Posts tagged ‘iran’

August 27, 2012

Iran and the UN: Not exactly BFFs

Iran and the United Nations aren’t on the best of terms right now. The relationship between the two over the last decade has been chilly, at best, as Iran has repeatedly ignored calls from various UN bodies to be more transparent regarding its supposedly civilian nuclear program. Indeed, what was meant to highlight Iran’s solidarity with the non-Western world may in fact wind up showing just how much the rest of the world, the United Nations included, is against it.

Commentators may make much of the Iranian chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), meeting now in Tehran, but the truth is it matters very little in terms of its role in the region and its relation with other states and organizations in general. In a telling look into Iran’s ‘blame anyone but us’ worldview, Iran opened the conference with a call for reform at the United Nations:

“Six decades since its establishment, the United Nations needs fundamental reforms in order to adapt to the modern global developments,” said Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to the report. He added that “a more democratic Security Council” is needed.

Such rhetoric will surely be warmly welcomed by the attendees at the NAM Summit. Expansion of the Security Council has been a gripe that rising powers have had for the last several decades, backed by smaller countries and developing states alike.

But would a reformed Security Council change its tune on Iran? Not likely. In calling for reform, Tehran forgets its recent history. In 2010, the Security Council voted in favor of a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in Resolution 1929. These sanctions were the toughest yet leveraged against the regime, including a ban on weapons imports and exports, and targeted sanctions against many high-level regime members.

Both China and Russia, erstwhile allies of Iran, voted in favor of this package, much to the theocracy’s chagrin. It is unlikely that an expanded Council would have voted otherwise, considering all five current Permanent Members voted in favor. Of the most likely additional Permanent Members (Japan, Brazil, Germany, India), Brazil was present on the Council that year and abstained on the resolution. This abstention, which it was joined in by Turkey, was less about support for Iran and its nuclear program than a Middle Power push to engage Iran outside the Council.

Iran fares no better in any of the other organs of the United Nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a member of the UN umbrella of agencies, has been expressing its concern over Iran’s nuclear program for years. It was the IAEA that first referred the Iranian situation to the Security Council in the first place back in 2006 and continues to offer up grim statements on the uncooperative nature of Iran towards IAEA verification programs.

The UN Human Rights Council, despite its reputation for coddling regimes such as Iran has appointed Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. Ahmed Shaheed’s mandate was renewed in March 2012, but he has been denied access into the country thus far. He still manages to report regularly to the HRC on the troubling record that Iran continues to accrue, including suppression of civil liberties and summary executions.

No love is lost between the Secretariat and Iran, either. Much has been made of the diplomatic “tug of war” between the United States and Iran in whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon would attend the Summit or not. Though Iran supposed it won, and Ban has been derided for capitulating to Tehran, Iran will be getting more than it bargained for. Per the Spokesman of the Secretary-General, Ban will use the opportunity to be much more blunt with Iran than its leaders had in mind when insisting on his presence in Tehran:

“With respect to the Islamic Republic of  Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people. These include Iran’s nuclear programme, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”

Even in the most democratic of the UN’s organs, the General Assembly, Iran can’t seem to catch a break. In December, a resolution was tabled in the Assembly condemning Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses, as it has been for the last several years. This year’s version passed by a vote of eighty-nine in favor and thirty against. It can hardly be said that a reform of the General Assembly is among the list of demands by the members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The United Nations often makes a great target for attack, no matter the state in question. Unfortunately for Iran, even should its calls for reform come to pass, they would be unlikely to change the fact that Iran is becoming more isolated than ever If anything, the need for Iran to stress so hard the few ties to the rest of the world it has left at the Non-Aligned Movement highlight the efficacy of the efforts of the West to get the label ‘pariah state’ to stick.

April 14, 2012

Whirlwind Diplomacy: 48 Hours at the UN Security Council

The last 48 hours have been absolutely insane at Turtle Bay. You would think that one crisis coming to a head and landing before the UN Security Council would be crazy enough. But no. Over the last two days, the Security Council has dealt with three such crises, has at least one looming, waiting for it when they reconvene on Monday. I could easily devote an entire post to each of these issues, but instead, I’m going to attempt to round-up the highlights here in one fell swoop.


Only two weeks ago, the UN Security Council was praising the smooth nature of the first round of elections Guinea-Bissau. Today, the interim president, outgoing prime minister and a presidential hopeful are reportedly detained by the military in an attempted coup. Over the last 9 years, the small West African state has had 5 coups, or coup attempts, which averages at an attempt to overthrow the government every 1.8 years. The most recent of these endeavors was launched on Thursday, though it’s still incredibly unclear who’s currently leading the attempted overthrow and what their intentions are, aside from disrupting the current Presidential elections. While Jay Ulfelder rightly points out that two coups does not a trend make, it does raise the prominence of ECOWAS once again, coming off its successful management of the debacle in Mali.

As fate would have it, the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration was discussing the country’s elections as recently as Wednesday. Its chair, Ambassador Maria Viotti, Permanent Representative of Brazil, added her voice to the cacophony of immediate condemnations of the military’s machinations, including that of the Secretary-General. After meeting on Friday morning, the Security Council released a press statement that “firmly denounce[d] this incursion by the military into politics”, and called for ” the immediate restoration of constitutional order and the legitimate Government to allow for the completion of the on-going electoral process, including the legislative elections”. While seemingly a tame response, it is extremely early in the crisis, with very few facts established. As the situation takes shape, and should the coup leaders’ efforts continue, a Presidential Statement or resolution will come out of the Council on the matter. For now, it will likely be on the shoulders of ECOWAS, supported by Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa Said Djinnit, to attempt to make sense of the clashes.

Sudan/South Sudan

Only the United Nations can force South Sudan to withdraw from its recently seized territory. At least, that’s what Juba said yesterday, in response to demands from the international community that they release their military hold on the border oilfield of Heglig:

Speaking in Nairobi, Pagan Amum, South Sudan’s lead negotiator at talks to resolve the dispute with Sudan, said his country was ready to withdraw under a U.N.-mediated plan.

“On the ground, we are ready to withdraw from Heglig as a contested area … provided that the United Nations deploy a U.N. force in these contested areas and the U.N. also establish a monitoring mechanism to monitor the implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement,” he told reporters.

The South Sudanese insistence on a neutral peacekeeping force to separate the north and south is a departure from Thursday, when in a press conference, President Kiir of South Sudan scoffed at the Secretary-General’s call to pull back his forces, telling reporters he told Ban Ki-Moon “I’m not under your command”.

Khartoum isn’t waiting for the United Nations, however, and is launching an assault to retake the oilfield, as well as conducting strikes against several other areas of border territory. The Security Council issued a Presidential Statement on Thursday calling for the South to pull its forces from Heglig and for Sudan to end its aerial bombardments of border villages. The Sudanese Army shows no signs of slowing its advance, though, and the rhetoric from Juba remains bellicose. Should the two armies actually meet, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is predicted to be held on Monday. Ambassador Susan Rice has long-held a special interest in the Sudanese conflict, and is sure to use the United States’ role as President of the Council for April to the maximum effect.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

It was meant to be a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the hermit state’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Instead it turned out to be a fizzle, earning new condemnation on the DPRK, and the revocation of food aid from the United States. The food aid was to be part of a deal in which the North Korean government halted future tests of missile technology. While the DPRK was insistent that the rocket was meant to place a satellite into orbit, absolutely nobody took them at face value.

On the bright side, as pointed out by Danger Room, the North Koreans don’t particularly seem to be learning from their missile tests, and have shown little improvement in the last decade, in part because of the harsh sanctions that are levied upon the state after each launch. Also, in a surprising turn, the North Korean government has acknowledged that the launch was a failure, the first admittance of a lack of success by the state in recent memory.

The UN Security Council led off its busy Friday with closed-door consultations on how to respond to the DPRK’s launch, at the request of the United States. However, no PRST was agreed upon by the Council, despite language being circulated by the US Mission. In speaking to the press stakeout outside the Council chambers, Ambassador Rice stated the following on behalf of the Council:

The Security Council held consultations to address the serious situation and listen to the concerns arising from the launch by North Korea. Members of the Security Council deplored this launch, which is in violation of Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.

Members of the Security Council agreed to continue consultations on an appropriate response, in accordance with its responsibilities, given the urgency of the matter.

This is hardly the strong statement that many wanted, or expected, from the UN, as almost all members of the Council agreed that the launch was in violation of previous UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions upon the DPRK. The divide lies in the appropriate level of action to be taken in response. China’s Ambassador, Li Baodong, remains insistent that any response the international community takes should be one to greater facilitate dialogue, and a return of the DPRK to the inert Six Party Talks. What this means is that China stands firmly opposed to any new and greater sanctions on the DPRK which the United States and the West would like to see. Weighing on the negotiations on a response also is the strong chance that North Korea, following its failure to launch a missile, will instead test another nuclear device to maintain its show of force.


As of 11:20 AM EDT on April 14th, 2012, the first resolution on Syria, Resolution 2042, was adopted by the United Nations Security Council, after a year of protests and conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic. After numerous warnings from Joint Special Envoy of the UN and League of Arab States Kofi Annan, the Syrian government in a surprise turn of events agreed to actually implement a cease-fire and the proposed Six Point plan. While they missed the original Tuesday deadline, in a report to the Security Council on Thursday, Annan indicated that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was at least partly complying with the terms of the peace plan. This was more than enough of an opening for Russia and China to begin to take credit for Annan’s successful efforts, and call for swift approval of a UN monitoring mission to verify the cease-fire.

The United States gladly went to work, and circulated a draft resolution that, in no uncertain terms, demanded that the Syrian government comply with the peace plan, and granted broad powers of investigation to the observer mission. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador, balked at this sweeping authority and the political implications of the text, leading to the Russian Mission circulating its own stripped down version of the resolution. In the Russian draft, Western “demands” that Syria provide freedom of access to the monitors were replaced with language “calling upon” the Syrian government to do the same.

Both drafts called for an advance mission of thirty observers to be deployed immediately. According to the Department of Peacekeeping operations, these advance observers would be pulled from other UN missions in the region, with logistics provided from a base in Italy. These blue berets can be deployed into Syria in as little as twenty-four hours from now.

After much negotiation, a new draft was put into blue text, the version that immediately precedes voting. After a few technical changes by the Russian Mission, the draft taken up by the Council for a vote this morning has been approved by Ambassador Churkin, giving it the green light for adoption. The new version drops the “demands” language, and only “expresses its intention” to deploy a full observer mission, putting off its development for a later resolution, depending on how the cease-fire holds and a report from the Secretary-General on the 19th of April. The Secretary-General is also to report immediately to the Council on any violation by either side in the conflict.

With the passage of a resolution, a small sigh of relief is emanating from the Council chambers. But the battle over Syria is in no way over. The fight among the Security Council members is likely to continue anew once the Secretary-General gives his report in five days. Likewise, the ceasefire itself is tenuous at best; reports are still coming in of Syrian government attacks on protestors, and heavy weapons still remain within cities across the state. It is certain too that the Russian Mission will jump at the chance to lay blame at the feet of the Free Syrian Army should they launch an attack on the Syrian government.

In all, the last forty-eight hours have been a whirlwind of chaos and diplomacy. So many other issues still lay at the feet of the international community, from continued strife in Mali, to the outcome of the resumption of talks on Iran’s nuclear program which are taking place in Istanbul. The Security Council’s Agenda is still packed, and unlikely to lighten anytime soon.

February 23, 2012

Secretary-General: Not the Chief Legal Scholar of the UN

The ever-impressive Laura Rozen sat down with Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota on Tuesday for a wide-ranging conversation. Among the topics that came up was ongoing tension among the international community regarding Iran’s nuclear program. An IAEA mission left Iran this week after failing to gain access to the Parchin military facility to the inspection team on the ground. Brazil and Turkey have been working together for years now to attempt to find a solution to the stalemate outside of the P5+1 negotiation process, so it’s no surprise that Minister Patriota wanted to discuss the matter. What truly caught my interest was his statement regarding the potential for Israeli preemptive strikes:

“No doubt adding an additional flashpoint of military action in a volatile region will greatly exacerbate tensions,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota told Yahoo News in an interview in New York Tuesday. The international community should proceed “with the utmost caution.”

“There is a role for him in this,” Patriota said he had proposed to the UN chief. “One sometimes hears the expression, ‘all options are on the table.’ But some actions are contrary to international law.”

Patriota’s comments come as the United States, United Kingdom and Russia have asked Israel both privately and publicly not to carry out a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I agree with Mr. Patriota that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be the catalyst for an even more unstable Middle East, and that states should actively seek to discourage Tel Aviv from taking such a course of action. I further believe that the United Nations most certainly has a role to play in continuing to foster negotiations between Iran and the rest of the world on how to verify that its nuclear program is peaceful. I’m slightly more hesitant about his stressing the need for the Secretary-General to weigh in.

The United Nations Secretary-General has many jobs as the head of the world’s most far-flung international organization. As the chief of the Secretariat, he manages thousands of civil servants around the globe, each strive to improve . As the face of the United Nations, Mr. Ban has to bear the brunt of criticism when things go wrong, when his nominal employees perform horrific acts, or when states dig their heels in against taking strong action counter to the rest of the world. Under the Article 99 of the UN Charter, the Secretary-General has a role in maintaining peace and security, having the unilateral ability to bring items of concern before the Security Council. Here’s where things get more conflicted. A denouncement of Israel planning strikes against Iran is perfectly valid as a practical matter; as a matter of legal principle, however, I’m uncertain whether “legal scholar” is a hat the Secretary-General does or should wear.

The UN Charter maintains some vagaries when it comes to Article 51’s defense of self-defense. International law experts have grappled with its terms for over six decades now, though the majority cite the need for “an armed attack” to occur prior to being able to invoke the clause. This becomes difficult to align with the notion of the preemption of an imminent attack, as intelligence-gathering has gained in sophistication since the drafting of the Charter. The cloud surrounding the concept if anything has grown murkier over the last decade, in no small part thanks to the Bush Administration’s acceptance of “preventive” action. Kofi Annan had no such qualms, however, addressing the General Assembly in 2010 denouncing the concept in its entirety. That was an immediate past Secretary-General, not a sitting one, though Annan didn’t hesitate in speaking out against the US’ war against Iraq.

If the Secretary-General does speak out against Israel taking unilateral action, it should be seen as a plea to keep the situation from spiraling out control and exacerbating the current threat to international peace and security. I’m less certain that it should be seen as international condemnation of the principles behind the theory of preemptive action and a rebuke of the concept in general. I personally feel a great deal of ambivalence towards the concept; the UN Charter leans strongly against its legality, and yet I have trouble squaring away that were I to be a world leader, I would ignore accurate intelligence to uphold it. It’s a matter that should be debated and rightly deserves a renewed focus in the current environment, but I believe that debate should be at the International Court of Justice, not the halls of the Secretariat.

February 21, 2012

The Enduring Myth of Monoliths

In this day and age, most convenient fictions are easy enough to spot, with a high level of cynicism running rampant and an active “peanut gallery” component to the discourse in the form of bloggers. Which is why it’s so troubling to me that some basic narratives remain virtually unchallenged, or if opposed, done so quietly and on a small scale. In this instance, my grief is with the propensity of commentators and policy-makers alike to rely on the convenience that monolithic perceptions of institutions provide.

There are times where the concept of a monolithic institution is expedient, when attempting to give broad overviews of situations. There’s also a level of analytical use to seeing things from a zoomed-out, macro level, rather than examining the nuts and bolts of an institution. However, there’s a responsibility to investigate past the surface once that initial glance is achieved. In reality, monoliths are more often than not anything but unified once you delve into their inner workings, a lesson that the United States has been horrendously slow to grasp, sometimes leading to disastrous presumptions and bases for policy decisions.

During the Cold War, everyone knew that the Communist World was a group of states linked by the singular notion of communist domination over democracies. As should have been apparent as far back as Josef Tito’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948, the idea of Communism being a single-minded organism, as opposed to a colony of individual thinkers, was a myth. Instead, the myth of a partnered Russia and China managed to hold on for decades, with the fact that the two were both Communist in their form of government making any differences in policy between the two dismissible. It took until the Nixon Administration to realize that the split between the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was large enough to be able to use it to the advantage of the United States, prompting President Richard Nixon’s much heralded trip to China.

A distressing need to have simplicity in narrative is apparent when examining opposition movements, in this particular instance the uprising in Syria. For the last two weeks, we’ve been informed of the need to “arm the Syrian opposition” to take action against President Bashar Assad and the security forces of Syrian. Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain came out recently in favor of running guns to the Syrian opposition, though they would put it a different way, and they aren’t alone in the Senate. Even the editorial board of The Washington Post has come out in favor of providing supplies to the opposition:

So how to stop the massacres? The most available and workable solution is tactical and materiel support for the anti-regime forces, delivered through neighbors such as Turkey or the Persian Gulf states. Opponents say that would increase the violence, but violence in Syria will continue to escalate as long as the regime believes it can survive by force. Others worry that radicals among the opposition will be empowered. But what will strengthen extremists the most is the failure of democratic nations to act and the entry of groups such as al-Qaeda into the vacuum.

Despite the weight of the Post’s opinion, it doesn’t circumvent the fact that beneath the thin veneer of unity in cause, the removal of Assad, there is no one opposition movement. The Syrian National Council (SNC), composed of exiles, dissidents within Syria, and the Local Coordinating Committees, has assumed the mantle of international darling of the same vein as the Transitional National Council in Libya. However, there’s a small hitch in that analysis; the National Coordination Committee, a divergent group based entirely within Syria, and composed of enough groups to deny the SNC sole legitimacy. Then there’s the matter of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is itself a splintered group of former soldiers and transplanted fighters looking to take on Assad, as Marc Lynch points out in his new CNAS piece. Any semblance of a united front is a myth formed from their hatred of the Assad family.  I had a lengthy conversation with Adam Elkus, Dan Trombly, Rei Tang, Dan Solomon and Robert Caruso on this and other Syria topics on the Intervention podcast, so go listen for an in-depth conversation on the situation as it stands.

When speaking of opposition movements in general, it’s extremely easy to cast them as “the opposite of X”, X being whatever leader or idea has fallen out of favor at present. What has to be clear, however, is that the divergent views that may be allied together towards a certain goal in the short-term are likely to be fractious on the coalition once that goal is met or denied completely, if a goal can be decided on in the first place. As Trombly wrote in December on Russia’s at the time nascent protester movement, the streets of Moscow were filled with Russians from across the political spectrum. Leftist, far-leftist and nationalistic parties have come together in the goal of defeating Vladimir Putin, but they are no means united. In the strong likelihood that Putin wins the upcoming election in the first round, how likely is it that the coalition can hold together at the seams?

The same can be said for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was viewed, despite extreme differences from city to city, and within cities themselves, as a singular entity. I recently had the chance to listen to an Occupier talk about why the system broke down, and came away with the belief that the educated elite sought to make changes in the system as it stood, but the group never coalesced around a united set of goals. Once winter set in, and the breadth of views, from reforming the political system to creating a system of shared wealth to the need to draw the state into crackdowns, led to a muting of the voice of the group in favor of complacency, exposing to all the lack of unity visible previously to many. The simplistic narrative that surrounds both of these movements prevents understanding of how they, and other movements, function, in favor of a broad-brush stroke.

Those working against state interests aren’t alone in being accredited with non-existent unity. The state itself is often seen as a monolithic institution, rather than a collection of individuals, at the risk of sounding overly constructivist. In developing strategies and plans of countering actions that go against American interests, the offending regime and state are the only components taken into account it would seem. This isn’t to say that states are falling out of favor as the preferred standard unit of international relations. No matter how the sands may be shifting, power is still held in state institutions, for good or for ill, and at a certain point attempting to map every variable that would affect a state’s decision-making process would become overly cumbersome to planners. However, there does exist a responsibility to not gloss over the effects of decisions taken against states on those people who reside within the border. There is a difficulty, I must admit, in reconciling the knowledge that policy-tools from economic sanctions to the use of force are legitimate protests against a state’s actions, when the people of that state have no agency in their state’s choices.

Nowhere is this sharper for me than the US’s policy in Iran. Following the effects of sanctions on the population of Iraq was covered extensively by the media in the mid-1990s, broad, sweeping embargoes fell out of fashion for a time. In their place, target sanctions against elites or “smart sanctions” were seen as the wave of the future, capable of inflicting pain upon governments  while sparing their people. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a reversal of that trend in Iran, with the potential for the same to be seen in Syria. It’s tough to realize that the collapse of the rial isn’t just preventing Tehran from replacing centrifuges in their nuclear facilities, but keeping families from being able to buy bread, when the democracy present in Iran exists so-far as the Ayatollah allows it. I’m not saying the Obama Administration’s policy of sanctions is a failed one. But Americans in general, and policymakers in particular, have to be cognizant of the multiple dimensions inherent in the many stages of conflict, and willing to be brutally honest about the effects of any action taken.

Finally, the concept of international institutions writ large, and the United Nations in particular, often face down the convenience of monoliths. There is a basis for this interpretation when considering the United Nations, but for a much smaller set of instances than the general population and many commentators are able to discern. When actions are taken by the Secretariat, the team of international public servants headed by the Secretary-General, this is a viable instance of the United Nations acting as an institution of its own. However, when critiques are lobbied at the UN, it’s often in reaction to perceived inaction, most recently following the Syria vote in the Security Council. Here we see the result of the United Nations as a collection of states, in that Russia and China voiced their displeasure with a prescribed action, and under the rules all have agreed to, vetoed said action. The easier idea to grasp is that the United Nations has its own flag and therefore is clearly the source of the problem; it’s much easier to separate the two tracks that the body has to balance.

Without that nuance, you get policy-makers and legislators like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher denouncing the institution as a whole and the works it performs on the basis of its inclusive membership. International institutions serve the will of their states, in allowing the powerful to set agendas, to dominate discourse, and push methods of actions. However, they also serve to amplify and enhance those aims. The United Nations is a collection of states acting in their own interest. The United Nations is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Both statements are true, rendering more simplistic narratives false.

What this all comes to is a frustration with the simplest narratives gaining the most traction and amplification. Broad strokes are fine, so long as they’re quickly replaced with more thoughtful examinations of the issues and institutions being dealt with. If they aren’t, they become a crutch for policy-makers to lean on, continually surprised when they turn out to be made of rubber. I get that nuance is annoying; it gets in the way of quick and easy decisions. But I prefer difficult reality over convenient mythology any day.

January 11, 2012

The biggest challenge facing sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program? Mission creep.

I posted a little less than a week ago on the effectiveness of Iran’s sanctions, and yet the debate continues apace on the Internets. The need for this is simply beyond me, but what are you going to do? I suppose that more useful discourse is being produced. I suppose. In any case, we’ve seen a few different pieces crop up in the last few days, the latest to come across my Blackberry being a piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter. In it, she pushes for a solution that allows both the United States and Iran to save face, advocating away from a regime of sanctions for sanctions sake, a conclusion that many others have come to. This is hard to do, though, in light of pieces like the Washington Post piece that was published last night, originally with the title “Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. Official”.

Which leads me to think about the noticable mission-creep that seems to be occuring when it comes to Iranian sanctions. I noted on Friday the growing scope of the national and supranational embargoes being placed upon and considered against Iran. In that post, my focus was on the unconsidered humanitarian effects that these sanctions would impose, but I want to take a step back and consider the larger picture surrounding them. When the international community first agreed to place sanctions upon Iran through the UN Security Council in response to their lack of cooperation with the IAEA in 2007, they were extremely targeted, focusing only on the clear-cut pieces of their nuclear production. Since that time, their scope have grown both in the Security Council and from the United States and its allies.

At the same time, the United States has had sanctions and embargoes of its own against Iran in place since 1979. There is no question that these are in place to punish the regime as a whole, with the intended effect of breaking their ability to have any sort of sway or power on the world stage. The place where the current standoff with Iran gets tricky is when you try to delineate the two sets of sanctions. On the one hand, you have the goal of a pause or complete halt of Iran’s nuclear program and cooperation with the IAEA in verifying its claimed peaceful nature. On the other hand, you have the United States’ broader goal of weakening Iran and countering its many, many uses of proxies and asymmetric force to push back against US aims and policies in the region. Over the last month, we’ve seen a blending and merging of the two into one homogenous mass of punishment where it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends.

The United States is not making this any easier, in overtly lobbying its allies to unilaterally up pressure against Iran, including long-sought embargoes on oil. This leads one to wonder whether it is in the national interest of the US to separate the two more forcefully. Increased pressure on Iran on all fronts does have the possibility of a greater willingness, in Washington calculus, that Tehran will change its behavior on any range of issues beyond its nuclear program. However, seeking to advance goals beyond those that can be resolved through the P5+1 negotiations hinders the United States’ case for continuing and increasing the sanctions regime. The national security and foreign policy components of the government need to find a way to make clear the distinction between the two movements. Mission creep away from merely slowing or halting Iran’s nuclear program is unacceptable to Tehran, and in fact serves as a greater impetus to want a nuclear weapon. If the regime feels that the only way to survive is to produce a nuclear weapon or face economic ruin, you can bet that if I were them? I’d be racing for full nuclear capacity.

January 6, 2012

Needed in Tehran – Some Common(s) Sense

In my post earlier today on Iranian sanctions, I mentioned that I wanted to talk a little more in-depth over just what that inflamed rhetoric coming out of Iran means as far as a US military response goes. Because both sides see it coming, and I know that the majority on each would prefer to stop all-out war from happening. There may be many individuals on the right drumming up cause for attack, pushing us to defend poor indefensible Israel. The Iranian people are bracing themselves for a coming war, already facing the effects of the sanctions that the regime has brought down upon the state.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric noted in my last post  takes several forms, but none come closer to setting off conflict than the Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait, as many people know, is the bottleneck through which 35% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments must pass. The first threat, several weeks ago, caused a 2% jump in oil prices, and came with a warning for the USS John C Stennis’ carry group to stay out of the area. This was met with a yawn by the US Navy. In a new effort to rattle the US, Iran has promised that it will be holding another set of exercises, this announcement only 10 days after its last set of war games and missile-tests in the area. It’s also likely these exercises will be around the same time as joint US-Israeli missile defense drills near the Strait.

All of this sabre-rattling is the quintessential sound and fury amounting to nothing. There’s a reason the open ocean is called “the global commons”. Because under international law and the law of nations, the high seas are for the use of all states. Period. There’s no ownership of the high seas, of which the Strait of Hormuz is definitely a part. And it’s a good thing. Iran should be glad that no one state has sole jurisdiction over the commons, though the US unquestionably dominates it for now. Why should they be glad? Because it allows for the very oil that they desperately need new customers for to be transport abroad. Because it means that they in turn have the right to patrol their territorial waters, though they tend to be a little fuzzy on just where that line is. And most importantly, they should be glad because it allows us to do things like save Iranian nationals when the Iranian navy can’t. The very carrier group that Iran warned has saved an Iranian fishing boat from a group of pirates; the CO of the Destroyer that actually did the rescuing is a woman. Danger Room has video. So that happened.

Under the same international law that would be broken if Iran actually closed the Strait, the United States was able to act against the pirates that held those Iranian fishermen. I was going to go on a long, chest-thumping rant about how our naval and air force capabilities would grind Iran’s forces into dust if they actually attempted to step to us, as it were, but you know what? It’s not worth it. The Islamic Republic needs to think twice and realize that the biggest chance of US conflict with Iran isn’t their navy shutting the Strait. It’s the fact that in the event of a mistake, an accidental firing upon of a US ship during an exercise or boarding say, then there’s no way to stop the tidal wave that would be coming, no dialogue, no release valve. In ‘learning’ from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has forgotten about the many, many other times we have waged “kinetic action” against a state. Landing ground forces is in no way a necessity for the United States; from our ships in the Fifth Fleet, which easily sailed through their first exercises, Tehran surely must realize we could rain down punishment upon Iran in whatever proportionate or disproportionate response we saw fit at the time. And there would be no way to put on the brakes.

January 6, 2012

Rial Talk on Iranian Sanctions

Iran is hurting. Bad. That is one thing that is becoming exceptionally clear as we move into 2012. The real question that’s on most people’s lips is “will the pressure on Tehran actually work to change the state’s behavior”? That is, that’s the question on most people who actually are paying attention to the issue are asking. As far as everyone else, they’re asking “are we going to war with Iran?”, a question I plan to look at next post. Nobody can dispute that the sanctions placed upon Iran are extremely tough in nature; while short of a full economic embargo, many areas of the Iranian economy have now been targeted by national and supranational governments and entities.

The European Union has tentatively agreed to ban Iranian oil exports; Japan is seeking to step up their sanctions game to be near the same-level as those imposed by the United States. Even China is doing Iran no favors, as it attempts to extract further price concessions from Tehran on the oil it imports.The entirety of the efforts makes the histrionics of the Republican Presidential campaigns over Iran seem baffling once you look at the scope and their effect. There does exist a divide among academics and analysts on whether the sanctions will have their intended effect, bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table on their nuclear program and eventually forego its path towards nuclear weapons. On one end of the argument, Fareed Zakaria had an op-ed in The Washington Post the other day, espousing the current weakness of the Iranian regime. The sanctions, in Zakaria’s opinion, are having precisely the outcome we wanted, an Iran sapped of strength.

On the other end of the spectrum, some believe that the US has gone too far in our stance, such as Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney, who believe that the only possible outcome that the sanctions can hope to produce is regime change and nothing less. Vali Nasr similarly argues that international pressure will make conflict more, not less, likely. In doing so, he notes that the previous stoic endurance of Western sanctions has been broken, and has been replaced with an upswing of bellicose rhetoric and action:

It wasn’t preordained that Iran would opt for battle. For much of the past year, its leaders have debated how best to deal with Western pressure. The alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, which U.S. officials uncovered in October and blamed on Iran, suggests a faction has been making the case for direct confrontation with the West. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had hoped the September release of two Americans, hikers arrested by Iranian authorities and charged as spies, would shield Iran from further pressure and even create a diplomatic opening with the U.S. on the eve of his trip to the UN. Instead, Ahmadinejad went home empty-handed.

Iran’s rulers believe the new Middle East is a greater strategic challenge to the U.S. than to Iran. For the U.S., the region will be far less pliable under rising Islamists than it was under secular dictators. As those Islamists take control of governments from Morocco to Egypt, new opportunities arise for Tehran to forge diplomatic and economic ties. Consequently, the Iranian regime thinks it can counter international pressure on its nuclear activities long enough to get to a point of no return on a weapons program. Rather than discourage this aggressive Iranian position, U.S. policy is encouraging it, making a dangerous military confrontation more likely. There are no easy options for dealing with Iran, but not persisting in a failing strategy is a good place to start.

I will agree with the idea that Iran is being backed into a corner and that makes the chance of rhetoric spilling over into action all the more likely. Despite that, I have to question the idea that were the pressure of Iran less that this would make them more amenable to demands that it freeze its nuclear program. Likewise, the fact remains that Iranian rhetoric against us, be it vocal or muted, would not preclude Tehran from continuing its use of proxies to strike against United States assets abroad, which seems rather aggressive to me. Further, the main point that Nasr fails to note in his piece is that for many in the national security community the current course of action is the soft option for influencing Iranian decision making. Iran has time and again over the past decade made offers of reconciliation, only to either be spurned by the West as being unserious or to have the decisions collapse upon reaching Tehran.

What’s more, the latest effort by President Obama, the best chance that Iran has had in years to reset relations, was scoffed at, leading Iran down its current path. The US strategy also has included a direct outreach to the Iranian people or at least attempts to do so, leaving me to wonder what policies Nasr and Maloney have in mind to discourage Iran’s aggression. I am most likely one of the largest proponents of strong diplomatic efforts that you will ever meet, but at some point sticks are necessary if offers of carrots are rejected. If we really do want to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear program, an argument that few would disagree with even if the overall effect of Iran succeeding is hotly debated, the further options available to the United States beyond its current strategy all fall much heavily upon overt and covert military abilities.

Ali Vaez has it right, that in dealing with Khamenei, we can’t simply assume that the current strategy will work without planning for all contingencies. The Ayatollah, while holding supreme command of the country, does not have the best strategic instincts known to man. We’ll assume that Iran as a state and Khamenei as a leader will act in a rational manner, which is to say that choices that prompt eradication of their existence in their respective forms will be avoided. However, the idea that Khamenei will act in a predictable fashion is to give him far too much credit. If we’re only focused on the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program as a goal, and not a total change of its behavior as a state, there must be a respectable “out” available to them. As luck would have it, such an out exists: the conditions laid out in the Security Council resolutions passed on the Iranian nuclear program all list the measures that must be taken by Iran to satisfy both the UN and the IAEA on its program. None stipulate that if they are able to prove its peaceful nature that the country must still dismantle its program. If Iran wants nuclear energy as badly as it claims, it must take the steps of a responsible state to prove its intentions.

Finally, one has to note that many articles and thought-pieces on the overall effect of Iranian sanctions gloss over the range and scope of the targeted facets of the Iranian economy. As Colum Lynch pointed out several weeks ago, it’s striking to see how far the common wisdom surrounding sanctions has changed over the past few years:

U.S. and European diplomats, meanwhile, have lauded the effect of tougher sanctions, saying they have begun to inflict real pain on outlaw regimes. In Syria, trade and investment is off 50 percent and the economy is expected to shrink by as much as 12 to 20 percent this year, according to a report by the New York Times that showed evidence that the sanctions, while hitting the regime’s financial backers, were also having an impact on ordinary people.

But the humanitarian cost of sanctions has not figured in the U.S. debate on sanctions. In a Senate hearing last week, not a single administration official or U.S. lawmaker even mentioned the potential humanitarian impact of oil sanctions on Iranian civilians. Instead, they explored ways to promote Iranian freedoms, including proposals to prevent Iran from jamming radio frequencies or blocking Internet, Twitter and Facebook access.

As a sum, national and international sanctions have now moved swiftly beyond the original pressure points of the first UN Security Council embargoes launched over half a decade ago. In the original round, Iran found itself under the effect of more far targeted efforts in the provisions of SC/1737, which only focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the assets of those involved. That limitation quickly was stripped away, as first an arms embargo was imposed in SC/1747, a travel ban and an expanded freeze on Iranian assets. Round three, SC/1803, upped the call for states to monitor Iranian banks, ships, aircraft and individuals, but it was Round Four that have done the most damage. Under Resolution 1929, the Islamic Republic was banned from participating in any activities related to ballistic missiles, tightened the arms embargo, among a host of other punitive financial measures. So far, all of these have been focused on Iran’s nuclear development and the pieces of their armed services which could easily be converted to a military nuclear program. The national sanctions that are set to go into effect go beyond those limits, striking at the core of the Iranian economy.

As of now, the humanitarian scope of the new measures that the United States is launching against the Iranian Central Bank and the coming partial and total oil embargoes have gone undiscussed. There will be no “Oil for Food” program for Iran, not after the telling lessons of the 1990s and Baghdad’s amazing ability to circumvent those measures. Nor is there any indication such a program on the minds of Western officials. With the rial currently fluctuating on the market, having dipped to a low of 17,000 against the dollar, the price of commodities has skyrocketed inside Iran in recent months. Food costs alone have increased 40% in recent days. It pains me to know that life won’t be easy for these people who have no say in who rules them, but I can’t see any better strategy in attempting to influence those protectors of the Revolution. It is my firmest hope that Iran chooses to legitimately return to negotiations rather than attempt to bluster its way through international sanction or launch actual kinetic action by the state against the US and its allies. Despite my hopes, no matter which choice of action Iran takes moves forward, there is one group sure to suffer in the near-term: the Iranian people.

December 8, 2011

With a little nudge from WINEP, DC Court rules that Iran aided al-Qaeda

In an a ruling that was largely overlooked last week, a US Federal court came to the conclusion that Iran had aided al-Qaeda in its bombing of US Embassies in the late 1990s throughout East Africa. This ruling is pretty questionable to say the least for reasons we’re going to dig into in a second. Marc Thiessen “broke” the story in a Washington Post Op-Ed today:

Al-Qaeda carried out the attack, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the bombings would not have been possible without “direct assistance” provided by Tehran, as well as Sudan. “The government of Iran,” Judge John D. Bates wrote in his 45-page decision, “aided, abetted and conspired with Hezbollah, Osama Bin Laden, and al Qaeda to launch large-scale bombing attacks against the United States by utilizing the sophisticated delivery mechanism of powerful suicide truck bombs.”

These are pretty big claims, particularly for a ruling coming out at the Federal level. So I did some digging to see what led the judge to come to this conclusion. First, the reason the case to came to trial in the first place. The entirety of the several cases under this one ruling are admitted under the Foreign Sovereign Immunties Act (FISA).

The FSIA provides that “foreign states” – including their “political subdivisions” and “agencies or instrumentalities”– shall be immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts unless one of the exceptions to immunity set forth in the statute applies. …

These exceptions include, inter alia, certain claims based on commercial activities, expropriation of  property, and tortious or terrorist acts by foreign sovereign entities

Under the FY 2008 NDAA, the FSIA amended to allow for non-US citizens who are employed by the US government to bring suit against foreign entities described above in US courts. In this instance,  five suits were brought against the Republic of Sudan, and one against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both governments were served and rejected the subpoena, resulting in defaults being logged by the courts.

This is all perfectly admissible under US law, and it is in fact an important clarification of the exemptions under FSIA. Where trouble begins is in the methodology used by the plaintiffs’ lawyers to convince the judge of Iran’s culpability.

The majority of the testimony on the side of the plaintiffs in regard to Iran is provided by one man, an “expert witness on the state sponsorship of terrorism, and specifically Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda”, Dr. Matthew Levitt. Dr. Levitt serves as the Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy‘s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. WINEP was founded in 1985 by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC. Dr. Levitt testified as follows as quoted in the opinion:

“Hassan al-Turabi, the head of the National Islamic Front, which ruled Sudan at the time, was keen not only on instituting Islamic sharia law in Sudan at home, but in making the Sudan a place from which worldwide Islamic revolution could flow.” To that end, “Hassan al-Turabi hosted numerous meetings, some large summits with radical extremist groups, including one, for example, in April 1991. Groups like HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda, Sudanese radicals, Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah were all invited and

Dr. Levitt went on to testify the following in regard to Iranian links to Hezbollah, which would require Iranian government approval of any collaboration with AQ:

The first is again the getting in bed with al Qaeda. After al Qaeda had issued not one but two fatwas, religious edicts, in ’92 and ’96, announcing its intent to target the West, it was a dangerous proposition. As I mentioned earlier, Iranian leaders have
their own version of rationality, but they are rational actors. And that is something that I believe had to be approved, again, so there would be reasonable or plausible deniability. Overcoming this deep mistrust between the most radical Salafi jihadi Sunnis, who, as we saw in the context of the aftermath of the war in Iraq, are sometimes all too eager to kill Shia in particular, and for the Shia on the other side to overcome their historical animosity towards these radical Sunnis, is no small feat. And I think it is only because of their shared interest at that point, in the 1990s and the immediate — to target U.S. interests, that they were able to decide to overcome this animosity and mistrust. And I think it’s quite clear, because it was for the express purpose of targeting the United States, it shouldn’t surprise then that the type of training they received was specifically of the type used in the East Africa embassy bombings. They expressed interest in, we know they received at least videos and manuals about, blowing up large buildings.

Counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann also took the stand on Iran, but spoke specifically of Hezbollah’s connection to the Iranian government, not then making the connection between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. This is the primary difference in the two’s presentations, with Mr. Kohlmann’s statement as quoted in the opinion being a completely accepted premise by analysts across the board.

Here’s the deal. I have no doubt of Dr. Levitt’s credentials, and I’m sure his work in the field is exemplary. But for the DC District Court to base the major finding of a ruling around the testimony of one expert, particularly one who works for a group with a known viewpoint that they are not hesitant to express, is highly questionable and troubling in my mind. The other evidence provided in the finding of fact deals with Hezbollah and Iran’s ties, such as that by Mr. Kohlmann, but only Dr. Levitt’s testimony draws the direct link between Hezbollah and AQ and thus Iran and AQ.

Had anyone else been on the stand and questioned directly on Hezbollah and AQ’s ties, I’m not sure that the same conclusions would have been drawn by the judge, especially in a case that finds another state, one that is under particular pressure lately and for whom the war drums have been beating, guilty of being responsible for the deaths of Americans and those under American protection. The direct link drawn by Judge John Bates is specious at best and all on the back of one mind. No matter though. This is one more arrow in the quiver of folks aiming for war against Iran.

[EDIT: After having it be pointed out by Andrew Exum, I realized that it was incorrect to state that the only testimony on the Iranian case was provided by Dr. Levitt, as Mr. Kohlmann also gave a statement. This is my fault, I missed that paragraph. The piece has been edited to reflect this, but the conclusion still remains.]

December 7, 2011

“I’m sorry, Mahmoud, I don’t have a nuke in my sack, but how about a nice drone?” – Santa

I’m still feeling like I’m a good day or two behind the rest of the world when it comes to what’s going on out there, so forgive me if this seems dated already. But I couldn’t not comment on the downed drone in Iranian territory. Like most people, when I first saw the news, I figured it was a complete fabrication by the Iranian press. When confirmation came out from the US government that we did, in fact, lose a spy plane in or near Iranian airspace, I was more than a little surprised.

Like most things in life, the idea that we could lose a nearly intact drone to Iran is one of those things that seems too ridiculous to be true until it actually happens. As of the time of this writing, the buzz seems to have died down some surrounding the issue, so it may be that the whole thing is for naught. In any case, it appears to me that if all the reports that we’ve seen so far are true, which is also a big if, then the situation is bad, but not dire, with many more “it could be worse” points than actual “oh god why”.

The good news: The initial reports coming out of Iran involved claims that the Iranian military used a sophisticated cyberattack to down the drone. Fact: There is no way that a cyberattack is what actually led to the downing of the craft. Despite a report earlier this year about a virus that has spread through the drone fleet, Iran’s electronic warfare capability is in no way capable of hacking into the controls of a drone and forcing it to land. James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it succinctly:

“Iran hacking into the drone is as likely as an Ayatollah standing on a mountain-top and using thought waves to bring it down,” Lewis, a former Reagan administration official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo News by email Monday. “The most likely explanation is that it crashed on its own.”

“If you could hack into a drone, you wouldn’t use it for some spontaneous fun, you’d save it for a rainy day,” Lewis continued. “You’d need to be able to hack either the control network in the U.S. or a satellite.  Neither is easy, and both are probably not something the Iranians can do.”

Better news: We didn’t risk going in after it. Initially, Iran most likely didn’t know about the crash and probably didn’t for sometime, as evidenced by the fact that their acquisition was revealed almost a week after it was lost in the first place. But the Wall Street Journal reports that though we considered recovery, the US ultimately opted against, as the risks of adding fuel to the fire far outweighed a recovery of the technology:

Under one plan, a team would be sent to retrieve the aircraft. U.S. officials considered both sending in a team of American commandos based in Afghanistan as well as using allied agents inside Iran to hunt down the downed aircraft.

Another option would have had a team sneak in to blow up the remaining pieces of the drone. A third option would have been to destroy the wreckage with an airstrike.

However, the officials worried that any option for retrieving or destroying the drone would have risked discovery by Iran.

The fact remains as well that this is what drones were designed to be useful for. Had it been a manned surveillance aircraft, in the style of the spy plane that went down over China in 2001, we would have had a much larger problem on our hands, with either a dead airman or a captive of the IRGC to deal with. Despite acknowledging that we did not attempt to go in after the drone, there will be those who say the contrary. For example, at the Aviationist blog, a reader has posted this following theory:

“Temporary loss of satellite connection is common and the drone will orbit on a preplanned route until connection is re-established. If the connection is never re-established then the aircraft will eventually run out of fuel and crash. This can happen if the the encryption keys are invalidated during rollover and were not properly loaded (among other possibilities). Prior to fuel exhaustion, standard procedure is to perform classified data erase, followed by software data erase. A recovery team is supposed to follow up and secure it or blow it up.

In this case it appears the recovery team couldn’t find it.”

Oh my wow, does that make no sense. Suppose. Suppose for a half-second that we actually were prepared to send in a team, possibly deep into Iranian territory, to attempt to recover or destroy this drone. Why would such a team be put together and insert without knowing where the damn thing is? It may have just been commentary on what is SOP in other instances, but that wasn’t made clear by the reader’s comment. In any case, we stayed out of Iran, which is good, which means that any saber-rattling they bring up over violation of their airspace can be promptly ignored, as usual.

The best news: The RQ-170 Sentinel is aptly named. Unlike its Predator or Reaper brethren, it is designed to do one thing only: spy. The Predator and Reaper are further not stealthy in the least-bit, being propeller-powered; if the Sentinel really was a remote stealth bomber, this would be a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. There are no JDAMs loaded onto the Sentinel, nor would it be readily apparent from a review of the downed craft how to integrate a weapons system seamlessly into the frame given.

The bad news: Well, there’s a few bits of bad news here. The first is that this still amounts to a large loss by the US in terms of keeping secret technology out of the hands of adversaries. And while it is weaponless, the Sentinel does possess advanced communication-monitoring tech inside of its well-coated shell. The Pentagon is working hard to spin the fact that the RQ-170 is somewhat outdated as far as drone technology goes, but it still far outstrips anything that Iran could hope to develop on its own in the near future.

While there isn’t too much new to discover from the RQ-170, the fact remains that it is still a nearly intact specimen ripe for dissection, as far as has been revealed, despite a notable lack of photographic evidence from Tehran.  (Really, you’d think there’d be a shot of Ahmadinejad posing next to the thing by now.) It’s unlikely that Iran itself will be able to reverse-engineer it itself, so panicky worries about stealth surveillance drones flying from Tehran to Tel Aviv are extremely premature.  What is more likely is that Iran will take this opportunity to sell the drone to the highest bidder, likely in exchange for other non-monetary perks.

Which is to say there is no way that a new round of sanctions are forthcoming in the UN Security Council. The odds were already low, this development takes them to near absolute zero in terms of possibility. Russia and China are the states most likely to benefit from this, though it would be naive to assume that they weren’t aware of many of the broader information about the craft. But actually getting their hands on an intact version would be a huge gift, particularly to states that are known for their reverse-engineering capabilities. The PRC and Russian Federation were unlikely to support new sanctions on Iran in any case, but this is a bow on that little present.

In summation, while not great, it could be a lot worse. The whole affair amounts to a brand new top-secret iPhone 5 falling off the back of a truck on Dec 24th: it isn’t set to bring down the entity that lost it, but it’s more than a little annoying. So Merry Christmas, Ayatollah. It looks like it came a little early for you this year.

December 6, 2011

Saudi Arabia. Chill. You really don’t want nuclear weapons, promise

Saudi Arabia. You’re killing me here. We’re doing the best we can on Iran, really. Do you know all the various ways we’re trying to interrupt their quest for regional hegemony? Answer: no, you don’t, because even the American people don’t know the full scope. But I assure you, KSA, we’re doing the best we can.

You know what really doesn’t help though? Moves designed to get us to go further than we want to, faster than we want to. We get it. We get that you’re between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the potential of a nuclear Iran, with a nuclear Israel already playing in your neighborhood. Moves like this one:

Prince Turki said at the [Persian Gulf security] forum on Monday that an Iranian quest for nuclear weapons and Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal might force Saudi Arabia to follow suit. …

“It is our duty toward our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons,” Prince Turki was quoted as saying.

The Prince’s words are more likely designed to be a poke in the side of the United States to ensure that Iran has our full attention, rather than an actual announcement of intention to develop a nuclear capability. Saudi Arabia has expressed a clear desire for nuclear energy in the past, and the United States is more than fine with them developing power plants, but no grumblings about potential weaponization have followed previous pronouncements of moving forward with exploring nuclear processing.

While a Saudi regime in control of nuclear weapons might not cause the same amount of fear as Iran, it can be said that destabilization would still be in order in the region as a result of such an outcome. Who’s to say that other states in the region would be content with a Saudi nuclear umbrella, or that other states in the region wouldn’t then seek to pull their own version of revisionism.

Further, the United States can’t be seen playing favorites even more than it already has; the odds of Iran actually acceding to UN Security Council demands that it halt enrichment creep even closer to zero should Tehran come to believe that Riyadh has the support of the West in obtaining weapons. In fact, such a perception would only increase the Iranian drive to weaponize its uranium stores.

A quick statement should come from the State Department denying that Saudi Arabia is either seeking or needing nuclear weapons, if Secretary Clinton were to ask me. A nuclear Arabian Peninsula wouldn’t have the deterrent impact that they’re looking for, in terms of thwarting Iranian influence. The majority of the fear towards Iran is based in its potential to project military power across the Gulf, but nuclear weapons being held by Iran would only be useful as a deterrent for counterattack, not an excuse to launch full-scale attacks. It can also be noted that Iran’s hard-power capabilities are rather lackluster in nature; proclamations of advancing its abilities on the battlefield don’t translate into a sure victory against the combined conventional forces of the other Gulf states.

So, Saudi Arabia. Please. I’m going to call your bluff here and tell you that we’re doing our level best to ensure that you and your neighbors don’t have to worry about a modified Shahab-3 carrying a nuclear payload anytime soon. Until then, please find more constructive ways of helping us out in that regard.