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Wednesday
Dec232009

Threatened, Isolated Iran Sends FM to Beirut

Iran, caught in a tornado of its own unpopularity, dispatched Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to Beruit last weekend to meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.  This, while Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon was in Damascus for the first time since his father's assassination in 2005 for ice-breaking talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Many view Hariri's Damascus visit as formal acquiescence to Syrian influence in Lebanese politics.  However, the trend in the broader international context offers a different narrative:  One that shows a concerted effort by the international community to isolate Iran and its hegemonic pursuits from the Middle Eastern dialogue (see November 18 post).

In recent weeks the King of Saudi Arabia, the President of France and the prime ministers of Turkey and Spain have all sat down with the Syrian President after years of publicly ostracizing Damascus.

Each visitor to Damascus brings its own encouragement: the prospect of substantial foreign investment from Saudi Arabia; open borders with Turkey; the signing of a long-delayed association agreement with the European Union.

US President Barack Obama says he wants to normalize relations with Syria and will name an ambassador to Damascus very soon. In July, the Obama administration took the first step, ending some of the sanctions it had imposed in 2003. The arrival of a new US ambassador is expected to help restart peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.

Said one western diplomat, “we want Syria to stop playing with the bad guys and start playing with the good guys.”

Iran wants to be perceived as the Middle East's chess master however global currents are pushing the Islamic Republic off the board.  In an effort to save face after months of protests at home in the wake of fraudulent elections, the death of beloved reformist Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, broken defense deals, and the most recent outmaneuver by Hariri in Damascus, the Islamic Republic is trying to frame the context of current events on its own terms.  

A few quotes by Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki during his Beirut visit...

Reacting to PM Hariri's visit to Damascus, Mottaki tries to frame the visit as an effort to build Arab consensus against Israel:

“The regional nations have realized today how to resist against the criminal acts of the Zionist regime and how to impose new humiliating defeats against that regime.”

Making nice with Saudi Arabia, a nation incensed with Iran over Hezbollah's support of Houthi insurgents in Yemen and southern Saudi, Mottaki offered the following words:

“The developments in Yemen are the internal concern of Sana'a, we should not interfere in internal affairs of other countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran fends for Yemen’s territorial integrity and national solidarity, believing that the emerged difficulties there can be solved resorting to negotiations.” 

And referring to the French foreign minister’s comments regarding Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities, Mottaki offered the following in typical passive aggressive fashion:

“The French should not echo the defeated remarks and policies of the British and the Americans during the past couple of years.”

He added, “They had better preserve the prestige of France and act independently.”

Tehran is scrambling and bumbling across the Middle East hoping to dissuade potential air strikes against its nuclear facilities and/or the likelihood of crippling sanctions.  The US has given the Iranian mullahs until the end of the year to capitulate on the nuclear issue.  When the last minute overtures and phony embraces to the Arab world have been exhausted and the dust settles under Tehran's crazy feet, the reality remains that no country in the Middle East wants a nuclear arms race, especially one pitting Arab v. Persian.  Of this the mullahs are fully aware.

 

Friday
Dec182009

USPak Relations Strong Following Petraeus

It’s been a heck of a week for US-Pakistan relations. General Petraeus was in Islamabad on Monday, December 14, to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Army General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, where he reiterated the Obama administration’s call for expanding operations against Afghani Taliban groups based on Pakistani soil.

PM Gilani said on Monday that the national political leadership strongly backs the ongoing anti-terrorism operation however Pakistan and the US will have to take measures to bridge the gape in bilateral confidence.

Pakistan was quick to offer the US a confidence building measure (CBM) shortly thereafter. The Pakistani news agency Dawn reported that the South Waziristan Political Administration and the Mehsud tribe held a jirga (assembly) in Wana (South Waziristan's largest town) on Tuesday Dec. 15 wherein the political authorities handed down a pamphlet to the tribal elders spelling out conditions for restoring peace and eliminating militancy from the area.

According to the pamphlet, the Mehsud tribe would hand over all militants unconditionally to the administration, while displaying and carrying heavy weapons in the agency would be banned. The administration has also banned any parallel administrative or judicial system in the tribal region.

By Thursday (Dec. 17) the Sindh police’s Crime Investigation Department (CID) had apprehended a close associate of Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud – Nooran Gul Mehsud, alias “Rocket,” who was in charge of the Logistic Group and Recruitment Cell of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Nooran Gul Mehsud aka "Rocket"The Rocket was also responsible for providing medical treatment in the city to the terrorists who got wounded during the fight with the Army in Waziristan having had secret contacts in hospitals in Karachi and interior Sindh.

It is yet unknown whether the US views the apprehension of Nooran Gul Mehsud as serious or symbolic. If the Rocket is who he is purported to be then perhaps the intelligence gleaned from no doubt harsh Pakistani interrogations led to one of the US’s single largest missile barrages in the Afpak theater since Obama took office in January. (N. Gul Mehsud's capture could also be used by both the Pakistanis and the Americans as a pretext for continued drone attacks. On the flipside, the barrages may be a sign of American impatience with Islamabad).

The first strike Thursday killed two insurgents as they traveled in a vehicle in Dosali village, the Associated Press reports. In the second wave of the strikes, a cluster of five drones hovered over a militant compound and fired as many as 10 missiles, killing 15 militants. The attack took place in the village of Degan, located near the North Waziristan capital of Miran Shah, according to The New York Times.

As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, Thursday’s strikes were significant for what they targeted: areas of North Waziristan belonging to Siraj Haqqani and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Taliban commanders believed responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government had previously refused to target the areas under the control of the two men.

All this amidst calls for President Zardari’s resignation after the Supreme Court struck down an amnesty that had protected him and thousands of other political officials from corruption charges.

The bottom line is that the framework that houses US-Pakistan relations and the fight against radical Islamists was reinforced this week. Time will tell whether those reinforcements were cosmetic or structural.

Thursday
Dec102009

Moscow Launches on Eve of Nobel/SOFA

On the eve that President Obama was to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, Moscow decided to fire one of its submarine-launched Bulava missiles over Oslo, lighting up the night sky with a curious blue streak (see VIDEO). The Bulava-30 is Russia's most advanced SLBM, capable of carrying up to 10 nuclear MIRV warheads.  

The launch was a clear statement of defiance to NATO's Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which was slated to be signed today, December 10, between the US and Poland.

The theatrics come two weeks after a November 26 meeting in Berlin between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, where the Secretary General voiced concerns about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Tehran: 

"It might of course eventually become NATO business as well, because then it is a question of protecting our territories and our populations against a potential threat.  To that end, we are right now considering the possibility to establish missile defense which also covers Europe."

In September, Obama shelved the previous administration's plans to place 10 long-range ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland and a fixed-site radar station in the Czech Republic.  

The SOFA deal was a prerequisite to setting up a US ground-to-air missile base in Poland. (US officials say deployment should start in 2010). The new U.S. plan would place ship-based SM-3s in the North and Mediterranean seas in 2011, and mobile land-based SM-3s in Central Europe by 2015.

In contrast to the previous system which was strongly opposed by Russia, the new multidirectional radars and missiles would not be able to penetrate deep into Russia's territory.  

Nonetheless, Moscow has a flare for making its displeasures known. 

Wednesday
Dec022009

The Squid and The Ally

It’s no secret that Brazil wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  And Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva is more than willing to spend some political capital to get one.  After a visit by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Lula welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on November 24.  It was the first visit by an Iranian head of state since the Shah came to Brazil in 1965.

However, while Ahmadinejad was in Brasilia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India was in Washington to discuss regional security and a multibillion dollar defense deal that would bring the US Patriot system as well as 10 C-17s to New Delhi.  It’s also no secret that India wants a seat.

Brazil and India in the Middle East.

Brazil and India along with Russia and China make up the BRICs – an increasingly powerful politico-economic bloc.  Russia and China have stepped closer to the side of sanctions against Iran and in doing so have cast light on the growing international influence of Brazil and India. 

Both nations are engaged in the Middle East.  Israel is India’s second largest arms supplier after Russia and the partnership has led to cooperation in space technology:

"Due to Israel’s geographical location, it is only able to launch its own intelligence-gathering satellites westward, against the Earth's rotation. That limits the range of orbits over Iran. Launching from India's Satish Dhawan Space Center on the Gulf of Bengal in southeastern India means Israel can launch eastward, adding another dimension to its surveillance of the Islamic Republic."

According to Spacewar, Indian launches of Israeli satellites have also led to an important breakthrough: a satellite that will provide additional surveillance of Iran and its missile-launching zones with sensors that can reportedly take photos with a maximum ground resolution of 1 meter day and night and through cloud cover.

Most recently Israel fast tracked one of its surveillance satellites to India following the Mumbai attacks giving “India a major intelligence and early warning edge over Pakistan, and indeed every other Asian state except China and Japan.”

Brazil is also engaged in the Middle East – predominantly with Saudi Arabia.  

Lula puts his charm to work,

“Arab values, tastes and sensibilities are today an integral part of what it means to be Brazilian.”  He continues, “Saudi Arabia [has] become Brazil’s largest trading partner in the Middle East. Since I took office in 2003, bilateral trade has multiplied four-fold, rising from $1.2 billion to $5.5 billion.”

Petrochemicals cooperation between Brazilian state oil giant Petrobras and the Saudi firm Modern Chemicals have been sealed along with a joint venture between Brazilian biotech firm Biomm and the Saudi Gabas group to produce human insulin for the Gulf region.

As reported by Agence-France Press, two-way trade is heavily biased in Brazil's favor, with Saudi Arabia an important market for Brazilian grain, poultry, beef and manufacturing equipment.  Lula singled out Riyadh's six-year, 400-billion-dollar capital investment programme as an opportunity for Brazilian business.

"Saudi Arabia has a great infrastructure program and certainly Brazil would like to participate," Lula said.  He added that his country could become a "strategic partner" for Saudi Arabia in its search for farm investment opportunities abroad to develop greater food security.  "We have high expectations to receive Saudi investment in agribusiness."

Brazil and Iran.  Iran and India.

Lula seeks a more active role in diffusing Middle East tensions.  One of the Brazilian President’s recent suggestions was a soccer match between Brazil and a team composed of Israelis and Palestinians.  Perhaps Lula could also assist Qadaffi by refereeing a rematch of the standoff between Algeria and Egypt. 

All kidding aside, Lula need not leave the South American continent to engage Middle Eastern politics – Lula’s warm embrace of Ahmadinejad didn’t play well at home among liberal democratic Brazilians.

Brazzil Magazine asks,

“Can you believe the word of a person who denies historical facts? Can you believe the word of a person who rigs the elections in his country? Can you believe the word of a person who eliminates freedom of press and of the media in general? Can you believe the word of a person who imposes his decisions through his political police, his SS, his 'Revolutionary Guard?'"

More criticism of Lula's Foreign Relations followed,

“The diplomatic incoherence is plain….The electoral fraud in Iran is praised [as] a domestic affair while the Honduran elections are condemned.  It seems that our diplo-MÁ-cia has an elective affinity with totalitarian regimes, something never before seen in our diplomatic history.” 

Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace:

"One would hope Brazil's diplomacy would be skillful enough to get certain types of messages across to the Iranians and not just give Ahmadinejad the red-carpet treatment.”

"Lula" - Portuguese for "Squid"For better or worse, one of the attributes that has made “Lula” – Portuguese for “squid” – such an attractive personality is his ability to take on the characteristics of those around him.

Turkey has an interesting take on all the noise that comes with Iranian relations and shares the West's goals regarding the nuclear ambitions of Tehran’s mullahs; it's just doing things in its own way.  Officials in Ankara insist that Erdogan's warm words to Ahmadinejad are [like Lula’s] no more than atmospherics.

"We have been dealing with [Iranians] for centuries," says an Erdogan aide. "We show them the respect and friendship they crave.  Would our being hostile to Iran do anything to solve the problem of their nuclear program?"

As Newsweek explains about the Middle Eastern reality, “the Tehran regime remains paralyzed by infighting and is far from loved in most of the Arab world. Saudis in particular think back fondly to the Ottomans facing off against the Persians.” 

Desperately Skirting Sanctions...

Juan Forero of the Washington Post writes,

“In Latin America, Iran has found a means to skirt sanctions via close cooperation among an anti-Washington alliance that includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Ahmadinejad and the leaders of those countries have signed numerous cooperation agreements, in which Iran has pledged to build milk plants and tractor factories and to provide low-interest loans. Venezuela's government has gone further, announcing that Iran is helping in the search for uranium, which Chávez said would be used for peaceful purposes.”

And Iran’s footprint in the southern hemisphere has become more of a blueprint for exerting pressure on the US and western democratic nations. 

Since 2004, Iran has opened embassies in Colombia, Chile, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia.  In an effort to counter the Islamic Republic’s expanding regional influence, the US’s Voice of America broadcast announced on November 24 that it too will be expanding its audience in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. 

Tehran is also reaching out to India in an effort to dodge sanctions via the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.  Used diplomatically as bait for Iranian complicity in the region, the IPI pipeline would help quench Pakistani and Indian thirst for natural gas.

As of December 2, “Mehdi Nabizade, the Iranian envoy to New Delhi, told the Iranian Students' News Agency that agreements on the IPI project are moving forward following a round of bilateral talks in India.”  Iran is eager to move ahead with the long-delayed IPI project from the South Pars gas field and a tri-lateral meeting on IPI is being scheduled.

Brazil or India?

With a nod to the BRICs voting power in the IMF and its expanding multipolar influence in general, Lula stated that "current ruling systems of the world are unable to sort out crises and governments need to cooperate to ease problems."  

Thanks to Russia and China taking a backseat for now, Brazil and India are shaping the global scenario vis a vis Iran; both proving their worth and vying for a seat on the Security Council.

 

Wednesday
Nov182009

...but you said i could have the S-300  :(

"If Tehran obtained the S-300 [surface to air missile], it would be a game-changer in military thinking for tackling Iran." says long-time Pentagon advisor Dan Goure. (Pictured: Not the S-300).

Little attention has been focused on the situation in Yemen where internal fighting between Shia Houthis and the Sunni central government has been escalating since August.  Amir Taheri explains the situation in his article Tehran’s Tricks for Squeezing Saudis:

"Iran has been trying to create a branch of the pan-Shiite Hezbollah movement [in Yemen]. The aim is to control a chunk of territory along the Saudi border and use it to destabilize the kingdom while exerting pressure on the Yemeni government."

However, the world took notice on November 4 when Houthi insurgents, with Hezbollah support, attacked the border areas of Jebel al-Dukhan and Al-Khubah on the Saudi side, killing a border guard and injuring 11 others.  The Saudis responded with air and expeditionary forces, pushing the Houthi insurgents back across the border into Yemen. 

On November 10, Al Jazeera reported that Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki threatened Saudi’s interference in the conflict, stating that regional nations should "seriously hold back from intervening in Yemen's internal affairs."  Adding that, "those who pour oil on the fire must know that they will not be spared from the smoke that billows."

The following day Mottaki reversed course:  "Iran is prepared to co-operate with the government of Yemen and other nations in order to restore security."

Yemen's response, Thanks but no thanks.

It is interesting to note the growing chorus of critics of the Iranian regime...

"What business does Iran have stating what it has stated?” asked Hossein Shobokshi, a columnist with the Arabic Asharq Alawsat newspaper.  "But it also falls in sync with what Iran has been doing. Interfering in other countries' affairs - we have seen it in Jordan, Sudan, Palestine, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq - creating pockets of influence and trying to control its puppets in every part of the Arab world." 

In an audio recording posted on an Islamist website, Mohamed bin Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, one of Saudi Arabia’s most wanted terrorists and head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said:

"Shiite Iran poses an extreme danger to Sunnis of Yemen and Saudi Arabia [more so] than [the] Jews or Christians."  Al-Rashid continued, "driven by a greed to take over Muslim countries, Shiite Iran has long been plotting to install a Hezbollah-like group to occupy areas at the joint-border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia," inciting the Saudi-Yemeni Sunni Muslims to "fight Iran-backed Shiite rebels."

Jameel Theyabi writing in Dar al Hayat on November 9 explains:

"Iran is attempting to sow discord and to destabilize the security of the countries in the region, especially in the Arab Gulf States, after having had their way in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine."  

The Kuwait government also condemned the Yemeni rebels' attack on Saudi Arabia, saying Gulf countries' national security was one and could not be divided. 

And in early October, prior to the Houthis cross border attack, Ayman al-Zawahiri lambasted Hezbollah in his eulogy to Baitullah Mehsud as representing a model of “turning jihad into a national cause.”  A model which “must be rejected by the umma, because it is a model which makes jihad subject to the market of political compromises and distracts the umma from the liberation of Islamic lands and the establishment of the Caliphate.”

Sunni v. Shia.  Al Qaeda v. Hezbollah.  Arabs v. Persians.  P5 + 1 v. Iran.

In an effort to enhance its dismal Cold War reputation as a weapons supplier to the Middle East, Russia has pursued a marketing campaign to brand itself as a reliable manufacturer of quality arms and technologies. “Russia is trying to restore some of its power in the Middle East, but its capability is limited because of the doubts about Russian technology,” Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Centre, recently said.

For instance, when Mikhail Kalashnikov turned 90 years old on November 10, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev used the occasion as an opportunity to promote its image as global arms supplier, awarding him the Hero of the Russian Federation medal at a ceremony in the Kremlin. "The Kalashnikov is today one of the best-known Russian words... Such shining creative achievements move our country forward," Medvedev said during the ceremony. 

Another Russian shining achievement is the S-300 surface to air missile (SAM).  The S-300 is comparable to the American Patriot system and has been aggressively sought by the Iranian regime to protect its nuclear sites. 

During negotiations over the past two years, Russia and Iran came close to signing a deal for the S-300 (depending on the source, “close” could mean "a done deal" or just "close"). In an effort to counter Russia’s public diplomacy campaign and motivate a deal in Tehran's favor, Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said that Russia had a ‘contractual obligation’ to provide Iran with the system. “We have made a deal with the Kremlin to buy S-300 defense missiles,” he said, referring to a contract signed between Tehran and Moscow in 2007.  “We don’t think Russian officials would want to be seen in the world as contract violators.”

According to CBS News, two days prior to Obama’s decision to scrap the US missile shield in Europe, Medvedev indicated that Russia’s stance on Iran may be changing and cited the concerns on the part of the League of Arab countries about too close a rapport between Russia and Iran. 

"If Tehran obtained the S-300, it would be a game-changer in military thinking for tackling Iran." says long-time Pentagon advisor Dan Goure

Russia has since decided to instead sell its more advanced S400 to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archrival, in a deal that could be worth as much as $7 billion. “We are working in this direction, we can confirm this,” said a government spokesman in Moscow where local media are reporting that an agreement could be signed before the end of the year.

All this brings us back to Yemen. 

Russia is Yemen’s largest creditor and closely allied with the Saudis.  Clearly Russia would not benefit from a destabilized Yemen unable to repay its debt.  But much more significant is that Russia, currently the world’s largest oil producer, would be in a position to work with the Saudis to maximize oil profits in the midst of a concerted economic squeeze on Tehran.

Roger Stern and Bernard Hayke in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, The National, have some creative suggestions for the Saudis:

“The kingdom should reprise its greatest peacemaking performance: the 1986 oil price collapse. Saudi Arabia has been given little credit for this effort, which secured western victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Here’s the story: while some other Opec members cheated on their quotas by overproducing in the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia cut its production to defend the price of oil. In 1985, after years of sacrifice, the Saudis reversed course and opened the taps to regain market share. The consequent price collapse bankrupted the Soviet Union, which relied on oil for its only hard-currency earnings.

Iran’s situation now is like the Soviet Union’s then. If it does not comply immediately with international demands for transparency on weapons development, Saudi Arabia could force a drastic reduction of Iran’s revenue by producing some or all of its four million barrels a day of spare capacity. Iran’s Opec production quota violations have approached historic highs, so there is a strong precedent for such a Saudi production increase.

Of course, Saudi Arabia relies on oil earnings just as Iran does, but it has nearly half a trillion dollars of currency reserves, more than enough to defend its budget even if revenues decline for a while. Most Gulf states enjoy comparable finances. Iran, by contrast, spends almost all its revenue trying to buy off dissent. Any revenue decline is a threat to the emerging Iranian police state.”

Sanctions and pressure come in different colors.  But this time they’re green and white.