March 27, 2015
Number 03/15 #05
This Update provides important analysis of potential problems, questions and complexities associated with the US-led effort to finalise a nuclear pact with Iran, with a “framework” agreement due by the end of this month. It also includes an important piece on the history and implications of recent developments in Yemen.
First up, we offer an important piece by three expert commentators, raising questions about the declared goal of reaching an agreement that will leave Iran at least one year from bomb construction. Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy head CLICK HERE. What’s more, Heinonen also published a more technical analysis of the planned agreement’s alleged provision to allow Iran to continue operating 6,000 or more centrifuges – finding that this number makes no sense unless it is for military purposes. A task force of top former US officials has also released a report raising questions about the proposed deal.
Next up is Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post discussing the argument made by the US Administration that the only alternative to its proposed deal is war. He notes that the Administration itself contradicts this argument because, when officials are asked what they will do if Iran declines their deal, they make it clear that they will not go to war, but continue with current forms of pressure such as “sanctions, sabotage and the threat of military action.” Diehl argues this shows the debate is about costs versus benefits of different options, not war versus peace. And he then offers a sophisticated discussion of how the deal is likely to shape the US strategy of trying to stabilise the whole shattered region in future, because pressure on Iran will become difficult as it would risk destroying the agreement. For his insightful argument in full, CLICK HERE. Also looking at the regional consequences of a nuclear deal is former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton in the New York Times yesterday.
Finally, this Update features some analysis from Ron Ben Yishai, one of Israel’s top security journalists, on the situation in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has just commenced military action, backed by other Arab states and the US, in response to the latest advances of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Ben Yishai blames US mishandling of the situation in Yemen for the recent deterioration – arguing the Administration was so focused on fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen that it let the Iranian-backed Houthi threat develop unchecked. He offers a grim warning of the strategic consequences should the Houthis and their Iranian masters gain control over the vital Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at the bottom of the Red Sea, through which most East-West shipping passes. He has much more informed analysis. To read it all, CLICK HERE. Also strongly recommended on Yemen are pieces by Michael Totten – who summarises the complexities and international dangers of Yemen’s burgeoning civil war – and Avi Issacharoff, of the Times of Israel, who notes that the Arab states are even more concerned than Israel at this latest example of the US refusal to do anything about Iranian-backed military operations, such as the advance of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Readers may also be interested in:
- New reports about elements of the nuclear talks with Iran: A report that the US-led P5+1 have dropped a demand that Iran provide cooperation with an IAEA probe into its past military nuclear efforts before the deal goes into effect; a report that the P5+1 are now prepared to allow Iran to keep some centrifuges at the fortified Fordow site, contrary to their past demands; a report that Iran is demanding that the “framework” agreement to be reached by the end of the month, and outlining a final deal to be reached by the end of June, be a verbal “understanding” only.
- More on the regional consequences of recognising Iran as a nuclear threshold state from Israeli academic experts Yoel Guzansky and Udi Dekel.
- Three articles on what may be the consequences for the nuclear talks of the reported ill-health of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the possibility a successor will need to be chosen, from Washington Institute Iran scholar Mehdi Khalaji, Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz, and Sohrab Ahmari of the Wall Street Journal.
- Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani reveals ambitions to control Jordan as well as Iraq and Lebanon.
- An advisor to Iranian President Rouhani claims Iran is an “empire”, Iraq is “our capitol” and its rightful “sphere of influence” extends from China, north of India, all the way to Turkey.
- turning a blind eye to the people’s suffering in my country for the sake of a ‘deal’ with the mullahs of Tehran” and abandoning the forces of liberalism in the Middle East.
- Republican US Presidential candidate Jeb Bush critiques American policy toward Iran and Israel.
- A good article on the realities of the Libyan civil war.
- Isi Leibler offers a tribute to veteran Israeli diplomat and public servant and former Ambassador to Australia Yehuda Avner, who passed away on Tuesday.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Letters from AIJAC’s Dr. Colin Rubenstein about Israeli-Palestinian issues post-Israeli election in the Australian, Australian Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald.
- Allon Lee discusses a new report by senior US military officers which concurs with the views expressed by British military officer Col. Richard Kemp during his recent visit to Australia, namely that the performance of the IDF in Gaza last year actually featured state of the art efforts to limit civilian casualties.
- Sharyn Mittelman on more aspects of the Israeli election last week.
As negotiations between Iran and the great powers press forward, Secretary of State John F. Kerry seems to have settled on this defense of any agreement: The terms will leave Iran at least a year away from obtaining a nuclear bomb, thus giving the world plenty of time to react to infractions. The argument is meant to reassure, particularly when a sizable enrichment capacity and a sunset clause appear to have already been conceded. A careful assessment, however, reveals that a one-year breakout time may not be sufficient to detect and reverse Iranian violations.
Once the United States had an indication that Iran was violating an agreement, a bureaucratic process would be necessary to validate the information. It could be months before the director of national intelligence would be confident enough to present a case for action to the president. Several U.S. intelligence agencies, the Energy Department and national nuclear laboratories would need a chance to sniff the data to be convinced that a technical breach had occurred. Only after this methodical review was finished could the director go to the White House with conclusions and recommendations.
Given that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be the on-site inspection organization responsible for the verification of an agreement, the United States’ scoop would have to be forwarded to that body. Of course, both the speed and the extent of U.S. sharing would be affected by the need to protect sensitive human or technical sources of information. Only then would IAEA representatives begin talking with their Iranian counterparts about gaining access to disputed sites or activities. History suggests the Iranians would engage in protracted negotiations and much arcane questioning of the evidence. Iran could eventually offer some access while holding back key data and personnel. It would be only after tortured discussions that the IAEA could proclaim itself dissatisfied with Iran’s reaction. This process also could take months.
Should the indication of infractions originate with the IAEA, the United States would likewise want to validate the findings itself, which would also be time-consuming.
Once the IAEA arrived at a verdict of noncompliance, it would forward its grievances to the U.N. Security Council for adjudication. The United States would have to convince the other member states invested in the agreement - including veto-wielding Russia and China – that the accord was being violated and that forceful action was needed. Time would be spent quarrelling over divergent views, with several outcomes possible, including a Security Council presidential statement or a resolution whose content would need to be agreed upon. And only then could new economic sanctions be imposed on Iran. So, add at least a few more months.
Could sanctions really make a meaningful impact on Iran in whatever time, if any, remained in a one-year scenario? Any sanctions would take time to stress Iran’s economy, particularly in the aftermath of an agreement that paved the way for the return of trade and investment. Of course, the United States would not have to wait for the economic pressure to work and could use force against Iran without U.N. endorsement. However, since the advent of nuclear weapons, the United States has negotiated arms-control agreements with an entire spectrum of adversaries and has never used force in response to violations.
And the reality is that any cheating by Iran would always be incremental and never egregious. Throughout the duration of an agreement, there would be occasional reports of Iran enriching to unacceptably high levels and revelations of unreported nuclear installations and experimentation in weapon designs. Iran’s habit of lulling the world with a cascade of small infractions is an ingenious way to advance its program without provoking a crisis. In the end, a year simply may not be enough time to build an international consensus on measures to redress Iranian violations.
In the midst of all the typical Washington political cacophony about the progress of the negotiations, what is lost is that an accord between the United States and Iran would be the most consequential arms-control agreement of the post-Cold War period. It would determine the level of stability in the Middle East and impact global nuclear nonproliferation norms. With stakes so high, we need a national debate about the nature and parameters of any agreement. The right venue for that debate is the halls of Congress. No agreement can be considered viable or enduring without such legislative approbation.
Michael Hayden led the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009 and the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005. Olli Heinonen is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Back to Top
There is a revealing contradiction in the Obama administration’s pre-defense of a nuclear deal with Iran. The White House claims that Israeli and Republican critics have no alternative, other than war. But President Obama recently reiterated that he is ready to ‘walk away’ from a bad deal â and that the chances are no better than even that Iran will accept his terms.
So is war the only alternative for Obama? Evidently not. When deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes was recently asked how the United States would prevent Iran from racing to build nuclear weapons after a pact expires, he said: ‘The fact of the matter is, the same type of options we have in place today to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will be available to the president of the United States in 10, 15 years.’
It follows that those options also will be available in 10 to 15 weeks, if necessary. Sanctions, sabotage and the threat of military action, combined with good intelligence and international inspections, have prevented Iran from building a weapon for the last dozen years. Even though its nuclear infrastructure has expanded, inspectors and Western intelligence agencies have not detected a ‘military dimension’ to the program since 2003.
While it’s possible that Iran would respond to a collapse in the talks by building bombs, that wouldn’t be in keeping with its previous practice. Nor would it be easy to carry off at a time when the economy is being hammered by plummeting oil revenue as well as sanctions. History suggests Tehran would make a show of installing more centrifuges while being careful not to cross any red lines drawn by Israel or the United States.
The Obama administration will argue that its deal will provide more assurance that Iran will remain non-nuclear for the next decade, with less cost and risk to the United States. Depending on the fine print of the accord, that may be true. But this, then, becomes a discussion not of war or peace, but of risks and trade-offs. An Iran constrained by a deal would be unconstrained by economic sanctions; inspections would be more rigorous, but a determination that Iran was cheating might require the concurrence of Russia, China and the U.N. Security Council.
The most important difference between deal and no-deal is one Obama has tried to obscure. That is the kind of relationship the United States will have with Iran in the coming years and what U.S. strategy will be for restoring order in a shattered, terrorist-infested Middle East.
In a new paper, Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, a former Obama Mideast envoy, argues, as I have, that the United States must choose between forging a new regional order with or against Iran. That choice, in turn, depends on the nuclear deal. ‘Without an agreement, it is impossible to imagine cooperation with Iran on regional issues,’ writes Indyk. ‘With an agreement, collaboration … becomes possible.’
The potential for such collaboration is deeply alarming to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran’s other Middle Eastern enemies, for whom its pursuit of nuclear capability is a subset of its campaign to become the region’s hegemon. Consequently, Obama has downplayed this aspect of the diplomacy in recent weeks. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was even dispatched to Saudia Arabia to declare that ‘we are not seeking a grand bargain.’
Nevertheless, the geopolitical ramifications of a deal are inescapable. Without it, Iran will unambiguously remain a hostile power to be contained. With it, the Obama administration will likely seek understandings with Iran on the future of Iraq and Syria - and any action against the Islamic republic will have to be weighed against its potential to blow up the accord. Thus, much depends on the hope that the nuclear pact ‘could lead to a more moderated [Iranian] policy that would be good for the United States, for Israel, and for the whole region,’ as Rhodes put it.
Indyk bluntly argues that ‘it is fanciful to imagine that the United States could convince Iran to shift from the region’s most threatening revisionist power and become instead a partner in establishing a new order.’ He favors a U.S. strategy of rebuilding stability with its traditional allies. That course would be natural if the talks break down, but could it be balanced with a nuclear accord? Perhaps: Indyk proposes ‘providing a nuclear deterrent umbrella to Israel and Saudi Arabia.’
The point is that Obama’s negotiations with Iran are not just about whether it will obtain a nuclear weapon; they are about the future of the Middle East. Notwithstanding the White House spin, the outcome is unlikely to lead to war in the near future. But it may determine who wins the long-term contest for influence between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
Back to Top
Analysis: The Americans were so focused on fighting al-Qaeda that they failed to see the bigger danger brewing in Yemen; and now they are taking a back seat while Saudi Arabia fights the Houthi so as to not upset Iran.
Ron Ben Yishai
The United States has once again messed up big time – this time in Yemen, where it underestimated the military might of the Houthis, who are backed by Iran and Sunni tribes loyal to the old regime. It’s not that the US lacked intelligence – the Americans had, and still have, more intelligence in Yemen than anyone else, including the Iranians.
The Americans also understand the strategic significance of the capture of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait by a Shiite tribe loyal to Iran, which now controls the entrance to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. But the US National Security Council and President Barack Obama were so hell-bent on the need to fight al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen that they failed to see the much greater threat being created right under their noses.
Fortunately for Obama, the Pentagon had already ordered an evacuation of American military intelligence personnel and Special Forces operating against al-Qaeda out of an airbase in Yemen. The order came a week ago and on Tuesday, the Houthi captured the base. The American military and its intelligence community were already far away, and an even bigger fiasco was avoided.
The question remains as to what caused the American blindness, and whether there were any preventive steps they could have taken. The reason why is fairly clear: The lack of US vision stemmed mainly from its incorrect assessment of the Houthis’ strength, but they also did not want to upset the Iranians at a critical stage in the formulation of an agreement on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Even now, after the Saudis have already swung into action, the Americans prefer to “lead from behind,” like they did in Libya, while maintaining an even lower profile. They’re only providing the Saudi with intelligence on targets inside Yemen and on the progress of Houthi forces towards the capital of southern Yemen, Aden, and towards the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb.
The Americans, who have dozens of drones operating in the area, have excellent intelligence on what’s going on there at any given moment, and they pass this information to the Saudi air force, with its F-15 and F-16 warplanes, as well as to the air forces of other Gulf states and Jordan and Egypt, who are also taking part in the operation. But unlike in Libya, the Americans are not providing actual assistance. Again, so they won’t upset the Iranians.
But the American failure in Yemen is not the main story here. The Houthi takeover of southern Yemen and the threat to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait is the main danger, because it allows Iran to block the main international shipping lanes through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to Asia and East Africa, at any given moment.
The threat of blocking major shipping lanes is actually a global threat that also affects Europe, but primarily the countries for which the Suez Canal and the Red Sea are the main commercial shipping lanes. Israel is at the top of this list, while Iran could also easily threaten Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.
The Americans can no longer quickly dispatch their aircraft carriers from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf in time of need, or to offer military support in case of war in the Persian Gulf, because they will have to take into account the fact the Iranians could block their passage through their base in Bab-el-Mandeb.
This is also the reason Iran coordinated efforts to support the Houthi in Yemen, taking advantage of the chaos in the country to insert its proxies. Iran has maneuvered in Yemen using the exact same policy it adopted in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It is not using its own forces, but rather finds a “messenger” to do its bidding.
Iran recognized the opportunities in Yemen, where all-out war is raging. It’s not the Houthis who are taking over Yemen, in the same way the Islamic State is taking over Iraq. The Houthis’ success is largely owed to the help they receive from Yemen’s ousted ruler and his people, who maintain control a large part of Yemeni security forces, its intelligence organizations and especially the Yemeni air force.
It’s not for nothing that the Houthis managed to take over the central airbase in al-Anad so quickly. The plane that bombed the residence of the incumbent president, who took refuge in Aden, left from that very airbase. The Houthis, who have 7,000-10,000 fighters, are not the only ones who work for Iran. There are also Sunni tribes, armed Sunni militias, and units of the Yemeni army still loyal to the ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh who work for the Iranians and receive support from Tehran.
Once again Iran took advantage of the chaos created by the upheaval in the Arab world to achieve its own goals. But this time, Saudi Arabia, realizing salvation would not come from the US, went to war. It’s understandable. The Houthi takeover of Yemen leaves Saudi Arabia surrounded from all directions by forces loyal to Iran. If Iran wants to, it could not only paralyze the cities in the western part of Saudi Arabia and cause trouble in the entire kingdom, but also stop movement of pilgrims to Mecca via the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
As soon as Iran and its allies gain control the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, on top of controlling the Strait of Hormuz, they can cut off the oil and gas supply to almost the entire world. This is a global threat and a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. This is why the newly crowned king Salman put himself at the head of a Muslim coalition spanning from Pakistan to Egypt, which is fighting on the ground and in the air in an attempt to stop the Houthi takeover of southern Yemen.
Emulating successful fight against IS
This coalition has some 150 fighter jets and 150,000 Saudi ground troops. This is a significant force. Talks of this force and the need to stop the Houthis in Yemen have been ongoing for several months but it was only when the Houthis, aided by Iran, started advancing on the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, that the Saudis realized that if they don’t act now, it would be too late. At the moment, they’re mostly bombing the bases of the Yemeni air force, which is aiding the Houthis, and hitting fighter concentrations, exactly like the Americans are doing successfully against the Islamic State.
The Saudis know that air raids would not be enough even if they do receive intelligence on targets from the Americans and other players in the region. That is why they put together this massive ground force, which they probably intend to use. They understand that only a large force could defeat the Houthis.
But the Houthis are not the only enemy the Saudis and Americans face in Yemen. The strongest al-Qaeda branch in the Arabian Peninsula is in Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch stands most to gain from the Houthi revolt, but there are rumors the Iranians are aiding al-Qaeda as well in order to undermine the stability in Yemen. In any case, the Saudis stand to gain from reinstating former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s regime. The success or failure of such an endeavor are crucial to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni coalition that joined it, all united against the radical Shiite axis led by Iran.
The Israeli interest is clear. Iran’s smuggling routes to Gaza go through Bab-el-Mandeb and through Yemen. Yemen served as a secondary base for the Iranians on their way to Sudan when they were trying to smuggle weapons through Sudan to Egypt and from there through the tunnels to Gaza. This base is now growing stronger, even though Sudan is no longer Iran’s ally. And this is an important development.
Sudan joined the Saudi-led coalition following a diplomatic dispute with Iran in the past six months, so the threat to Israel and Egypt is now less serious than it was before, despite of the takeover of Bab-el-Mandeb. But the threat to Israel’s shipping lanes if the Houthi take over the Yemeni side of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait is a serious and significant one, especially economically.
While an all-out war is raging in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s military campaign is good news for Israel, and all that is left is to wish them luck, because the Americans can no longer be relied upon.
However, the fighting is bad news for the dozens of Jews still left in the town of Raida, some 70 kilometers west of the capital Sana’a. Some are also believed to remain in southern Yemen and their fate remains unknown at the moment.
I have visited Yemen several years ago and even then the Houthi posed a risk to Jews, but the regime protected the Jewish community and extracted them from areas taken over by the Houthi. Abdullah Saleh, who fought the Houthi at the time, is now aiding them and is largely responsible for their achievements.