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”)
6 October 2013
The US Government Is Not Broke
By Gwynne Dyer
A salient feature of American “exceptionalism” is the belief that the United States can never be ordinary. If it is not the best, then it must be the worst. If it is not destined to dominate the world forever, then it is doomed to decline and decay.
This kind of thinking explains why much of the commentary in the United States about the recent “shut-down” of the US government, and also about the impending default on the national debt (due on 17 October), has started at hysterical and quickly geared up to apocalyptic. We Americans have lost the mandate of Heaven, and it will soon be raining frogs and blood.
So everybody take your tranquiliser of choice (mine’s a double scotch), and let’s consider what is actually going on here. The United States is the world’s oldest democratic country, with an 18th-century constitution that is bound to be an awkward fit for 21st-century politics. But that hasn’t stopped the United States from becoming the world’s biggest economy and its greatest power. Has something now gone fundamentally wrong?
The problem lies in Congress, specifically in the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority is refusing to pass the budget, and threatening not to raise the official debt ceiling either, unless President Barack Obama postpones the implementation of his bill extending medical care to all Americans.
The Affordable Care Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by Obama almost four years ago. Last year it passed scrutiny by the Supreme Court, and was subsequently welcomed by a majority of the voters in the presidential election, so Obama is understandably refusing to yield to blackmail. But the House Republicans seem mysteriously unworried by the fact that the public blames them for the impending train wreck. Why?
Because 80 percent of the Republicans in the House of Representatives don’t have to worry about what the general public thinks. They represent Congressional districts that have been so shamelessly gerrymandered by state legislatures that it is almost impossible for anybody who is a Republican to lose an election there. National public opinion is no threat to them, whereas the views of their extremist Tea Party colleagues are a potentially lethal danger.
You can’t gerrymander the Senate; every senator’s “district” is the entire state he or she represents. State legislatures controlled by the Democrats also gerrymander congressional districts to create safe seats for their own party, but there is no organised extremist group in the Democratic Party that will try to destroy elected members of their own party who do not toe the ideological line. Whereas in the Republican Party, there is.
Republicans seeking reelection to the House of Representatives may not have to worry about their Democratic opponents, but they certainly have to fear the Tea Party. If it decides to mount a challenge to an incumbent in the Republican primary elections, the far-right challenger will be lavishly funded by the Tea Party’s wealthy supporters, and that may mark the end of the incumbent’s political career.
So the Republicans in the House of Representatives, even those generally open to compromise, are keeping their heads down for fear of angering the Tea Party. That means it is possible (though not probable) that the October 17th deadline will be missed, and the US government will be forced to default on its debt. How bad would that be?
Very bad, according to a US Treasury spokesperson. “Credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, US interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world.” And it might rain frogs and blood.
Or maybe not. There would certainly be turmoil in the markets: many people would lose money, and some would gain. But it would not be a repeat of the crash of 2009, when it was suddenly understood that huge amounts of the mortgage debt held by banks could never be repaid. The US government can still pay its debts; it just has to get Congress’s permission first. And the markets, while prone to panic, are not completely stupid.
Nor is the US Constitution fundamentally broken. It always requires a fair degree of compromise between the various branches of the government in order to work smoothly, and at most times in history that cooperation has been forthcoming. The current paralysis is due mainly to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts that makes members of the House of Representatives less afraid of public opinion than of the views of their own party’s hard-liners.
It wouldn’t hurt to put some controls on election spending as well, so that rich ideologues had less influence over the political process. But that is merely desirable; ending the gerrymandering is absolutely essential. It will take time, but this is a problem that can be fixed. And in the meantime, the US government is not really going broke.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“You can’t…there is”)
26 October 2013
The Downfall of the NSA
By Gwynne Dyer
Politicians and government officials rarely tell outright lies; the cost of being caught out in a lie is too high. Instead, they make carefully worded statements that seem to address the issue, but avoid the truth. Like, for example, Caitlin Hayden, the White House spokesperson who replied on 24 October to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s angry protest at the tapping of her mobile phone by the US National Security Agency.
“The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel,” she said. Yes, Caitlin, but has the US been listening to Merkel’s mobile phone calls from 2002 until the day before yesterday? “Beyond that, I’m not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity.”
By 27 October, the argument had moved on. The question now was: did President Barack Obama know the Chancellor’s phone was bugged? (The German tabloid Bild am Sonntag reported that General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, told Obama about it in 2010. Obama allegedly said that the surveillance should continue, as “he did not trust her.”)
Now it was the turn of the NSA spokesperson, Vanee Vines, to deny the truth. “(General) Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel,” she said. But she carefully avoided saying that Obama had not been told at all.
The ridiculous thing about these meticulously crafted pseudo-denials is that they leave a truth-shaped hole for everyone to see. Of course the United States has been listening to Angela Merkel’s phone calls since 2002, and of course Obama knew about it. It would have been quite easy to deny those facts if they were not true.
The NSA is completely out of control. Its German outpost was brazenly located on the fourth floor of the US embassy in Berlin, and leaked documents published by Der Spiegel say that the NSA maintains similar operations in 80 other US embassies and consulates around the world.
The Guardian, also relying on documents provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, reported recently that a total of 35 national leaders have been targeted by the NSA. We know that the German, Brazilian and Mexican leaders were bugged, but it’s almost certain that the leaders of France, Spain and Italy, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Japan, India and Indonesia were also targeted. Not to mention Russia and China.
The only one of the NSA’s high-level victims to speak out yet, apart from Angela Merkel, is President Dilma Roussef of Brazil. Last month she told the UN General Assembly: “Personal data of (Brazilian) citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information – often of high economic and even strategic value – was at the centre of espionage activity….The office of the president itself had its communications intercepted.”
“Friendly governments and societies that seek to build a true strategic partnership… cannot allow recurring illegal actions to take place as if they were normal,” Roussef concluded. “They are unacceptable.” And you wonder how the brilliant, power-drunk fools at the NSA could possibly have believed they could get away with this kind of behaviour indefinitely.
The 4.9 million (!) Americans with access to classified information include 480,000 civilian contractors with the same “top secret” security clearance as Snowden. Even if all the military and public servants could be trusted to keep the NSA’s guilty secret forever (unlikely) and only one in a hundred of the contractors was outraged by it, then there were still 4,800 potential whistle-blowers waiting to blow. If Snowden hadn’t, somebody else would have.
When the astounding scale and scope of the agency’s operations finally came out, it was bound to create intense pressure on Washington to rein in the NSA. The agency can deflect the domestic pressure, to some extent, by insisting that it’s all being done to keep Americans safe from terrorism, but it can’t persuade the president of South Korea or the prime minister of Bangladesh that she was being bugged because she was a terrorist suspect.
The NSA’s worst abuse has been its violation of the privacy of hundreds of millions of private citizens at home and abroad, but it’s the pressure from furious foreign leaders that will finally force the US government to act. “Trust in our ally the USA has been shattered,” said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich on Sunday. “If the Americans have tapped mobile phones in Germany, then they have broken German law on German soil.”
This will end up in the German courts, and probably in those of many other countries as well (and Snowden may well end up being granted asylum in Germany). To rebuild its relations with its key allies, the White House is going to have to radically curb the NSA’s powers. Good.
We don’t have to listen to the spooks and their allies telling us that since the new communications technologies make total surveillance possible, it is therefore inevitable. “If it can be done, it will be done” is a counsel of despair. Most of the NSA’s ever-expanding activities over the past ten years have served no legitimate purpose, and it’s high time that it was forced to obey both the letter and the spirit of the law.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The only…have”)
8 September 2013
Hamlet on the Potomac
By Gwynne Dyer
The psychodrama in Washington grows ever more bizarre. John Kerry, the Secretary of State, hyperventilates about the disasters that will ensue if the United States does not bomb Syria – but President Barack Obama, having said last year that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Syria must not cross, persistently sabotages Kerry’s case by giving voice to his own sober second thoughts.
According to Kerry, the decision that now faces the US Congress is about “Hezbollah, and North Korea, and every other terrorist group that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction….They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It matters deeply to the credibility and the future of the United States and our allies.” But Kerry’s boss is not sure.
Having gone right to the brink of action, Obama suddenly handed the decision to attack over to Congress. As the Hamlet of the Potomac confessed: “I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by (Syria’s President Bashar) al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians posed an imminent direct threat to the United States.”
Well, of course not. The use of poison gas in a Middle Eastern civil war does not mean that North Korea or anybody else is going to use it on Americans. And how do you deter terrorist groups from using poison gas (if they have any) by bombing Syria? They don’t even have any territory that could be bombed.
Obama has devoted a lot of effort to curbing the threat of nuclear weapons, and rightly so. He is wrong to see poison gas as a comparable threat: it is horrible and illegal, but it really isn’t a “weapon of mass destruction” in the same sense at all. On no occasion have chemical weapons killed as many people as an average night’s bombing of a German or Japanese city in 1944-45.
Obama should never have staked his presidency on the success of a punitive attack on the Syrian regime. He cannot now repudiate that threat, but he seems intermittently aware that it was a grave mistake. So from time to time he tries to derail the process that he himself has set into motion.
The cost of getting this wrong is not just some local excitements in the Middle East, like Syria’s ally Hezbollah launching missiles at Israel in retaliation for US strikes on Syrian territory. It is the risk of a US-Russian military confrontation, and there is nothing at stake here that justifies that.
Russian objections to Obama’s plan for unilateral military intervention in Syria are routinely dismissed in Washington. Moscow is just trying to protect its only major ally in the Arab world, goes the US argument. It is cynically denying the clear evidence that it was Assad’s regime, not rebel forces trying to trigger an American attack on Assad, that used chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs last month.
But in fact there is no clear proof of that, and simply asserting that it is true doesn’t make it so. Moreover, the Russians are genuinely alarmed that the US is planning once again to ignore international law in order to pursue its own goals, and they will respond if it goes ahead.
As the weaker power, Russia takes the United Nations ban on aggressive war more seriously than the United States. “The use of force against a sovereign state is only (permissible) if it is done for self-defence…or under a decision made by the UN Security Council,” said President Vladimir Putin last week, and “those who act otherwise put themselves outside the law.”
So when Putin says that “we have our plans” for what to do if the US attacks Syria, it would be wise to take him seriously. Those plans almost certainly involve supplying the Syrian regime with S-300 anti-aircraft systems that can shoot down the Tomahawk cruise missiles with which Washington plans to strike Syrian targets.
Russia announced on 4 September that it has suspended the delivery of S-300 missiles that Syria had ordered several years ago, and that no complete systems were yet in the country. But Syrian crews have already been trained on the system in Russia, and the weapons could be up and running quite fast if Moscow changes its mind.
“If we see that steps are taken that violate the existing international norms,” said Putin, “we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world.” So if the Tomahawk missiles fly, the United States may find S-300 missiles taking them down.
Then, in order to suppress Syria’s air defences, the US will have to commit manned aircraft to Syrian airspace, and some of them will get shot down by recently supplied Russian missiles – and we will be setting precedents far more dangerous and long-lasting than some local use of poison gas in a country torn by civil war.
This game is not worth the candle.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“According…sure”; and “Obama…1944-45″)