Saturday, July 7, 2012

Are Israeli Agents Assassinating Iranian Scientists? A New Book Argues

In an excerpt from their new book, Spies Against Armageddon, Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman argue that Mossad special agents are behind the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But will it be enough to stop Iran from getting nukes?

By Dan Raviv

spies against armageddon

Another wave of hangings by Iran’s Islamic government is expected, after officials announced that twenty Iranians were arrested, allegedly for helping Israel assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists.

Executions are just a matter of time, as Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) is out to show that it is not completely helpless in the face of four assassinations and one failed attempt in the streets of the capital, Tehran, over the last two years. Israeli officials refuse to comment on who specifically might be guilty or innocent, but they publicly expressed their joy that “God’s finger” had acted against Iran’s nuclear program. They also indicate that no credence should be placed in the “confessions” that will doubtless be televised by Iran.

Before Majid Jamali Fashi was hanged two months ago, as the convicted “murderer” of a nuclear scientist in January 2010, the 24-year-old kick boxer was shown on official TV reciting a tale of having been flown to Israel for training by the Mossad. His interrogators, who probably wrote the confession for him, had seen far too many B-movies about spies and were wrong on many details, including the location of Mossad headquarters.

Our in-depth study of fifty years of assassinations by Israel’s foreign espionage agency—including conversations with current and former Mossad operatives and those who work with them in countries friendly to Israel—yields the conclusion that Fashi and the twenty other suspects now being held were not the killers. The methods, communications, transportation, and even the innovative bombs used in the Tehran killings are too sensitive for the Mossad to share with foreign freelancers.

Instead, the assassinations are likely the work of Israel’s special spy unit for the most delicate missions: a kind of Mossad within the Mossad called Kidon (Bayonet). Kidon operatives are even more innovative, braver, and physically fitter than other Mossad men and women. Again and again, they have fulfilled their missions without leaving much of a trace.  The Israeli government has never confirmed Kidon’s existence or its actions.

The assassinations of physicists and nuclear scientists in Iran have been what Israelis call “blue and white” operations, referring to the colors of their nation’s flag. Without giving full details, senior Israeli officials have revealed that fact to counterparts in the CIA and the White House. In at least one instance, U.S. officials were obviously displeased that the Mossad took action at a delicate juncture in multilateral nuclear talks with Iran.

Although Iran has no diplomatic relations with Israel and bans any visits by Israelis, Mossad operatives seem to have no trouble entering and leaving the country. Despite being a heavily patrolled police state, Iran has long borders that stretch across mountains and wasteland. Two of the neighboring former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, provide an excellent launching pad for cross-border penetrations. Also, for over half a century now, the Mossad has cultivated close cooperation with Kurds— who were stateless, but now run the Kurdish autonomous zone of northern Iraq which borders Iran. Israel used to secretly help Kurds when they were oppressed by Iraq’s government, and the Mossad has excelled in living by the ancient dictum that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Israeli intelligence has also expressed an interest in collaborating with disaffected minority groups inside Iran. Meir Dagan—the director of the Mossad from 2002 through 2010—was quoted in a State Department cable obtained and released by Wikileaks. He is said to have told a senior American official in 2007 that disaffection among Baluchi, Azeri, and Kurdish minorities could be exploited by the United States and Israel. In addition, Dagan suggested supporting student pro-democracy activists, if only to cause unrest inside Iran.

The official summary said Dagan felt sure that the U.S. and Israel could “change the ruling regime in Iran and its attitude toward backing terror regimes,” and that “we could also get them to delay their nuclear project.” According to the cable, Dagan said, “The economy is hurting, and this is provoking a real crisis among Iran’s leaders.” The minority groups that the Mossad and CIA could support or exploit are “raising their heads and are tempted to resort to violence.”

Economic woes and high unemployment have only become worse in Iran, as U.S.-led sanctions have begun to bite. From the Mossad’s perspective, unhappy and aimless young males in Iran represent an opportunity to recruit sources of information, agents who can be trained, and even mercenary or rebel armies.

Yet for such a sensitive, dangerous, and daring mission as a series of assassinations in Iran’s capital, the Mossad would not depend on hired-gun mercenaries. They would be considered far less trustworthy, and there was hardly any chance that the Mossad would reveal to non-Israelis the unique methods developed by the Kidon unit.

Naturally, no one in Jerusalem was talking about any operational details of how Israelis entered and left Iran—or where they stayed while inside the Islamic Republic. Since the beginning of the State of Israel in 1948, its covert operatives have never found it difficult to masquerade as locals in every corner of the vast Middle East.

There were many possibilities. Obviously, Israeli operatives traveled using the passports of other countries, including bogus documents produced by skilled Mossad forgers and genuine passports where the photographs might be altered slightly. The spy agency’s use of phony, borrowed, and probably stolen non-Israeli passports has been inadvertently revealed several times, over many years. After a Mossad team led by Kidon assassins killed a Palestinian Islamist militant in a hotel in Dubai in January of 2010, the local police chief gleefully displayed video footage from security cameras that showed surveillance teams doing their shadowy work –frequently changing wigs and eyeglasses—and even the men wearing tennis whites, shorts, and others with baseball caps who were almost certainly the killers.

The police chief, General Dahi Khalfan, showed the visages of 27 men and women, displaying photos from their apparently bogus passports. Although the British, Australian, and Irish governments expressed anger at the Mossad for abusing their passports, diplomatic damage to Israel was minimal. In fact, Meir Dagan was fully satisfied with the outcome of the Dubai operation: The target—Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in charge of arms acquisition for Hamas—was dead. All the Mossad operatives returned safely to Israel. And no one was arrested or even accurately named.

Over the years, some stories about Kidon’s prowess have leaked to the public. With the little that was known about them, The Team’s operatives were considered synonymous—in Israel and outside—with assassins, liquidators, and murderers.

More broadly, there is a Mossad mythology that is based on decades of half-truths and rumors. Many of those stemmed from the secret agency’s “war of the spooks” against Palestinian radicals in the 1970s all over Europe—as a response to the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympic games in Munich, Germany, in September of 1972.

“Our attitude was that in order to defend ourselves, we have to go on the attack,” former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir told us. “Those who accuse us of being motivated simply by revenge are talking nonsense. We didn’t wage a vendetta campaign against individuals. It was a war against an organization, aiming to halt and prevent concrete terrorist plans. We concentrated on what was expected to happen.”

Zamir’s analysts found it satisfying that PLO activists in Europe and at their headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon—rather than devoting their energies to terrorist planning—were now looking over their shoulders, out of fear that they themselves were about to be attacked.

The truth, however, about the myth is that since the Mossad’s creation in the early 1950s, it has been involved in only a few dozen killing operations—certainly fewer than 50. But the public imagination worldwide has been captured by the notion of constant assassinations, and the Mossad might find it difficult to refute the image with facts. So it does not bother.

Dagan clearly believed in assassinations, and he did not shy away from planning missions in the heart of enemy countries. A Kidon squad managed to plant itself in Damascus, Syria, long enough to locate and kill Imad Mughniyeh in February of 2008. Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah faction’s military chief and a veteran hijacker and bomber, had long been on America’s list of most wanted terrorists.

Overall, Dagan could be proud that during his eight years in charge, there were more killings by the Mossad in enemy or “target” countries—Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates—than ever before. In the past, such activities had mostly been confined to the safer “base” countries where Israelis did not necessarily have to pretend to be something else. The change to a bolder pattern was the “dagger between the Mossad’s teeth” that Ariel Sharon, the prime minister who appointed Dagan, had demanded.

Despite tactical successes in Iran, the Mossad and its top political master—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—know that the entire Iranian nuclear weapons program will not be demolished by assassinations of nuclear scientists and military officers.

Yet, any delay in Iran’s nuclear work represents an achievement for Israel. Their strategic thinking—exercised in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere—holds that temporary disruptions to an enemy’s dangerous projects are sufficient cause for taking significant risks.

This was even truer when it came to killing Iranian specialists, who worked on unique tasks that required years of study.  These men were not available in abundant supply, despite Iran’s relatively large and advanced technological infrastructure. The assassinations have also had a strong psychological objective: sending a loud and clear message to scientists that working for the nuclear program was dangerous. The Mossad was telling them, in effect: Stay in your classrooms. Do your academic work. Get your research published. Enjoy the university life. But do not help Iran go nuclear. Otherwise, your career could be cut short by a bullet or a bomb.

Indeed, Israeli intelligence noticed that the assassination campaign was paying off, with what it called “white defections”: Iranian scientists were scared, many contemplated leaving the program, and some actually did.

With rare exceptions, they did not depart Iran and defect to the Western or Israeli side, but they dissociated themselves from the nuclear program. There were also indications of scientists being reluctant to join the program, despite lucrative terms offered by the Iranian government.

The intimidation campaign definitely showed an impact on foreigners. While in the past, Chinese, Russians, Pakistanis and others were happily accepting invitations—and high pay—to work in Iran, the only ones who still seemed attracted were North Koreans.

Mossad chief Dagan was pleased by the missions in Iran and the “cleanliness” of their execution: no clues, no fingerprints, not even motorcycles left behind. Iranian authorities could only guess who was attacking, in broad daylight, in their capital.

Yet the deeply intimidating impact that Dagan aimed to create in Iran seems to be exhausted. This is apparent to Tamir Pardo, the new head of the Mossad who had been Dagan’s deputy. (Dagan actually advised Netanbyahu to appoint another candidate.) The baby-faced Pardo is soft spoken, but his body language is misleading. Pardo is no less shrewd and cunning than his predecessor.

But the new director has a reputation for knowing that one should not push one’s luck too far. Iran is becoming more dangerous for Mossad and other foreign intelligence operatives. One can expect a halt, at least temporarily, of the assassination campaign.

Dagan, in retirement, has become outspoken in his opposition to a military strike by Israel against Iran. He warns that retaliation by Iran and its proxies could be highly damaging to normal life in the Jewish state. Dagan also believes that an attack by Israel would unite most Iranians around their regime and would give Iran’s scientists and engineers a major reason to speed up their underground nuclear work.

His private advice boils down to pointing out that there is still plenty of disruption to be accomplished within Iran by sabotage, assassinations, and a truly innovative weapon—cyberwarfare. The worm called Stuxnet, that took over Iranian nuclear lab computers, was a product of Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies working together; and it was not the only computer virus created by the highly skilled programmers in both nations.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem highly skeptical that international economic sanctions will persuade Iran to cancel its nuclear bomb program, Dagan and other former and current intelligence officials believe that sanctions are biting and could be a major factor in the ayatollahs’ thinking.

Dagan, in particular, seemed unconcerned by Barak’s public warning that Iran was entering a “zone of immunity”—a situation in which air raids by Israel’s limited air force could not reliably destroy a good deal of Iran’s nuclear potential. Dagan seems confident that, in order to prevent Iran from developing nukes, the United States would attack Iran. His analysis is guided by years of close ties with the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations. “I always prefer that Americans will do it,” he told the very few journalists he has met since he left office.

Dagan sees a strong possibility that, depending on circumstances, the United States will strike at Iran. He told Mossad staff members that economic factors in the modern world are powerful. He explained that he carefully studied the motivations of American leaders in formulating foreign policy and realized that the United States went to war in Iraq—twice—because of energy interests.

Dagan, it seems, has reached the conclusion that the U.S. would not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons—not only out of concern that a messianic Shi’ite regime might use the bomb or intimidate Israel—but mainly because Iran would become the most powerful nation among energy producers.

The United States, in the world according to Dagan, would not permit that to happen.

-This article was published first in The Daily Beast on 07/07/2012
-Dan Raviv is host of a radio magazine, The CBS News Weekend Roundup, and author of a book on US-Israel relations, Friends in Deed, and a bestseller on Israeli intelligence, Every Spy a Prince

Friday, July 6, 2012


By Andrew McGregor

War ships of the Russian Black Sea fleet (Source: Reuters)

Despite a recent flurry of contradictory reports, it appears that a detachment composed of ships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet and possibly the Baltic Fleet is preparing for deployment to the Russian naval port at Tartus, Syria. The date for their departure has not been finalized and appears to be dependent on developments in the Syrian insurgency, but the ships are reported to be ready to leave on four hours’ notice (Nezavisimaya Gazeta Online, June 20). Preparations appeared to intensify following an unannounced visit to Moscow on June 14 by the Syrian Defense Minister, Brigadier Dawud Rajihah (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 19).

The Russian Defense Ministry had earlier described American reports that the large amphibious warfare ship (LAWS) Kaliningrad of the Baltic Fleet was being sent to Syria as “disinformation… aimed at further escalating the situation in Syria…” adding that “the only true piece of information in these reports is that the LAWS Kaliningrad is indeed part of the Baltic Fleet” (RIA Novosti, June 19). Nevertheless, a source in the Russian Navy headquarters told Interfax-AVN the same day that the Kaliningrad would depart for Tartus “in a few days” (Interfax-AVN, June 19). The Russian Defense Ministry had also denied reports carried by American media sources to the effect that Russian ships had already departed for Syria by June 15 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta Online, June 18). Pentagon reports that U.S. satellite imagery revealed the BDK (Bolshoy Desantny Korabl – large amphibious landing ship) Nikolay Filchenkov was heading for Tartus earlier this month appear to have been incorrect, at least so far as timing is concerned. Loaded with military hardware, the ship left the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol (on lease to Russia) on June 21 bound for the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk rather than Tartus, but was due back in Sevastopol on June 25 (CNN, June 16; RIA-Novosti, June 21).

Despite the denials, a Russian media source specializing in defense issues claimed its sources had confirmed that the large landing ships Nikolai Filchenkov and Tzar Kunikov and the SB-15 rescue tugboat of the Black Sea Fleet together with units of a Russian Marine brigade were prepared to leave for Tartus once the Nikolai Filchenkov returned to Sevastopol (Interfax-AVN, June 20; June 19). Aerial protection of the ships has been guaranteed by Major General Vladimir Gradusov, deputy commander of the Russian Air Force (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 19).

The Tartus facility was established in 1971 at a time when the Soviet Union had similar facilities in the Syrian port of Latakia and the Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Mersa Matruh. Today, only the facility at Tartus remains. Officially, Russia does not call the Tartus a naval base, but rather a “Navy Sustainment Center” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, June 19). Under the official name of the Russian Federation Navy 720th Logistic-Support Station, the strategically important Tartus facility provides repair, refueling and re-provisioning services for Russian naval vessels operating in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Following a dredging program that began in 2009, the floating maintenance station (the PM-138), floating docks and workshops at Tartus can handle even the Russian Fleet’s largest ships, such as the Soviet-era aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which visited Tartus in January. [1] The station is leased from Syria at a cost of $2 million per year, with payments made in both cash and arms (Komsomolskaya Pravda Online, June 15). Tartus is also said to act as the receiving port for Russian arms shipments, like that allegedly delivered by the MV Professor Katsman in sealed containers on May 26 (Interfax, June 4).

If Moscow remains committed to its opposition to foreign military intervention in the Syrian crisis, any Russian military mission would likely be limited to a primary task of evacuating Russian citizens and personnel, with the option of a secondary task of defending Russian installations at Tartus. The floating PM-138 can actually be moved offshore if threatened.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has estimated there are approximately 100,000 Russian citizens in Syria, many with Syrian wives and families (Vedomosti Online, June 22). With such numbers, it is certain that a naval evacuation would prioritize diplomatic and military personnel in its calculations. The number of Russian stationed at the Tartus naval facility is estimated at no more than 100 (Vedomosti Online, June 22).

Though a website sympathetic to the Syrian insurrection had announced the Free Syrian Army (FSA – the main armed opposition group) intended to attack Tartus and had already infiltrated troops for this purpose, the FSA’s Colonel Malik al-Kurdi described such speculation as “irresponsible talk” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 18).

Units of Russia’s Naval Infantry (Morskoy Pekhoty – colloquially known as “Marines”) under the command of Hero of Russia Colonel Vladimir Belyavskiy are reported to be ready to board all three Baltic Fleet ships on the receipt of orders (Interfax-AVN, June 19).  Colonel Belyavskiy received his award for commanding Russian Marines of the Black Sea Fleet in a desperate engagement with Chechen mujahidin at the Tezen-Kale Gorge in February, 1995. [2]

The Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship, the missile cruiser Moskva, was scheduled to visit Tartus earlier this month, but its voyage was cancelled for reasons apparently related to the Syrian crisis (Interfax-AVN, May 23). The Soviet-era destroyer Smetlivy, which was to be relieved by the Moskva, was instead ordered to extend its cruise in the Mediterranean (Interfax, May 18). A Black Sea Fleet spokesman reported that security for the Smetlivy was provided in Tartus by a counterterrorism unit of Russian marines (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 19).

While a unilateral intervention by Russia in Syria appears to be out of the question for now, the possibility of Russian participation in a UN-authorized multinational force remains open. There is also speculation that a peacekeeping force under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO – a military alliance of seven former Soviet states, including Russia) might have a role in Syria. Various elite Russian military formations are reported to be receiving training for such an eventuality, including the 15th Combined Arms Brigade in Samara and the Pskov 75th Air Assault Division, which has previous experience with peacekeeping in Kosovo and in combat operations in Chechnya and Georgia. Also mentioned as likely participants in such a force are the Chechen Vostok and Zapad battalions of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which participated in peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and more active operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye Online, June 15). [3]

The view of Tartus as strategically vital to Russia’s defense is not unanimous, however. A new report from the Russian Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (described as having close ties to the Russian defense community) downplayed the strategic importance of the Syrian naval facility, suggesting that Tartus was “more of a symbolic rather than practical value to the Russian navy,” whose loss “would have no significant effect on Russia’s naval capabilities” (Financial Times, June 26).


-This report was published in the Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 10, Issue: 13, on 05/07/2012

1. The Russian designation for ships of this type is Tyazholyy avianesushchiy raketnyy kreyser, “heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser.” 
2. See 
3. For Vostok and Zapad activities outside Chechnya, see Andrew McGregor, “Chechen Troops Accompany Russian Soldiers in Lebanon,” Chechnya Weekly, October 26, 2006,, and “Peacekeepers or Provocateurs? Kremlin-Backed Chechen Troops Raise Tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” North Caucasus Weekly, December 6, 2007,

Will Syria Cause A Divorce Between Iran And Turkey?

By Giorgio Cafiero


Turkey and Iran are two of the Middle East’s oldest and most powerful states. Both aspire to play a greater role in a new regional order. Major geopolitical developments in the Middle East – the rise of Kurdish nationalism, the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006, and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009 – have aligned Turkish and Iranian interests during the post-Cold War era.

Nonetheless, as Ankara and Tehran seek to extend their respective influence throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, their interests and regional agendas have inevitably clashed, as evidenced by their conflicting positions on the turmoil in Syria. But although divergent interests in the Syrian conflict pull Turkey and Iran in opposite directions, their mutual interests in maintaining cordial relations will likely prevent the Syrian issue from precipitating a major split.

Ups and Downs

Ideological tensions and mutual accusations of state-sponsored terrorism led to hostile relations between Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution, although Turkey was an important trade partner of an isolated Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, a mutual concern over the possibility of an independent Kurdish state forming in Iraqi Kurdistan led Ankara and Tehran to form increasingly cooperative ties. Both states took collaborative measures to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity and combat militant Kurdish groups. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, the Islamic Republic was quick to welcome an Islamist party in Ankara that prioritized closer ties with Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors.

For the last decade, Turkey and Iran have enjoyed increasingly cordial relations. Turkey’s interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff between Iran and Western governments over its alleged nuclear ambitions, in addition to their mutual opposition to Washington’s one-sided position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and security dilemmas regarding the spillover of violence from Iraq throughout the region, has fostered closer ties. However, opposing stakes in Syria have led to a recent exchange of heated rhetoric.

Sami Moubayed writes that: "Ali Akbar, senior advisor to Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei … said that Turkey's model of “secular Islam” was actually a “version of Western liberal democracy that is unacceptable for countries going through an Islamic awakening.” In response, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said: “I am addressing the Islamic Republic of Iran: I do not know if you are worthy of being called Islamic; have you said a single thing about what is happening in Syria?” 

Turkey and Iran’s conflict of interest in Syria must be seen within the context of the two states’ regional ambitions and security dilemmas.

Role of Syria in the Struggle for the Arab World

The alliance that Hafez al-Assad and the Ayatollah Khomeini formed in 1979, frequently labeled a “marriage of convenience,” has greatly influenced the balance of power in the Middle East. For over 30 years, Syrian and Iranian foreign policies have depended on this alliance to provide strategic depth during times of isolation, contain a mutual threat from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and develop a Shi’a axis, stretching from Tehran to southern Lebanon, which resists U.S./Israeli hegemony. Hezbollah’s strength vis-à-vis Israel, which was demonstrated in May 2000 and July 2006, is an outcome of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Tehran has invested in Hezbollah to gain respect and legitimacy in Arab circles and deter Israel from launching a military strike on Iran. Damascus’ support for Hezbollah has been useful for pressuring Israel into negotiating for a peace settlement that includes a return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s ouster would likely bring Syrian Sunnis (who constitute 74 percent of Syria’s population) to power in Damascus and end Alawite rule.

Given Iran and Hezbollah’s unpopularity among many Sunni Syrians, the viability of this “marriage of convenience” in a post-Assad era is extremely weak. Iran sees the survival of the Islamic Republic’s closest Arab ally as a vital national interest. The decision to send Iran’s military advisors into Syria to help the regime quell opposition forces indicates the value that Tehran places on the Syrian regime’s survival.

In contrast to Iran, which has much to lose with Assad’s ouster, Turkey has much to gain. Following years of hostility that almost brought the neighbors to all-out war in October 1998, Turkey’s relations with the Assad regime improved as the AKP’s “zero problems” foreign policy prioritized rapprochement with Syria. Despite more than a decade of political alignment and expanded commercial ties, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended relations with Assad and demanded that he step down from power in November 2011, comparing his former Arab friend to Hitler, Mussolini, and Gaddafi. Turkey abandoned Assad partly due to Ankara’s view of the uprising in Syria as an opportunity to reverse Iranian inroads throughout the Levant and establish Turkey as the region’s leader.

A recent poll, conducted by the Brookings Institution and Zogby International in October 2011, confirms that Erdogan is the most popular world leader within Arab circles and that the AKP’s form of democratic and moderate Islamism is the political system most desired by Egyptians. If a pro-Turkish and anti-Iranian government forms in Damascus, Turkey’s position of power in the Arab world vis-à-vis Iran would only increase. The extent to which Ankara is invested in Assad’s demise is evident by the Turkish government’s decision to host the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army. The party with the most influence within the Istanbul-based umbrella of Syrian opposition forces is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has declared support for Turkey and the AKP’s brand of Sunni Islamism. Mohammed Faruk Tayfur, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy secretary, defined his vision for Syria by comparing political Islam in Turkey and Iran. “Islamic culturally and secular politically, [Turkey] is the model for the Islamic movement,” he proclaimed. “The Iranian [model], on the other hand, is the worst."

Turkey’s decision to host a NATO anti-missile system has been interpreted to demonstrate Ankara’s willingness to take more aggressive measures against Iran. However, Turkey made this decision at the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, several months before the uprising began in Syria. At the same summit, Turkey demanded that Iran not be mentioned as a threat. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also stated that Turkey reserved the right to leave the anti-missile system within six months if intelligence ended up with non-NATO member states. Ankara would not “allow a regional balance based on Turkish-Iranian enmity,” Davutoglu said in a television interview. “There may be people who want to start a cold war, but neither Turkey nor Iran will let that happen.”

Turkey announced in March 2012 that it would reduce imports of Iranian oil by 20 percent and compensate with increased imports of Libyan and Saudi oil. Although this decision was made as the violence in Syria continued, it should rather be seen within the context of Turkey’s foreign policy objective of balancing its relations with Iran and traditional Western allies. The United States, which remains a close ally of Turkey despite the AKP’s desire to gain greater autonomy from Washington, still has significant influence over Turkey. Thus, Ankara’s decision to reduce Iranian oil imports is likely a consequence of pressure from Washington. In an effort to maintain a balanced position between the West and Iran, Prime Minister Erdogan reaffirmed his belief that Iran is not attempting to develop a nuclear weapon.

Cooperative Rivals

The outcome of sectarian conflicts and tensions in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen will certainly have an impact on the capacity of Turkey and Iran to advance their hegemonic ambitions in a new Middle East. These conflicts of interests will position the two countries as competitive rivals who place bets on different horses. Nonetheless, mutual vital interests — primarily related to commerce, energy, and Kurdish nationalism — will likely prevent the two states from growing hostile as Iran and Iraq were throughout the 20th century. In the words of Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, Turkey and Iran have “lots to walk away from” after 10 years of fostering collaborative ties.

Since the AKP came to power, improved diplomatic relations with Iran have accompanied growing economic and energy ties. Vatanka notes that “trade volumes shot up from about $1 billion per year in 2000 to about $16 billion in 2011.” According to Nader Habibi, professor of economics at Brandeis University, “in the first quarter of 2011, Iran was the leading exporter of crude oil to Turkey, with a 30 percent share of Turkey’s total oil imports, while it was also the third largest provider of Turkey’s natural gas, after Russia and Iraq.” Turkey values Iran as an oil and gas exporter because it has enabled Turkey to gain greater energy autonomy from Russia. Additionally, Iran has provided Turkey with high levels of foreign direct investment in recent years. In 2002, only 319 Iranian firms operated in Turkey. This number rose to 1,470 in 2010 and 2,072 in 2011.
The western-imposed sanctions on Iran have increased the value that Iran places on Turkey as a trade partner. Habibi writes that “Iran views Turkey as a valuable partner for neutralizing the international economic sanctions and reducing her international isolation; and by deepening its economic interdependency with Turkey, Iran is also trying to discourage Turkey from supporting the sanctions itself.” Due to the sanctions, machinery and other products cannot be imported normally into Iran. Iranian industries have relied on Turkey (as well as China, Iraq, and Turkmenistan) to overcome the sanctions and be linked to the international economy.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Turkey and Iran also shared mutual concerns about the possibility of Kurdish independence in Iraqi Kurdistan. The fear of militant Kurdish separatists plotting attacks against Turkey and Iran from northern Iraq was the basis of their shared interest in opposing the division of Iraq’s territorial integrity. Throughout 1993 and 1994, Turkey and Iran held approximately 10 meetings and signed a joint security protocol on November 30, 1993. After the second Gulf War, despite competition between the two states for influence in the vacuum created in northern Iraq, both Ankara and Tehran began to view the other as a necessary partner in their quest to deny the Iraqi Kurds an independent state.

As old regimes fall and new ones emerge in the Middle East, legitimate security dilemmas arise for all countries in the region. However, as power vacuums emerge, opportunities for geopolitical advances are also presented. For example, Iraq was a bitter enemy of Iran for several decades, until the old Sunni Ba’athist order collapsed and Iraq’s Shi’a came to power and formed deep political and economic ties with the Islamic Republic. If Assad’s regime cannot survive the current uprising, the emergence of a Sunni government in Damascus will provide an opportunity for Turkey and Gulf states to forge closer ties with a state that is geographically and culturally centered in the middle of the Arab world and cut back Iranian inroads in Lebanon and Palestine. Iran’s national interests in preventing such an outcome will create tension between Ankara and Tehran.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric and actions of politicians frequently diverge. The fact that, so far, Turkey and Iran’s opposing interests in Syria have only led to heated rhetoric indicates that Ankara and Tehran value their cooperative rivalry, even as the ongoing turmoil in Syria polarizes their interests.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 05/07/2012
- Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus


Al Jazeera's new investigation into the not-so-mysterious death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is little more than baseless speculation.


                                       Late Palestinian Leader Yasir Arafat

In November 2004, a sad but very familiar scene played itself out: A sick, 75-year-old man who had been living in squalor for several years after an extremely difficult life -- including a near-death experience in the Libyan desert -- finally passed away. Doctors at the Percy hospital in France determined he died of natural causes: a stroke caused by an unidentified infection. As is so often the case, human life ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.

But, of course, this wasn't just any ailing and frail 75-year-old man. It was Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, president of the Palestinian Authority, and national symbol of the Palestinian cause. This was the man who had overseen the revival of the Palestinian political and national identity, and who held a certain iconic status even for his most bitter Palestinian critics.

From the outset, there was a refusal to believe that such a "great man" could have died a squalid, mundane death. For many, his ending had to be heroic and romantic. He must have been assassinated. Anything less wouldn't do justice to his mythological, larger-than-life status. As early as November 2004, Palestinian journalist Maher Ibrahim wrote in the Dubai-based newspaper Al-Bayan, "Israeli Radiation Poisoning Killed President Yasser Arafat." A Palestinian grocer, Terry Atta, reflected public sentiment that has been widespread since Arafat's death when he recently told Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper, "We all knew it was poisoning."

As with the endless theories about "who killed JFK," the Arafat murder conspiracy theories reflect a natural human tendency to protect the mythic and the iconic from the prosaic: How could a giant like John F. Kennedy have simply been shot by a pathetic loser like Lee Harvey Oswald?

Counterintuitively, narratives about grand conspiracies are reassuring, while random twists of fate can be deeply unsettling: Is reality really so terrifyingly arbitrary?

Some Israelis, such as Lenny Ben-David, former deputy chief of mission of Israel's embassy in Washington, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to suggest that their hated enemy was a "sexual deviant" who had died of AIDS. Conspiracy theories in all directions have never relented from the moment Arafat passed away, and Palestinian leadership bodies have established more than one commission of inquiry to discover "who killed Arafat?"

Enter Al Jazeera English. This week, with enormous fanfare, the Qatar-backed satellite channel released a TV special and series of articles reporting that a Swiss lab has found elevated traces of polonium 210 -- a chemical element more than 250,000 times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide -- on some of Arafat's possessions, including his trademark kaffiyeh headscarf, provided to the network by his widow, Suha. As the channel must have known, and probably intended, this "revelation" unleashed a veritable tsunami of speculation, virtually all of it utterly baseless.

In a manner reminiscent of Glenn Beck, the conspiracy-minded American talk-show host, the station, in effect, insists it is "only asking questions." But only the most naïve could doubt that the channel's managers were well aware their story would prompt an orgy of conspiratorial theorizing.

Millions of people now appear to be convinced that Arafat died of polonium poisoning, much like the former KGB agent turned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Many Arabs are blaming Israel. Others, following not particularly subtle hints in various aspects of Al Jazeera's coverage, are suspecting an inside job conducted by rivals within Fatah. And numerous Israelis, including some former officials, have been once again hinting at a "secret illness," as reported by Reuters correspondent Dan Williams on Twitter, obviously returning again to the utterly discredited AIDS theory.
There are at least three gaping holes in the Al Jazeera story that render it, in effect, little more than baseless, and indeed irresponsible, speculation.

First and most importantly, Arafat's symptoms are well documented and completely inconsistent with 210PO (polonium) poisoning. Unlike Litvenenko, he didn't lose his hair and his bone marrow was found to be undamaged. He also staged at least one brief recovery, which wouldn't be possible in the case of polonium poisoning. It should be added that his symptoms were also completely inconsistent with AIDS.
Second, the Swiss lab report on which the Al Jazeera story relies, clearly states that its findings are inconclusive and provide no basis for concluding polonium poisoning, especially since his symptoms were inconsistent with that. The report also states that further testing may reveal that the 210PO levels detected may prove to have been naturally occurring, albeit unusually high.

Third, the provenance of the items in question is not well-established, and therefore the relationship between the 210PO levels discovered on them and Arafat's condition is very much in doubt. Even an exhumation of the body, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) is reportedly considering, may not prove conclusive, as 210PO has a very short half-life of 137 days.

Finally, the timing of the Al Jazeera story is extremely suspicious. The PA leadership is currently embroiled in a series of controversies involving police brutality against demonstrators, suppression of dissent, potentially politically motivated corruption trials, and a growing financial crisis that has made paying the salaries of public employees extremely difficult.

The PA's woes have paralyzed its diplomacy. A recent planned meeting of Palestinian officials with Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz fell through, at least partly due to public pressure. An upcoming meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and French President Francois Hollande, apparently designed to persuade the Palestinians not to renew their efforts for further recognition at the United Nations, is also meeting with considerable Palestinian public opposition.

Al Jazeera has a history of trying to discredit the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, most notably with the release of a dump of often undated and unsigned documents from the PLO negotiation support unit in January 2011. The current report, which fails to make a convincing case that Arafat was killed by 210PO poisoning, seems to be only the latest iteration of this pattern.

The core reporting in the Al Jazeera story doesn't constitute journalistic malpractice, but the sensationalism with which it is being presented is clearly designed to reignite the rumor mill about Arafat's supposedly mysterious death. But the burden of proof on those who would claim that the death of a sick, 75-year-old man who ended his days in miserable squalor following an exceptionally difficult life was due to anything other than natural causes -- as established by his doctors at the time -- is extremely high. So far, nothing, including the new Al Jazeera report, even begins to meet that burden.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 05/07/2012
-Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Judge Helped Egypt’s Military To Cement Power


Graffiti in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and former President Hosni Mubarak are seen as two sides of the same fac

Even as they promised to hand authority to elected leaders, Egypt’s ruling generals were planning with one of the nation’s top judges to preserve their political power and block the rise of the Islamists, the judge said.

Tahani el-Gebali, deputy president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, said she advised the generals not to cede authority to civilians until a Constitution was written. The Supreme Court then issued a decision that allowed the military to dissolve the first fairly elected Parliament in Egypt’s history and assure that the generals could oversee drafting of a Constitution.

The behind-the-scenes discussions, never publicly disclosed, shed new light on what some have called a judicial coup. From the moment the military seized control from President Hosni Mubarak, the generals “certainly” never intended to relinquish authority before supervising a new Constitution, Judge Gebali said.

The military council’s plan to cede authority was premised on first establishing the Constitution, the judge said, so the generals “knew who they were handing power to and on what basis. That was the point.”

When the military first seized power, it positioned itself as a guardian of the peaceful revolution, a force that was aimed at helping achieve the goals of a democratic Egypt. Demonstrators in Tahrir Square chanted that the people and the military were one, and there were promises of a quick transition to civilian control.

But the evidence since then has piled up demonstrating that the military had never intended to fully submit to democratically elected authority.

Now as Egypt’s new, popularly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, tries to fashion a role for himself as head of state, he is facing a military council that retains virtually all executive and legislative authority. The generals have again pledged to transfer power after a new Parliament is elected and a Constitution drafted.

Some argue that this is in Egypt’s best interest.

The generals “want to make sure before they leave that the Constitution is not monopolized by any group or direction,” said Anwar el-Sadat, nephew of the former president and a member of the Parliament that was dissolved. He was referring to the Islamists, who had won control of the Parliament and went on to win the presidency.

“They would like to make sure this is a civil state,” Mr. Sadat added, as opposed to a religious one. “That is all.”

Judge Gebali said her own direct contacts with the generals began in May last year, after a demonstration by mostly liberal and secular activists demanding a Constitution or at least a bill of rights before elections. “This changed the vision of the military council,” she said. “It had thought that the only popular power in the street was the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It was also around that time, Judge Gebali said, that she began helping the military-led government draft a set of binding constitutional ground rules. The rules protected civil liberties, she said, but also explicitly granted the military autonomy from any oversight, as well as a permanent power to intervene in politics. “The military council accepted it, and agreed to issue a ‘constitutional declaration’ with it,” she said.

But as the military-led government unveiled the rules, known here as the Selmi document, the provisions about the military’s power aroused fierce opposition, culminating in a weeklong street battle with security forces near Tahrir Square that left about 45 people dead.

The planned decree “was thwarted every time by all the noise, the popular mobilization, the ‘million-man marches,’ ” Judge Gebali said, blaming the Islamists even though they were only one part of the protests.

Egyptian jurists now say that the generals effectively planted a booby trap in the parliamentary elections by leaving them vulnerable to judicial negation at any time — if the generals allowed previous precedents to apply.

The elections had “a fatal poison,” Judge Gebali said she warned at the time. “Any reader of the situation would’ve known that this appeal would be the end of the Parliament.” When the elected Parliament sought to take control of the interim government, the generals’ prime minister expressly threatened the lawmakers with judicial dissolution, the speaker of Parliament said at the time.
The decision “is in the drawers of the constitutional court, and it could be taken out at any time,” Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri told Parliament’s speaker, Saad el-Katatni of the Muslim Brotherhood, as Mr. Katatni recalled in March from the floor of Parliament.

Parliament backed down, and the warning proved prescient. But Mr. Ganzouri denied making the threat.

Supporters and critics of what has emerged both agree that what the generals are doing is aiming to create a system similar to what emerged in Turkey in 1981, after a military coup. At that time in Turkey, a military-dominated National Security Council retained broad power over an elected government in the name of preserving the secular character of the state.

It was bifurcated sovereignty — a military state within a state — that ushered in 20 years of repeated coups and perpetual instability. That began to change only about 10 years ago when Turkey’s current loosely Islamic governing party began prying away control.

Egypt’s generals recently activated a dormant National Defense Council packed with military personnel that could play a similar role.

Mr. Sadat, who is close to the generals, emphasized the ultimate outcome. “Over time the generals know they are losing power and control, the same as happened in Turkey,” he said.

The generals’ focus on securing their permanent autonomy and influence has been an unstated theme of why they came to power. Their intentions were made clear with a recently issued decree that gave them control of legislation and the budget until the election of a new Parliament. It also handed the Mubarak-appointees on the Supreme Constitutional Court jurisdiction to strike down provisions of the next Constitution.

Nathan J. Brown, a legal scholar at George Washington University, called the provision to give the holdover court such unrestricted power “a constitutional obscenity.”

Egyptians voted soon after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster to approve a transition plan that appeared to put the ratification of a Constitution well after the military turned over power to elected civilians — by design, its chief author, Judge Tarek el-Bishry, has said. The plan made no mention of the generals, who were promising a transfer in six months.

Then the generals unilaterally overruled the referendum and issued a decree stipulating that the ruling military council, not the elected Parliament, would call a constitutional assembly — the first clue of their intentions.

“I knew the elections would bring a majority from the movements of political Islam,” Judge Gebali said last week.

She said she sent the ruling generals a memo urging them to put off any votes. “Democracy isn’t only about casting votes; it’s about building a democratic infrastructure. We put the cart in front of the horse,” she said.

“But there was severe pressure for the Islamic movements,” she added, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political force. “The military is the hard power in society, and it was in the Islamists’ interest not to set the Constitution while this hard force was in power.”

Later, she said, the generals acknowledged to her that they had made a mistake by going ahead with the parliamentary vote. “The apology was clear: ‘You were right,’ ” she said.

-This report was published in The New York Times on 04/07/2012
-Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

U.S. Adds Forces In Persian Gulf, A Signal To Iran


The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf beyond it, as seen from the International Space Station in 2003. Iran is to the right (NASA, via AP)

The United States has quietly moved significant military reinforcements into the Persian Gulf to deter the Iranian military from any possible attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz and to increase the number of fighter jets capable of striking deep into Iran if the standoff over its nuclear program escalates.

The deployments are part of a long-planned effort to bolster the American military presence in the gulf region, in part to reassure Israel that in dealing with Iran, as one senior administration official put it last week, “When the president says there are other options on the table beyond negotiations, he means it.”

But at a moment that the United States and its allies are beginning to enforce a much broader embargo on Iran’s oil exports, meant to force the country to take seriously the negotiations over sharply limiting its nuclear program, the buildup carries significant risks, including that Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps could decide to lash out against the increased presence.

The most visible elements of this buildup are Navy ships designed to vastly enhance the ability to patrol the Strait of Hormuz — and to reopen the narrow waterway should Iran attempt to mine it to prevent Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters from sending their tankers through the vital passage.

The Navy has doubled the number of minesweepers assigned to the region, to eight vessels, in what military officers describe as a purely defensive move.

“The message to Iran is, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ ” one senior Defense Department official said. “Don’t even think about closing the strait. We’ll clear the mines. Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the gulf.” Like others interviewed, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the diplomatic and military situation.

Since late spring, stealthy F-22 and older F-15C warplanes have moved into two separate bases in the Persian Gulf to bolster the combat jets already in the region and the carrier strike groups that are on constant tours of the area. Those additional attack aircraft give the United States military greater capability against coastal missile batteries that could threaten shipping, as well as the reach to strike other targets deeper inside Iran.

And the Navy, after a crash development program, has moved a converted amphibious transport and docking ship, the Ponce, into the Persian Gulf to serve as the Pentagon’s first floating staging base for military operations or humanitarian assistance.

The initial assignment for the Ponce, Pentagon officials say, is to serve as a logistics and operations hub for mine-clearing. But with a medical suite and helicopter deck, and bunks for combat troops, the Ponce eventually could be used as a base for Special Operations forces to conduct a range of missions, including reconnaissance and counterterrorism, all from international waters.

For President Obama, the combination of negotiations, new sanctions aimed at Iran’s oil revenues and increased military pressure is the latest — and perhaps the most vital — test of what the White House calls a “two track” policy against Iran. In the midst of a presidential election campaign in which his opponent, Mitt Romney, has accused him of being “weak” in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue, Mr. Obama seeks to project toughness without tipping into a crisis in the region.

At the same time he must signal support for Israel, but not so much support that the Israelis see the buildup as an opportunity to strike the Iranian nuclear facilities, which Mr. Obama’s team believes could set off a war without significantly setting back the Iranian program.

A key motivation for “Olympic Games,” the covert effort to undermine Iran’s enrichment capability with cyberattacks, has been to demonstrate to the Israelis that there are more effective ways to slow the program than to strike from the air.

But this delicate signaling to both Iran and Israel is a complex dance. Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that the administration must strike a fine balance between positioning enough forces to deter Iran, but not inadvertently indicate to Iran or Israel that an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites is imminent or inevitable
“There are a lot of expectations to manage,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview. “People need to know you’re serious, but you must also leave room for peaceful resolution. It’s very important not to take steps that send the wrong messages here.”

There is little evidence that the increased pressure is having the desired effect. Negotiations with Iran are at a stalemate, though a group of Iranian, American and European experts are expected to meet in Istanbul on Tuesday to review a recent American proposal and Iranian response. So far, though, Iran has strenuously resisted all efforts to force it to give up enrichment of uranium, starting with production of a type that is considered relatively close to bomb grade.

Responding to the tightening of Western sanctions, Iran on Monday announced that it would consider proposed legislation to disrupt traffic in the Strait of Hormuz as well as missile tests, in a drill clearly intended as a warning to Israel and the United States.

The Iranian legislation calls for Iran’s military to block any oil tanker en route to countries no longer buying Iranian crude because of the embargo. It was unclear whether the legislation would pass or precisely how Iran would enforce it.

Senior Pentagon and military officials acknowledge that Iran has the capability to close the strait, at least temporarily, and the additional mine-clearing forces can be viewed as both concrete and spoken evidence of Washington’s commitment to make sure any closing is as brief as possible.

The most significant Iranian threat to shipping came during its war of attrition with Iraq in the 1980s. Iran attacked tankers and other commercial traffic to disrupt Iraq’s oil revenues and threaten shipments from other Arab states viewed as supporting Baghdad. Iran also laid significant numbers of mines in an attempt to block transit, prompting mine-clearing operations and attacks on the Iranian Navy by American warships.

Defense Department officials stressed that the recent reshaping of American forces in the Persian Gulf region should not be viewed as solely about the potential nuclear threat from Iran.

“This is not only about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but about Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions,” the senior Defense Department official said.

“This is a complex array of American military power that is tangible proof to all of our allies and partners and friends that even as the U.S. pivots toward Asia, we remain vigilant across the Middle East.”

While American ground troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, a force equivalent to an extra Army combat brigade has remained in Kuwait, officials said. It could have many roles to contain regional instability, but Iran is a primary concern.

While it always is difficult to read Iran’s intentions, senior American Navy officers have noted that Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf have refrained recently from provocative behavior.

“Things have been, relatively speaking, quiet,” said Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the chief of naval operations, assessing actions by Iranian Navy vessels over “the last couple of months.”

But that was without the pressure of the new sanctions; already Iran is exporting far less oil every day than a year ago: about 1.5 million barrels a day versus 2.5 million before the gradual imposition of earlier sanctions.

While Iranian vessels have avoided any confrontations with allied warships in recent weeks, Iran expects to equip its ships in the Strait of Hormuz soon with shorter-range missiles, a Revolutionary Guards commander said on Friday, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.

With an eye on the threat of a belligerent Iran, the administration is also seeking to expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The United States and 19 other countries will hold a major mine countermeasure exercise in the Persian Gulf in September, said a senior military officer who noted that countries in the region were taking more steps in their own defense, including buying American-made air defense systems and other weaponry.

-This report was published in The New York Times on 03/07/2012

No Dog In This Fight

Why Obama is playing it smart on Syria.


                                                                               President Barack Obama

As Syria heats up, one guy is playing it cool. U.S. President Barack Obama may be up all night worrying about matters closer to home -- like his poll numbers -- but he's not losing sleep over what to do about Syria or Iran. He knows exactly what his priorities are.

Right now, the president is rightly concerned much less about the fall of the House of Assad and much more about the survival of the House of America, which he equates with his own re-election, or to put it more succinctly, the perpetuation of the House of Obama.

If there is any doubt, just look at the outcome of Kofi Annan's contact group meeting in Geneva this weekend. The Americans backed a highly questionable plan for a political transition in Syria that, to placate the Russians, failed to even mention Bashar al-Assad's removal. Obama just wants the situation in Syria to go away. With the options at his disposal, can you blame him? 

Unless forced by some spate of violence that qualitatively and quantitatively exceeds the horrors so far (a Syrian Srebrenica?), Obama will try to avoid risky, ill-considered military ventures or half measures on both Syria and Iran that would likely to lead to war that could prove even more detrimental to his re-election efforts than inaction. But he's not just thinking about November: However painful, this is one of those moments when politics and the right policy instincts actually coincide.

Governing is about choosing, and Syria is the poster child for tough choices. So far, Obama has made the right ones. In a conflict that pits a still-powerful regime against an opposition that is growing stronger but still lacks the resources and power to overthrow the Assads, there are no good options. Too much blood has flowed for neatly packaged diplomacy, and military options -- arming the opposition, safe zones, air strikes -- are risky and really don't answer the mail on what to do after the Assads depart. Who or what will provide the thousands of peacekeepers and billions required to preserve order and rebuild the country in an environment where Sunnis and Alawis alike will be looking for retribution?

The moral and strategic arguments for a more muscular U.S. role may be compelling. The killing goes on day after day and America watches. Bosnia redux? Syria is truly important; it is not Libya. Its unique geopolitical location -- with Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Turkey as neighbors and Big Daddy Iran just over the horizon -- make its future of critical importance.

Still, for an American president, there are other considerations that need to be weighed -- factors that speak to Obama's politics, the November election, and the mood of the country he is responsible for governing.

Diplomats, scholars, even politicians (usually of the opposing party) sometimes question the legitimacy of domestic politics, which they consider crude and cheap, particularly when moral or humanitarian issues are involved. Presidents don't have that luxury. An individual may well have the moral imperative to act in the face of evil and wrongdoing; a leader of a country may well too. But he or she has additional responsibilities to consider, which involve the country as a whole and his or her own political future, which -- let's face it -- is often conflated with the nation's interest.

On both Syria and Iran, Obama -- much to the dismay of both the liberal interventionists and the neocons -- will try to dance the multilateral tango (always act with others); avoid military action (who knows where it might lead?); and make sure others take the lead in any rebuilding efforts (we don't need to own another Muslim country). And yes, America's image abroad -- along with that of just about every other member of the international community -- will suffer as a result of continued inaction. But this president has more important priorities and constituencies.

Here's a politically incorrect guide to the president's thinking on Iran and Syria between now and November.

The Hero of Detroit, Not Damascus

Most Americans don't even know where Syria is.  I'm not trying to demean my fellow countrymen, only to highlight a fundamental truth these days.

After watching the two longest wars in American history  -- with 6,000 dead and counting and more than a trillion spent and counting, not to mention the thousands of troops grievously wounded and the loss of credibility, Americans want the focus to be on fixing their own broken house, not repairing somebody else's.

The public, poll after poll suggests, doesn't want to withdraw from the world, but does want to be smarter about how the United States operates abroad, and wants above all to concentrate more on domestic priorities. And that goes for both donkeys and elephants: A recent Pew poll on partisan polarization suggests that 83 percent agree we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home -- the highest percentage expressing this view since 1994.

Despite his own initial "I am and can change the world" reveries, the president has known that from the get-go. And his policies so far have been pretty competent and smart in that regard: an early departure from Iraq, a responsible exit from Afghanistan, great caution on Libya, Iran, and Syria.

He knows from his predecessor that there's very little glory or political hay to be made in the Middle East. And he knows from his predecessor's father that there's much to be lost even in the winning. Remember: Bush 41 won a big battle against Saddam but lost the war at home because he wasn't in tune with the economic travails of ordinary Americans. This president is not going to make that mistake.

Foreign Policy Adventures: No Upsides...

Rarely has foreign policy -- outside of rising oil prices and terror attacks -- been less relevant to American voters. It figures almost not at all in a campaign focused on unemployment, disposable income, and mortgage woes. Republicans are having a hard time finding vulnerabilities in the Obama's foreign policies, I've argued elsewhere, and a consensus has emerged between the two candidates on some of the core foreign-policy issues.

What this means in practical terms is that success abroad -- even spectacular success -- won't mean much in election currency. As long as the administration doesn't allow the Republicans to outflank it on the one foreign issue Americans do care about -- fighting terror -- there's not much upside to risking military action or a big peace initiative that could be messy, costly, and worst of all seen as a failure. In political terms, Obama's Middle East policy has been pretty successful -- killing Osama bin Laden and whacking al Qaeda operatives from one end of the planet to the other, getting out of Iraq, and taking out Muammar al-Qaddafi without owning a mess in Libya. Other issues -- Israeli-Palestinian peace or the Arab spring turned winter -- really don't matter much in terms of the election, unless of course the president stumbles.

...But Plenty of Downsides

And that -- together with bad options on Iran and Syria -- is the source of the Obama's caution. I've never really understood the notion of the "October surprise" -- not in the world of foreign policy this president inhabits. The idea that any president would want to willfully plunge ahead into the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East looking for opportunities and glory to help him win re-election is an idea reserved for the conspiratorial and the interminably obtuse.

You can divide the Middle East Obama confronts in two: migraine headaches and root canals. There are no opportunities, only risks and dangers. And the president is resolved to avoid them for now, or at least minimize them.

On Iran, it's clear he and the mullahs share a common objective: avoid an Israeli attack anytime soon. A unilateral Israeli strike would inject tremendous uncertainty into the global economy, roil markets, raise oil and gas prices, and retard an already weak recovery. It could draw America into another Middle East quagmire. If things went badly, the Republicans would start hammering the president for not dealing with Israel's Iranian concerns earlier and charge weakness and incompetence.

The notion that Obama is more prepared to go to war with Iran because it's an election year and he must satisfy the pro-Israeli community or an Israeli prime minister is nonsense, given where the electorate is. At the same time, Obama isn't in much of a position to make concessions on the nuclear issue, either, because he knows he'll get hit with the appeasement charge faster than you can say the word "enrichment."

It's the fear of war, not the desire for one, that's driving the president, and this is very much related to his re-election. A war with the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards is the last thing Obama wants or needs now. It's much safer to keep the nuclear talks limping along and get through November without a crisis.

Syria is in many ways worse because of the killing and the costs to stop it. The Russians are blocking more meaningful collective action; the U.S. military has warned that intervention would be much more complex than Libya. There isn't even a good policy-by-committee option, as there was in dealing with Qaddafi. Syria's just too complicated for that.

Romney Can't Hurt Obama on Syria or Iran

Still, there are no domestic pressures to intervene. Sen. John Kerry has urged a more muscular approach, as have Mitt Romney and John McCain. But none of this interventionist pressure has gained much traction. That's because nobody has a clue how to get rid of the Assads, let alone create a political transition to something better and stable. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has called for trying Assad in The Hague; the neocons and liberal interventionists talk about safe zones and arming the rebels. But I'm not sure they really believe in it. Despite an effort on the part of some to make Syria the fulcrum of Western civilization (weaken Iran, avoid regional war, etc.) these arguments aren't taking, as there's just no stomach or heart for another U.S.-led intervention. The Republicans have no better ideas on Syria or Iran than the president does, and all the militant rhetoric sounds hollow.

But Hillary May be More Vulnerable

In little more than six months, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be a private citizen. During this period, if the Syrian situation worsens and America is seen to be watching from the sidelines, her own legacy as secretary cannot help but be tarnished. It is neither fair nor right -- Obama is in charge of Syria strategy. But he will have other opportunities to craft a foreign-policy legacy. As the point person on the Syria issue, she won't. And the last thing the Clinton legacy needs is another Rwanda.

In the end, this is not about individuals. Syria is not Barack Obama's or America's singular responsibility, nor is it America's primary fight. Unless pushed by a bloodbath on a massive scale, the president will act cautiously and always in the company of others. When it comes to Damascus (and Tehran too), he'll prefer pressure, process, multilateralism, and talking over shooting and risky unilateral intervention. It's not pretty and it's hard to watch. But it's not only necessary politics, it's in the national interest right now too.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 02/07/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Monday, July 2, 2012

Only A United World Can Give Syria Hope

This conflict is among Syrians and they must be the ones who solve it

By Kofi Annan

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) speaks with Kofi Annan (centre), the special international envoy on Syria, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) prior to a meeting of the Action Group for Syria, in Geneva, Switzerland, on Saturday.

A group of influential countries from the UN Security Council and the Middle East met on Saturday in Geneva to agree on an action plan for peace in Syria. The situation could hardly be more grave. Since last spring, many thousands of Syrians have risen up to demand change. While at first they gathered peacefully, in the face of appalling government brutality some have resorted to arms. Others, especially members of minorities, have sat on the fence or supported the government, and they fear the alternative.

The resulting maelstrom has shocked the world. Battles have raged through city after city. Whole neighbourhoods have been shelled into ruins. Families have been massacred. Thousands have been killed and thousands more detained, while hundreds of thousands have fled their homes. Many civilians are trapped in combat zones, not receiving medical care or humanitarian aid. Violence has reached the capital, Damascus, and has spilled over to neighbouring states. And as the chaos deepens, terrorist elements have sought to exploit it.

In March, everyone agreed to a six-point plan that provided a ladder the parties could climb down and a mechanism, the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, to help them sustain a ceasefire so political negotiations could start. But that plan has not been implemented. After an initial lull, the violence got worse. Syria's government, which bears the biggest responsibility, continues to use extreme violence against both unarmed and armed protesters.

For its part, the opposition lacks unity and some elements have intensified their attacks against government forces and installations. Unarmed UN observers have had to suspend their activities. They remain at their posts, ready to reengage if the parties show the political will. The Security Council will soon decide on the mission's future. This conflict is among Syrians, and they must be the ones who solve it. But it would be naive to think they could, on their own, end the violence now and enter into a meaningful political process.

Many external powers are deeply involved. Despite formal unity behind the six-point plan, mutual mistrust has made them work at cross-purposes. Intentionally or otherwise, they have encouraged the government and parts of the opposition to believe that force is the only option. This serves no one's interest — least of all that of the Syrian people. It is time for all who have influence on the parties, and all who bear responsibility for international peace and security, to act positively for peace.

It is abundantly clear that the violence will not stop without joint, sustained pressure from those with influence, including consequences for noncompliance. But something more is essential. There must be a democratic and pluralistic future for Syria that complies with international standards on human rights and protects the rights of all communities. This must include a government of national unity that would exercise full executive powers.

This government could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation would be excluded. The transition would also include a meaningful national dialogue and a constitutional revision subject to popular approval, followed by free and fair multiparty elections. Stability and calm must be ensured throughout by functioning institutions and protection of all groups within Syria's diverse society.

There must be a commitment to accountability and to national reconciliation. There is no substitute for the hard work of helping the Syrians forge their own political future, in full respect of Syria's sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity. The international community has long agreed that any transition must be led by Syrians. We must come together to help the Syrian people embrace and achieve this future through peaceful means. If all participants in the meeting are ready to act accordingly, we can turn the tide of violence and embark on a road to peace in which the Syrian people determine their future. If not, the downward spiral will continue — and may soon become irreversible.

-This commentary was published in the GULF NEWS on 02/07/2012
-Kofi Annan, the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a former secretary-general of the United Nations, is the joint special envoy for Syria of the United Nations and the Arab League