Day: February 3, 2017

30 seconds closer to midnight

The US Treasury today “designated” 13 individuals and 12 companies associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) ballistic missile program and its support to terrorists, in particular Lebanese Hizbollah. Their assets in the US are blocked; Americans and US residents are generally prohibited from dealing with them.  Citizens and residents of other countries may also choose to avoid dealings with them, if only to protect their interests in the US.

This is presumably only the first, and relatively mild, step in a more hawkish American attitude towards Iran, presaged earlier this week by National Security Advisor Flynn putting Tehran “on notice.” While President Obama softened his tone and moderated action against Iran subsequent to the nuclear deal, President Trump is upping the ante, either figuring that Iran will stick with the nuclear deal pretty much no matter what or that it will violate it in whole or in part. That could provide an opportunity for Trump to ditch it altogether.

That would be a bad thing for the US: it would free Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, without much prospect of putting together the multilateral sanctions needed to pressure Tehran to stop. But Iran may well figure it is better off building up its economy now and going for nuclear weapons later. It is already closer to eight than ten years before important parts of the nuclear deal expire. A civilization as old as Iran’s knows how to be patient.

Still, I would expect some reaction. When Trump blocked all travel from Iran last week, the Iranians reciprocated by blocking all travel by Americans. I suppose they might in this case designate some American individuals and companies with whom Iranians should not do business. If Boeing were so designated, that would have a serious impact, as it has sold 80 airplanes in a deal worth over $16 billion. The Iranians also know well how to harass the US navy in the Gulf and the strait of Hormuz, not to mention how to arrest US citizens (especially those who are also Iranian, some of whom are presumably still in Iran) on espionage charges.

We can hope that the escalating spiral of tit-for-tat will end before serious arm is done to peace and security, but there is little or no guarantee of that. Trump, who is surrounded by advisers even more belligerent towards Iran, is looking for an opportunity to demonstrate more “resolve” than Obama, whom he regards as having been wimpish. There is ample support in Congress on both sides of the aisle for a more hawkish stance. Much the same is true in Iran: the Supreme Leader will not want to set a precedent of backing down from a confrontation with the new American president. The Majlis will generally support hawkishness, especially in the run-up to presidential elections due May 19, damaging President Rouhani’s prospects.

Iran and the US are now pursuing the first stages of what we conflict management types call their “Best Alternatives to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).” The Iran nuclear deal is still in place, but it does not cover either the ballistic missile program or support to terrorism. Both of those are covered by Security Council resolutions whose applicability and interpretation are not agreed. The American BATNA for now is sanctions; the Iranian BATNA we’ll have to wait and see.

There are many good reasons why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists late last year moved the doomsday clock 30 seconds closer to midnight.

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The Qaddafi in their heads

The Carnegie Endowment hosted a discussion this week with Jonathan Winer, former Special Envoy for Libya at the Department of State, on the future of Libya. Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the conversation.

In late 2013, when Winer arrived in Libya, he saw a disconnect between politics and government. The system had been purposely designed to serve Qaddafi exclusively and strip state actors of any decision-making abilities or legitimacy. “The Qaddafi in their heads” meant no one else could make decisions or enforce them effectively. This made it difficult for the US to engage with Libyans and resulted in a deeply divisive political system nearing anarchy.

Winer then discussed his experience trying to cobble together a functional government by bridging the gaps between political actors. Working with the Libyan leadership was frustrating given the low-intensity civil war through 2014. Winer rejected the idea of an international trusteeship, citing this as post-colonial behavior. He favors Libyan ownership in creating a single functional government.

Three precepts have helped the US work with other countries and can be applied to Libya:

  • There should be a single negotiating process for everyone, with the United Nations at the core bringing all actors to the table.
  • We should work with other countries that are patrons of Libyan clients to influence their actions and support reconciliation of different factions.
  • Benefits should be distributed to everyone throughout the country.

The upcoming 2018 elections are an opportunity to agree on a government and move away from the political legacy of Qaddafi. According to Winer, the fundamental problem is that people in leadership positions do not have the expertise required. They lack a roadmap, face constant threats from actors such as ISIS, and need to respond to demands for fast and complete solutions. It is no surprise the government is not functioning.

One major concern is the role of spoilers, including General Haftar, Islamist parties, and violent non-state actors. Winer is hopeful that Haftar has pulled back from his coup intentions and will be willing to work within a government framework. He was also careful to define the Libyan arm of the Muslim Brotherhood party along the same lines as its other regional parties and cautioned against excluding groups before knowing the consequences of that action. Winer noted that Libya’s neighbors suffer greatly from terrorist organizations in Libya and that the US has attacked terrorist training bases with the consent of the Libyan government.

Winer said that every country wants Libya to work, but ultimately Libyans do not like others telling them what to do. It would be “suicidal” to attempt a takeover of Libya: “imperial overstretch.” The result would be polarizing and dangerous, as extremists line up with extremists and Libya devolves into full-scale civil war. Thus, it is paramount to the country’s stability to focus on politics, as security and the economy will follow. Looking into the future for US policy, Winer said that he could not blame the new administration for wanting to change course, but feared change that could risk civil war, polarization, or a humanitarian disaster.

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