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The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir

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Few issues in recent years have seen as intensive high-level, international negotiations as Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the account by Mousavian, an Iranian policymaker and scholar, will probably become the definitive book about that effort.

A more important work, but one unlikely to get as much attention, is from a team led by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which examines in detail how Iran’s nuclear program fits within the broader challenge to U.S. interests from the Islamic Republic.

Mousavian’s account gains credibility from his previous position as spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team as well as through the vigorous promotion of his views on U.S. television and at lectures in elite venues. His personal story is intriguing: An important official on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, he was, in effect, jailed for his opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is now a fellow at Princeton, though clearly still deeply supportive of the Islamic Republic. But the reason his book will become the standard reference is not necessarily due to his pedigree: It is the care with which it was prepared, with 1,113 footnotes to all the right sources. On question after question, Mousavian recounts the facts in detail, providing the references to check up and follow further.

But for all that Mousavian gets the details right, he casts the nuclear impasse in a profoundly misleading way. The fundamental problem has always been that Iran has not lived up to its obligations under the international agreements to which it is a party. At its heart, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a trade-off: Countries have the right to dangerous nuclear technology if they accept the responsibility to be fully transparent about what they are doing. The irony is that had Iran, an NPT signatory, followed through on the requirements of the treaty, Washington may have been profoundly unhappy about Iran’s nuclear progress but could have done little to mobilize international pressure. On this, as so many other issues, the Islamic Republic’s leaders have systematically miscalculated where Iran’s national interests lie. Their attitude, shared by Mousavian, is the profound arrogance of asserting rights but refusing responsibilities.

In Mousavian’s account, Iran never did anything worse than miss some tactical opportunities. And in his telling, that only happened after he left the job. Mousavian makes a persuasive case that Iran was better served by his policy, which was to blow smoke in the West’s eyes rather than to spit into them. The prolonged negotiations he describes persuaded Europe that Iran should be offered incentives and not penalized so as to entice it into further negotiations and temporary concessions. His team understood the importance of looking reasonable, whereas Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i’s priority seems to be what the ayatollah called resistance to “global arrogance.”[1]

In contrast to Iran’s excellent track record, Mousavian presents the West—especially the United States—as continuously taking unreasonable positions and missing chances to improve relations. But not surprisingly, there is a telling omission: The George W. Bush administration is often castigated for spurning an alleged May 2003 Iranian “grand bargain” to open talks with Washington about all the issues separating the two sides. Mousavian makes no mention of it whatsoever.

While Mousavian recognizes that many issues besides the nuclear program separate Washington and Tehran, the Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) Iran: The Nuclear Challenge edited by Blackwill simply ignores that strategic context. While it could be argued that the CFR report is intentionally only about the nuclear issue, the obvious response is that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities is not isolated from its other activities, nor are vital U.S. interests about Iran confined to its nuclear program: Most U.S. sanctions on Iran can be justified as reactions to its state support of terrorism, not just its nuclear program.

This narrow focus on Iran’s nuclear program is all the more striking given the main theme in Blackwill’s insightful concluding essay: Consider carefully and do not jump to conclusions. He warns against unanticipated consequences, artificial analogies, false certainty, and short-term thinking that ignores longer term repercussions. He suggests eleven pertinent questions to focus thinking about a potential preemptive attack, bringing great depth of knowledge to the subject. Regrettably, he hardly mentions how actions on the nuclear issue could affect broader U.S. interests regarding Iran. In particular, his essay is infused with the implicit view that the Islamic Republic is a given, not an unnatural system whose days may be numbered. If one concludes that the Islamic Republic will, at some point in time, disappear, then U.S. policy thinking ought to be much more about timing: Delaying the nuclear program becomes a potential route to successful resolution of the problems between the two states, depending on what nuclear policy a successor regime might pursue.

The six other authors in the CFR volume offer much insight about sanctions, negotiations, military options, regime change, the implications of a nuclear-armed Iran as well as what is known about the Iranian nuclear program. But their lens is so centered on the nuclear issue that everything else is essentially left out of the picture. For instance, Elliott Abrams’ essay on regime change, while presenting a thoughtful evaluation of current U.S. programs and practical suggestions for alternatives, devotes exactly one sentence to the nonnuclear advantages for U.S. strategic interests were the Islamic Republic to fall. Surely the end of the mullahcracy would have vast repercussions on world Islamist movements and on the Middle East. To take one point that preoccupies U.S. Persian Gulf allies: Were Washington to form a close working relationship with a friendly Tehran, might that make relations with the gulf monarchies less important to U.S. administrations? Under those circumstances, Washington might choose to be more supportive of the forces calling for democratic reform in those countries, a prospect the ruling families find profoundly unsettling.

In comparison to the tight focus of the CFR volume, the great strength of U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition is that Cordesman, et al., capture the full character of U.S.-Iran relations. They demonstrate that the United States and Iran are in a low-level war, or in “strategic competition,” a phrase often used in national security circles. That war has many fronts, which the authors cover in great (sometimes excessive) detail. Separate chapters, generally coauthored by Cordesman and one or more collaborators, cover the nature of the strategic competition in general, as well as sanctions and energy, the gulf military balance, and competition between Washington and Tehran in various parts of the world including Iraq, the Levant, Turkey, the Caucasus, “Af–Pak,” Europe, Russia, China, Latin America, and Africa. The concluding chapter, on policy implications, stresses that the U.S. administrations must compete with the Iranians in a wide array of geographic arenas and with many policy instruments. That is, in effect, something Washington is now doing but not always with a conscious understanding of how all these disparate efforts should fit together.

Cordesman is led to the pessimistic conclusion that the mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons is part of a concerted strategy around which the entire military and national security strategy is built. Restrictions on Tehran’s enrichment activities, he argues, are not likely to impede Iran’s nuclear progress much because it has developed such a varied and robust set of nuclear weapons-related programs (including delivery options) that it could break down the remaining work into compartmentalized programs. Each is readily concealed and could be presented to a credulous international community as peaceful in intent. He concludes that if one studies the full range of strategic competition between Washington and Tehran, the current P5+1-Iran negotiations—even if fully successful—would make only a small difference in the mullahs’ challenge to U.S. policymakers and not much of a difference to its nuclear pursuits.

Cordesman’s message is not likely to have the resonance of Mousavian’s. Too many in the West seem inclined to assume that Iran is being reasonable in the current nuclear impasse and that more understanding of the developing world is needed. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, few international problems can be solved through the greater display of empathy, especially toward rogue regimes.

Patrick Clawson is director for research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir

by Seyed Hossein Mousavian
Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012. 597 pp. $25, paper.

Also:

Iran: The Nuclear Challenge
Edited by Robert Blackwill. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2012. 77+xii pp. $9.99, paper.

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition
by Anthony Cordesman, Adam Mausner, and Aram Nerguizian
Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012. 937 pp. Free download.

Reviewed by Patrick Clawson

Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2013, pp. 87-89

 http://www.meforum.org/3495/the-iranian-nuclear-crisis-a-memoir

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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