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On Iran: Absence of Plan B

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Kevin Drum has an interesting note: No commentator who is opposed to Obama’s negotiations with Iran has any Plan B. More at the link, but that’s the essence. It’s like the GOP opposition to Obamacare: they don’t like it, but they don’t have an alternative to offer. The same with negotiating with Iran: they don’t like it, but they don’t have an alternative to offer. Childish, not to put too fine a point on it.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 March 2015 at 9:35 am

“Existential” as a tip-off that a bad argument follows

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Netanyahu will soon be using his invitation from the GOP Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to attack the US President and US foreign policy in a Congressional address, something that has never happened before. In the address, he will probably trot out his old, shallow arguments designed to make the Israeli public fearful and keep him in power. James Fallows has a very good pair of columns on those hoary arguments.

Both columns are well worth reading. The first begins:

I have received a foreseeable flood of mail in response to the collection of Israel-and-Iran letters posted three days ago. I am not going to quote any more of it. As has been evident for many years, there is an unbridgeable chasm in outlooks on this topic. Having offered a sample of the current state of that divide, I’ll say Enough for now.

This makes me all the more admiring of diplomats who try to find ways across the chasm, starting with what I saw from Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and Jimmy Carter at Camp David long ago (as dramatized in Lawrence Wright’s playCamp David).

* * *

But I will weigh in on one more aspect of the Netanyahu-Obama-Iran controversy, namely the language with which we describe it. If you’d like background on how Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu came to this impasse, please read two reports by David Ignatius, here and here. If you’d like to consider some of the long-term ramifications of Israel’s leader saying that he is the “true” voice of Jews worldwide, including American Jews, please read M.J. Rosenberg in The Nation, or former Congressman Mel Levine and former Israeli Ambassador Oded Eran in Politico.

From Levine and Eran: “[The U.S.-Israel relationship] is especially threatened when an Israeli Prime Minister is seen as openly challenging the U.S president, asking the country and the Congress to side with a foreign Prime Minister over America’s President on an issue which potentially involves war and peace, a question about which the American public is anguished and divided.”

From Rosenberg: “Netanyahu’s action, in challenging the American president and claiming to speak for all Jews when he does so, suggests that it is Israel and not the country in which Jews live and vote that is their homeland. This idea is anathema to the overwhelming majority of American Jews. … He is coming to the US Capitol to tell Congress that it should not support a president who is working to secure an agreement that president believes serves national interests, among which he has repeatedly said is the security of Israel.”

* * *

On language: We’ve reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is “existential,” as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: “A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world.”

I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 percent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany—or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has donefor many years.

By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.

In most of Netanyahu’s speeches, as in most of the angry mail I receive, you can find each of those elements. Look for them in the next editorial you read in theWSJ or Commentary. Whenever you see an argument that could be paraphrased as “it’s 1938 again,” you’ve found the real thing. But let’s stop and think about this concept of existential threats. . .

Continue reading.

And the second starts:

Yesterday I argued that it was time for Americans to drop or ignore the words “existential threat” when thinking about Iran and its nuclear potential. The words have become a slogan or incantation taking the place of thought. Now, response:

(1) A slew of readers have written in with variants of this sentiment:

The populated stretch of Israel from Haifa to Tel Aviv is about 55 miles as the crow flies. One or two nuclear weapons delivered in minutes by Iranian ballistic missiles and Israel would cease to exist, even if the Israelis were able to make a retaliatory strike.

Sure seem like an existential threat to me.

OK. That is “existential” if (a) by the same logic you acknowledge that South Korea is living with an “existential” threat now, yet has not seemed terrified or terrorized by it, or motivated to preemptive attack; and (b) you assume that the leadership of Iran is literally suicidal, since any attack on Israel would bring a devastating, nuclear-armed counterattack. The current Iranian government does many destructive things. I have asked “existential” readers for evidence of suicidal moves on Iran’s part, and am still waiting.

(2) From a veteran of the news business: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2015 at 10:36 am

U.N. Human Rights Council votes to probe legality of drone strikes

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The US objects, naturally enough. And yet the high civilian death toll and questionable legality of the attacks makes the inquiry perfectly natural. The US generally adopts a one-sided view of things and seems disinclined to approach things with equity—equal treatment—in mind, part of the idea of US exceptionalism, I suppose: “We can do as we want, and we reserve the right to condemn strongly and even punish other nations who do as we do.” What would the US think of some other nation kidnapping a US citizen from within the US, spiriting him out of the country, torturing him for months, and then releasing him in some backwoods spot? Would we think that was okay, particularly if the citizen was innocent of any wrongdoing? The US seems to think it was fine when we did it, but I bet the US would object to being on the receiving end.

For example, the US is (petulantly) refusing to issue a visa to Iran’s Ambassador to the UN, so he will be unable to travel to the UN. (This also shows the lack of wisdom in placing an international body on territory controlled by one government, which can then restrict access as it pleases.) TIME magazine notes:

Under a 1947 treaty establishing the headquarters of the UN in New York, the U.S. is generally required to expeditiously approve visa requests for UN diplomats. But on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said visas can still be denied on “security, terrorism, and foreign policy” grounds.

However, neither Psaki nor Carney would expand on the reasons for denying Aboutalebi’s visa.

It’s very strange that the US refuses to provide a reason for its refusal, but presumably the Ambassador either represents a security threat, or is a terrorist, or it’s a foreign policy reason (though the US is in fact attempting to negotiate an agreement with Iran). But the (unanimous) Congressional vote offers a clue:

Outraged by his involvement in the 1979 hostage-taking of Americans in Tehran, the House unanimously passed the bill Thursday. That followed Senate passage on Monday, which was also unanimous. If signed by President Barack Obama, the bill would bar representatives to the United Nations from entering the U.S., where the U.N. is headquartered, if such persons have engaged in espionage or terrorist activities against the United States.

And the NY Times reports:

The vote sent what sponsors called a blunt rejoinder to the Iranian government for having selected a nominee who played a role, however minor, in the 1979 American hostage crisis in Tehran.

Let’s think about that. In 1953 the US, using the CIA, covertly overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran. The US deliberately destroyed their government and put in place puppets (in effect). The reason: we wanted their oil, and we were willing to destroy their government to get it.

In the light of that, and of the atrocities visited on Iranians by the SAVAK, is it any wonder that the average Iranian had little love for the US. Possibly the US citizenry, if a foreign power overthrew our government and put in place a puppet government to seize our national resources, would have no objection and would welcome the rape of their country. But Iranians apparently didn’t like it, and in 1979 seized the US Embassy and held the occupants hostage for 444 days. None were killed. (8 servicemen died by accident in a rescue attempt; one Iranian was killed.)

So: a reasonable provocation, no deaths, and 33 years later the US bars the Iranian Ambassador because he was one of the students who particpated in that uprising. He was 22 years old at the time. Have you ever heard of college-age youth rising in protest about a cause they see as important? (Cf. Occupy Wall Street.)

A lot has happened since then, and holding the Ambassador responsible for understandable actions more than 30 years ago seems excessive, especially given the US’s own responsibility in creating the situation (by illegally overthrowing a democratically elected government).

You can see how other nations might view the US in a negative light, in part because the US tends to skip over its own faults and its responsibility for bad actions.

Now, back to the UN Human Rights Council: John Zorocostas reports in McClatchy:

The U.N. Human Rights Council agreed Friday, over the strong objections of the United States, to study whether American drone strikes comply with international law.

The resolution, which was drafted by Pakistan and co-sponsored by Yemen, both countries where the U.S. has undertaken multiple drone strikes, was adopted on a 27-6 vote, with 14 abstentions. The United States, Great Britain and France all voted no, but several NATO allies abstained.

Human rights advocacy groups, led by New York-based Human Rights Watch, mounted a strong campaign to garner support for the the motion.

In a letter circulated to the 47-members of the council on Thursday, the advocacy group argued that while currently only the U.S., Great Britain and Israel use armed drones in operations against alleged terrorists, it cautioned “that other states, and non-state actors, may acquire them in the future.”

Human Rights Watch also said it has “serious concerns that some if not many U.S. drone attacks may violate international law.”

A report published earlier this month, by Ben Emmerson, the U.N. independent expert on the promotion and protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms found that a U.S. drone strike in October 2006 at a religious seminary in Chenagai in the Bajaur tribal region of Pakistan killed up to 80 people instantly, 69 of whom were children.

The report also said that in December, a U.S. drone strike on a convoy of vehicles making their way to a wedding celebration outside the city of Rada in Yemen killed as many as 15, the majority of whom may have been civilians.

The resolution urges that all “states” using drones should ensure that they are complying “with their obligations under international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, international human rights law and international humanitarian law, in particular, the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality.” . . .

Continue reading.

US drone strikes are killing civilians in countries who, naturally enough, object to a foreign power arbitrarily dealing out death to citizens simply because it has the power. It seems perfectly logical to bring the issue to the Human Rights Commission, and the only reason the US objects is that in this case the US is the transgressor. (If another nation were doing such things to the US or US allies, the US would certainly demand a review and action.)

The utter hypocrisy of US foreign policy is repugnant. And yes, I know that doubtless there are other nations who are worse. That does not lessen, and is not relevant to, the US idea of fairness, justice, and international law, which seems to be mostly “might makes right,” and anything the US does is good. This is a child’s view.

Toward the end of Zorocostas’s report, he notes:

But a large number of U.S. allies abstained rather than oppose the resolution, including Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Romania, Austria, and Montenegro.

Moreover, neutral European Union member Ireland, and neutral Switzerland voted in support of the motion, along with China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, among others.

The EU does not have a common position on the use of armed drones, but there is growing political opposition to them.

In February, the European Parliament, voted 534 to 49 to declare drone strikes “outside a declared war” to be “a violation of international law and of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that country.”

The US response seems unreasonable, unfair, and inappropriate. In a word, the US does not play well with others. If the nations were children in a sandbox, the US would definitely be the bully.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 April 2014 at 1:19 pm

GOP willing to keep veterans from their benefits in order to get a war with Iran

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The GOP seems hell-bent on having a war with Iran, our other recent wars having gone so well and enriched the country. Take a look at Sen. Marc Rubio’s position and statements. And the veterans’ benefits? Alex Leichenger reports at ThinkProgress:

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a bill that sought to provide veterans with greater access to health care and education over an amendment aimed at increasing sanctions on Iran.Democrats failed to reach the 60 votes necessary to overcome the GOP obstruction.

Republicans have been trying to get a vote on an Iran sanctions measure, which has stalled after experts and Obama administration officials convinced most members of the Democratic caucus that it would derail talks with Iran over its nuclear program and could lead to war.

After numerous attempts failed, the Senate GOP used Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) veterans’ benefits bill to bring the issue up again but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to go along. “Republicans say they want to help veterans. They have a strange way of showing it. We introduced a bill that would do just that. Republicans immediately inject partisan politics into the mix, insisting on amendments that have nothing to do with helping veterans,” Reid said on Wednesday.

One of the nation’s largest veterans groups, the American Legion, agreed. “Iran is a serious issue that Congress needs to address, but it cannot be tied to S. 1982, which is extremely important as our nation prepares to welcome millions of U.S. military servicemen and women home from war,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a statement this week. “This comprehensive bill aims to help veterans find good jobs, get the health care they need and make in-state tuition rates applicable to all who are using their GI Bill benefits.”

“There was a right way to vote and a wrong way to vote today, and 41 senators chose the wrong way,” the American Legion tweeted on Thursday.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also called on senators to take irrelevant issues like Iran out of the vets bill debate, and on Thursday called the GOP’s obstruction “shameful.”

“Veterans don’t have time for this nonsense and veterans are tired of being used as political chew toys,” said IAVA founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff, according to the Washington Post.

Sanders’ bill paid for the benefits by using some funds that would have otherwise been earmarked for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Senate Republicans like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who had no objections using those funds to pay for the wars, called it a “bogus gimmick.”

“How can we afford $100 billion in tax breaks for the wealthiest three-tenths of Americans, but we can’t pay for veterans benefits?” Sanders tweeted.

A bipartisan expert group said in a recent report that new Iran sanctions now would undermine the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said last month that “right now the imposition of more sanctions would be counterproductive.”

Written by LeisureGuy

27 February 2014 at 6:15 pm

Posted in Congress, GOP, Iran

Why a war with Iran is a horrible idea

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Juan Cole writes at Informed Comment:

40 Republican senators are making a last-minute push to bring further Iran sanctions up for a vote despite the opposition of senate majority leader Harry Reid. Some 59 senators signed on to a plan to increase sanctions during President Obama’s negotiations with Iran, which Iranian leaders have argued could derail the talks. Among the steps these Republicans favor is reversing the minor easing of sanctions implemented by Obama as a quid pro quo to Iran for steps it has taken to make its nuclear enrichment program more transparent and less amenable to weaponization (Iran says the program is purely for civilian purposes).

It is absolutely outrageous and very rare that Congress would interfere in diplomatic negotiations of the president. They let Bush go around invading countries but won’t let Obama try to forestall a war.

The GOP is acting for its own reasons, since it wants to take the senate in the fall and thinks making vulnerable Democrats explicitly vote against further Iran sanctions will hurt them with the public. But the further sanctions have been pushed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, other Israel lobbies, and the far right wing Israeli government of Binjamin Netanyahu, and some of the impetus for further pushing them likely is coming from AIPAC donors (who skew much further to the right than the mainstream of the American Jewish community– which after all contains many peace activists).

But the GOP and AIPAC are playing with fire, and it is the American people who will get the third degree burns if they succeed. Here’s why:

1. If the new sanctions derail the negotiations of new President Hasan Rouhani with the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, Rouhani’s enemies among the hard liners will be strengthened.

2. If Rouhani loses power and looks weak, the hard liners could make pursuing further negotiations difficult.

3. If the negotiations collapse, Iran’s enrichment program may well become less transparent.

4. Hawks (i.e. war criminals) in the US have used the pretext of lack of transparency in foreign countries’ research projects to foment war (as happened most notoriously in Iraq).

5. The current US sanctions and financial blockade on Iranian oil sales are so severe that they have raised tensions with Iran to a new level of intensity, and could lead to hostilities very easily.

6. If the Iranian enrichment program cannot be made transparent through negotiations, pressure will build on US administrations to bomb the facilities at Natanz.

7. Such an attack could well spiral into all-out war.

8. Iran is three times more populous than Iraq was when the US invaded it in 2003. It is also geographically three times Iraq’s size (it is the size of continental Western Europe– i.e. Germany, France and Spain combined). Gen. Shinseki estimated that based on the Balkans experience the US would have needed 800,000 troops in Iraq to pacify it post-invasion. He was proved right (US viceroy in Iraq Paul Bremer admitted that there were never enough US troops on the ground there). This estimate suggests that the US would need 2.4 million troops on the ground in Iran (hint: it does not have them).

9. If we figure in the cost over their lifetimes of caring for the some 30,000 Iraq War veterans who were injured badly enough to go to hospital, the true cost of the Iraq War is at least $3 trillion. The US is currently $16 trillion in debt, about the amount of its annual gross domestic product, which is a very dangerous economic posture that has led to its credit rating being cut. Iran could be three times as costly as Iraq, given the demographic and territorial considerations, and therefore could cost $9 trillion. That kind of debt burden (the money would have to be borrowed) would certainly bankrupt the country, causing the cost of borrowing money for small businesses to skyrocket and leading to a Great Depression.

10. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 February 2014 at 11:26 am

Posted in Congress, GOP, Iran

Iran Breakthrough a Triumph for Pragmatists and a Defeat for the Warmongers

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Juan Cole writes at Truthdig.com

The implementation of the Iran accord Monday signaled a modest but still important sea change in that country’s relationship with the world. As with all good diplomacy, the deal is a win-win for Iran and the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members. The breakthrough is seen as a setback for Saudi Arabia and Israel, and also for the Israel lobbies on Capitol Hill, which fear it announces an end to attempts to contain Iran as a revolutionary force in the region. But in most world capitals, the agreement is being celebrated as a vindication of pragmatism and transparency, and European companies are lining up to get back into the Iranian market. Two pragmatists are at the center of the negotiations: Hasan Rouhani and Barack Obama.

Iran negotiated the deal with the UNSC permanent members plus Germany (called the P5 + 1). It provides for frequent and transparent inspections of the Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities. In addition, Iran has ceased enriching uranium to 19.25 percent for its medical reactor, which produces isotopes for treating cancer. It can, however, continue to enrich to 5 percent for its nuclear reactors, which produce electricity. The measures are confidence-building steps, intended to reassure the West that Iran has no intention of producing a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear weapons first came to the Middle East when Israel began conspiring with supporters in France and Britain in the 1950s to import the technology. Despite attempts by President John F. Kennedy to forestall this development, by the late 1960s Israel had the bomb. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan even allegedly wanted to use it in the 1973 war against Egypt. Israel now has a secret stockpile of several hundred warheads, perhaps as many as France or Britain. At the same time, Indian scientists began working on nuclear technology, with an eye on China, which achieved nuclear weapons in 1964. The Indian bomb in turn determined Pakistan to construct its own, with Islamabad detonating its first device in 1998. The Israeli and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs encouraged Iraq to seek a bomb, though its program was never very successful and was dismantled by United Nations inspectors after the Gulf War of 1990-91. The lesson in the Middle East seemed clear. Actually having an atomic bomb equals deterrence from being attacked. Trying to get a bomb and taking too long opens your country to foreign aggression.

By the late 1990s, Iran was in a very dangerous neighborhood. Iraq had used chemical weapons, with U.S. backing, against Iranian troops at the front during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988; the U.S. categorizes these as “weapons of mass destruction.” Iranian intelligence knew that Saddam Hussein wanted a nuclear weapon, and U.S. and Israeli politicians maintained that there was still an active weapons program in Baghdad (this allegation was untrue). Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia and China—all neighbors or near neighbors—had the bomb.

The ayatollahs in charge of Iran for the most part have had a horror of nuclear weapons. Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Iran’s religious ruler in 1979, called nuclear weapons “un-Islamic” and initially forbade even reactors for electricity generation. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly condemned atomic bombs in a written fatwa and many oral statements that have the force of law. (Fatwas, or considered opinions on Islamic law, are often given in oral form by prominent Muslim jurists, just as “responsa” or legal opinions are given orally by rabbis in Judaism.) Khamenei says that making, stockpiling and using nuclear weapons are all forbidden in Islamic law, because they cannot be used without killing hundreds of thousands of innocent noncombatants.

Some Iranian hawks and engineers appear to have decided that even though they would never get permission to construct a weapon from the supreme theocrat (who is named by the Iranian constitution as commander in chief of the armed forces and of the security agencies), a nuclear program would still be useful. They appear to have believed that Iran would benefit from what has been called “the Japan option” or “nuclear latency” or “a breakout capacity.” This is the condition of being able to construct a nuclear weapon without actually doing so. Producing a nuclear weapon could make a country a pariah, as happened to North Korea, unless it had the firm backing of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which could veto sanctions (thus the U.S. holds Israel harmless, and Russia protected India after its 1974 test). Iran was too much of a maverick to hope for such a superpower patron. But just getting close enough to being able to make a bomb to deter an invasion or attempts at regime change was unlikely to provoke the same degree of isolation.

In addition, Iran was in danger of using so much of its own petroleum at home as to lose the income from exporting it. Unlike in the U.S., electricity in Iran is often generated by petroleum. As Iran industrializes, urbanizes and people begin driving more, all of Iran’s oil could end up being consumed domestically (as had already happened to Indonesia, formerly an exporter). Constructing nuclear plants to generate electricity, the route France, Japan and South Korea took, would ensure Iran’s energy independence and thus its political independence.

The nuclear program thus had two benefits, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 January 2014 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Iran

I don’t understand the 16 Senate Democrats who want a war with Iran

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Because slapping on additional sanctions at this juncture of the negotiations is an unconcealed effort to kill the negotiations (which allow UN inspections, offer trade with the country, and so on). Indeed, the outcome seems, so far as I can tell, better than we had hoped for. It’s a real, major breakthrough agreement—with verification.

So why would the 16 Senate Democrats try to kill it? Because they prefer to have a war with Iran. Never mind our most recent unprovoked war of aggression, Iraq: hundreds of thousands kill, the professional military almost broken by repeated tours of duty, no planning for the occupation and withdrawal—none, zero, bupkis, zip, nada. We got there, said, “Now what do we do?” and presiding over the collapse of a nation and an increase in the number of willing volunteers for terrorism: those with family or friends killed, whether by us or by others: we broke it, we own it. Exactly the words with which Colin Powell warned George W. Bush.

So the Senate Democrats want more of that? And not to mention the horrendous pure cost of the war: around $2 trillion, all told, which makes it strange that Republicans would want it—except, of course, that it’s something President Obama wants, so the Republicans have no choice but to oppose: it’s a complete bind for them. If they don’t oppose, they face likely defeat at the hands of an even crazier candidate in the primary. (Take a look at some who came to Congress via exactly this route.) So the GOP no longer has choices. The choices are Obama’s to make, and that forces opposition—to the degree if he speaks out in favor of a proposal from the Republicans, the Republicans will immediately disown and oppose their own measure. This actually happens.

So with all that in mind, 16 Senate Democrats are trying to kill a diplomatic solution in favor of waging war. Because we have such a great track record at that sort of war, they must think.

I don’t get it.

UPDATE: By the way, an interesting column on Iran.

UPDATE 2: James Fallows has a must-read call to action.

UPDATE 3: Wow. Israel certainly seems to want the US to go to war with Iran.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 January 2014 at 12:57 pm

Posted in Congress, Democrats, Iran

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