Friday, November 11, 2011

Ayatollah for a Day

I war-gamed an Israeli strike on Iran -- and it got ugly.

By Karim Sadjadpour

The International Atomic Energy Agency's new report on Iran's nuclear program asserts that Tehran "has carried out ... activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device" and that the agency sees "strong indicators of possible weapon development." In other words, the IAEA has finally reached the same conclusions that Israel first reached in 1995. So should we really be worried about an Israeli strike now?
Historically, there has been an inverse correlation between Israeli saber rattling and military action, but senior Obama administration officials consistently confirm in private meetings that they take "very seriously" the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Think of it like this: In one way -- and one way only -- the potential of an Israeli military strike on Iran is akin to a Herman Cain presidency. Its likelihood is slim, but the potential consequences are too dramatic to ignore.

Although the precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation is debatable, its objective -- to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran -- is crystal clear. What's less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would the Iranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond with fury or restraint?

To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear program.

The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, each representing their government's top national security officials. The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S. government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel, including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.

I had the unenviable task of trying to channel Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike -- absent U.S. knowledge or consent -- on Iran's nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.
Arguably, the strongest argument against an attack on Iran is a question of simple mathematics. According to Israeli estimates, a strike would, at best, set back Tehran's nuclear clock by just two to three years -- but it would likely resuscitate the fortunes of a deeply unpopular, ideologically bankrupt Iranian regime, prolonging its shelf life by another decade or generation. As one Iranian democracy activist once told me, Israel and the United States should "focus less on the gun and more on the bandit trying to obtain the gun." Bombing Iran, he said, would strengthen the bandit, not weaken it -- and only increase his desire to get the gun.

Iran's nuclear sites are purposely built close to population centers, but in the simulation, the Israeli strike managed to cause only a small number of civilian casualties. Nonetheless, one of my immediate reactions was to order Iranian state television to show graphic images of the "hundreds of innocent martyrs" -- focusing on the women and children -- in order to incite outrage against Israel and attempt to convert Iranian nationalism into solidarity with the regime.

To further that goal, we then invited the symbolic leadership of the opposition -- Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (both of whom are now under house arrest), as well as former President Mohammad Khatami -- onto state television to furiously condemn Israel and pledge allegiance to the government. Instead of widening Iran's deep internal fractures -- both between political elites and between the people and the regime -- the Israeli military strike helped repair them.

I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be "10 times worse" -- in terms of eliciting popular anger -- than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state's capacity to respond.

And respond we did. I went into the exercise believing that the Iranian regime's response to an Israeli military strike -- despite many predictions otherwise -- would be relatively subdued, given the regime's fears of inviting massive reprisals. The opposite turned out to be true. Once our nuclear sites were effectively destroyed, we calculated that we had no choice but to escalate and retaliate in order to save face and project power to our own population and neighbors, deter future attacks, and inflict a heavy political cost on Israel.

Perhaps implicitly, the experience of Israel's September 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor was instructive. Aside from a feeble official complaint to the United Nations about Israel's "breach of Syrian airspace," there was virtually no reaction from Damascus. As a result, the Israeli attack was met with little international or even Arab condemnation.

We needed to respond in a way that would further enflame the regional security environment, negatively impact the global economy, and make reverberations felt throughout the world. So we played dirty.

One of our first salvos was to launch missiles at oil installations in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, as well as stir unrest among Saudi Shiites against their government. Our pretext was that Israel had used Saudi airspace to attack us, though we later found out it did so without Saudi permission. Given Iran's less-than-accurate missile technology, most missiles missed their mark, but some struck home and we succeeded in spiking oil prices enough so that Americans and Europeans filling their cars with gasoline might be irritated by Israel's actions.
We also fired missiles at Israeli military and nuclear targets and unleashed Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israeli population centers. Although few of these missiles reached their targets, the goal was create an atmosphere of terror among Israeli society so its government would think twice about future attacks.

We didn't limit our reaction to just the Middle East. Via proxy, we hit European civilian and military outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that if past is precedent, Europe would take the high road and not retaliate. We also activated terrorist cells in Europe -- bombing public transportation and killing several civilians -- in the belief that European citizens and governments would likely come down hard on Israel for destabilizing the region.

But, appreciating the logic of power, we stopped just short of provoking the United States. Before the simulation, I'd often heard it said that it wouldn't make much difference whether Israel actually got a green light from the United States to strike Iran, for Tehran would never believe otherwise.

This assessment wasn't borne out in the simulation. The U.S. secretary of state sent us a private note telling us that the Americans did not approve the Israeli strike, and vowed to restrain Israel from attacking further -- if we also exercised restraint. They tried on multiple occasions to meet with us or speak by phone, but we refused. While Washington believed that its overtures would have a calming effect on us, we interpreted them to mean that we could strike back hard against Israel -- not to mention European targets -- without risking U.S. retaliation, at least not immediately.

Given that the simulation was intended to gauge the immediate consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran -- not its long-term impact -- the final results were inconclusive. The intent wasn't to prove either side correct, but to try to understand the decision-making calculus of each side.

Not unlike wars themselves, different actors drew different lessons. Those, like myself, who thought that the costs of an Israeli attack significantly outweighed the benefits, felt the results of the simulation validated their position. In the span of just a few days, our simulation had the Middle East aflame. But those who, prior to the exercise, believed that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities was a necessary risk weren't convinced otherwise.

Yet the reality is that no one -- not even the Iranians -- can say with confidence how they will choose to react once the fog of war sets in. And as for long-term consequences, it's way too murky to say anything but this: It will be ugly.
One of the great American strategic thinkers of the 20th century, former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR George Kennan, spent more than half a century alternatively thinking about how to avert a nuclear war with the Soviet Union and what a nuclear war with the Soviet Union might look like. 

Shortly before he passed away in 2005 at age 101, he reflected on his half-century of experience. "Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before," he said. "War has a momentum of its own, and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it."

"But also, there is a very, very basic consideration involved here, and that is that whenever you have a possibility of going in two ways, either for peace or for war, for peaceful methods of for military methods, in the present age there is a strong prejudice for the peaceful ones. War seldom ever leads to good results."

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 10/11/2011
-Karim Sadjadpour is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Reading Khamenei: The Worldview of Iran's Most Powerful Leader. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Syria's Rebuff Threatens The Arab League With Relegation

The Assad regime's disdain for the Arab League's peace initiative is another blow to the organisation's credibility
By Simon Tisdall
Bashar al-Assad
The continuation of the Syrian slaughter would seem to imply bad faith on the part of negotiators sent by President Bashar al-Assad (centre). Photograph: AFP/Getty
The Syrian regime's refusal even to pretend to implement last week's peace "road map" has provoked a portentous response from the deal's diplomatically challenged progenitors, the Arab League. "The failure of the Arab solution will have disastrous consequences in Syria and the region," the 22-nation organisation's secretary general, Nabil el-Araby, warned. What Araby did not say is that the apparent collapse of the initiative, only days after its launch in Cairo last week, is a potential catastrophe for the league, which was forced to call an emergency meeting after further deaths on Sunday.
The Syrian security forces' continuation of their daily slaughter of pro-democracy protesters would seem to imply a staggering degree of bad faith on the part of President Bashar al-Assad's negotiators. But there's another, more disturbing explanation: that the military and security apparatus, not Assad, is running the show and cares not a fig for external peace initiatives. On past form, this latter explanation seems more probable.
Activists said on Sunday that at least five people were killed in Homs province, central Syria, as thousands of people protested on the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. More were killed across the country. The UN-estimated death toll in the seven-month uprising stands at around 3,000.
Given this bloody context, the apparent impotence of Arab League mediation is deeply damaging to the health of an organisation that was never particularly robust. Araby's reference to the need for an "Arab solution" highlights a bigger issue: the way the league and comparable organisations, such as the African Union, often struggle to act effectively and collectively to resolve regional problems, thereby increasing the onus on the west to act.
The league has been floundering since the Arab spring began. Its former secretary general, Amr Moussa badly misjudged events in Egypt. "I think President Mubarak should stay until his term expires," he declared on 9 February, two days before the Egyptian president was ousted. The league spectacularly reversed itself over Libya. Its support for a no-fly zone was crucial in securing a UN resolution authorising the Nato intervention that speeded Muammar Gaddafi's downfall.
The sort of divisions that have bedevilled the League over the Iraq war (2003), the Darfur crisis in Sudan (2003-5), Lebanon (2006) and Somalia resurfaced over this year's uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen. In these cases, Saudi Arabia took the lead in supporting, more or less, the status quo. But Syria could not be treated the same way. As the international outcry grew ever more shrill, pressure on the league to take a strong stand, and criticism that it did not do so, mounted inexorably. The league's convention that states do not interfere in each other's internal affairs could not hold.
Even so, its approach continued to be tentative. Michael Young, writing in the National, said Assad demonstrated open disdain by delaying Araby's modest bridge-building visit to Damascus in September. The league had to do better; its indecision was a chronic condition, he said. "The continuing upheavals in the Arab world have crippled the Arab League's effectiveness, never great in the first place."
Hopes of more vigorous intervention were raised when last week's much tougher Cairo deal was unveiled, proposing a ceasefire, a military stand-down, and the opening of a "national dialogue" on neutral ground. But so far, Assad has ignored these undertakings, apart from a token release of 553 detainees. The detainees were involved in the unrest in the country, but had "no blood on their hands", the state-run news agency said. Thousands more remain imprisoned.
The Arab League faces a momentous, possibly make-or-break decision. To avoid a big split involving the likes of Iraq, it either goes on pretending a peace process is in place and the regime is genuinely engaged – at the risk of destroying what little credibility it has left. Or it takes the courageous step of expelling Syria, one of the league's six founding members in 1945, imposing additional, punitive sanctions – and in effect sending a message to the west that Arabs cannot manage Arab problems.
There is a third option, of course: collective Arab military intervention to bring Assad to book. Sadly, this sort of Lawrence of Arabia fantasy is out of fashion.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 07/11/2011
-Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist. He was previously a foreign leader writer for the paper and has also served as its foreign editor and its US editor, based in Washington DC. He was the Observer's foreign editor from 1996-98

Bahrain's Courageous Doctors

By Adil E. Shamoo

Bahraini medical personnel protesting in Manama (Photo: Dr. Nabeel al Ansari).
Bahraini medical personnel protesting in Manama (Photo: Dr. Nabeel al Ansari)
The United States continues to ignore the thwarted Arab Spring in Bahrain. Recently, a quasi-military court in the small Gulf state sentenced 20 doctors and nurses to up to 15 years in jail. The charge against them? Treating injured demonstrators opposing the regime.
Doctors and nurses in the Middle East have a long and proud tradition of treating the ill, regardless of the situation. In ninth-century Baghdad, for example, Hunayn ibn Ishaq was the Caliph’s physician. The Caliph asked this physician to prepare a poison to kill his enemies. The physician refused, risking his life, and was eventually jailed for one year. After serving his sentence, the Caliph inquired as to why he refused. The physician replied, “My profession is instituted for the benefit of humanity and limited to their relief and cure.”
So the doctors and other healthcare providers in Bahrain who treated the injured demonstrators were acting not only in the noblest tradition of the Hippocratic Oath but also in keeping with centuries-old Arab tradition. Medical ethics requires all physicians to be medically neutral toward those they treat.
Last February, Bahrain’s citizens joined the Arab Spring by holding massive demonstrations against the country’s corrupt, minority royal government. Bahrain’s security forces, assisted by Saudi-led troops sent by the Gulf Cooperation Council, brutally suppressed the peaceful demonstrations by force, resulting in the deaths of around 30 people, as well as hundreds of others wounded and arrested. At least 1,200 people were dismissed from their jobs. Opposition leaders were arrested, quickly tried, and sent to jail. Many detainees were tortured, and some women were sexually abused.
The government of Bahrain soon turned its attention to doctors and other healthcare providers, arresting, jailing, and torturing those accused of treating protesters. One female doctor told NPR that she was tortured and threatened with rape. In the same story, a man claimed that he was beaten unconscious. The authorities threatened the arrested individuals, saying that the security forces would arrest and torture members of their families if they didn’t sign a confession.
The doctors and nurses in Bahrain have called for support from the international community, especially from the United States. But the U.S. State Department has been muted in its comments about Bahrain’s abuse of hospital staff. This has led some medical professionals and other observers to lament that if such abuses had occurred in Syria or Iran, the United States would have condemned them vocally and emphatically.
U.S. policy toward the Arab Spring has been two-faced and unprincipled since its outbreak. When a hostile regime – in Syria or Iran, for example – has abused human rights, the administration has taken the moral high ground. However, in the case of friendly regimes – like those in Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – the administration has toned down its criticism or remained silent altogether. In the case of Bahrain, the United States still maintains a naval base there with 15,000 personnel.
The British Medical Association (BMA) issued a statement strongly condemning Bahrain’s behavior, stating, “BMA is shocked that these doctors are being persecuted for acting in accordance with their code of ethics.” The World Medical Association issued a similar statement. However, the American Medical Association merely invited physicians, if they wish, to write directly to Bahrain’s rulers to voice their opinion. The U.S. bioethics associations are silent.
Over the course of history, humanity has carved out zones of ethical conduct, whether in the conduct of war or the treatment of the sick and wounded. Medical ethics has a long and honorable history that U.S. officials and medical professionals must uphold for the doctors and nurses in Bahrain. Otherwise, the Arab Spring won’t bloom for long.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 07/11/2011- Adil E. Shamoo is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus and the author of the forthcoming book, Equal Worth – When Humanity Will Have Peace

Oman, Kind Of Not Quiet?

By Ra'id Zuhair Al-Jamali
Oman held parliamentary elections on October 15 -- two weeks before the Tunisian elections that captured the world's attention. But nobody paid them much mind. And why should they? There is not much more to be said beyond the high "participation" rate (76 percent of those who bothered to register), the solitude that the one elected woman may feel among her 83 male colleagues, or the election of three protesters. Tribal alliances still drove results in a country where political parties are not allowed and where, for most seats, 1,500 votes is enough to get elected.
But this might be deceiving. This has been Oman's least quiet year in a generation. The Economist scored Oman sixth highest within its (unsophisticated) Arab instability index in early February, a forecast met with wide incredulity at the time. A few weeks later, the country was shaken with memorable scenes of unrest: protests -- some violent, most peaceful, loyalty marches, regime concessions, a GCC "Marshall Plan," labor strikes and opportunistic demands, and regime crackdowns. The ground has significantly shifted beneath the feet of a regime that has overseen the rapid transformation of society over the last 40 years, underwritten by absolute power and facilitated by oil income.
Muscat witnessed its first significant demonstration only three days after Ben Ali fled Tunisia. By the second "Green March" -- on that first Friday sans Mubarak - it was undeniable that a new wind was blowing. Vibrancy of Bahrain's early Lulu scenes and the intensifying youth-led protests in Yemen only sharpened the palpable mood for change. Secure in its own rhetoric of Omani exceptionalism, the government chose not to confront crowds numbering in the low hundreds rallying mainly against corruption.
One week later, though, massive protests struck in the rapidly industrializing city of Sohar, setting in motion a month of unprecedented countrywide unrest, government concessions, labor opportunism, and even promises of GCC economic support. By mid March, however, specters of a bloody crackdown in Bahrain and Yemen fed fears of deterioration. On March 29, the army finally moved to clear the protests in Sohar, restoring safe passage for the industrial port area. Over the next month, order was gradually enforced through security and legal channels, culminating in the May 12 breakup of the last major protest site in Salalah. Whatever residual will for public manifestation there remained, summer heat soon dissolved.
Yet roots of the Omani protests extend deeper than a simple imitation of the prevailing Arab mood. Throughout the past decade, new and unregulated channels for disseminating information and expressing opinion proliferated. Internet forums dynamically altered the hitherto rigid political mood. With over 100,000 members and 200,000 daily visitors, thorny samizdat Al-Sablah endured episodes of closure and litigation until Oman's own "Spring" forced a major concession -- the royal court now operates an official account.  This and other examples of compelled accommodation illustrate how much the regime's capacity for containment was challenged -- most dramatically since the defeat of the 1970's Marxist insurgency led by the Popular Front for Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). Yet this year's confrontation was less ideological, more pragmatic. It's about a youthful, worldly, more connected population who basically want a voice -- publicly accountable ministers, free and independent press, even separation of state powers. It's also about an economy in which during 2009, nearly 75 percent of private sector jobs drew monthly wages of OMR 200 or less (USD $520), and in which non-nationals in the active workforce outnumbered nationals by more than two-to-one. Oil income may be near historic highs, but with the inequitable distribution of revenue, it's far from enough to pamper the entire population. Even narrowing it to "jobs and economy" entails a political undercurrent: a limit of rentier social contract is fast approaching.
Cognizant of the situation's unfolding gravity, the Omani authorities responded by bombarding the population with far-reaching decisions. One third of the Cabinet of Ministers was replaced. Some top officials, previously thought as immovable, were dismissed. There was an immediate creation of 50,000 jobs -- in a country where the total active national workforce, public and private, was probably 300,000. Minimum wage was raised by a one third (OMR 150 to 200). It did look quite ad hoc, even if the careful sequence of changes -- individually or in aggregate -- indicates that Oman had intellectually digested the risks and opportunities presented by its own youth bulge phenomenon.
But the treatment did not just stop at analgesics. Public prosecution gained independence from the police force and there was an expanded remit for State Audit committee. Constitutional changes were announced, with the bicameral house eventually gaining legislative and regulatory powers. These are actually deep institutional changes which are remodeling the scope of possibilities. Power is becoming more inclusive, with the elected Shura Council being granted extra voice and, while in the appointed State Council, civil society being recognized as the emergent social force.
The thing that is less clear is whether the Omani system can manage this adaptation. The regime is quite set in its ways. Many of the key figures are septuagenarians (or were, until March, when the average age of ministers significantly decreased). Since the resignation of his uncle nearly 40 years ago, Sultan Qaboos has not warmed up to the idea of a prime minister. The Sultan retains nominal ministership of defense, foreign affairs, finance, plus command of various military and security apparatuses. (With March's cabinet sackings, the lightening rods had vanished and it was expected that a PM was needed more than ever. Yet that still hasn't happened.) Considering the widely acknowledged need for a more reactive, flexible form of governance, what type of power transfer can thus be expected? Moreover, as placements of individuals to public positions often proceed without their foreknowledge, this unpredictable all-powerful agency maintains a sense of public passivity. And of course: whenever a singular, i.e. extra-ordinary, power becomes the defining factor for an entire system, perennial uncertainty breeds.
Many Omanis worry as well about the regime's efforts to re-impose control over the public sphere by drawing new "red lines." For example, the amended penal code article headed "on undermining the state's position" outlines punishment for those who undermine "prestige of the state" ?or weaken confidence in its financial reputation. Or another article in the press and publications law that prohibits "disseminating all that would compromise state security, internal or external." Not to mention the ongoing appeal by Azzaman newspaper, slapped with prison sentences and one month closure.
Previous Omani reforms have typically responded to major external challenges. The Shura council was founded at the end of a year of intense world scrutiny bearing upon Saudi Arabia and the GCC consequent to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Female inclusion could be seen as another proactive move, partially to stem the spread of Islamist currents of the 1990s. Post 9/11, a different set of acute outside pressures resulted in further overtures, proactive and reactive: non-opposition of benign Western reform agendas, symbolism of a 100-fold increase in base of possible voters in 2003 versus 1991, acquiescence to a regionally assertive United States on free trade. As these external pressures subsided, so did the reforms. The events of 2011 are a departure from the past as the first sustained, significant pressure from within. It remains unclear whether genuine pluralism can evolve within a domineering power structure, and more critically whether a democratic transition can be managed whilst preparing society for the post-oil terra incognita. At least if the exceptional number of Royal Decrees is any indicator, clearly some kind of shift is taking place.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 07/11/2011
-Ra'id Zuhair Al-Jamali, @rzj,  lives in Muskat, Oman. Olivier Renard contributed to the editing and review of this article. The views expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author