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Trust, but Verify: Countering the Critics of the JCPOA

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The real question on everyone’s mind with regard to the JCPOA is whether or not Iran will honor its commitments. There are two differing philosophies to this question.

The first is that of the agreement’s critics, who argue that Iran will act similarly to rogue nations in the past and violate the agreement in hopes of attaining a nuclear arsenal. After all, a very similar agreement was made with Iraq, and the U.S. ultimately invaded the country in 2003 because of what was viewed as violations to the agreement. Specifically, Saddam Hussein was required to, among other things: allow international weapons inspectors to oversee the destruction of his weapons of mass destruction; not develop new weapons of mass destruction; destroy all of his ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers; stop support for terrorism and prevent terrorist organizations from operating within Iraq. Critics have pointed to the failed compromise with Iraq as an indicator of the forthcoming conflict that will arise from the JCPOA.

The breakdown of the Iraqi agreement is not the first time that the U.S. has been part of an arrangement that has gone south. On October 21, 1994 the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework after North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Similar to Iran’s recent commitments under the JCPOA, North Korea agreed to full compliance, including taking all steps deemed necessary by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine the extent to which North Korea diverted material for weapons in the past and giving inspectors’ access to all nuclear facilities in the country. North Korea eventually violated this arrangement, withdrew from the NPT, and attained nuclear weapons capability. Critics of the JCPOA have pointed to these failed agreements to validate their arguments. They are difficult to argue with as Iran and North Korea share some attributes, including violating international norms on nonproliferation, terrorism, and human rights.

Conversely, proponents of the JCPOA have argued that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy and the right to address legitimate security concerns. It is no secret that Iran is trying to secure its position as a leader in the Middle East and the world. Advocates of the JCPOA contend that, because of its desire to emerge as a world power, Iran will be more likely to abide by the rules of the agreement and enhance its security through diplomatic relations with other world leaders. Additionally, enthusiasts of the JCPOA reject the idea that the U.S. is being seduced by a deal that is similar to failed agreements of the past and argue that the JCPOA is not the North Korea deal. First and foremost, the final agreement with Iran is vastly more comprehensive in terms of verification provisions and contains much stronger elements to deter cheating, as well as more meaningful incentives to motivate compliance than the Agreed Framework.

Second, advocates of the JCPOA point to the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program compared to Iran’s when an agreement was signed as another essential difference: by the time the Agreed Framework was completed in 1994, North Korea was already estimated to have produced more than enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon. George Perkovich explains, “by contrast, neither the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nor any intelligence agency has offered evidence that Iran has acquired enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon [and] therefore, Iran cannot hide behind a putative agreement and weaponize material it already possesses.” These two fundamental distinctions, coupled with advances in technical capabilities and the United States’ ability to adapt from former failed negotiations, give proponents the confidence to believe in the agreement’s validity.

Supposedly, the U.S. has three alternatives to the JCPOA in terms of resolving the threat posed by a secret nuclear program of Iran. The first and most popular alternative is for the U.S. to impose increased sanctions. For example, The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) explains that the U.S. must, “revive the policy that first brought about negotiations—a combination of tough diplomacy and crippling sanctions [and] this time around must not settle for merely delaying ‘breakout’ time, but forge a deal that truly stops all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb.” Despite the committee’s enthusiasm for developing an all-inclusive agreement that ensures that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon, there are a few flaws in the strategy to re-impose sanctions.

The first and most obvious problem with this strategy is that the U.S. has already accepted the terms of the JCPOA and, arguably, is at the point of no return. Congressman Jerrold Nadler correctly assesses, “The Europeans, Russia, and China, being eager to resume business with Iran, having agreed to voluntary sanctions only in order to coerce Iran into negotiating an agreement, and having reached what they regard as a reasonable agreement only to have Congress pull the rug out from under them, would certainly not want to maintain their sanctions.” Second, if Iran determined that the U.S. was not adhering to its obligations under the agreement, then Iran would have no incentive to allow IAEA inspectors into its facilities and it could begin enriching as much plutonium as it wished.

The second alternative would involve the boycotting of Iranian banks. The basic idea behind this strategy is for the U.S. to impose, more-or-less, secondary sanctions in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table. Jerrold Nadler explains, “We would take on essentially the rest of the world, including all our closest economic and diplomatic allies, and, by threatening to cut off their access to the American economy through our banks.” In other words, the U.S. would not only try to influence Iran through an economic boycott but the entire world.

If that sounds suspiciously like coercion, that’s because it is. Unsurprisingly, there are several downfalls to this approach. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sums it up best: “The countries we would have to coerce are among the biggest economies in the world [and] if we were to cut them off from the American dollar and our financial system, we would set off extensive financial hemorrhaging, not just in our partner countries but in the United States as well.” Another significant flaw in this approach is the fact that the rest of the world has the ability to call the American bluff. Over forty percent of U.S. exports go to these countries and American trading partners know that it will not shut down its exports or cut off countries that hold nearly forty-seven percent of foreign-held U.S. treasuries.

The third and final alternative to the JCPOA is direct U.S. military intervention. As Jeffrey Goldberg argued, “an Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way.” Many voices heard throughout the debate of Iran’s potential nuclear program have claimed that military action may be the only path available to the U.S. that would secure world stability. Besides the obvious consequences of military action including the loss of human life, there are some other issues that should cause the U.S. to pause.

In 2004, the Atlantic magazine conducted a war game which simulated preparations for a U.S. assault on Iran and in doing so they arrived at a few sobering conclusions. First, the U.S. government had no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran had, how many it would be able to destroy, or how much time it would take to do so. Even worse, the U.S. had no way of predicting the long-term strategic impact of a strike. If these were the conclusions that this group came up with in 2004, when the U.S. had forces in neighboring Iraq, how much more ineffective would an assault be in present day? It is also important to note that even if the U.S. were successful in its endeavor to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran would be more hostile towards the U.S. if it ever did achieve the production of a nuclear weapon down the road. And that as a goal would be extremely likely if the U.S. violated Iranian sovereignty and invaded.

Each of these strategies offers a different alternative to resolving the conflict of a secret Iranian nuclear program. Unfortunately, each approach is even more unrealistic than the last. Currently, the U.S. has very little option but to embrace the terms of the JCPOA and to enforce those terms as rigidly as possible. Skeptics may believe it is foolhardy to ‘trust’ Iran, but in this case the old Reagan adage during the Cold War seems most appropriate: Trust, but verify.

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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