Posts tagged ‘iran’

November 21, 2011

Surprise, GOP! Turns out the UN actually likes human rights. Who knew?

Tomorrow night, after an much-maligned showing two weeks ago, the Republican candidates for President are giving it another shot. That’s right, it’s time for another “foreign policy debate” between the Nine Who Would Be King (or Queen in the case of Representative Bachmann). There are sure to be some insane things said on the stage at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall come Tuesday but one thing is certain to unite all of the office-seekers: a near pathological revulsion for the work, and for some the concept, of the United Nations. The Washington Post had an apt couple of paragraphs on the issue:

“Bashing the United Nations seldom fails as an applause line for Republican presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney says the U.N. too often becomes a forum for tyrants when it should promote democracy and human rights. Newt Gingrich pledges to take on the U.N.’s “absurdities.” Herman Cain says he would change some of its rules. Rick Perry says he would consider pulling the United States out of the U.N. altogether.”

I’d like to point out that Speaker Gingrich’s animosity is particularly impressive, considering his past history of supporting the need for the United Nations, co-chairing a panel in 2006 with recommendations on how to improve the body without utterly destroying it.  UN Dispatch has a great piece on the former Speaker’s love for the UN. But I digress.

If you were to believe the hype, the United Nations is a larger hive of scum and villainy than Mos Eisley spaceport in Star Wars, where a cadre of despots and tyrants sit twirling their mustaches and plotting ways to defame the United States. Counter to the narratives that are spun and deployed by the Republican candidates and their campaigns, the United Nations works frequently to promote human rights and shine light on the darkest corners of the world. Lest they forget, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a product of the United Nations. The Human Rights Council, once derided as toothless and spurned by the United States to the point of not seeking a seat on the initial balloting, has grown to the point of issuing strong statements of condemnation against the very regimes it once sought to protect and is seen by the Obama Administration as a critical tool in the United States’ foreign policy toolbox.

Earlier today, the Third Committee of the General Assembly: Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian  took up three draft resolutions, under their agenda item 69(c): Human rights situations and reports of special rapporteurs and representatives. These three drafts focused on human rights abuses in Myanmar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Resolutions on the last of the three’s systematic violations of human rights norms have become almost an annual occurrence, and this year’s rebuke comes hot on the heels of the General Assembly voting to condemn the state for its role in an alleged plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations. The full text of the resolution on Iran can be found here.

“Those drafts are nice, but there’s no way that the world is actually growing more intolerant of human rights. Give me something concrete to prove that the UN as a whole actually supports human rights,” I hear you say. Fortunately, there are things like ‘numbers’ and ‘facts’ to assist us in making our case. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s Mission to the United Nations has helpfully broken down the votes of the last two year’s votes on these proposals into a helpful chart.

Votes in GA3

Compiled by the UK Mission to the UN (@UKUN_NewYork)

As you can see, all three resolutions passed by a sizable margin this year. It is true and deserves to be noted that there are an unfortunate number of abstentions on the proposals. However, if those countries that abstained truly wanted to scuttle the Iranian proposal, it would have been within their ability to cast their votes in the “no” column, rather than allowing it to pass. The Burmese and Korean votes had no such chance, with an overwhelming amount of support in their favor.  The vast majority of Member States in the Third Committee, composed of all 193 members of the UN, are in favor of states following the basic principles of human rights in dealing with their citizenry, and use the United Nations as a forum to express that support. The resolutions will now proceed to the General Assembly as a whole for approval.

Tomorrow night is sure to bring outlandish statements, and more than likely a few gaffes, but let’s not allow them to bring forward untruths. The fact is that the United Nations is not just the sum of its parts, but greater than them. As an institution it has been at the forefront of protecting human rights for decades. As a collection of states it has sought to greater and greater degrees over time push for the rights inherent in all peoples of this Earth. The numbers above aren’t the best, but they’re improving. And they signal a hope for the future. Here’s hoping that the GOP can read those stats the same way.

November 8, 2011

Memo to Richard Clarke: China does not have a “US Internet On/Off” switch

Gulliver, of the Inkspots blog, tweet earlier today an article published in the Boston Globe. In said article, Richard Clarke, also known as the Man Who Knew Too Much in the pre-September 11 days, predictor of the bin Laden attacks and ignored by the Administration, has a few recommendations about the readiness of our nation’s digital defenses. I was excited, until I saw the headline: Cyber weaknesses should deter US from waging war


Clarke said if he was advising the president he would warn against attacking other countries because so many of them — including China, North Korea, Iran and Russia — could retaliate by launching devastating cyberattacks that could destroy power grids, banking networks or transportation systems.

The U.S. military, he said, is entirely dependent on computer systems and could end up in a future conflict in which troops trot out onto a battlefield “and nothing works.”

Clarke said a good national security adviser would tell the president that the U.S. might be able to blow up a nuclear plant somewhere, or a terrorist training center somewhere, but a number of countries could strike back with a cyberattack and “the entire us economic system could be crashed in retaliation … because we can’t defend it today.”

“I really don’t know to what extent the weapon systems that have been developed over the last 10 years have been penetrated, to what extent the chips are compromised, to what extent the code is compromised,” Clarke said. “I can’t assure you that as you go to war with a cybersecurity-conscious, cybersecurity-capable enemy that any of our stuff is going to work.”

Oh my stars and garters. First of all, usual disclaimers that these are my personal opinions, not those of anyone I may be employed by. Now. Do I really need to explain to Mr. Clarke why his statement makes no sense? The use of computers has made our armed forces more mobile, agile, and accurate. It has not made them deadlier in my opinion. In fact, taking away the ability of our systems to, say, precisely pinpoint a target would probably be the dumbest thing an enemy could do. It’s not like we’ve lost the ability to just carpetbomb areas into submission, it’s just something that we honestly prefer not to do these days.

Also, it sounds like Mr. Clarke is vastly inflating the capabilities of the states he lists. Yes, China and Russia were called out recently for hacking into our systems to gain access to sensitive data for economic gain. But if you honestly think that there aren’t white hats on our side doing the same thing, then your dream world sounds like a lovely place to visit. Espionage is something that exists and always will exist so long as there are secrets that need to be protected. Why do you think we even have a Central Intelligence Agency?

But seriously. If the United States or one of our allies were to strike against an Iranian nuclear plant, which I am by the by not in favor of, I am extremely skeptical that Iran’s first thought will be “shut down the Interwebs in the U.S.” As Dan Trombly points out, Iran’s proxy capabilities are much more impressive than anything it has in the digital domain, and further, the entirety of the cybercapability we’ve seen from them has been in regards to domestic communication, not widespread hacking into infrastructure. China using it’s legion of “Netizen hackers” to counterbalance the offensive edge that we so clearly have on them would make sense and is the most credible of the states Clarke lists, but the PRC is light-years away from having that ability, no matter how lacking our defenses are.

Cyber-capabilities are impressive. Nobody is denying that fact. The hype around them though is stunning. I love science-fiction as much as the next person, and the future is in fact awesome as I find myself thinking every day. But the wild-mass guessing that goes into attempting to predict the full abilities that can and will be brought to bear in a conflict is more than a little ridiculous. The way that many writers and analysts put it, there’s a switch somewhere in various states that can be flipped in the event of war, where the various Trojan horses and malware on American systems can suddenly shut. down. everything. I can assure you that any use of cyberconflict in the coming years will look nothing like that. Disrupting communications, sending out false information and corrupting data, various levels of enhanced espionage, that’s what’s facing us, not preventing bombs from deploying or somehow crashing the US economy.

Further, this is a huge pet-peeve of mine, the acting like any instance of a cyber or digital attack would be completely beyond the conventional norms of warfare and that the US has absolutely no past models to draw on. Bull. Saying that we shouldn’t attack a country because they might retaliate against our digital infrastructure is akin to saying that we shouldn’t attack them because any of our assets may in turn be targeted. Which would make no sense, because that is how war is conducted: you strike, you attempt to block the oncoming counterstrike. If your defenses are lagging in one point? Then you build them up, but that doesn’t mean that your weakpoint completely negates your offensive capabilities. There are plenty of reasons to not launch a military strike, but concern over our computer networks is not one of them. Mr. Clarke needs to take it down a notch; advocating for more robust defense is fine, but hyperbole just weakens your arguments.

October 12, 2011

Iran: Rational state-actor or Bond villain?

I’m slightly hesitant to add my voice to the growing din on this case, but it’s too interesting for me to ignore. For those of you who have been under a rock, yesterday Attorney-General Eric Holder gave a press conference where it was revealed that the Justice Department had broken up a terror plot against the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States. The alleged plotters are in custody, and have been charged in a civilian court in New York; the full criminal complaint can be read here. I hope for your sake that you’re sitting as you read through it. The plotter under questioning fingers several Iranians who are known to be part of the Qods Force, a section of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as the power behind the plot.

This whole thing takes the meme about Iran being the real-world equivalent of a Bond villain to all new heights. The type of Bond villain is under dispute. People seem to be falling into one of two camps: either Iran is crazy but nowhere near dumb enough for this to make any kind of sense, the scheming, nefarious, white Persian cat trope; or Iran is crazy and yes, just crazy enough to think that this sort of plot is a good idea, the rob Fort Knox to drive up the price of gold style of mastermind. The latter camp is extremely sparse at the moment. The more I read about this case, the more questions I have about just what on Earth is going on, and analysts are at odds with each other across the blogosphere. The theories springing up are multiple: It was a state-sponsored move, backed by the government of Iran and with their full awareness. It was a rogue group of agents, acting on their own to attempt to strike fear into the hearts of the KSA. It was a lone actor with delusions of grandeur that the FBI stoked to new heights.

Saudi Arabia and the United States, for their part, are definitely treating this plot as The Real Thing. Noteworthy is the fact that the Attorney-General himself was the one to announce the whole mess to the public, followed up with by statements from Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued a statement where it “strongly denounces and condemns the outrageous and heinous attempt to assassinate its Ambassador to the United States of America”.

Now, supposing Mansour Arbabsiar really was just a guy with delusions of grandeur, the question stands, why would the US bring out the big guns? I can’t think of a reason for the US to throw so much weight and support behind this story if it wasn’t totally sure of its authenticity and it being an actual foreign-based threat. As Daveed Gerstein-Ross stated on Twitter, “Holder weighing in on the plot’s connection to Iran means the administration is deadly serious about it.” Lending that level of credence would only serve to backfire if it turns out the accusations were false or played up, so why risk it? I can’t think of a reason.

What’s more, the US is taking the whole matter to the UN Security Council. Ambassador Susan Rice has been spending the morning giving one-on-one briefings of the details of the matter to the members of the Security Council. The longtime Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, was cautious this morning, but didn’t rule out the possibility that the case was true, saying “It looks rather bizarre but I am not an expert.” Both at the UNSC and unilaterally, the US is looking to ramp up sanctions on Iran as retaliation.

Spence Ackerman, writing for Danger Room, is as confused as everyone else, but notes that if it really was the Qods Force and the mission was signed off on by the government, this is great news for everyone worried about Iran’s growing power in the region. Should it actually be the QF behind it all, then the Cobra Command force of the Middle East is actually more like the Legion of Doom of the Middle East. Neither are as threatening as they think, but the latter is much more laughable in its attempts at world domination, especially when compared to who it’s up against.

Others are using this instance to talk about the Administration’s overarching policy towards Iran, going as far as calling it a failure. James Kittfield of the National Journal wrote over at The Atlantic that the assassination plot shows that the base assumption behind our Iran strategy, that Iran acting as a rational actor, can’t be supported. Robert Haddick of Small Wars Journal states that even if Iran didn’t order this mission from the top, this still says bad things about deterrence policy, since “deterrence is not useful if those to be deterred don’t have complete control over their weapons”. Even if it is the case that the strike was ordered by the QF, I don’t think that we can say that it remotely affects the US’ stance towards Iran when it comes to its nuclear weapons; the US has kept Iran on its list of State-Sponsors of Terrorism for a reason. While supporting terrorism inside the United States would be a huge departure from previous methods used by Iran, this lone incident would not be enough of a reason to shift from a strategy of international isolation, one that has been paying dividends. Further, should this story pan out, would it not show that the Iranian government is having to reach way beyond the normal range of foreign policy tools to attempt to obtain its goals, thus meaning that the strategy is working?

Not everyone is sold on the veracity of the government’s case however. I really don’t even want to bring this up, but Greg Greenwald has a piece that I’m pretty sure was constructed purely based on a template of every other article he’s written at Salon, insisting that the whole thing was made-up or exaggerated far beyond what it should be to give the US a pretext to increase its military actions around the world. As he puts it: “If the Obama administration decided tomorrow that military action against Iran were warranted in response, is there any doubt that large majorities of Americans — and large majorities of Democrats — would support that?” Well, no, I highly doubt that this will be the situation, and in any case, I’m pretty sure Greenwald has been predicting that we’re going to attack Iran for the last five years.

More serious people also have their doubts about the case, centered around several key points.  Scott Peterson at the Christian Science Monitor points out that the scheme doesn’t fit Iran’s typical M.O. when it comes to matters like this, with no apparent cost-benefit analysis that would give much in the event of a success. He also notes that previous Iranian assassinations have only targeted Iranians, never foreigners, and that the choice of Arbabsiar as an agent would be incredibly poorly thought-out.

Steve Clemens, though, lists as a potential motive the intensifying of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s proxy war for regional dominance, pointing out that the Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir “is not a member of the Saudi royal family but is widely considered to be the closest national security adviser and confidant to King Abdullah”. I disagree with his conclusion, however, that “if the US does not take action, then the Saudis will most likely retaliate in ways that will escalate the stakes and tensions with Iran throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia”. Saudi Arabia will not take military action against Iran, despite the arsenal we’ve sold them; the worst thing I can imagine the KSA doing in response would be seeking a way to force Iran out of OPEC, which is in and of itself an improbable feat. Clemens’ colleague/boss Max Fisher takes a more suspect view of the incident, taking neither side for the time being, but noting the oddness of the affair.

Iran, for its part, is denying the whole thing vehemently, as one would expect. What one wouldn’t expect though is the insistence on the part of the Iranian Government that whole thing is part of a plot to distract the worldfrom the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Pause for a second to wrap your heads around that one. The Washington Post has a piece up about the reaction from analysts in Iran, with the consensus forming that there’s no way that President Ahmadinejad or his government had anything to do with this plot, as the security structure of Iran are well out of his hands. Even they have no idea who could have done it, or why, considering even a successful lot would immediately be blamed on Iran, with just as many theories there as here:

Some analysts speculate that the bizarre alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador was engineered by the Revolutionary Guards — but was meant to be discovered by U.S. intelligence — in order to sabotage any possible back-channel talks between Ahmadinejad’s representatives and the United States.

Others dismiss that theory, saying that the Iranian hierarchy’s control of foreign policy is clear. Khamenei makes the important foreign policy decisions, and extensive surveillance by political commissars leaves little room for rogue elements.

For my part, I think this sounds like it has all the makings for an ill-conceived crisis plot by an inexperienced delegate at a Model United Nations conference. As Dan Trombly of Slouching Towards Columbia pointed out though on Twitter, just because it would be extremely stupid is no reason for us to rule out QF entirely; the Cold War was full of plots and schemes that in hindsight sound implausible at best, asinine at worst. It is completely possible to rationally come to a very idiotic decision, as both US history and human nature will tell us; need I mention the Bay of Pigs invasion?

In any case, it is far too soon to be thinking about lessons learned from this incident and changes to our strategy in response, just as it’s too soon to strike the whole thing out as totally fabricated. I’m inclined to believe that the US government wouldn’t have arrested Arbabsiar and charged him in so public a fashion if the facts were shaky. Further, the one question I’d like answered is where did the money that was transferred to an FBI bank account originate from? If this really was the work of a delusional malcontent, that’s a large sum to be able to get wired from a foreign bank. I’m sure that more will come out about this issue in the coming days, but for right now the same facts are in front of everyone right now, and have led to very divergent trains of thought, each supported by the evidence at hand. Everyone needs to just sit back for a bit and let this play out some before making grand policy recommendations.

September 26, 2011

The UN General Assembly…Abridged!: Or, Palestine, Palestine, Crazy, Hope, Palestine

So I may have overestimated the amount of time that my real-person job would cut into my blogging. It being the General Debate at the UN General Assembly, though, my loyal reader, singular, would not forgive me for not having at least something up. That, plus I realized that most bloggers DO have actual jobs and so excuses are for chumps, to use the common parlance.

General Debate in years past has often been better translated as “dictators give lengthy diatribes”. This year, though, has been different, though no less boring. The General Debate has, of course, been dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian debate, which despite the best efforts of the United States, has made its way to the horrendously carpeted floor of the General Assembly.

President Abbas received a hero’s welcome in Palestine after making what many called an historic speech. President Abbas theatrically waved about a copy of the official request for full membership that he earlier presented to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Theatricality aside, the members inside the General Assembly ate it up, offering President Abbas several standing ovations. This made for the rather awkward optics of seeing Ambassador Susan Rice and the rest of the United States delegation sitting sullenly while spontaneous cheers went up all around. I understand the United States’ position, even if I don’t agree with it fully, but from a purely international political point of view, stonewalling Abbas’ speech doesn’t particularly play well.

A few speakers later, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took the rostrum of the GA, and put on a show of his own. As President Abbas was speaking to the people at home, so too was PM Netanyahu. His speech was well-delivered and full of what were intended to be laugh lines and clearly impromptu drop-ins; never let it be said that Bibi doesn’t give an impressive speech in perfect English. But it clearly wasn’t one for the delegates in the room. Rather, it was written and delivered to his right-wing at home in Israel and to Congressional Republicans in the United States. And he gave them everything that they wanted and more. Which is to say he gave a full-throated push for security matters to come above all else when dealing with a solution to the Palestinian statehood issue and wanting to prevent the West Bank from becoming another Gaza, the sort of red-meat that has Republicans giving their own standing ovations.

Bibi challenged President Abbas to meet with him immediately, with no preconditions, on the sidelines of the UN, but this was an offer that was never meant to be taken; Palestine refuses to return to the negotiating table until Israel ceases constructing settlements in the West Bank. The point became moot when the Quartet, made up of the US, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations issued a statement on restarting peace talks. The statement went over like a lead balloon, however, with Egypt speaking in their first post-Mubarak appearance at the UN and utterly eviscerating the proposal’s lack of timelines and conditions to restart talks.

So your guess is as good as mine where this goes from here. The United Nations Security Council has Lebanon as its President this month, and upon receiving the Palestinian application on Friday, the Council was set to have initial discussion of it this afternoon. There was talk that the Quartet’s statement would put this discussion on hold, but with nobody seeming to be fans of it, it would seem that Lebanon has gone ahead and added “Admission of New Members” to the Council’s agenda for today. So I’m sure we’ll hear more about this later.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue wasn’t all that was discussed, however, and there were a few shining moments that cut through. The first was the first speech to the General Assembly by the newest addition to the United Nations, South Sudan, the 193rd member. President Salva Kiir, wearing his fetching black cowboy hat as ever, spoke of his gratitude to the international community, the need for stable security, and the need to diversify the oil-based economy of South Sudan. If President Kiir manages to pull this off, South Sudan could serve as a model to oil-rich countries across the globe. And to link back to earlier in this post, this year marked the first in over forty years where Mommar Qaddafi has not been the voice of Libya. Instead, Mahmoud Jibril, Chairman of the National Transitional Council, spoke to the body. Not only was this a victory for the beleaguered translators on the second floor, but a success for there being one less dictator in the halls of the UN.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad’s annual craziness at the GA, followed by the annual walk of any member-states who had stuck around thus far. Conspiracy theories abound as ever, including a fun little attack on the reality of September 11th. Mark Kornblau, USUN spokesman, put it as succinctly as possible in what may be the best press release ever:

Mr. Ahmadinejad had a chance to address his own people’s aspirations for freedom and dignity, but instead he again turned to abhorrent anti-Semitic slurs and despicable conspiracy theories.

Those were just the most entertaining parts that have gone on so far; many serious speeches and proposals for policies to uphold and fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and tap the potential of women were given among others. While more most certainly went on, I’ll leave some of the more choice tidbits for other posts, including one that I have queued up for right after this one goes live.

EDIT: Like I said, there’s an update to the UNSC Palestinian question. According to Dennis Fitz: “The UNSC met today & decided to meet again on Wed to decide whether to refer Palestine membership bid to admissions committee.” So there you go. There’s no veto on the Admissions Committee, but all 15 states have a representative on it. More information on Wednesday, but this means that tonight and tomorrow will be an all-out push by the Palestinians to get at least nine votes on the Council to be pledged to vote yes and by the US to get them to hold back. Either way, the move will fail even/especially if it moves out of the Admissions Committee, but it being via a failure to garner nine votes and a US veto are very different things indeed.