the international community to conditions that would make a breakout to nuclear weapons more feasible.’ [ISIS]

These developments come on the heels of Tehran announcing that it plans to further increase its capacity to generate 20% enriched uranium by 300%. While Iran has stated that its nuclear research reactor in Tehran requires uranium enriched to 20%, the Middle Eastern nation already has several years worth of fuel stockpiled and currently lacks the technology to build further reactors requiring fuel of this grade.

The UN has already sanctioned Iran four separate times for failing to comply with Security Council resolutions relating to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. This latest flurry of developments has started re-focusing international attention on the possibility of Tehran eventually pursuing a nuclear weapon. In particular, analysts worry about the potential for a ‘breakout’ scenario whereby Iran re-introduces its current, 20% enriched, uranium stockpile to its enrichment cascades and races to increase the level of U-235 enrichment to 90% or above, creating a stockpile of weapons-grade uranium. Iran’s stated plans to increase its capacity to enrich uranium to 20% will not only increase the nation’s available stockpile of 20% enriched uranium but also make available more centrifuges for use in a potential breakout scenario and dramatically decrease the time needed to produce weapons-grade material.

The Fordow nuclear facility outside Qom.

The developments of the past week certainly do not help assuage fears that Iran’s stated peaceful goals of its nuclear program are simply a rouse to allow the nation to continue to progress towards a nuclear weapon. It should also be noted that the new enrichment capabilities are going to be installed at the Fordow facility, which is located next to a military base and, owing to its location inside of a mountain, is less vulnerable to air strikes than the enrichment facility at Natanz. The Fordow facility was not even acknowledged until 2009, when western intelligence agencies made public their knowledge of it.

The government of Iran has been careful to careful not to relinquish its ability to plausibly deny accusations that its nuclear program is military in nature. While it has violated several UN resolutions, there has never been any weapons-grade uranium found. And although suspicious, the covert manner in which the nation attempted to secretly build the fortified enrichment facility at Fordow does not necessarily betray its intentions as belligerent. Finally, despite already having – and planning to further develop – a capacity to enrich uranium which greatly out-paces any conceivable peaceful use for the enriched uranium, that imbalance still does not provide the much-wanted ‘smoking gun’ that points definitively to a nuclear weapons program. Regardless, the international community has, for years, focused attention on the Iranian nuclear program so it would be inconceivable that there are not at least a handful of contingency plans should such a conclusive piece of evidence emerge. It’s intriguing to wonder how Iran has accounted for these plans and, given the recent events discussed above, what exactly its strategy is.

Sources: GSN (June 6), GSN (June 9), ISIS, Yahoo News, IAEA Director General statement, Report to IAEA Board of Governors

Useful background information:

ISIS: Nuclear Iran

how uranium enrichment works

nuclear weapon designs

Chinese cyber attacks emphasize need for better electronic defenses

It is precisely the absence of a constraining political
framework around cyber warfare that makes cyberspace
so attractive as a place in which to pursue aggressively
cultural, religious, economic, social and even – paradoxically – political goals.

– From the executive summary of ‘On Cyber Warfare

New details emerged today of the cyber attacks on the email accounts of hundreds of US and other Asian government officials, Chinese political activists, military personnel and journalists. Google said the relatively simple phishing attempts, which involved leading the target to a fake login page to obtain the user’s login information, have been taking place for months. The GMail provider also pinpointed the source of the attacks as Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province and host of the regional military command center.

These attacks are not the first time Google has accused Chinese hackers of spying on the users of its GMail service. In 2009 it traced attacks on Chinese human rights activists to an IP address at Lanxiang Senior Technical School in Jinan, according to The Telegraph. These latest attacks come in the midst of a cyber security review in both the UK and US. BBC recently reported that the Ministry of Defence in the UK plans to employ hundreds of experts to help improve the UK government’s electronic defenses. A cyber attack on major US defense contractor Lockheed Martin further emphasized the rapidly increasing need for robust cyber defense mechanisms. The US earlier this week announced that cyber attacks sponsored by another country can constitute an act of war and reserved the right to use military actions as a result of such attacks. Washington plans to issue a more detailed statement regarding its cyber warfare policies later this month.

This most recent round of Chinese cyber attacks underline what is quickly becoming a major theme in modern political engagement: the cyber threat. As Stars and Stuxnet ravage Iranian nuclear facilities and fears of a potential equally powerful but less specifically-targeted virus raise concerns over the security of infrastructure ranging from power plants to telecommunications, leaders around the world are having to scramble to bolster defenses on a new front of vulnerability. As noted in the Chatham House paper quoted above, this new cyber front is the perfect platform for asymmetric warfare where traditional military might is all but meaningless. This notion of a whole new dimension of threats engaging in asymmetric warfare should certainly weigh heavily in American military commanders’ and policy-makers’ minds; the US has struggled with two other types of asymmetric engagements in recent years: terrorism and insurgency.

Threat of civil war looms over Yemen

Heavy fighting erupted in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa today as the country edged closer to a full-blown civil war. Anti-government protesters have been challenging the 33 year rule of President Saleh for months who, despite several negotiations and agreements regarding his departure, has yet to leave office. The latest outbreak of violence has been between government troops loyal to President Saleh and supporters of tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar. Locals reported heavy shelling of residential areas as well as widespread gunfire. Meanwhile, the Sanaa airport remains closed and traffic on roads leading out of the capital was reportedly at a standstill.

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Saleh’s refusal to step down threatens the country with a civil war whose effects on regional security and international terrorist activity could be dramatic. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a strong presence in Yemen and is the arm of al-Qaeda that many counter-terrorism analysts regard as the most dangerous, particularly in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. A civil war in Yemen would take pressure off of AQAP. For this reason, the US and Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudia Arabia, are likely to attempt to circumvent a civil war in the troubled nation. The US was initially slow to say that Saleh should step down, but President Obama today called for the Yemeni President to ‘immediately’ end his 33 year rule. This call for an immediate end to the crisis represented an important step in US policy and signaled Washington’s growing unease with the political stalemate that threatened to undermine counter-terrorism efforts.

American hesitance to specifically ask for Saleh to abandon power – instead merely condemning the violent government crackdown against protesters – was no doubt due to the Yemeni President’s past willingness to cooperate with the US and allow American counter-terrorism operations to take place in his country. Today, in apparent response to Obama’s call for his immediate resignation, Saleh said that ‘[he doesn’t] take orders from outside.’ He also promised to remain in power and to stop the violence from descending into a civil war. Whatever Saleh’s ultimate fate, the path Yemen follows over the days and weeks to come and how the US and Saudi Arabia react to the unfolding events will have important repercussions for the future of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla.

News links: Reuters Al-Jazeera Guardian

US and Israel attempt to find common policy ground

The US and Israel appear to be at major policy intersection following the events of this past week. On Thursday President Obama delivered a speech in which he supported Israel negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians from the ‘1967 borders.’ These are the borders Israel had before the 1967 Six-Day War in which the Jewish state launched a preemptive strike against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel criticized the call for Israel to return to its 1967 borders, calling them ‘indefensible.’

  










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While President Obama did put public pressure on Israel to discontinue its illegal settlements and to come to terms with the reality of an eventual Palestinian state, he also sought to reassure America’s ally. He criticized plans later this year to hold a UN General Assembly vote on the creation of a Palestinian State. He also put himself in the shoes of Israeli leaders in light of the recent announcement of the Fatah-Hamas unification by musing, ‘How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?’

Regardless of the protective, reassuring statements the President directed at Israel or even, for that matter, the criticisms; the truth is that Israel is facing a challenging future. The Arab Spring protests erupting around the Middle East serve as a great inspirational backdrop for the Palestinian statehood movement. Indeed, every one of Israel’s neighbors has experienced some form of anti-government action. The UN vote on a Palestinian state, which will likely take place later this year, could serve as a humiliation for Israel, especially if the US is one of only a few prominent nations to vote against it.* So while Israel may show public consternation at President Obama’s speech on Thursday, the fact is that both nations need to rely on some old-fashioned diplomacy to convince states like Britain, France and Germany not to further make a pariah out of Israel.

*(It’s my understanding that the US, regardless of the outcome of the vote, would be able to use its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to avoid the vote translating into an actual statehood.)

A few relevant links: NYTimes on Obama and Netanyahu, CBS on the legal concerns of a UNSC veto, Al-Jazeera hosts a scathing op-ed on Obama’s speech

Syria on the brink

Syria continues its brutal suppression of anti-government protests as the EU and US consider imposing further sanctions against the Middle Eastern nation. Reports pour in of Syrian forces opening fire against protesters as videos emerge on youtube of the atrocities. It’s interesting to examine what a dramatic role social networking sites have had on the futures of a number of Middle Eastern countries.  The amateur video of the violence in Syria particularly reminds me of the Iranian protests in 2009 following the rigged presidential election. The video below instantly brought up memories of the Neda incident.

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Sending a message

Every year Palestinians protest the foundation of Israel, during which hundreds of thousands were forcibly relocated, dubbing the object of their anger a ‘catastrophe.’ (Note that these protests are unrelated to the anti-government protests discussed above). But while the Israeli borders with Lebanon and the West Bank remain volatile, Syria has traditionally maintained strict control of its border, even preventing its own citizens access to it. Sunday was this year’s date for the protest and thousands of protesters came from the Syrian side.

While the spirit of the protests and ire of its participants was genuinely directed at Israel, the protesters themselves were no doubt serving as pawns for Damascus. Allowing the anti-Israel protesters unprecedented access to the Israeli border, the Assad regime was sending a powerful message that only through its will has the border has remained peaceful for the last 40 years. The message is sure to present an all-too-familiar dilemma to Israel and the US in how to approach the Arab Spring: the choice between the status quo or the risky protesters. While the Middle East can hardly be called peaceful in the traditional sense of the word, there’s at least some degree of confidence in expectations for the future if current governments stay the same. And although Syria is allied with distinctly anti-Israel entities like Iran and Hezbollah, its own Golan Heights border with Israel has seen little action since 1974. So while Israel and its supporters might sympathize with the pro-democracy protests in Syria, the Assad regime sent an important message to its Jewish neighbor on Sunday by allowing the protesters to storm the Israeli border: you might not like us, but you had better hope that we stay in control.

Related links:

Spotlight Syria

Message for Israel

North Korea and Iran trading ballistic missile technology

The countries presenting two of America’s biggest diplomatic challenges have been trading ballistic missile technology according to a new UN report leaked to the media. The trans-shipment occurred through ‘a neighboring third-party country’ the report says. Some diplomats identified that country as China and notably the paper, which represents the findings of an international panel, lacks the signature of the Chinese expert assigned to the panel. While there has long been speculation about illegal trade between the two countries, this report represents the latest official allegation of a violation of UN sanctions.

The Iranian Shahab 3, whose warhead design similarities with a recently-showcased North Korean missile prompted further speculation that the two countries had been sharing ballistic missile technology.

Importantly, the developments further complicate matters involving diplomatic efforts to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program and increase pressure on Tehran to avoid pursuing one. Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, have traditionally proven reluctant to enforce sanctions on Iran and North Korea and have recently stifled the publication of UN expert reports on the two countries. The unofficial word that China served as a transfer point is sure to embarrass Beijing and no doubt lent weight to the decision of the Chinese expert to remain unsupportive of his panel’s findings. According to UNSC diplomats, China was unlikely to allow the report to be published. Nonetheless, the findings will add further evidence to inefficacy of the current sanctions against North Korea and the need to reestablish negotiations surrounding its nuclear program. And while Iran remains, by all accounts, at least a few years from a nuclear test, the report should also serve as a reminder of the need to keep diplomatic pressure on Tehran from continuing down the path towards a weapon.

News story links: Reuters China Post BBC

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