Low expectations met

The P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) finally met in Istanbul today with Iran and brought forth the squeak of a mouse.  According to EU High Representative Katherine Ashton:

We have agreed that the non-proliferation treaty forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement to ensure all the obligations under the treaty are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator, put it this way:

We expect that we should enjoy our rights in parallel with our obligations (toward the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty).

At least there is overlap in those two statements about what little happened.  They also agreed to meet again in Baghdad May 23, with some expert meetings likely in the meanwhile.

For those with low expectations, consider them met.  But if you are feeling urgency for a clear and unequivocal Iranian commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons, or to come clean on their past activities, or to end uranium enrichment, or stop enrichment at 5% (or at 20%), or to dismantle the underground enrichment facility at Fordo, you’ll need to wait longer.  None of those things seem to have been discussed, despite their salience in Washington.

If the Europeans think that proceeding in this ambiguous way at an excruciatingly slow pace will somehow keep the dogs of war at bay, I’ve got bad news for them.  Delay is surely one of Tehran’s objectives.  Unless there is a good deal more agreed than the parties have acknowledged in public, the Iranians will likely get their delay, but have to suffer the consequences of impending sanctions as well.   If they also continue to enrich, in defiance of the UN Security Council, it seems to me likely that someone will try to stop them.

The Europeans prefer to call these meetings “E3+3”  rather than P5+1.  I guess that’s three Europeans plus three unidentified also-rans (U.S., China and Russia).  I’d be the first to claim that the Europeans have in the past played a useful moderating role vis-a-vis Iran.  But I expect it won’t be long before the Americans or the Iranians, or both, decide that they need to try to settle the matter without three European countries that are supposed to have a common foreign policy and whose instincts call for misty generality rather than solid specificity.  It was reported and denied that the Americans sought a bilateral meeting in Istanbul that the Iranians refused.

Yes, the Istanbul meeting has to be counted a “constructive” step forward, but the Europeans are kidding themselves if they think they can “manage” this conflict as they do their own disputes or those in the Balkans.  They need to pick up the pace and meet far higher expectations if they are going to succeed in avoiding a sad end to this worthy initiative.


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Luck needs a policy

We got lucky Friday:  the ceasefire in Syria mostly held.  But luck is not a policy.  Today things are falling apart.  Belligerents adhere to ceasefires for many reasons, including to give themselves a break and to reorganize and rearm.  When they see their antagonists doing likewise, they may figure they are losing relative advantage and go back to fighting.  Certainly it is unwise to rely on good intentions, especially when one of the antagonists is Bashar al Assad.

What is to be done?  The monitors the UN Security Council approved today are part of the answer.  Inserting them will give the international community eyes and ears that it today lacks.  That will tamp down violence and provide a means of holding one or the other side accountable when it happens.  Some may doubt whether the Arab League observers did much good, but certainly the situation in many places deteriorated badly after their withdrawal.  No ceasefire is going to last long in Syria without a means of policing it.

The Annan plan has important elements other than the ceasefire, which still need to be implemented.  Hillary Clinton is precisely correct to be arguing for withdrawal of heavy weapons from Syrian population centers, freedom of expression, humanitarian access and freedom of movement for international journalists.  But don’t expect Bashar al Assad to comply with these additional provisions of the Annan plan unless a lot of pressure is brought to bear and Moscow puts its foot down.

It is vital that Free Syria Army–the not so organized armed wing of the rebellion–hold its fire, giving the diplomatic machinery a chance to start up.  If the opposition turns to violence–even in response to regime violence–the prospects for a negotiated solution will dim quickly.

What the opposition needs to do now is show its strength nonviolently–yesterday’s widespread demonstrations were a great start–and prepare for negotiations.  Its lack of clear leadership and structure are an advantage while protesting, but fragmentation will turn to disadvantage once negotiations start.  It is also important that the opposition make as many friendly contacts with the security forces as possible while the ceasefire holds, hoping to prevent them from returning to repression once it breaks down.  If the opposition can make Bashar al Assad doubt the reliability of his security forces, good things can happen.

The critical wording of the provisional Security Council resolution was this (I haven’t yet been able to verify where this wording is in the resolution that passed within the hour):

…a Syrian-led political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations, ethnicities or beliefs, including through commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition;

This is obviously, and importantly, intended to signal to Syria’s many minorities that they will be treated correctly in the transition.  Reference to the “whole spectrum” of the Syrian opposition opens the door to inclusion of groups not part of the Syrian National Council, which does not have adequate representation of on-the-ground protest groups.  But it will also open the door to what could be interminable arguing over who should be at the table.

Uniting the opposition behind a single set of negotiating positions and a broadly representative delegation is the next critical step, if the six-point plan has even partial success.  The responsibility is more for Syrians than foreigners, but I can at least hope that the U.S. and Europe are trying hard to insist on a single platform, carried to the negotiations by people representing the full spectrum of diversity in Syria.  Luck needs a policy if is to last.

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U.S.-Iraq relations after the withdrawal

I’m speaking at noon with Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and former Iraqi UN Deputy Perm Rep Feisal Istrabadi at the Middle East Institute (the event is at SEIU, 1800 Massachusetts).  Here are the notes I’ve prepared for myself  (but I’ll vary it depending on what they say):

–Tony Blinken, speaking last month at Center for American Progress, said:  “Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous…than at any time in recent history.”

–There are some indications that violence, especially from Al Qaeda in Iraq, is up since late last year.  But even if true, Tony’s statement sets a low bar and the gains are still reversible.

–If our goal is a “sovereign, stable, self-reliant country, with a representative government that could become a partner in the region, and no safe haven for terrorists,” we are not there yet.

–On security, Iraq still endures an unacceptably high number of attacks:  deaths per month in politically motivated attacks are way down from the peak, but they are still sufficient  to keep sectarian tensions high, which is what Saddam Hussein loyalist Izzat al Duri said was intended in his recent video.

–The economy is not really in good shape.  High Iraqi oil production helps Baghdad’s budget and moderates world prices, which Americans like, but it does not an economy make.

–Democracy in Iraq does not yet include an independent judiciary, protection of basic human rights, vigorous parliamentary oversight, effective provincial and local governments or fulfillment of many constitutionally mandated procedures.

–Looking to the future, there are three fundamental threats to Iraq that might vitiate U.S. efforts there:

  • First is the threat of breakdown:  an Iraq that becomes chaotic and dysfunctional, a more or less failed state like the one Prime Minister Maliki took over in 2006.
  • Second is the threat of breakup:  an Iraq that fragments along ethnic and sectarian lines, with broad regional consequences as each of the neighbors seeks advantage.
  • Third is autocracy:  fear of breakdown or breakup may motivate Maliki, or someone else, to centralize power and refuse to transfer it in accordance with the will of its people, expressed in verifiably free and fair elections.

–None of these Iraqs can be the kind of partner the United States seeks, but I won’t spend much time on the first two possibilities.  It is the third that worries people these days.

–We need an Iraq that respects the rights and will of its people.

–The question is what influence we have, apart from the usual diplomatic jawboning, which Jim Jeffrey and the embassy have mastered beyond a shadow of doubt.

–There are four specific potential sources of U.S. influence in today’s Iraq:  arms, aid, oil and what—for lack of a better term—I would call relationships.

Arms transfers, some people say, give us “leverage”:  we should make providing our support conditional on Iraqi adherence to democratic norms, or meaningful power-sharing, or depoliticization of the security forces.

–Those are all worthy objectives, but this seems to me easy to say and difficult to do.  Once you’ve embarked on a program of transferring F-16s, it is going to take a big issue to override the vested interests involved.  Conditionality would encourage the Iraqis to get their arms elsewhere.

–The best we can do it seems to me is to make it clear—preferably in writing in advance—that none of the weapons systems the U.S. provides can be used against Iraq’s own citizens exercising their legal rights.

–We should also make it clear that we will cooperate only with a professional army under civilian control.  But Iraq’s specific governing arrangements are no longer ours to determine, so long as they remain representative and democratic.

Aid is a more flexible tool.  It should be targeted towards democracy and rule of law.  I would focus on encouraging a more independent judiciary and promoting a civil society that will demand real democracy while carefully monitoring government expenditures and corruption.

–To be clear:  there is no reason why the U.S. should still be spending hundreds of millions in Iraq for economic and agricultural development.  The Iraqis have more than enough incentive, and their own resources, to do those things.

–Iraqi resources come from exported oil, more than 90% of which is shipped through the Gulf under Iranian guns, even when the existing pipeline to Turkey is operating.

–This is where we have so far failed clamorously:  shipment of Iraq’s oil by pipeline to the north and west—once Syria undergoes its transition—would help to reduce Iranian pressure on Iraq and align Iraqi interests with those of Europe and the United States.

–Of course this means Iraq’s oil, and eventually gas as well, would have to traverse Kurdish and Sunni-populated territory, which means domestic political reconciliation is a prerequisite.

–Some will see that as an insurmountable obstacle.  I see it as a challenge, one well worth overcoming.  Iraq should be tied umbilically to Turkey and the Mediterranean, not to Hormuz.

–Finally:  relationships.  American influence inside Iraq comes in part from good relationships with the main political players, with the obvious but I hope declining exception of the Sadrists.

–While they may still resent the occupation, Iraqis of most stripes look to the Americans for protection.  Iraqis of all stripes believe that the United States is vital to re-establishing their country’s regional role.

–We should be ready and willing to help, expecting however that Iraq will align with the United States where it really counts:  right now, that means supporting the P5+1 effort on Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab League plan for Syria.

–And it means pumping as much oil as possible into a world market concerned with the prospect of war with Iran.

–Just a word in conclusion about the long term.  Maliki, whatever his virtues and vices, is not for ever if democracy survives in Iraq.

–We need to use the Strategic Framework Agreement to ensure that our institutions and Iraq’s institutions, our people and Iraq’s people, our economy and Iraq’s economy, our culture and Iraq’s culture, are tied closely together.

–I’ll be glad if the Assistant Secretary tells me I am wrong, but I have the impression that we still have not learned how to fully exploit the potential of this agreement to sharply increase the interconnectedness between Iraq and the United States.

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Working or not?

While Andrew Tabler, surely one of the best Syria analysts in DC, already denounced the ceasefire as a failure yesterday, the Washington Post this morning suggests it is holding.

The truth is we really don’t know yet just what is going on.  Ceasefires often need a few days to take hold, and they just as often fall apart quickly.  Tabler is correct to point out that the Syrian military did not fulfill the requirement that it withdraw from population centers, and that Bashar al Assad is clearly intending to keep his police and paramilitaries active.  But his army may well need a respite.  The elite units comprised of unquestionably loyal soldiers have been hyperactive for more than a year.  The opposition could definitely use a few days to refresh itself.

If the ceasefire is even partly effective, it will provide an opportunity to chart a more productive course than the chaotic war that the Syrian government is conducting against its own citizens.  The resistance is gradually weakening.  We should not delude ourselves:  Bashar al Assad may not be any more able to beat the armed insurgency his forces face than the Americans in Afghanistan can defeat the Taliban, but he may well be able to hold on to his seat in Damascus.  In the meanwhile, even an insurgency doomed to failure may roil security and politics in the Middle East in ways that are unpredictable but unlikely to be salubrious.

The best way forward is to use whatever respite the ceasefire provides to strengthen the Syrian revolution’s commitment to nonviolence and enable it to speak with one voice.  Tomorrow, Friday, will be an important day.  If the opposition can convince large numbers of Syrians to demonstrate one way or another that they want Bashar to go, his generals will be thinking about escape routes.  But if the cease fire collapses in chaos, with the blame shared, we are headed back into a war Bashar cannot win but won’t lose.

If the ceasefire by some miracle does hold, the question of negotiations will quickly arise.  The opposition has said it will only discuss Bashar al Assad’s departure and the subsequent transition.  This is Bashar’s “red line”:  he seems to believe he is winning and will insist on staying in power.  The only thing I can think of that will change that is a Russian or Iranian diktat.  The Iranians will hold on tight–they haven’t got a chance of maintaining their strong position in Syria, and its role as transit agent to Hizbollah, once a Sunni-majority transition regime comes to power.  The Russians likely have a price–at the least, continuation of their port access and arms sales.

If there are going to be negotiations, the opposition will have a hard time getting organized to engage in them.  Their many factions are still jockeying for power.  A leaderless revolution has many advantages during the repression–it can’t be decapitated or readily coopted–but once negotiations start structure and discipline become vital ingredients for success.  Let’s hope the Syrian opposition is not quite as disorganized and fractious as it has appeared in recent months.

PS:  Tonight in Aleppo:

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No nukes or war

Tomorrow’s P5 + 1 (that’s the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China + Germany) talks in Istanbul with Iran promise to be the beginning of the end of the story of the Iranian nuclear program.  Either these talks will open the door to negotiating a settlement over the next few months that definitively ends Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons, or we’ll be headed down a path that leads to an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with unforeseeable consequences.

According to David Sanger and Steven Erlanger, the opening P5 gambit will ask for closing a recently completed underground enrichment facility at Fordo, no enrichment above 5% and shipment out of Iran of all uranium enriched to higher levels.

That is not enough for my friends at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs.  Michael Singh argues:

Rather than maintaining a narrow focus on closure of the Fordo plant and suspension of Iran’s program of highly enriched uranium, the United States should insist that Iran suspend all of its uranium enrichment activities, take steps to address International Atomic Energy Agency concerns about its nuclear work, including coming clean about its weaponization research, and submit to intrusive monitoring and verification. Far from extreme, these points are what are required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 and preceding resolutions, to which Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany (the P5+1) have previously agreed. The Obama administration should also insist that Iran roll back the work it has done since those resolutions passed — such as by transporting its enriched uranium stockpiles out of the country, dismantling the Fordo facility and stopping work on advanced centrifuges.

Singh’s colleague Simon Henderson argues that allowing any enrichment in Iran would leave the door open to nuclear weapons development.

These are more like the terms that could be imposed on a thoroughly submissive Iran than on the defiant and feisty one that actually exists.  In Istanbul, several of the P5 are likely to be willing to accept significantly less.  While Singh and others argue that Iran is on the ropes and facing a credible military threat from Israel if not the U.S., there is no reason to believe that Israel has the capacity to inflict any more than a temporary setback to the Iranian nuclear program.  An American attack might be more consequential, but it would still have to be repeated every year or two ad inifinitum to prevent a redoubled nuclear effort in Iran from eventually succeeding.

The vital issue for the United States should be this:  has Iran committed itself clearly and unequivocally not to develop nuclear weapons and to allow the kind of intrusive inspections that would allow the international community to ascertain the current state of its nuclear weapons-related efforts and verify compliance in the future?  Iran is not going to give up enrichment entirely, and dismantling the Fordo plant is really unnecessary if it is subject to tight IAEA inspections.  Even the 5% enrichment limit should be negotiable, provided Iran demonstrates that it needs more highly enriched material and the enrichment facilities are under inspected regularly.

We have every reason to expect Iran to compromise, but it is not wise to seek its surrender.  Doing so will split the P5 and wreck the prospects for multilateral approval of military action, should Iran be unwilling to commit itself unequivocally and veriably not to develop nuclear weapons.


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Grasping at straws

That’s what the thinktanksphere is doing on Syria:  Bruce Jones at Foreignpolicy.com offers a hazy scenario in which the Syrian army allows a Turkish-led “stabilization force” in with a wink and a nod, even without a UN Security Council mandate.  Fat chance.  Only if Bashar al Assad thinks he has won a total victory and needs the internationals to pick up the pieces.

What no one wants to admit in Washington is the obvious.  The most likely scenario is Bashar al Assad continuing in power and fighting a low-level insurgency against Free Syria Army units.  This is a very bad scenario for the United States and anyone else in the world concerned about stability in the Middle East, which is just about anyone who uses oil.  We have already seen refugee flows to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.  Deadly shots have been fired across the border into Lebanon  and Turkey.

Of these countries, only Iraq is an important source of oil, but that is no small matter with gasoline at or above $4 per gallon in the U.S. and Iraq pumping all it can (around 2.7 million barrels per day).  With Saudi Arabia and Qatar talking openly about arming the opposition in Syria, how long do we think it will take for Syria and Iran figure out ways to retaliate?  Even hard talk can cause increases in oil prices.  Damascus and Tehran, which are heavily dependent on oil revenue, are hoping that the threat of regional chaos will enrich their coffers, weaken the American economy and make us accept Bashar al Assad’s continuation in power.

This is not an easy situation, and it may endure.  We need to be clear about what does and does not further U.S. interests.  The goal should be the end of the Assad regime.  That would serve not only U.S. interests, but just about everyone else’s except Iran’s.  Even Russia is not going to find Assad’s Syria the reliable partner it was in the past.  But while Bashar persists we need to try to ensure that the means used to achieve his downfall do not cause more harm than necessary.  Arming the Syrian opposition plays into Bashar’s narrative:  terrorists are attacking a regime ready to reform.

Recommitment of the opposition to nonviolent seems impossible to many at this point, but in my view it could be game-changing.  A real opportunity exists tomorrow, when the UN-sponsored ceasefire is supposed to take effect.  The Syrian government says it will stop all “military fighting” as of 6 am tomorrow. Admittedly this leaves big loopholes:  how about police and the paramilitary forces known as Shabiha?  Who is there to verify compliance?  But the right response from the opposition is to make a parallel announcement that it will halt all military action at the same time.  That will provide an opportunity for a return to peaceful demonstrations.

The possibility is less imaginary than might appear.  Most Syrians are not taking up arms against Bashar al Assad, and those who do are not having a lot of success.   Here is a nonviolent “flash” demonstration said to be in front of the Syrian parliament yesterday, with demonstrators holding signs that say “stop the bloodshed”:

The revolutionary leadership would do well to ask the Free Syria Army to take a break tomorrow morning and see what happens.  If nothing else, doing so will gain the revolution significant credit internationally.

Admittedly I too am grasping at straws.  But it seems nothing else is left.

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