Yes, the time is ripe

Hamid  Bayati of the Iran Times published an article yesterday based in part on an interview with me. The article accurately reproduces my views, as you can see from the interview below, but he skipped my important final point about a possible clandestine nuclear program:

Q:  Reportedly, US President Barack Obama secretly wrote Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the middle of last month and described a shared interest in fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Can the letter have a positive impact on the nuclear talks between Iran and 5+1 group or help facilitate the diplomatic efforts to reach a nuclear agreement by the Nov. 24 deadline?

A:  I haven’t seen the whole text of the letter. What has been reported suggests that the Americans were holding out cooperation against ISIS as a “carrot” to induce Iranian agreement on a nuclear deal. But Iran has good reason to fight ISIS without any inducements, as the US does, and I’m pretty sure there is already some cooperation to try to avoid incidents between American aircraft and forces and the Iranians fighting in Iraq. If Iran signs on to a nuclear deal, it will have much more to do with removing sanctions and military risks than ISIS.

Q:  Nuclear negotiators from Iran and the 5+1 group will meet in Muscat, Oman, on November 11 and then will resume talks in Vienna on November 18. So why do the Iranian and 5+1 delegates go to Oman before Vienna?

A:  I don’t know why the meeting is in Oman.

Q:  Professor Vali Nasr wrote an article recently saying we are in a position that it is the best time to have a nuclear deal with Iran. Or, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence organizations have claimed that Western powers are willing to reach an agreement with Tehran at any price. What is your analysis of the situation? Is it possible that the two sides strike a nuclear deal by November 24?

A:  I agree with Vali that the moment is ripe: see No pain, no gain | But the Saudis are wrong that the Western powers are willing to reach an agreement with Tehran at any price. Any deal that leaves open an option for Iran to get nuclear weapons is going to be unacceptable in the West, especially in Washington DC.

Q:  There have been reports that Obama seeks to lift sanctions on Iran without Congressional permission. Are these reports true?

A:  That would not be his preferred option, but I am sure he is considering the proposition.

Q:  Can the mid-term Congressional election, in which the Republicans won the majority in the Senate as well, affect the nuclear talks in case Iran and the 5+1 group fail to reach an agreement by November 24?

A:  Yes, the election outcome will have an impact. The President will have to convince the Congress that the United States is significantly better off in terms of blocking any route to nuclear weapons with the agreement reached than without it. I anticipate the constraints on enrichment and reprocessing will be clear and compelling enough. The big problem will be whether Iran can convince the world that it has no longer has a clandestine nuclear weapons program, see Aye, there’s the rub |

Q:  Some experts argue that it is not possible to reach a comprehensive deal by the November 24 deadline and therefore is it better that Iran and 5+1 group sign a “partial agreement.” How can a partial agreement work?

A:  I don’t really know. It will be hard to get more sanctions relief from Washington without a complete agreement that clearly and unequivocally blocks all paths to nuclear weapons. It might be possible to extend the Joint Plan of Action for a few weeks. But the inclination in Congress will be to tighten sanctions if there is no agreement that satisfies the majority there by the deadline.

The problem right now is that Tehran is only slowly answering questions about its past activities with “possible military dimensions,” which are discussed between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. That hesitation raises serious question about a possible clandestine nuclear weapons program.

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The Ebola challenge

As the Senate considers President Obama’s request for $6.2 billion to combat Ebola, the questions of US leadership and the international response are critical. On Wednesday, the Brookings Institution hosted a conversation with Rajiv Shah, Administrator of USAID and Eric Postel, Assistant to the Administrator for Africa, to discuss the topic. The moderator was Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution.

In March, the Ebola outbreak appeared to be on the path to being mitigated, but urban transmission exploded and by May the transmission rates were as high as 2.5 for infected persons. This decimated the health care systems in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, none of which have yet to recover. Shah noted that one of the biggest obstacles is the unpredictability of when or where the next outbreak will be.

In addressing the US role, Shah echoed the sentiments of President Obama, who in a letter to Congress stated

My foremost priority is to protect the health and safety of Americans, and this request supports all necessary steps to fortify our domestic health system and prevent any outbreaks at home…Over the longer term, my administration recognizes that the best way to prevent additional cases at home will be to contain and eliminate the epidemic at its source in Africa.

Shah believes controlling the virus at the source is the only way to guarantee the safety and security of the American people.

Another issue is the setback the Ebola outbreak will cause in the region. According to Postel, preliminary data shows that there has been a significant impact, specifically in the growth of the affected nations. This has been caused many factors such as halts in investments and the flight of expatriates from host countries. While one attendee posed the question of how to incentivize foreigners from curtailing their time in these countries, neither had a solution.

The president of the World Bank recently announced the need for at least 5,000 more health workers in Sierre Leone, Guinea and Liberia. However, quarantine practices for returning health care workers and the growing fear of infection are creating obstacles. The appearance of Ebola in Mali suggests the epidemic is not slowing down.

Shah mentioned the training of thousands of health workers in West Africa in order to thwart the further spread of the disease however there have been numerous reports of inadequate materials and training for health care workers within West Africa. This dissatisfaction with the conditions was met with an estimated 100,000 members of National Nurses United (NNU), from California to the Philippines, taking part in global “strikes and vigils to highlight perceived failings” surrounding the international response to Ebola.

With the death toll surpassing 5,000 in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea there is a responsibility from international community to allocate the proper funding and resources to ensure the necessary precautions are being taken and the appropriate measures are being put in place. The Ebola crisis must be met with monetary as well as physical assistance in order to effectively combat the deadly disease.



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Peace picks November 17 – 21

  1. Liberalism and Authoritarianism: Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia | Monday, November 17th | 12:00 – 1:45 | Georgetown University | Southeast Asia is one of the most religiously diverse regions on the planet. While history abounds with examples of pluralism and diversity, competing nationalisms have led to tensions between majority and minority groups, frequently couched in the language of religion. As democratic transitions transform the social and political landscape of countries in the region, religion can play both constructive and destructive roles in building strong civil society and cohesion. Anwar Ibrahim, author of The Asian Renaissance, will discuss some of these trends as they relate to Islam and his expertise as a decades long active participant in the political developments of the region.
  2. Violence in Jerusalem and the Future of the Two-state Solution | Tuesday, November 18th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After the collapse of peace negotiations and the devastating armed conflict that followed, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are again on the rise. The growing frequency of attacks by Palestinians and the subsequent heavy response by Israeli security forces portend a slide toward deeper violence. The violence is also occurring against the backdrop of high-profile settlement activity, especially in sensitive areas in and around Jerusalem, and a renewed push by Palestinians for international recognition at the United Nations. These moves, and growing calls for unilateralism, suggest that the two-state solution is facing unprecedented and perhaps insurmountable challenges. Fellows from the Brookings Institution, Natan Sachs and Khaled Elgindy, will share their observations and insights. Tamara Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy, will chair the discussion.
  3. South Sudan: Political Crisis, Humanitarian Disaster | Tuesday, November 18th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Center for Strategic and and International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTEND | a panel discussion on the political crisis in South Sudan and the devastating impact the conflict is having on the country’s people. Now in its eleventh month, the conflict has killed thousands of civilians and left nearly 2 million displaced from their homes, with projections of worsening food insecurity that could put 2.5 million in crisis or emergency status. Panelists will provide an update of the political, security, and humanitarian situation and discuss U.S. and international engagement to end the conflict and mitigate its human impact. Melanie Teff of the International Rescue Committee will present the findings and recommendations of a new IRC report.
  4. The Global Response to Managing the Humanitarian Crisis: Lessons from Syria | Tuesday, November 18th | 10:00 – 2:30 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | REGISTER TO ATTENDAntónio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, will be the keynote speaker and various speakers will discuss this topic on two panels during the conference.
  5. Turkish Foreign Policy under Erdogan’s Presidency | Tuesday, November 18th | 5:00 – 7:00 | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | This topic will be discussed by Behlul Ozkan, assistant professor in the department of political science and international relations at Marmara University, and Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and a co-director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy.
  6. Implications of a Nuclear Agreement with Iran | Wednesday, November 19th | 4:00 – 6:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | A discussion with Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to Israel and the United Nations; and Former US Undersecretary of State, and Brig. Gen. Uzi Eilam, former Director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and Former Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Mission to Europe, about the wide-ranging implications of a nuclear agreement with Iran. With the Nov. 24 deadline for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program looming, the stakes for a deal between Iran and the international community are high. Many in Israel and in the United States are concerned about the implications for Israel’s security of an agreement and whether it will verifiably prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Some members of Congress may also seek to vote on legislation imposing new sanctions on Iran if an agreement is not reached soon or if they are dissatisfied with the provisions of an agreement. The event will be moderated by Stuart Eizenstat,  former US Ambassador to the European Union and Former US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.
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Lame duck flies

I’m no Asia expert, but President Obama’s performance at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing last week, in Myanmar and at the G20 in Australia looks damn good to me. Besides sporting his Chinese getup better than most of the other leaders, he has managed some serious bilateral moves:

  • Prospective lowered tariffs on high tech between China and the US;
  • New commitments by the two countries to reduce carbon emissions;
  • Agreement with Beijing on avoiding military confrontations;
  • Agreement with India on its food subsidy system that will unblock trade negotiations;
  • Strong support for democratic transition in Burma/Myanmar;
  • Embarrassment of Vladimir Putin for continuing to assert Russian troops are not in Ukraine.

Foreign travel and foreign policy are not unusual moves for a president in trouble. This one has used them well to do things that were planned and executed carefully. He is not looking or acting like a lame duck, especially if you throw in his preparations for a major executive move on immigration, his apparent willingness (in my view unwise) to block the XL pipeline from Canada, and the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran.

What he hasn’t done yet is to deal effectively with two current wars: against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Ukraine.

Despite Canadian Prime Minister’s blunt “you need to get out of Ukraine,” the Russians are still pouring men and materiel into separatist areas of southeast Ukraine. Putin was chivalrous in Beijing, offering of his coat to Xi Jinping’s wife. It behooves him to behave well towards the Chinese customers for Russia’s gas and oil.  But his best behavior did nothing to hide his decidedly aggressive stance in Europe, where Moscow is not only invading Ukraine but also challenging NATO’s borders with close approaches of aircraft. President Obama needs to think hard about whether there isn’t more we can do to respond to Russian aggression, whether by military or diplomatic means.

ISIS’ rapid advances have been stopped, but it is still consolidating its control over eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is making mistakes in doing so, including mass atrocities against Sunni tribes that will no doubt be motive for revenge by their surviving relatives. Some Sunni tribes are even welcoming Shia militias to help them fight ISIS. Iraqi government forces have reportedly broken the ISIS siege of the country’s only oil refinery, and Kurdish forces have retaken some towns in the north.

But there seems to be no hope for a serious Iraqi army offensive against ISIS before spring. While coalition air attacks make life tactically difficult for the caliphate’s fighters, they are not faltering strategically. ISIS is far more than the small terrorist group President Obama likes to talk about. It is a serious insurgency that will require someone–be it Iraqi government or Syrian opposition–to conduct a serious counter-insurgency campaign. Killing a few of its leaders and cadres is not going to turn the tide. There are reports this weekend of a plan to accelerate arming of the Syrian opposition. That is long overdue. A commitment to protect it when it moves into Syria should be forthcoming as well.

So yes, Mr. President, you had a good week in Asia. The lame duck showed he could fly. But things are still bad in Europe and the Middle East. Welcome home!

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Parties before people

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted Adnan Kocher at a roundtable discussion on Thursday. Kocher is a senior advisor on international political affairs to Lahur Talabani, Head of the Kurdistan Intelligence Service. Kocher is also chairman of the Kurdish Cultural Center in London.

What Kocher had to say about the ongoing conflict between the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and Da’ish (aka ISIS) was not especially enlightening. He called, as many others have in recent months, for a stronger anti-Da’ish policy, going beyond airstrikes and supply of small arms to approved groups. Noting that the jihadis still enjoy grassroots support from local Sunnis, Kocher stressed that it is necessary to work carefully with Sunni groups to defeat Da’ish and erode its support network. He also called for empowering of local fighters – including the Kurds – to combat the so-called Islamic State on the ground.

These jejune (though not inaccurate) observations came amidst thinly veiled sniping at Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which currently holds the most seats in the Kurdish Parliament and is led by the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani. Kocher’s affiliation is with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani (former president of Iraq), and brother of Lahur Talabani. The apparent political divisions, and implicit nepotistic factionalism within Kurdistan highlighted by Kocher over the course of the discussion was revealing of the challenges the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) faces in both its fight against Da’ish and its quest for independence.

Factionalism and nepotism among the Iraqi Kurds is nothing new. In 2009 a US report described the KDP as a family run, mafia-like organization. A quick glance at the names of those holding high office in the KRG shows the KDP dominated by the Barzani family and the PUK by the Talabani family. The two have competed with one another for years (even going to war in the Saddam Hussein era). This ongoing feuding is weakening the Kurdish position at this difficult time.

The lack of cooperation extends to the peshmerga forces. Both PUK and KDP run their own, rather like private armies. Divided chains of command as well as differing objectives and goals challenge the unity of Kurdistan’s response to Da’ish. Kocher underlined failures by the KDP peshmerga and successes by the PUK peshmerga.

Could a lack of a united framework, and even competition between the two factions, be a contributing factor in failures to push back Da’ish? In Sinjar and around Mosul the peshmerga have lost ground and continue to struggle, while Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) have held swathes of territory in Rojava, helped defend the Yazidis in Iraq, and withstood the brunt of the jihadist war machine in the town of Kobane. This despite the fact the YPG’s parent organisation, the PYD (Democratic Union Party), is banned in Syria and has no official government authority.

Kocher also frequently referenced the lack of supplies going to the Kurdish forces. Commenting on video footage of PUK peshmerga waiting on the frontline, he drew attention to lack of combat boots, poorly made uniforms, and lack of ammunition. This is surprising. The US has been explicitly funding and supplying the peshmerga since August. Even before that, well equipped and trained peshmerga could be seen in and around Erbil (KDP territory) wearing new and well-kept uniforms.

With the division between the two major Kurdish parties and their affiliated troops, it is possible that resources, funds, and equipment are unevenly distributed. There are also vast differences in operational capabilities of different peshmerga forces, exacerbated by lack of a clear and unified command structure and leading to reductions in the combat effectiveness of the KRG. For Western governments, this makes knowing to whom weapons and funds should be sent complicated.

There are also international actors with stakes in the Kurdish political factions. In recent years, the KDP has had strong ties with Turkey. Relations between Presidents Barzani and Erdogan are cordial. The PUK is backed by Iran. Kocher tried to dispel concerns over Iran’s influence on his party, claiming that the PUK instead considers Israel a friend (without acknowledging that one can be friends with Israel and still have ties to Iran). As Iran and Turkey continue to compete through local factions, their influence in Kurdish politics further serves to divide and polarize, as the two jostle for influence.

Kurdish leaders can ill afford to be playing politics. Though Da’ish is starting to be pushed back, jihadists continue to threaten KRG interests and operate in and around its borders. The KRG is facing skyrocketing costs even as it struggles to raise revenues after months of budgetary disputes with Baghdad over Kurdistan’s oil (the latest deal was announced on Thursday).

Kurdistan has been one of the few success stories of the Middle East in the past decade. Its people have grown wealthier, its infrastructure improved, and it has enjoyed stability in a volatile region. However, much of its leadership is composed of families and their followers who are mistrustful of one another. They put their parties ahead of their people. No one would deny the bravery of the peshmerga soldiers as they fight against a better armed enemy – but the political class is letting them down.

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Partition won’t work

Yesterday Tom Ricks published at a brief piece I wrote for him a couple of weeks ago on why partition of Iraq and Syria is a really bad idea. The basic reason is this:  separation of ethnic or sectarian groups sounds good, but unless they agree on the lines of separation they will sooner or later fight over where to draw them. Agreements about lines of separation are rare. Czechs and Slovaks are the classic case. Far more often, the parties disagree.

Partition proposals don’t prevent war. They cause it.

This is especially true for Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, there are substantial areas of relative homogeneity:  most people who live in Kurdistan are Kurds, most who live in Anbar and large parts of Ninewa are Sunni, and most who live south of Baghdad are Shia. But that doesn’t mean they would agree on the lines of separation.

For Sunnis, especially for those who support restoration of the caliphate, Baghdad is vital, even though it now has a population that is majority Shia (and partly Kurd). Nor will Sunnis be pleased to see Shia walk off with the lion’s share of Iraq’s massive oil reserves, which lie in the south, or Kurds walk off with much of the rest, which lies in Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk and other so-called disputed territories. Anbar’s natural gas will be little comfort, as it will take years to develop it and build pipelines to ship it out. Partition of Iraq will lead to a war likely to last a decade or more, as Sunnis seek to recover territory they regard as their own. Any guess about which Sunnis, moderates or extremists, will lead that fight?

The situation is even more complicated in Syria, where the same degree of ethnic and sectarian separation does not exist. There are islands of minorities (Kurds, Druze, Christian, Shia and other) spread out in an arc of mostly Sunnis extending from the southern border with Jordan and Israel, through Damascus, Homs and Aleppo to the north and along the Turkish to the Iraqi border. Kurds are not concentrated in one area, and only one of the three areas where they live is contiguous with Iraqi Kurdistan. Alawites are concentrated in the west along the Mediterranean coast, where they are not the majority in many communities, and inland in Damascus, where they are also not the majority.

Division of Syria along ethnic and sectarian lines would therefore mean moving millions of people, in addition to the half of the population that has already been displaced. There is really no way to do that except by force.

Let’s say however that ISIS succeeds in continuing to dominate the Sunni-majority parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Should the international community accede to that and hope the jihadists can be contained? Fat chance. They would continue to fight at least for Damascus and Baghdad, which are the historic capitals of the caliphate. And in the meanwhile they would provide safe haven for international terrorists like Khorasan, the Al Qaeda affiliate embedded for now with Jabhat al Nusra, which has just reached an accommodation with the Islamic State.

But, you might ask, aren’t the existing borders artificial? Yes, they are, but it is instructive that they were not established by Sykes and Picot, who are usually cited as the culprits. The map they signed in 1916 had Mosul in the French zone (which is the ancestor of Syria), not the British (which is the ancestor of Iraq):

Sykes and Picot did not draw today's lines
Sykes and Picot did not draw today’s lines

When ISIS captured Mosul, it was not destroying the Sykes/Picot division but restoring it, in part. The lines we attribute to Sykes and Picot today were drawn in 1923, by the Treaty of Lausanne, though Mosul’s fate was still uncertain (and was supposed to be determined by the League of Nations). But the British were already there and kept it.

The virtue of the existing lines is just that:  they exist. Moving them necessarily creates winners and losers. If the losers are not happy with the result, they will fight. Partition won’t work.

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