The thing to bear in mind about Tuesday’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) is that without it Iran could get nuclear weapons whenever it wants in a short tme. It has the technologies for enriching uranium, it could make the actual bombs any time it likes (every major country knows how), and the sanctions against Iran could not get much worse than they are now.
If you don’t like the current deal, and you really believe that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons, then your only remaining option is massive air strikes on Iran. Not even the Republican Party stalwarts in the US Congress are up for committing the US Air Force to that folly, and Israel without American support simply couldn’t do it on its own.
Then what’s left? Nothing but the deal. It doesn’t guarantee that Iran can never get nuclear weapons. It does guarantee that Iran could not break the agreement without giving everybody else at least a year to respond before the weapons are operational. Sanctions would snap back into place automatically, and anybody who thinks air strikes are a cool idea would have plenty of time to carry them out.
So the deal will survive. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can fulminate about how it is a “an historic mistake” that will give Tehran “a sure path to nuclear weapons,” but he cannot stop it.
Netanyahu is obsessive about Iran, but even his own intelligence services do not believe that Tehran has actually been working on nuclear weapons in the past decade. The Israeli prime minister has burned all his bridges with US President Barack Obama, and his Republican allies in the US Congress cannot stop the deal either.
John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said that the deal will “hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for a nuclear Iran,” and he can probably muster a majority in Congress against it. (Congress, as Washington insiders put it, is “Israeli-occupied territory.”) But he cannot muster the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Obama’s inevitable veto.
There will be a 60-day delay while Congress debates the issue, but this deal will go through in the end. So far, so good – but this is not happening in a vacuum. What are the broader implications for Middle Eastern politics?
Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution 36 years ago, Iran and the United States have been bitter enemies. They have not suddenly become allies, but they are already on good speaking terms. Since almost all of America’s allies in the Arab world see Iran as a huge strategic threat, they are appalled by the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement.
That is not a done deal yet. While Iran strongly supports Bashar al Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, Washington still advocates Assad’s overthrow and arms some of the “moderate” rebels. It even supports Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels who now control most of Yemen, and publicly accepts the Saudi claim that the Houthis are mere pawns who are being armed and incited to revolt by Iran.
But nobody in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon really believes that the civil war in Yemen is an Iranian plot. Very few believe any longer that Assad can be overthrown in Syria without handing the country over to the Islamist fanatics who dominate the insurgency there. And the most powerful force among those fanatics is “Islamic State”, whose troops are already being bombed by the United States in both Syria and Iraq.
The highest US priority in the Middle East now is to prevent Iraq and Syria from falling into the hands of Islamic State and its equally extreme rival, the Nusra Front. Iran is giving both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments military support that is essential to their survival, so there is obviously the potential for closer US-Iranian cooperation here.
By contrast Saudi Arabia and Turkey, currently America’s two most important allies in the region, are pouring money and weapons into the Nusra Front in Syria, which is why it has been winning so many battles against the Assad regime in recent months. The prospect of an Islamist regime in power in Damascus is acceptable to Riyadh and Ankara, but it is deeply unwelcome in Washington.
So yes, a grand realignment of American alliances in the Middle East is theoretically possible now that the long cold war between the US and Iran is over. In practice, however, it is most unlikely to happen. The long-standing military and economic ties between Washington and its current allies will probably triumph over cold strategic logic, and American policy in the Middle East will continue to be the usual muddle.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Iraq”)
“If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” said an editorial in the Global Times last week. The Global Times is an English-language daily paper specialising in international affairs that is published by the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official newspaper. So we should presumably take what it says seriously.
But really, a US-Chinese war in the South China Sea? Over a bunch of reefs that barely clear the water at high tide, and some fishing rights and mineral rights that might belong to China if it can bully, persuade, or bribe the other claimants into renouncing their claims? The GDP of the United States is $16.8 trillion each year, and China’s GDP is $9.2 trillion. All the resources of the South China Sea would not amount to $1 trillion over fifty years.
Great powers end up fighting great wars. Counting a pre-war arms race, the losses during the war (even assuming it doesn’t go nuclear), and a resumed arms race after the war, the long-term cost of a US-Chinese war over the South China Sea could easily be $5 trillion. Are you sure this is a good idea?
Yet stupid things do happen. Consider the Falklands War. In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a quite serious little war (more than nine hundred people were killed, ships were sunk, etc.) over a couple of islands in the South Atlantic that had no strategic and little economic value.
Maybe that’s not relevant. After all, Argentina had never been a great power, and by 1982 Britain was no longer really one either. The war in the Falklands was, said Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “a fight between two bald men over a comb.” Yet it is a bit worrisome, isn’t it? It didn’t make strategic or economic sense, but they did it anyway.
Let’s look at the question from another angle. Who is the messenger that bears such alarming news about a US-Chinese war? The Global Times, although published by the Chinese Communist government, is a tabloid newspaper in the style of the New York Post or the Daily Mail in Britain: down-market, sensationalist, and not necessarily accurate.
But it has never published anything that the Chinese authorities did not want published. So the question becomes: WHY did the Chinese authorities want this story published? Presumably to frighten the United States enough to make it stop challenging the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. This is turning into a game of chicken, and China has just thrown out the brakes.
Would Beijing really go to war if the United States doesn’t stop overflying the reefs in question and carrying out other activities that treat the Chinese claim as unproven? Probably even the bosses in Beijing don’t know the answer to that. But they really do intend to control the South China Sea, and the United States and its local friends and allies (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) really will not accept that.
The Chinese claim truly is astonishingly brazen. The “nine-dash line”, an official map published by the Beijing government in 1949, claims practically ALL the uninhabited reefs and tiny islands in the shallow sea as Chinese territory, even ones that are 700 km from the Chinese coast and 150 km from the Philippines or Vietnam.
Since the islands might all generate Exclusive Economic Zones of 300 km, China may be planning to claim rights over the entire sea up to an average of about 100 km off the coasts of the other countries that surround the sea. It hasn’t actually stated the details of that claim yet, but it is investing a lot in laying the foundations for such a claim.
It’s as if the the United States built some reefs in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, claimed them as sovereign territory, and then said that the whole sea belonged to the US except for narrow coastal strips for Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, etc.
China is actually building islands as part of this strategy: taking low-lying reefs and building them up with enormous quantities of sand, rock and cement to turn them into (marginally) habitable places. Then it acts astonished and offended when other countries challenge this behaviour, or even send reconnaissance flights to see what the Chinese are up to.
The veiled threats and the bluster that accompany this are intended to warn all the other claimants off. It’s been going on for years, but it’s getting much more intense as the Chinese project for building military bases all over the South China Sea (it denies that that’s what they are, of course) nears completion. So now the rhetoric steps up to actual warning of a Chinese-US war.
The Global Times is right, whether its writers know it or not. If China keeps acting as if its claims were universally accepted and unilaterally expanding the reefs to create large bases with airstrips and ports, and the US and local powers go on challenging China’s claims, then there really could be a war. Later, not now, and not necessarily ever, but it could happen.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13.
Early this month North Korea claimed to have launched a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine. Yesterday it announced that it can now make nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a missile. If both those claims are true, then it can now deliver a nuclear weapon on the United States, at least in theory, but there is always some doubt about North Korean claims.
While a defence official in Pyongyang said on Wednesday that the country’s nuclear programme has “long been in the full-fledged stage of miniaturisation,” some Western defence experts think the North Koreans have not really mastered the art yet. But General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the senior US military commander in South Korea, thinks otherwise.
“I believe (the North Koreans) have the capability to have miniaturized the device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have,” Scaparrotti said last October. But to be sure that the miniaturised weapon actually works on a ballistic missile, North Korea would have to test-fire it to see if it survives the heat and vibration of re-entering the atmosphere in working order. It has not yet done that.
Others think that the footage of the submarine launch may have been faked. The missile emerges from the sea, sure enough, with the Maximum Leader looking proudly on, but Kim Jong-un was obviously photoshopped in, and in one shot there seems to be a barge floating on the surface near the missile’s exit point. However, let us assume for a moment that both claims are true – because they will be sooner or later.
What does North Korea intend to do with its nuclear weapons? And why is it trying so urgently to persuade its enemies that they are ready to use now?
The rational and conventional answer to the first question is that Pyongyang’s nukes are solely intended to deter the United States from using nuclear weapons on North Korea. The United States has long-standing military alliances with both South Korea and Japan, and it has never said that it would abstain from using nuclear weapons if there were a war between North Korea and its neighbours.
In this rational world, having enough nuclear weapons to deter the United States from going nuclear would give North Korea a major advantage in the event of a ground war in the Korean peninsula. Its army is much bigger than the South Korean and US ground forces facing it, and it might even manage to overrun South Korea in a non-nuclear war. Or at least, it may believe it could.
How many North Korean nuclear weapons would be enough to deter the United States from using its own nukes, in this context? A dozen would probably do it, and Prof. Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, thinks that North Korea probably now has that many, “half likely fuelled by plutonium and half by highly enriched uranium.”
But rationality has not been the outstanding feature of politics in North Korea recently. In the past three years Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has purged most of the men who worked closely with his father, Kim Jong-il, and many have been executed. Whole families have been murdered, including some with links by blood or marriage to Kim’s own.
The crimes imputed to the victims and the methods of killing also grow increasingly bizarre. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported recently that North Korea’s defence minister, General Hyon Yong Chol, was executed last month for falling asleep during a meeting where Kim Jong-un was present.
Again according to the NIS, the weapon used to execute General Hyon was a ZSU23-4, a Russian-made tracked anti-aircraft vehicle. It mounts four linked autocannons that fire 23 mm shells at the rate of 3,400 rounds per minute. If that report is true, it would have been hard to find enough of Hyon to bury.
The impression this all creates of political chaos and utter uncertainty in the North Korean capital may be misleading. The old Soviet regime was never more monolithically stable than at the height of Stalin’s purges in 1936-38. But at the moment Kim’s regime certainly LOOKS unstable when viewed from the outside. There are no safe assumptions, including assumptions about the rationality of the leadership.
So we cannot just assume that North Korea’s nukes are purely defensive, or that Kim Jong-un, after 28 years of living in a gilded cage and three and a half years of absolute power, has been adequately instructed in the theories of nuclear deterrence that have become orthodox in older nuclear-weapons states. Nor is anybody in the North Korean military hierarchy going to try to instruct him now, if he is ignorant in such matters.
The simple truth is that the rest of the world doesn’t know what is happening in North Korea at the moment. The mystery has deepened with the abrupt last-minute cancellation of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s scheduled visit to North Korea. We’ll have to wait to find out what’s really going on – but meantime military forces all over north-eastern Asia are undoubtedly on high alert.
To shorten to 725 words, omit pragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“The crimes…leadership”)
Once upon a time big military operations were given obscure names so the enemy wouldn’t guess what the plan was. The German plan for the invasion of France in 1940 was called “Fall Gelb” (Case Yellow); the American counter-attack in the Korean War that recovered Seoul was “Operation Chromite”. But then the PR guys got their hands on it.
By the 21st century we were getting dramatic titles like “Desert Storm” (the 1991 Gulf war), and then aspirational ones like “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. So it was only natural, when Saudi Arabia decided to bomb the Houthi rebels who had taken over most of Yemen, to name the operation “Decisive Storm”. That sounds nice and decisive, and stormy too.
And when the Saudi military spokesman, Brig-Gen Ahmed al-Asiri, announced on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia was calling the bombing campaign off after one month and 2,415 bombing sorties, he naturally claimed that it had been a decisive victory. The bombing had destroyed 80 percent of the Houthis’ “transport lines” (colloquially known as “roads”), and they had also knocked out all of the rebels’ ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles? Yes, the Houthis had captured a base outside Sana’a that was home to some Scud B ground-to-ground missiles (range 300 km., vintage 1965), although they might not actually fly after half a century of Yemeni-style maintenance, and they could barely reach the country’s own borders if they did.
Anyway, the Saudi Arabian Air Force took them out, so we can all rest easier now. A Saudi billionaire has even promised to give each of the 100 Saudi pilots involved in the bombing campaign a Bentley (sort of a down-market Rolls-Royce) in gratitude for their efforts.
Moreover, said General al-Amiri, the Houthi militia is no longer in a position to harm civilians. He didn’t actually say so, but you would assume from the context and his manner that Yemen is now at peace, and the Houthis have all gone home to their own tribal territory in the north of Yemen, and Yemen’s legitimate president is safely back in Sana’a, the capital.
What’s that? The legitimate president is still in exile in Saudi Arabia? And the Houthis haven’t gone home either? They still control most of Yemen right down to Aden. And the remainder of the country is now ruled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, except for the bits run by its even nastier Islamist rival, ISIS. How is that a victory?
Have some pity for poor General al-Asiri. He had to say something positive; he works for the government. But the one scene that defines the event was a television studio in Sana’a where a Yemeni news anchor was running a clip of Asiri’s speech. When the anchor comes back on the screen and picks up his script, he can’t say anything. He’s trying to, but he’s corpsing.
He giggles, he snorts, he fans himself with his script, he puts his head on the desk, he completely loses it. And then the people behind the camera start laughing too. This is known in PR-speak as “abject failure”. When you are trying to convince your audience that your bankruptcy was actually a canny tactical move, you do not want them to collapse in hysterical laughter.
What can have possessed Saudi Arabia to launch this foredoomed aerial campaign, and rope in practically every other Sunni Arab state to send a few planes along to help? Mostly, it was simple paranoia. The Saudi Arabian authorities have convinced themselves that the “Shias” (by which they usually mean Iran) are on the offensive, and gobbling up any Arab territories where they can find fellow Shias. The Houthis are Shias. Q.E.D.
There was a lot of talk about Iran supplying arms to the Houthis at the start of the bombing campaign, and the Saudis managed to get almost every other Sunni Arab counry to send a couple of planes along to help. At the end of it, General al-Asiri didn’t mention the Iranians at all. Maybe they all went home (although it would be hard to leave with all the airports shut and the coast under naval blockade). Or maybe they were never there.
Bigger countries have made bigger mistakes and paid quite small prices: the United States invasion of Iraq, for example. Saudi Arabia won’t pay a big price either, for it appears that the grown-ups in Riyadh have intervened after a month and turned the military machine off. No follow-up ground invasion, just a smooth transition to “Operation Restore Hope”, the humanitarian aid they would have provided after they’d won, if they had won.
Saudi Arabia is well out of it, and as outcomes go, it’s less bad than many. Just a bit of advice. Stop using those American-style names for operations. When the United States started using them is when it started fighting dumb wars, and losing them.
STOP PRESS: On Wednesday, the Saudis started bombing again, but just a bit, they said. Oh, well…
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Anyway…efforts”; and “There was…there”)