Day: January 22, 2011

Adult supervision needed

The New York Times reports that President Karzai has agreed to convene Parliament Wednesday, after making a genuine mess of things by trying to get changes made in the results of last September’s elections.  Somehow I have a feeling we have not heard the last of this story, but even thus far it tells us something about Afghanistan.

The President had good reason to be unhappy with the outcome of the September parliamentary elections:  due to insecurity in the parts of the country where they live, Pashtuns are underrepresented, especially in Ghazni province, and some of his favorites did not get in.  The last parliament had become increasingly aggressive in questioning ministers, claiming it had ultimate responsibility for constitutional interpretation, and in general exercising some oversight of the executive branch.  This is not fun for any president, especially one who lacks a strong power base of his own and is fighting a counter-insurgency war with allies he regards as fickle while he tries to negotiate a political settlement with the enemy.  A little support in parliament would be nice.

What Karzai tried to do was use a panel of judges he appointed expressly for the purpose to outflank the internationally supported electoral commissions that were supposed to have final say on the election results.  Normally I might cheer a president who is feisty enough to tell the internationals where to go, but that would not have been the appropriate reaction in this instance.  It is hard always to credit the rule of law arguments (“integrity of the electoral process” and all that) my colleagues make, but every once in a while something is so blatantly abusive that we should, if only because the Afghans who did vote are entitled to the parliament they voted for.

So what does this story tell us about Afghanistan?  It tells us that the international intervention there needs to maintain its vigilance and act when necessary to counterbalance abuses.

But it also tells us that the Afghans have their own balancing mechanisms–President Karzai apparently backed down after a very long lunch with the people elected to the new parliament, who had been threatening to open their session without him.  Maybe, just maybe, the adult supervision that is needed can come in the future a bit more from Afghans than from the foreigners.

We’ve got our own politicians to keep on the straight and narrow.  As well as an ex-spy and his friends to rein in.

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Darkest hour before dawn, or just a flop?

Laura Rozen reports in detail on the failure to make progress on nuclear issues in the P5+1 talks with Iran in Istanbul. The press will no doubt say this is a flop.

I certainly wouldn’t argue it is success, but note the absence of more threatened sanctions, the “open door” to further, unscheduled discussions, and the updated fuel swap proposal left on the table for the Iranians to take back to Tehran.  This smells to me like the beginning of a negotiation, not the end of one, at least on the P5 end.

The sticking point seems to be recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium.  This is a complicated legal issue that I won’t pretend to elucidate.  Suffice it to say that I don’t know of any country that has given up enrichment technology once it has acquired it, even if it may have stopped enrichment or limited its extent.  We may not worry anymore about Brazil or Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, but it is not because they have given up their enrichment technology.

Iran won’t either–that is quite clear.  The P5+1 are trying to finesse this issue with the avowedly pragmatic swap agreement, which would remove stocks of enriched uranium from Iran and limit the extent of enrichment.  But the Iranians are wanting an acknowledgment of their “right” to enrich even as they give up the enriched material.  This doesn’t strike me as an insoluble problem–and it has appeared in the recent past that Hillary Clinton was flexible on the issue.

That said, the P5+1 will want to be certain that Iran has seriously abandoned its nuclear weapons program before agreeing, either explicitly or implicitly, to Iran’s continuing to enrich.  That would require more intrusive inspections and a more serious statement by Tehran of its commitment.  Other countries have moved in this direction–Argentina, Brazil, Libya and South Africa are not such bad analogues.

It is impossible to be hopeful that Tehran will go in their direction.  Two factors weigh heavily in the direction of keeping the Iranian nuclear weapons option open:  a fragmented but nationalist political leadership that makes it difficult for any one component to compromise without being sharply criticized by others; real regional incentives to gain the power and prestige that some think would accrue to Iran as a nuclear weapons state, or even as a potential nuclear weapon state.

Tehran also had reason to be belligerent and recalcitrant during this particular meeting.  The murders of its nuclear scientists, the apparently successful Stuxnet attack on its centrifuges, and Israel’s apparent assessment that Iran would not be able to get nuclear weapons until 2015 have combined to lessen the likelihood of a military attack.

That said I doubt this is the end of the negotiations.  Too much is at stake for Iran, Israel and the P5.  Before reaching any solid conclusion, let’s wait for Acting Foreign Minister Salehi’s reaction to what the Iranian delegation brings back from Istanbul.

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