25 November 2013
Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid
By Gwynne Dyer
“We are not blind, and I don’t think we are stupid,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in response to fierce Israeli criticism after the first round of talks about Iran’s nuclear programme earlier this month failed to reach a deal. Now the deal is done, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is even harsher in his condemnation of Kerry’s handiwork.
“Israel has many friends and allies,” said Netanyahu, “but when they’re mistaken, it’s my duty to speak out….What was achieved last night in Geneva (24 November) is not a historic agreement, it was a historic mistake. Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon.”
What he meant was that the interim agreement implicitly recognises Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses. But that right is already enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, and nobody ever thought that Iran was really going to renounce it. What was at issue was whether it would enrich its uranium to “weapons grade” – 90 percent pure – and make nuclear bombs.
The “Plan of Action” signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union ensures that it will not, at least for the next six months. All uranium enrichment above 5 percent is to be halted, and Iran’s entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched material – the potential feedstock for a “dash” to weapons-grade material – is to be diluted or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment.
Iran is not to install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich material), and large numbers of the existing banks of centrifuges are to be left inoperable. Even Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium ( for use in nuclear power reactors) is to remain the same between now and the end of the six-month period. And there will be no further work done on the Arak reactor, which might give Iran plutonium, and thus a second route to a nuclear bomb.
Iran will also allow more intrusive inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency officials, including daily access to the key enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordow. All it gets in return is $7 billion worth of relief (about $100 per Iranian) on the sanctions that are crippling its economy. All the main sanctions will stay in place until a final agreement has been signed – if it is – six months from now.
Iran can therefore make no further progress towards nuclear weapons while the detailed negotiations continue, if that is actually what Tehran ever had in mind. Yet Israeli officials are talking as if the United States has been both blind and stupid.
On Sunday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that “Israel cannot participate in the international celebration, which is based on Iranian deception and the world’s self-delusion.” And Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of trade and industry, warned: “If in five years a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning.”
This is so far over the top that you wonder whether the speakers even believe it themselves. Israel has talked itself into this obsession with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons project – Israeli sources have been warning that Iran is two years away from a bomb at regular intervals for the past twenty years – but the constant talk about it has also served to draw attention away from Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories.
Israel’s basic position is that the Iranian regime is entirely composed of evil terrorist fanatics who should never be allowed to have refined uranium of any sort. The only recourse is therefore to tighten the sanctions more and more until Iran’s entire economy and government crumble and a completely different sort of people emerge from somewhere to take over the country. No deal can be a good deal.
Israel’s leaders are dismayed that they can no longer keep their allies and friends pinned in this extreme position, but endlessly quoting the ravings of former Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is not enough. They would have to demonstrate that Iran actually intends to attack Israel, and they cannot. So eventually their allies just moved without them.
As Israel’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid told “Time” magazine, “We’ve lost the world’s ear. We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.” But the game is not over yet. Israel’s influence in the US Congress is still immense, and its Congressional allies are already talking about heaping more sanctions on Iran (in order to kill the deal, though they don’t admit that).
President Obama could veto those new sanctions, of course, but he will find it a lot harder to get Congress to revoke the existing sanctions if the final deal is done six months from now. That’s why Iran gets so little relief from sanctions now in return for its concessions: Obama needs more time to work on Congress. But Israel may still win this tug-of-war.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Iran is…now”)
11 November 2013
Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath
By Gwynne Dyer
What will the Middle East look like after Iran and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It’s time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.
It didn’t get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the “P5+1” – American, British, French, German and Russian – dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.
The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (20 November), and nobody went away angry. “We are all on the same wavelength,” said Zarif. “There is a deal on the table and it can be done,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
There are “still some gaps” between Iran and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but “they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right.” Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said that “we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet.”
Fabius’s demands were that the reactor in Arak, now nearing completion, should never be activated, as it would produce plutonium as a byproduct, and that Iran’s store of uranium enriched to medium level (20 percent pure) should be brought back down to 5 percent to move it farther away from weapons-grade (90 percent). Introduced into the talks at a late stage, his demands brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.
All the other Western powers closed ranks and insisted that these were joint demands, but they were not part of the original draft agreement. Speculation was rife that France was acting on behalf of its customers (for French weapons) on the Arab side of the Gulf, notably in the United Arab Emirates, who view the deal under discussion with just as much horror as Israel does. But France can only delay things: the deal is going to happen.
One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 percent bluff – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American support – but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Iran’s economic isolation will also end, although it may take several years to unwind all the economic sanctions. The gradual return of prosperity in Iran will make the current Islamic regime more secure (which may be the main reason that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah AliKhamenei, authorised newly elected President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal and end the confrontation.)
But the big question is whether a nuclear deal with Iran will cool the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to suck in the whole of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The answer, alas, is probably not.
The split is as incomprehensible to non-Muslims as the religious wars of Europe four centuries ago were to non-Christians, and mercifully Sunni-Shia hostility has never reached quite that intensity of violence and hatred. But right across the Islamic world it has been getting worse for several decades now, and the eye of the storm is in the Middle East.
Iran is the sole Shia great power, so it is inevitably the focus of the fears of Sunni Arabs and the hopes of Shia Arabs. Moreover, given Turkey’s semi-detached relationship with the region, Iran is in practical terms the greatest power in the entire Middle East.
For the past decade, Iran has been greatly weakened by the arms and trade embargoes that the West imposed because of the nuclear issue. Once those embargoes are removed Iran will regain much of its former strength. This is already causing great anxiety in the Sunni Arab countries, especially those that face it across the Gulf.
Even quite experienced people in Washington and other Western capitals don’t realise the extent to which the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East thought that their close ties with the Western great powers gave them a kind of guarantee against Shia power –and how betrayed they feel now that they think that guarantee is being withdrawn.
Sunnis outnumber Shias almost ten-to-one in the Islamic world as a whole, but in the smaller world that stretches from Iran and Turkey to Palestine and Yemen, the “Middle East”, Shias make up more than a third of the population. The war is already hot and quite openly sectarian in Syria and in Iraq. In many other places (Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen) it is bubbling just underneath the surface. It will get worse before it gets better.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 10. (“Fabius’s…happen”; and “The split…East”)
23 October 2013
Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Everybody Wins (Except the Syrians)
By Gwynne Dyer
“That prize should have been given to me,” joked Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 11 October. The guests gathered in his palace in Damascus presumably laughed, out of courtesy to their host, but they all knew that giving up Syria’s chemical weapons hadn’t been Assad’s idea at all.
Al-Akhbar, the Beirut newspaper that reported Assad’s remarks, has close links with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia that is supported by Syria and Iran, and it accepted Assad’s regret about the new turn of events at face value. “There is no doubt that the loss of chemical weapons has resulted in a loss of morale and a political loss for Syria,” Assad said.
“Since 2003, Syria has demanded that the countries in the region dismantle their weapons of mass destruction, and the chemical weapons were meant to be a bargaining chip in Syria’s hands in exchange for Israel dismantling its nuclear arsenal,” the Syrian president continued. “Today the price (of the bargaining chip) has changed, and we have agreed to give up our chemical weapons to remove the threat of the US attacking us.”
He’s really doing it, too. Sixty out of a planned hundred OPCW inspectors are already in Syria, and they have made no complaints about a lack of cooperation by Damascus. By the end of this month they will have completed their initial verification visits and confirmed that Syria’s account of its chemical weapons and facilities is accurate and conceals nothing.
They will also have disabled the country’s ability to produce and mix poison gases and load them into actual weapons by then. The work is “cheap, quick and low-tech,” in the words of OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan. The inspectors are just smashing the control panels on the machines that produce and mix the gases, and destroying the munitions that would actually deliver the end product with sledgehammers, grinders and bulldozers.
Significantly, the inspectors have so far found no bombs, shells or missiles that are actually filled with poison gas, which suggests that Syria’s chemical weapons were in a very low state of readiness. It also greatly eases the next phase of the OPCW’s task, the destruction of the actual chemicals, since it is a tricky and dangerous business to extract the liquefied poison gas from a projectile that also contains the explosives to disperse it when it lands.
Syria has an estimated 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic chemicals: around 300 tonnes of sulfur mustard, a blistering agent, and about 700 tonnes of the nerve agents sarin and VX. But if none of it is “weaponised” (loaded into projectiles), and much of the nerve agent is in “precursor” form, as separate, less toxic components, then OPCW’s goal of finishing the job by mid-2014 seems feasible. Even if it has to be done in the midst of a civil war.
It’s quite clear that Assad did not plan all this. His forces (or somebody else’s) used poison gas in Damascus, though the attack was pointless in military terms. President Barack Obama was trapped by his previous loose talk about an American “red line” into threatening to bomb Syria. And the Russians got Obama off the hook (and saved Assad from a severe pounding) by “persuading” the Syrian leader to renounce his chemical weapons.
But what has Assad really lost? “The chemical weapons, which have lost their deterrent value over the past few years, were meant to be used only after Israel used its nuclear weapons,” he says, but it was never a very credible deterrent. Israel’s unstoppable nuclear weapons could annihilate Syria, whereas the very effective Israeli civil defence organisation would have made mass casualties unlikely even in a worst-case Syrian gas attack.
In any case, Syria’s chemical weapons have indeed now lost whatever deterrent value they ever had, for Israel has acquired good anti-missile defences that would shoot down most incoming Syrian missiles. Syria actually stopped producing new chemical weapons in 1997, Assad said, because they had lost their military usefulness.
After that, they were only a low-value “bargaining chip” to be put on the table in the improbable event of region-wide negotiations on eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. (Poison gas is not remotely comparable to nuclear weapons in its destructiveness, but it is technically “WMD”.) But Assad is a very lucky man. He discovered belatedly that his bargaining chip could be traded for something else: immunity from American attack.
So everybody wins. Obama escapes from the new Middle Eastern war that he dreaded. Moscow gets huge diplomatic credit for coming up with the formula that averted that war, and saves its Syrian client as well. Assad regains a measure of respectability by nobly relinquishing his useless chemical weapons. And the OPCW gets the Nobel Peace Prize.
The only losers are the Syrian people on both sides of a dreadful civil war, which looks set to drag on indefinitely.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“Al-Akhbar…said”; and “They…bulldozers”)
30 September 2013
Iran: In from the Cold?
By Gwynne Dyer
When Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, came home from the United Nations General Assembly meeting last Friday, demonstrators at Tehran airport threw eggs, shoes and stones. They had heard about his 15-minute phone conversation with US President Barack Obama, and they were not pleased.
But there were many more Rouhani supporters at the airport, who clearly hoped that he will make a deal with the United States on Iran’s nuclear programme and end the sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy. “I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution,” Rouhani’s office tweeted after the famous phone call to Obama, and most Iranians want to believe him.
Most people elsewhere want to believe him too. We have had ten years of escalating threats by Israel and the US to attack Iran if it doesn’t stop enriching uranium for its civil nuclear power programme, on the grounds that this is merely a cover for a nuclear weapons programme. And everybody understands that this could end up as a big, ugly war.
That’s why Obama took the political risk of becoming the first US president in 34 years to talk to an Iranian leader. When he addressed the General Assembly in New York, he welcomed the “more moderate course” taken by President Rouhani, who took office in August. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great,” Obama said, “but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Then the chief roadblock arrived: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He was flying to New York to “tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the blitz of smiles,” he said – and when he mounted the podium at the General Assembly, he bluntly accused the new Iranian president of being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Nobody, not even the Israeli intelligence services, accuses Iran of working on nuclear weapons right now. The US Central Intelligence Agency flatly says that it is not. The accusation, by Israel, its Western supporters, and some of Iran’s Arab neighbours, is that Tehran is building a (quite legal) uranium enrichment capability IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO MAKE ACTUAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS AT SOME FUTURE TIME.
Iran denies any such intention, of course. “We say explicitly that we will be transparent; we say explicitly that we will not build a bomb,” said Rouhani in New York. “No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons.”
That last was a subtle slap at the hypocrisy of the United States and Israel, which have thousands and hundreds of nuclear weapons respectively, for threatening to attack another country because it is allegedly planning to build them in the future. But Rouhani is not demanding that Israel give up its nuclear weapons and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On the contrary, he implicitly accepts the status quo.
So why doesn’t Netanyahu welcome the possibility that Iran now seems willing to negotiate a deal that would leave it free to make its own enriched nuclear fuel for reactors, but stop it from making highly enriched uranium suitable for weapons? By all means insist that any US-Iranian deal be enforceable and free of loopholes, but why say things like “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake (enriched uranium) and eat it too”?
The ten-year confrontation over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions has served Netanyahu well. It has distracted the world’s attention from the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. It has also given him enormous leverage in Washington: much US policy in the Middle East is driven by the perceived need to keep Israel from launching a unilateral attack on Iran, which would be a catastrophe for American interests in the region.
But if Netanyahu truly believes that Iranian nuclear weapons would be an existential threat to Israel, why would he oppose negotiations that might put an end to that possibility? Exactly what would be lost by giving peace a chance?
What would be lost, if a lasting deal emerged from the negotiations being mooted between Tehran and Washington, is the ability of successive right-wing Israeli governments to extort unconditional American military support for Israel, no matter what it does, precisely because it allegedly faces an existential threat from Iran.
Since the Russian-sponsored deal over Syria’s chemical weapons has similarly sidelined the prospect of an American attack on Syria (which Israel sees as its second most dangerous enemy), the foreign policy that has sustained Netanyahu for almost two decades is collapsing.
Without a plausible military threat to Israel – and where else could it come from, if not Iran or Syria? – his ability to bully successive American administrations into ignoring Israel’s illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, its clandestine nuclear and chemical weapons, and much else besides, would slowly drain away. So Netanyahu will do everything he can to strangle the newborn possibility of an American-Iranian rapprochement in its cradle.
As the scenes at Tehran airport demonstrate, Rouhani also faces strong opposition at home from those whose political instincts or interests demand a continuation of the Iran-against-the-world confrontation that has already lasted for a generation. Rouhani’s initiative has created a great deal of hope, but its enemies are already working to kill it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 11. (“Iran…quo”; and “But…chance”)