Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting “Terrorism” Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus; But Animus and Past Blunders of Powers Propel the Three-Way War!

The Syrian Air Force fighter jet, above, is bombing a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. Ironically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the goal of “saving” his country from the Syrian opposition movement, destroyed nearly every major city and town in it. After four years of conflict, US policy, instead of forcing Assad from power, has resulted in a three-way war with no end in sight.

According to a January 28, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Russia’s Lavrov Says Fighting ‘Terrorism’ Should Unite Syrian Opposition, Damascus”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian opposition movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. While expectations of a breakthrough at the January 28th Moscow meeting were low, Russia hoped the talks would give impetus to a long-stalled peace process in the four year conflict. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.” However, the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime are more interested in fighting one another than fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Islamic militant groups. Their mutual animus was also evinced when both sides failed to commit to the peace plan of UN mediator Staffan de Mistura that seeks to establish local fighting freezes throughout Syria. The fighting freezes would allow civilians to evacuate and humanitarian aid to be delivered.

In the 2008 Presidential Campaign, then candidate Senator Barack Obama admonished the administration of George W. Bush for engaging in military adventurism under the umbrella of the Global War on Terror. Yet, early on, the administration of President Barack Obama found itself unable to yield to the temptation of responding to some clarion call to cleanse the world of all ancient evils, ancient ills. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the opposition which blossomed during the so-called Arab Spring. However, its commitment to the opposition has proven to be a snare and quite unsatisfying. The US public has become inured to perfunctory ramblings from administration officials that typically descend into specious statements about victory being attainable. Now those officials speak about Syria with enigmatic faces on. They do not register despair, but they are likely internalizing plenty of it over their long-unproductive Syria policy. The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration. In an August 18, 2011 written statement, Obama said “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” However, after established a purpose, no genuine effort was made to achieve that purpose. The Obama administration’s actions indicated a lack of commitment to Syria.   Its approach was inchoate. A number of formulaic protocols for assisting such movements were followed. There was never any intimation among officials that change was near. Rather, the Obama administration displayed a lack of situational awareness.

The Obama administration was remiss on many aspects of the Syria case. When success is possible, waiting with patience and fortitude, is reasonable. The record on Syria makes questionable any decision to wait any longer to achieve success taking the same course of action. Experienced eyes have grown weary over time waiting for some declaration of triumph, signs of progress, or the proposal of a genuine solution. Looking back at the approach on Syria with “young (alert) eyes” shows its true course and reveals much of the “failure” has been self-inflicted. The Syria policy should take a new turn. Some regrettable but necessary choices need to be made. Conscientia mille testes! (Moral self-knowledge equals a thousand witnesses!)

Going-in with the Syrian Opposition Movement: The First Mistake?

The spiral toward war began in 2011 with protests for reforms and for a halt to violence against prisoners held by the Assad regime. It erupted into armed conflict. There were attempts to stem the violence with referendum on single party rule, but there was little confidence in the regime’s promises in the ever-growing opposition. By the end of summer, the SNC was formed in Istanbul as the main organization of the opposition. The SNC called for the overthrow of Assad’s regime and rejected dialogue. Meanwhile, another organization that formed, the National Coordination Committee, supported talks with the regime believing that bringing down the regime would lead to further chaos and conflict. These organizations included political groups, long-time exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants, mostly divided along intellectual, ethnic, and sectarian lines. In December 2011, the organizations were finally “united” against the Assad regime by agreement. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was cobbled together in 2011 with a curious mix of Syrian retired military, defectors, former reservists, and the movements’ activists, along with Islamic militants and members of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Its FSA was placed under the military-wing of the opposition, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), commanded by Salim Idriss. FSA’s ranks quickly grew to 15,000 fighters on the ground. Yet, SMC had difficulties establishing real cooperation and coordination among the mixed-bag of FSA units. The units did not admire or obey civilian opposition leaders. Groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra progressively functioned more independently.  Oddly, Western governments monitoring the situation closely saw no danger. Rather, they began to examine the SNC and SMC as the core of a new political and military leadership in Syria. States such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia even began secretly delivering tons of arms to the FSA. After UN and Arab League joint special envoy, Kofi Annan, failed in his effort to create a ceasefire, more states, the US included, began to consider ways to support the SMC and FSA.  International military intervention was ruled out in a March 2012 meeting in Cairo by the Arab League. However, Assad was asked to step down and pass his power to his vice-president and an expansion of the Syria monitoring mission was proposed. Assad rejected these proposals, but SNC and SMC rejected them also. In the midst of a considerable international response in their favor, SNC and SMC members argued over policies and approaches. Arguments became a regular feature of opposition meetings.  Yet, the shortcomings of the opposition had no discernible impact on international supporters. Conferences held by the US, EU, and Arab states to decide how to aid them held in Doha, Qatar, and Tunis, Tunisia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created the “Friends of Syria” designated to stand with the people of Syria and not the government. Even further, in a Geneva meeting, a UN communiqué was drawn up that agreed to the creation of a transitional government and what it would look like. It would include members of the opposition and former members of the regime based on consent. The US demanded that Assad not be allowed a place in the transitional government. That communiqué threw the West in direct support of the opposition. It was believed within the Obama administration that Assad would simply fall away. Officials expressed statements such as: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!” Yet, that delusion did not touch reality at any point. Western analyses that evenly matched FSA and the Syrian Armed Forces were wrong. The situation was always tilted in Assad’s favor. Culpa lata! (Gross negligence!)

The FSA: Outgunned and Outmatched

The FSA’s size, relative to Assad’s forces was meager. It was not organized for decisive action, lacked real military power, possessing no high-tech or heavy weapons, and was unable to march on Damascus to remove Assad. The Syrian Army had considerable size, strength, and capabilities. At the civil war’s outset, the International Institute for Strategic Studies declared Syrian Army forces stood at 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analyses, taking into consideration the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and paramilitaries/street gangs (shabiha), the number rose near 200,000. The combat power of that force has been enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. Tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, further enhanced the force. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4,000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Quds Force were on the ground. The Iranians were ready to fight alongside the Syrian Army, and did so at Qusayr, Homs, and Damascus much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah alleges it went into Syria from Lebanon with 4,000 fighters once Iran began to commit forces. In a NATO assessment of the situation in Syria completed in July 2013, it was determined that Assad’s forces have already ended any short-term or mid-term threat from the Syrian rebels.  It predicted that Assad’s forces, with varied support from Russia and Iran, would capture major FSA strongholds with the exception of northern Syria by the end of 2013.  NATO concluded that during the spring, the FSA’s military campaign had failed.  A dramatic deterioration of the FSA’s Syrian component reportedly began in April 2013. The point was reached where it was difficult to distinguish who wanted to fight the Assad regime and who was simply out to collect a paycheck.  More importantly, NATO claimed then that Syrians were not doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.  The majority of fighting was being done by foreign fighters of Islamic militant groups, chiefly ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.  NATO’s assessment impacted the decision by leading NATO countries to suspend lethal weapons shipments for the FSA.  In mid-July, the United Kingdom and France, once the most vocal supporters for arming the FSA, signaled their opposition to shipping any weapons to Syria fearing the shipments might end up with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.  De fumo in flammam! (Out of the smoke, into the flame!)

The February 2013 photo of Homs, Syria, above, provides a snapshot of the destruction that exists in Syria’s cities and towns. The Syria of 2011, when the civil war began, no longer exists. No matter who in control Syria whenever peace comes, they will face a colossal reconstruction effort of astronomical cost.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Role: Limited and Exposed

On March 21, 2013, it was revealed to the New York Times that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was playing a covert role in the air transport of arms and supplies for delivery in Syria. A former US official confirmed in anonymity that in early 2012, CIA Director, General David H. Petraeus, was instrumental in getting the airlift network moving and urged various countries to work together on it. Many journalists in 2012 had heard rumors about CIA’s activities.  The airlift began on a small scale in early 2012, but expanded into a steady and much heavier flow.  By the end of that year, it included more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports. By facilitating the shipments, according to a US official, CIA was supposed to provide the US a degree of influence over the process. From offices at secret locations, CIA case officers helped the Arab states shop for weapons. Saudi Arabia acquired a large number of infantry weapons from Croatia. CIA tried to vet FSA commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrived. CIA was tasked to steer weapons away from Islamic militant groups, persuading donors to withhold weapons that could have severe consequences if they fell into their hands. Those weapons included portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft. Yet, CIA relied on Turkey to handle the majority of oversight activities for the program.  The scale of shipments from Turkey was very large. Transponders were affixed to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey which allowed shipments to be monitored as they moved by land into Syria. While the operation was alleged to be covert, it was also uncovered that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments.  CIA, itself, declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them. Further, information on CIA’s Syria operation was revealed in the Wall Street Journal on June 26, 2013.  According to the June 26th article, in addition to moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses, CIA was engaged in a train and equip program for small groups of vetted, mainstream, FSA fighters. This information was offered by diplomats and US officials briefed on the plans. At the time, it was hoped that the supplies, related training of a few hundred of the FSA fighters, along with a push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies, would allow the FSA to organize a unified offensive in August 2013 which was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui! (Beware what you say, when, and to whom!)

Culpability of Arab States for the Rise of ISIS

As the civil war in Syria got underway, the US and EU involvement was very low-key.  However, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan since 2012, enthusiastically delivered arms and support to the FSA.  The Arab states that participated in the NATO-led intervention in Libya, Operation Unified Protector, were emboldened by its success.  Officials in many Arab states suggested, even as a late as 2012, that Syria would go the way of Libya.  Qatar, which took the “lead Arab role” in the Libya operation, threw its financial wherewithal into supporting the opposition and take the lead Arab role in Syria, too.  It rushed to develop loyal networks with the FSA and set the stage to influence events in Syria after the presumed fall of the Assad regime.  Yet, acquiring the “loyal support” of FSA units was a very difficult undertaking.  Many groups in the FSA, particularly Islamic militant groups, moved from alliance to alliance in search of funding and arms.  Qatar, much as other Arab states pursuing their own interests, had a myopic view of the Syria landscape.  They lacked experience in strategic maneuvering at a level required to positively influence events in Syria.

For Arab states, engaging in an effort to arm the FSA without a secure, steady supply of arms meant scouring around for light weapons such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades, and ammunition.  Qatar bought arms in Libya and Eastern European countries and flew them to Turkey as part of the FSA arms supply program set up by CIA.  In Turkey, intelligence services helped to deliver the arms into Syria. Qatari unconventional warfare units were tasked to go into Syria and find factions to arm and supply, but Qatar also received assistance from Turkey in identifying recipients for a short while. Qatar’s distribution of arms aligned with the tide-turning FSA campaign in the northern province of Idlib and the campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts that drove Assad forces from parts of the countryside. As Saudi Arabia joined the covert arming effort, Qatar expanded its operation to working with Lebanon, to bring weapons into Syria via the FSA supply hub at Qusayr.  Qatar eventually turned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to identify factions to support, leading to its ties with the Farouq brigades.  It was Qatar’s links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that led to a rift with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was adverse to anything related to that organization.  The division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia led to further divisions within the political and military wings of the opposition.  There would be violent clashes between Farouq brigade troops and fighters from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. By September 2012, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were creating separate military alliances and structures.  It was then that the two countries were urged by the US to bring the parallel structures together under the SMC, but that did not occur.  Crce credemus, hodie nihil! (Tomorrow we believe, but not today!)

This photo of Islamic militant fighters in Syria preparing to execute Syrian Army prisoners appeared on the front page of the New York Times on September 5, 2013. While Obama administration officials were predicting the Syrian opposition’s victory over the Assad regime, journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations were reporting ISIS atrocities and the realities on the ground.

ISIS Emerges

What has stirred the Obama administration the most about ISIS is the hostage taking and murders US citizens and citizens of other countries. The matter actually brought Syria back to the forefront among foreign policy issues. After failed effort to secure massive ransoms by negotiations, US and other European, Asian, and Arab states’ citizens have been videotaped being beheaded. The whole process seems to be more of an amusement for ISIS members than anything else, forcing leaders to negotiate prices for the release of their people. Rescues have been attempted, and they have failed more often than not. Then there was the ISIS juggernaut that rolled through Iraq in June 2014, capturing large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces. That land was included in the Islamic Caliphate straddling the border of Syria and Iraq that ISIS created. ISIS did not always pose such a threat to global security and stability.   In early 2012, there were many Islamic militant groups active underground in Syria.  Two years of arms and support flowing into opposition forces from Western and Arab states allowed for their growth.  ISIS was initially active in Syria under the auspices of their parent group the Islamic State of Iraq (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) for years prior to the Syrian civil war.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq, itself, was formed following the US-led coalition’s initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Its platform was the eastern region of Syria, bordering Iraq’s Al-Anbar Province, a hot spot for Al-Qaeda activity.  In addition to being the best equipped, best-organized, and best-financed faction of the FSA for the balance of the civil war, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra led FSA assaults on key installations, air defense bases, and coastal and highway routes. They were also responsible for suicide attacks in civilian areas and assassinations of key Assad regime officials.  They became a concern due to their rogue acts within FSA territory, to include intermittent attacks on mainstream FSA groups, killing popular commanders and fighters.

Despite the best efforts to minimize the impact such acts were having on their Syria policy, it was eventually accepted by Western and Arab states that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces were directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups only sought to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory. Indeed, before the Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of the large segments of Syria that ISIS and other Islamic militant groups’ controlled, the society was transformed by the imposition of a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrians. The groups were particularly harsh with Syrian women. Journalists and humanitarian aid and nongovernmental organizations reported ISIS atrocities.  Captured Syrian military personnel and regime supporters were rarely spared. ISIS and the other groups were still viewed as FSA members until their intermittent clashes with mainstream units became open warfare.

While it was initially reasoned the FSA, with US supplied arms and training, would advance against the Assad regime and force him to the negotiation table where he would supposedly step down, the added pressure of the struggle with ISIS derailed the Syria effort of the Obama administration.  The administration, nonetheless, pressed this issue with US Congress. The Obama administration sent its senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill its tangled Syria policy with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of its “approach.” US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day,” however, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions. At the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul further stated, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.” Although captivating and satisfying, Kerry’s figures even then seemed questionable. Using them, the administration took an approach that allowed the Syrian situation fall into a three-way conflict. Assistance continued to reach ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. SMC did not unify FSA units into a cohesive fighting force or devise plans for their effective use. Assad remained in power. Caveat consules ne quid detriment republica capiat! (Beware consuls that the commonwealth is not harmed!)

Obama’s Response to the 2013 Chemical Attack

The story of Obama’s August 23, 2013 response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is well-known. After making very shrill accusations that the Assad regime had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renowned decision to back away from military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step. Russia, Iran, and China were as joyful as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands. Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing his cause any good. True, Obama had the Pentagon provide options for calibrated military strikes in Syria. Airstrikes most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. However, Obama was driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through. Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed. Obama was paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled with his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Obama strayed away from a path of assertive and decisive action. Many challenging foreign policy problems facing the administration became more difficult to manage as a result of his decision. Opponents of the US, including ISIS, became convinced that Obama was averse to using military power. Bonitas non est pessimis esse meliorem! (It is not goodness to be better than the worst!)

In July 2012, the Za’atari refugee camp, above, opened in Jordan. Of the 937,830 Syrian refugees in Jordan, 20 percent are now housed in the Za’atari and Azraq camps. Syrians situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, or trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, desperately desire a sustainable and secure peace in their country.

The Way Forward

What Obama and other Western leaders should know by now is that in coping with ISIS, they are dealing with real evil. It must be defeated. From the start, leaders of ISIS as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, should have been treated by the US as William Shakespeare’s “Man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority.” They should have been made to shrivel under the weight of robust US military might. ISIS’ leaders instead were given the time, the space, and the resources to rehearse the implementation of their perverse notions of social order. The fight against ISIS is actually the result of the failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down at the negotiating table. A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been established with the opposition in the beginning of the civil war and still cannot be established with it now. Without support, the opposition might continue to fight the Assad regime, but its efforts would not be fruitful.   Similarly, the US effort to juggle three, albeit related, conflicts in Syria will never bear fruit. The Assad regime, the opposition, and ISIS, have each contributed to the destruction of the lives of the Syrian people. Assad is on a list of war crimes suspects that was handed to the International Criminal Court. Given the choice to deny, attack or embrace the Assad regime, the US may choose reluctantly “to embrace (tolerate)” it incrementally. The war has transformed Syria, politically, militarily, economically, socially, and culturally. The Syria of 2011 no longer exists. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable and secure peace in their country, would be the best solution. Ad verecundiam! (Appeal to modesty in an argument!)

Assad is not immortal. His regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, may not survive in the long-run. Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran may eventually grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancement of their cause. To the extent that Assad would face heavy battles with ISIS, the watchful eyes of Israel, and the prospect of a decades-long, very expensive, reconstruction effort wherever he is able to regain territory, his regime will be contained. More so than the opposition, the Assad regime can contribute to the fight against ISIS in Syria. Contact with Assad regarding ISIS may kindle genuine cooperation from him on other issues. Assad stated contact already exists on US-led airstrikes against ISIS in Syria via Iraqi officials. Perhaps that is the best way for the Obama administration to handle the situation considering the primacy the US must give to, and role it must play in, the ISIS fight.

Zarif’s “Meet the Press” Interview Offers Insight into His Thinking on the Nuclear Issue; US Critics Responded Harshly

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose ministry has been Iran’s lead agency on the nuclear negotiations, would like to see a final agreement reached with the P5+1 countries.  Yet, he knows constructing a final deal would require a transformation in thinking among all parties at this late stage.  Given that, a final deal appears less likely.

On the July 13, 2014 episode of NBC News “Meet the Press”, a US Sunday morning news program hosted by David Gregory, a special feature presented was a recording of Gregory’s earlier interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Vienna. Presented in a truncated manner, the taped interview covered an array of topics including Iraq, Syria, and why Iran wants an extensive nuclear capacity and whether it wants a nuclear bomb. Afterward on the program, Gregory asked a bipartisan guest panel of both Republican and Democratic political commentators to critique Zarif’s statements. Representing the Republican perspective was former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal. The Democrats present were former Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press. With a synoptic view, the commentators rejected Zarif’s statements with harsh remarks, expressing considerable mistrust over Iran’s intentions. They viewed Zarif’s statements as unhelpful, and highlighted what they felt was his shortsightedness and equivocation. However, the commentators’ examinations of Zarif’s statements were quite superficial. Their accusations that Zarif was insincere and that the Iranians were untrustworthy were already pretty well-worn.

It was initially difficult to fathom why Zarif would make the effort to provide an interview for the mainstream US news media when the nuclear negotiations were at a critical point. The issues surrounding the negotiations are not simple. Zarif has articulated Iran’s positions superbly. Perhaps he wanted to share insights to impact views of the negotiations in the US. Yet, the “Meet the Press” interview format did not allow him to truly delve into the matter. He could only touch the surface of important aspects. The interview turned into a shallow entrapment for Zarif. Heightened skepticism could have been expected from the commentators given the current uncertainty over where the nuclear negotiations are headed and the history of uncongenial relations between the US and Iran since 1979. However, Zarif’s remarks should have been looked at beyond the surface. Their value could be revealed only through a deeper, profound consideration of them.

Zarif’s Remarks

Among his most noteworthy comments, Zarif explained: “I think what we have said should give confidence to people that were not looking for nuclear weapons. We have said that our entire nuclear energy program can fit in a very clear and well defined picture. That is, we want to produce fuel for our own nuclear reactor. Nuclear power reactor! And we have a contract that provides us fuel for that reactor. But that contract expires in seven or eight years.”

Gregory asked Zarif how he “could not see the benefit in having a nuclear weapon, particularly as a Shi’a state surrounded by Sunni states, many of whom are your enemies.” Zarif responded by saying such calculations were wrong. He explained: “In fact, we need to go out of our way in order to convince our neighbors that we want to live in peace and tranquility with them, because the politics of geography, the fact that we’re bigger, the fact that we’re stronger, the we’re more populous, the fact that we have a [sic] better technology, the fact that our human resources is [sic] by far more developed than most of our neighbors. All of these provide us with inherent areas of strength that we don’t need to augment with other capabilities.”

Additionally, Zarif stated: “In fact, I believe nuclear weapons reduces countries’ influence in our region. It doesn’t help anybody.” “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security. Through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over is simply mad.” “And that is why this mentality that nuclear weapons makes anybody safe. Have they made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.”

The Political Commentators’ Criticisms

The responses of the political commentators on Zarif’s remarks were wholly negative. Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal commented that the Iranian nuclear issue is “a good example of bipartisanship in Congress . . . both in the Senate and in the House. Democrats and Republicans, they don’t want to go backwards. They want tougher sanctions.” Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press commented, “I think anyone [sic] on the globe thinks that we don’t need more nuclear states in general. And we are certainly don’t need this state [Iran] which has shown itself to be responsive. The interview you heard earlier today shows how irrational the thinking is.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum stated “we were laughing at him [Zarif] saying, “He must have the toughest job. I wanna [sic] go after him lying, just bald face, irrational lying. No one believes him. Nobody on either side of the aisle believes that these folks [the Iranians] are trustworthy partners.” Former Governor Jennifer Granholm concurred about the group watching in the green room (the guests’ waiting room at the television studio) laughing at Zarif.

A Second Look

Unlike the political commentators, Zarif has been part of the nuclear negotiations. He has direct knowledge of the mystery of exactly where things are headed. By granting the interview, he provided policy analysts, academics, and political and business leaders in the US a delicate indication of a possible path to reaching some concordance on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. Zarif was not telling some Oriental tale full of distortion and exaggerations. Rather, his words were austere and natural sounding, stemming from deep thought and experience with the nuclear negotiation process. By their statements, the commentators seemingly sought to arrest Zarif’s efforts to share his insights.

Zarif does not proffer any illusions of assured success or narcissism for the nuclear negotiations as an enterprise. However, more percipient to him is the fact that the US is still fully engaged in the nuclear negotiations. It affirms the confidence the administration of US President Barack Obama, and the other P5+1 governments (The United Kingdom, France, Russia, China plus Germany), have in the process. They want a deal. Unlike Zarif, the “Meet the Press” commentators were apparently unaware that relations between the US and Iranian diplomats and officials have reached a more positive stage. The negotiations have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking. The improved understanding of their respective positions was further strengthened by back channel talks. The commentators remarks indicated that the nuclear negotiations are not as “fashionable” an issue as they were in the exhilarating days in July 2013 when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in Tehran, and in September 2013 when the first direct talks were held between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN and Obama and Rouhani spoke directly by telephone.

Zarif statements may have provided a hint of the discourse in Tehran on the nuclear negotiations at the most senior level, and he is the one individual capable, and apparently willing, to do so. Zarif would undoubtedly be positioned on the more moderate side of the nuclear issue relative to the Supreme National Security Council, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and other key political and religious organizations and senior leaders concerned with foreign policy. He has publicly advocated for continued negotiations to reach an agreement with the P5+1 on the nuclear program before the Iranian Parliament. Perhaps Zarif was even presenting arguments he may have made in Tehran in sub rosa policy debates on the nuclear negotiations. He may very well have included in what he stated on “Meet the Press” points similar to those he has presented to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make the final decision for Iran on an agreement. The commentators heard those same words, but could not hear what Zarif said.

The Way Forward

All things considered, it appears, by providing the interview Zarif actually sought to “clear the air” with the US public regarding relations between the two countries. He sought to build confidence, eliminate some ambiguities about Iran’s positions, and quiet guessing over Iran’s actions, intentions, and motives. Looking through a lens untinted by the conviction that Iran is again engaged in a deception, Zarif spoke to the US audience with a certain kind of humility, not with an assertiveness that might be expected of a foreign minister speaking with certitude over his country’s positions. As the point man for Iran’s negotiation effort, under great pressure, Zarif appeared humble of heart. One would need to be humble of heart to hear what he was saying. The hardened heart would block the information. What is audible to the ear becomes incomprehensible. The “Meet the Press” commentators illustrated how hardened hearts react.

The prime way to understand the situation regarding the negotiations is by understanding human experience: history. Nearly every US president has had to take some major risk on foreign policy. Along with great achievements, there have been grand mistakes. Despite recent progress through talks between US and Iranian diplomats and officials in Geneva and Vienna, distrust lingers in their respective capitals after years of mutual loathing. All sides are very cautious. For a final agreement to be constructed, all sides must exhibit a requisite degree of generosity. That would mean risking much, making it less likely states engaged in the process would do such. If all sides cannot approach the process with this in state of mind, the desired outcome will not be reached. Everything achieved so far will likely fall by the wayside. The next debate will then begin on a way to move forward, as unpopular or undesirable as it may be.

Iran Readies Plant Needed to Fulfill Nuclear Pact with Powers; Despite All That Has Been Achieved, a Final Deal Remains Uncertain

Above are Basiji (paramilitary volunteer militia) attending a meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in November 2013.  Devoted to Shi’a Islam, dedicated to the Islamic Revolution, and adoring of Khamanei, the Basij are among hard line elements in Iran who have little interest in a nuclear deal.  Khamanei will have the final say.

According to a May 27, 2014 Reuters article entitled “Iran Readies Plant Needed to Fulfill Nuclear Pact with Powers,” a report from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows Iran appears to be finalizing a plant to convert a large amount of low-enriched uranium gas into an oxide form following months of delays. In oxide form, the low enriched uranium gas would be less suitable for processing into nuclear bomb material.  Under the interim deal it with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany), Iran needs to take action to limit its stockpile of uranium gas refined to a fissile concentration of up to 5 percent by late July.  To be able to meet this particular term of the interim deal, Iran has been building a facility, named Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP), near the central city of Isfahan for turning the gas into powder.  The IAEA report explained the facility’s commissioning had now begun. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had transferred 4.3 tons of low-grade uranium gas to the site from its Natanz enrichment plant.  The report did not say when conversion into oxide would get under way. While it was expected that Iran would have completed this process by late last year, satisfaction is found among world powers that the IAEA is reporting that Iran is meeting this requirement, and has also met all other requirements under the interim agreement.  Ostensibly, the P5+1 negotiated the six-month deal with Iran to garner more time for talks on a final settlement that would remove the risk of a new Middle East war over Iran’s nuclear aspirations.  Those talks began in February. The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 will be held in Vienna from June 16th to 20th.

However, there have been a few snags.  The IAEA also reports that the conversion facility’s delay, the low-grade uranium stockpile has grown to nearly 8.5 tons in May from 7.6 tons in February.  The longer it takes to launch EUPP, the more Iran will have to process to meet the target by the deadline in less than two months’ time.  The P5+1 wants to significantly scale back Iran’s capacity to produce low-enriched uranium in order to further lengthen the time required to produce enough material for a bomb.  Iran has fired back saying it needs to expand its enrichment capacity to make fuel for future atomic energy plants.  Experts believe Iran potentially has enough uranium gas for a few nuclear weapons if refined much further.  Limiting Iran’s overall enrichment capacity is expected be one of the thorniest issues in the negotiations for a long-term deal.  Other issues include gaining an agreement from Iran to scale back other proliferation-prone nuclear activity and to accept tougher UN inspections to deny it any capability of quickly producing atomic bombs, in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.

During the process, there have been expressions of disagreement and disappointment by parties to the negotiations in the news media and certain parties seemingly insisted on negotiating publicly, but until recently the process has been characterized as fruitful.  Compromises have been made and deals have been reached at the negotiating table and through backchannel talks by officials.  However, the process has reached a new stage.    What is negotiated now matters most. In the capitals of the negotiating parties, commitments must be made that will result in a sustainable, satisfactory agreement or possibly war.  New issues have surfaced that warrant thorough deliberation by negotiators.  Those issues could become real impediments to the talks’ completion. Mutual suspicions have risen again.  The leader of each country has the free will to choose continued negotiation or withdrawal.  The final choice will be determined by the way in which they govern that free will.

Terms Iran Might Not Be Able To Live With

Recently, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokeman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee—a right-wing body that has taken a hard line on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1—discussed the progress of the latest nuclear talks with the Tasmin News Agency.  He explained that there were several points of contention concerning the talks.  Among those enumerated by Hosseini included the following: 1) the West discussed our defense systems and our missiles, while from the beginning we said that this is not negotiable, but they are still insisting on this point; 2) the West has “issues with the number and quality of our centrifuges and even has issues with the number of centrifuges at each site. . . .;” 3) the West even has problems with our research and development; 4) the West did not want to immediately lift the sanctions but wanted to do so gradually after the final agreement was signed. (Hosseini said, “They say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one. Their position is that if their demands are guaranteed, and the Islamic Republic lifts its hands from its red lines, Iran will be turned into a normal country.”); 5) the West even presented a plan that would lift the sanctions gradually over a 10-year process; 6) the West said that not all of the sanctions are related to the nuclear program and that they must first distinguish which sanctions are for that issue and which are over human rights, the missile program, terrorism or regional issues. (Hosseini Naghavi Hosseini said that Iran expects all of the sanctions to be lifted upon signing the agreement. He called this segmentation of the sanctions “a dangerous game” and “part of the intense disagreements” between the two sides.); 7) the West would not accept 20% enrichment for Iran, but added that the West would be willing to sell Iran 20% enriched fuel for the Tehran reactor; the West demands other enrichment sites in Iran would be allowed only 3.5% enrichment; 8) the West also wants to determine the amount of enriched fuel that is reserved, a red line for Iran that would limit its research and development capacities; 9) there were also differences over “who would determine Iran’s [enrichment] needs; and, 10) the West wants to determine whether the West would they allow the Islamic Republic to produce, or would others produce it for them; and, the West did not see the Arak heavy water reactor as being necessary for Iran. (When asked if the issue is a heavy water reactor or the production of plutonium, Hosseini responded that it was the latter.). Hosseini made it clear that these terms were against “all of Iran’s achievements.”

In a further development, Ismail Kowsari, a Member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee (NSFP), spoke to the Tasnim News Agency on May 22nd about the latest developments in the negotiations.  Kowsari revealed after the [interim] agreement, the file returned back to the Supreme National Security Council, and the chairman of the NSFP, Alaeddin Borujerdi, was added to the nuclear negotiation team. Kowsari’s statements would indicate that although Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will lead the negotiations on behalf of Iran, there will be more supervision and coordination with different bodies in Tehran.  Kowsari also added that Borujerdi was added to the nuclear negotiation team at the request of parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

Has An Iranian Weaponization Program Been Uncovered?

In a joint statement with the IAEA, Iran pledged to apprise the agency of what wss allegedly the most secretive dimension of its nuclear program: “the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran.” This is a reference to weaponization.  According to a May 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, the fact that the IAEA and the Western powers are now turning to the weaponization question is a sign of how far the Iranian nuclear-weapons program has progressed.  Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center was quoted in the May 27th article as saying, “a concern about weaponization followed by testing and use is the moral hazard when you don’t pay attention to fissile-material production.”  The article explained this meant once Iran was granted the right to enrich and was permitted to develop an advanced enrichment capability, the West was left with preventing weaponization as the final barrier against a nuclear-capable Iran.

The article further stated Western intelligence agencies discovered Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear device dated back to the late 1980s at a Defense Ministry-linked physics research center in Tehran.  According to the IAEA, Iran consolidated its weaponization researchers in the 1990s under an initiative called the “AMAD Plan,” headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a Ph.D. nuclear engineer and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The AMAD Plan was charged with procuring dual-use technologies, developing nuclear detonators and conducting high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material, according to Western intelligence agencies.  The AMAD Plan’s most intense period of activity was in 2002-03, according to the IAEA, when Rouhani was Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.  The May 27th article asserts Fakhrizadeh has continued to oversee these disparate and highly compartmentalized activities, now under the auspices of Iran’s new Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND.

The May 27th article confirms much of what greatcharlie.com had stated in a September 26, 2013 post entitled “Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts.”  Dehghan’s descent to the Rouhani’s cabinet after serving as a committee secretary on the Expediency Council did not occur because his administration skills were sorely needed in the Defense Ministry.  Rather, Dehghan was selected to take command of the day to day activities of Iran’s fighting forces and to manage projects of such importance to Iran’s security that only someone with his experience, capabilities, and reliability could be counted upon to direct.  Dehghan, who spent his career in the IRGC, is inextricably tied to that organization.  It was asserted by hreatcharlie.com that given his decades of devotion to the IRGC, there can be no doubt that precious little difference between Dehghan’s views and those espoused by the organization.  A key concept proclaimed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on the conduct of Iran’s foreign and defense policy is “heroic flexibility.”  The phrase was coined by Khamenei, himself, when translating a book on Imam Hassan.  As understood by his close compatriots in the IRGC, heroic flexibility allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  In the words of the Deputy Commander of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, (translated into English and published by Arash Karami on the blog, Iran Pulse) “heroic inflexibility is an exalted and invaluable concept fully within the goals of the Islamic Republic.”  He further explained the concept meant “in no way would Iran retreat from fundamental lines and national and vital interests and this right is something that without [sic] concessions can be exchanged.”  That essentially means that only on issues in which Iran had an interest but no rights, could Iranian concessions be negotiated.  He went on to state: “Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced.”  Specifically on the nuclear issue, Salami explained: “For instance, the right to have peaceful nuclear energy according to the criteria that has been secured for us, and this right cannot be modified and there is no flexibility on it, however, within this framework a political flexibility as a tactic is acceptable because we do not want to create a dead end in solving the political issue.”  Therefore, for the IRGC on the nuclear issue, there was never any possibility of Iranian concessions, however, there was a possibility that the US and its Western allies might be willing make concessions to reach a compromise.  The talks would give them a chance to do so.

Using the IRGC’s interpretation of heroic flexibility, it appears that Iran seeks to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners.  Under that approach, Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take the path of diplomacy to acquire concessions, while Dehghan and elements of the IRGC would take a path to accomplish the goals set for Iran’s nuclear energy program.  Placing the development of Iran’s nuclear energy program in Dehghan’s purview would seem reasonable given the credible military threat posed to it by the US and Israel.  Moreover, as Defense Minister, his responsibilities have included promoting Iran’s defense industry capabilities in meeting strategic requirements, placing an emphasis on passive defense in compliance with the requirements of development projects and land use planning, and linking knowledge, power, and strategy in industry and in Defense Ministry missions.  As greatcharlie.com concluded, if Dehghan and his IRGC compatriots remained obedient to Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility, as the IRGC interprets it, then they would very likely engaged in a dual-track approach guided by that concept. A statement provided by the IRGC back in mid-2013 provided a rationale for the dual-track approach.  It declared: “Historical experiences make it necessary for the diplomatic apparatus of our country to carefully and skeptically monitor the behavior of WH officials so that the righteous demands of our nation are recognized and respected by those who favor interaction.”  This indicated that thinking with the IRGC was influenced by Iran’s past negative interactions with the West, and a bicameral approach would assure the protection of Iran’s rights.

The Way Forward

Leaders of Iran and the P5+1 face hard choices regarding the nuclear negotiations.  The success or failure of the effort will fall squarely on their shoulders. Neither side wants to absolve the other of past transgressions.  Suggesting that would be a platitudinous appeal to those who feel they have been harmed.  The decision has not been made easier given positions recently established in the West.  They have been accompanied by public statements by officials in the administration of US President Barack Obama that imply the US decision to negotiate rather than take military action against Iran was an act of mercy which can be reversed.  Sanctions relief promised in return for a deal almost appears superficial.  While Iran has called allegations of Iranian weaponization efforts fabrications, if such allegations are true, any possibility of creating a deal based on mutual trust has likely been lost.  It would serve to confirm the West’s worst fears that the negotiation process was an opportunity for Iran to exploit Western generosity. It gives credence to early declarations of Iran’s hard line elements suggesting its diplomats were engaged in a counterfeit negotiation effort.

As a practical matter, decision making on a final nuclear deal must be guided by political positions and national security directives, along with revolutionary ideals in Iran’s case. IRGC Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.” Yet, when these old and seductive courses have been taken in the past, the results for those desiring an agreement have been unsatisfactory.  Unfortunately, it is far easier to unleash anger and treachery than unleash approbation and goodwill. A final choice can also be based on free will, effectively governed by moral accountability.  In the stewardship of their countries’ national security, particularly on this tricky nuclear issue, moral accountability must also guide leaders’ assessments and decision making.  Moral accountability is dependent upon the moral character of the leadership.  With political and other pressures at work at the same time as considerations of the moral implications of a decision, deliberations on how to proceed would become a delicate dance between virtue and vice.  Leaders must recognize what would be in their citizens’ interest and the national interest for the long-term and determining what would be the best course to take to secure those interests.  For Iran, going to war would hardly meet that criterion. For the West, accepting an agreement that could lead to disastrous consequences for themselves and their its allies would be a mistake.  Perspective must be maintained.  As a concept, parties must think of themselves as taking a gamble by casting a wide net, beyond the horizon, via the nuclear negotiations.  They must gather from their catch what is good and workable, then sift out the bad. In the end, what will be in their basket hopefully will be enough to develop suitable agreement.

US Projects Tough Stance to Both Sides of Syria War: Although the US Has Been Busy on Syria, Its Efforts Haven’t Been Fruitful

Uncertain of his future when the civil war began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (above) now feels confident enough to remain in office for another term.

According to a May 15, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Projects Tough Stance to Both Sides of Syria War,” the administration of US President Barack Obama has sought to project a toughened posture in reaction to the fact that Syria peace prospects are collapsing.  Conducting military exercises with both air and ground forces in neighboring Jordan was one way used to project that posture.  The exercises were held in and around the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in eastern Jordan, which has long been regarded as a likely staging ground for any possible US military intervention in Syria.  That event took place as US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was making a visit to the Middle East.  Part of his itinerary included conferring with senior Jordanian political and military leaders.  Another way the Obama administration sought to project a “toughened posture” was having the US Treasury Department designate Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni, of Saudi Arabia, and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, of Iraq, both of whom are leaders of Syrian jihadist groups, as “global terrorists.”  They were also accused of exploiting the mayhem in Syria to advance the influence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.  This step by the Obama administration was meant to serve as warning to other members of the Western-backed insurgency fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that they should not have any dealings with Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli.

These steps came a day after the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the chief UN diplomat assigned to mediate a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.  There was no immediate information provided on who might succeed him.  When news of Brahimi’s resignation came to light, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from allied European and Arab nations that support the moderate Syrian opposition were preparing to meet in London.  They were gathering without a clear plan for reviving a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.  It is estimated that 150,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began in March 2011.

Although the Obama administration might argue that it was getting tougher with the both parties in the Syrian conflict, the reality is those steps will not shape events on the ground in its favor.  The main stumbling block to achieving both Obama administration’s objectives in Syria has been Islamic militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.  Certainly, the US is in a position to do much more, especially militarily, on behalf of the Syrian opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella organization under which opposition groups fight.  Yet, that is not likely.  The Obama administration never guaranteed that it will stand with the Syrian opposition to that extent. What will likely be seen from the Obama administration is much more of its tame effort.  It will remain busy at allocating funds, providing equipment, and deploying some very capable intelligence and military personnel on Syria issue, but hold back enough as not to be truly invested or fruitful in the endeavor.  That will certainly be to Assad’s benefit.

US Diplomacy

General James Jones, former National Security Adviser in the Obama administration described the White House as being delinquent on Syria.  During the four years of civil war, the Obama administration: has backed away from red-lines on chemical weapons use; taken a dogmatic position on Assad’s removal which has only served to harden the positions of parties to the conflict; struggled to organize a string of talks in Geneva that have proven less than promising; and, has engrossed itself in time consuming policy debate on the issue.

The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it appear to be in a hurry to achieve that goal.  In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “Assad must go!”  However, the Obama administration’s actions to date indicate a lack of commitment to that goal. Assad’s removal has not been established as part of a national security directive.  In fact, the US still recognizes the Assad regime, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.

The Syrian opposition, from which the leadership of Syria would ostensibly come in a transitional government, has many problems.  Its membership has not done anything to demonstrate the ability to take power in Syria.  They have not proven to be politically astute.  There is always some form of infighting underway.  It takes weeks for opposition groups to organize its meetings in Istanbul, which members often refuse to attend.  No serious effort to form a shadow government has been made by the US or Western powers.

The Obama administration has made public its efforts to support the FSA against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with arms and equipment and a moderate degree of training.  The Obama administration provided its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement.  Cynics might say the Syria effort by the US, as well as the EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to simply hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran.  The Syrian opposition could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment.  Commanders and fighters have been very impatient with the Obama administration over the degree of its efforts.  They constantly point to the size and scope of efforts from the US and other Western benefactors as the cause for their lack of truly significant success against Assad’s forces and allies—the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militia brigades.  However, the real problem has been the lack of military capabilities among the FSA units and their resulting inability to act decisively. In addition to their failure to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, mainstream FSA units have found themselves constantly under the attack of Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda.  Consequently, FSA efforts became split between fighting Assad and rogue Islamic militants.

Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step.  However, it was done with international consensus.  Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands.  Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing any good for his cause.  Besides, the whole matter provided Assad with the opportunity to be seen as the leader of Syria, implementing an agreement his regime reached with the major world powers.

The resignation of Brahimi as explained by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came as the result of a collective failure by parties to the conflict.  The secretary-general suggested Brahimi was overwhelmed by both the Syrian government’s inflexibility and the inability of the Security Council to take assertive action to support his efforts and alleviate civilian suffering.  All of that was topped off by Assad’s defiant announcement that he would seek a third seven-year term in elections held in June, in which his victory is considered assured.  Since the removal of Assad was considered key to allowing a transition of government to occur, his announcement to run for the presidency again resulted in the collapse of Brahimi’s peace efforts. Syria’s official news media welcomed Mr. Brahimi’s departure, accusing him of bias favoring Assad’s political opponents.  The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Bashar al-Jaafari, the Permanent Representative of Syria to the UN, as saying Brahimi had committed many errors, “including his interference in Syria’s internal affairs.”  However, only outside efforts, far beyond what he is already receiving, would Syria be able to cope with the Al Qaeda linked Islamic militants, a threat to the Assad’s regime more immediate than US military intervention: .

Islamic Militant Groups

The current size and strength of Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable.  Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and lead to its eventual collapse. Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda would cease their struggle under any peace agreement with the Assad regime.  The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, rogue Islamic militant groups seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law.  Indeed, in towns and villages of the rather large segments of Syria that they control, rogue Islamic militant groups have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on their inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens.  Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters.

Such atrocities have been well documented by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and especially the news media.  A rift between that foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, once surfaced as Syrians of Al-Nusra grew angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory.  It was reports of horrific acts by ISIS against Syrian civilians that led Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to renounce ISIS’ activities as being too extreme to tolerate.  With every passing day, the mistreatment and killing intensifies. Islamic militants have poured into Syria at a rate so high that the FSA cannot contend with them alone.

Obama’s Military Option

Despite stating that the military option remains on the table and conducting military exercises in Jordan, it seems unlikely that Obama would ever give the order for military action in Syria, even against Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups.  As Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Ukraine and Iran, using political capital and vital resources now on Syria would hardly be in the cards.  Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context once the civil war began. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away.  Among those statements expressed by administration officials about Assad were: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!”

Obama’s thinking on military action today is most likely still guided by ideas he expressed in August 23, 2013, when he backed away from military action for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.  Obama recognized that the US military was over-extended in the previous Bush administration and he wanted avoid making that same mistake. Obama stated: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”  Obama did not indicate, even at that time, any intent to have US forces engaged in a long term action in Syria. Obama’s thinking was also influenced by his background as a legal scholar and his concerns over international law. Obama went on to explain that there were “rules of international law” guiding his response.  He went on to state, “You know, if the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”  Further, Obama was concerned with what US interests truly were in Syria. While he admitted that there was some criticism and push for strong action by some Members of Congress at that time, Obama explained, “What I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?”  With those words, Obama signaled that getting involved militarily in Syria was not in the long-term interests of the US.

The Way Forward?

In designating Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, David Cohen, the Under Secretary of the Treasury responsible for sanctions enforcement, was quoted as stating the decision “sends a strong warning to the legitimate Syrian opposition and those who wish to support it” to avoid any dealings with them.  However, the degree of harm that will be caused to those individuals by impounding assets they have in US jurisdiction and banning any commercial contact with them by US citizens should be considered sensibly. Such steps will unlikely lead to tragic consequences for their groups.  There are a variety of other sources, known and perhaps some unknown to the US, their groups might continue to seek aid from in the future.  Interestingly, a few months before this step was taken, there was an idea discussed and acted upon by the Obama administration to negotiate with the Islamic militants.  This approach was non-starter.  It seemed questionable to think in 2014 that results could be achieved through formal talks with jihadists.  As was discussed in the July 11, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant threat.  A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject rogue Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory.  As long as the rogue Islamic militants remain active in Syria, it will remain a state hampered by disunity and conflict.

The US effort in Syria hinges on how it responds to the Islamic militant presence.  The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on.  The administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy will not be advanced.  However, it seems the ship has already sailed on the use of force in Syria.  The Obama administration appears willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, never taking military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.  Perhaps in 2017, a new US administration might implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.

Merkel Says Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Be Ready to Act if Needed; However, the US and Europe Must Decide How They Will “Act” Together

Pictured above is the launch of an Iranian Shahab long-range missile. The fear that nuclear-tipped Shahab missiles might strike Europe in part has kept the option of US military action on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article by Krista Hughes entitled “Merkel: Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Ready to Act if Needed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions could still be reinstated against Iran if needed, but negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have to be given a chance.  Merkel reinforced that statement by saying, “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.”  She then went on to state Iran must comply with an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.

The Geneva nuclear negotiations have been moving very slowly, but progress has been made.  That is why Merkel and other Western leaders have publicly asked for patience with the process. Insisting that the negotiations be rushed will result in the process becoming a forced public performance, perfunctory in nature, with no real chance for success.  What is sought by the West is a transformation in the thinking of Iran’s leadership. Interestingly enough, the new dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Even more, there have been hints that Iranian leaders may be able to see the real possibilities of a final agreement. Iran’s adherence to the interim deal has been a good first step and could mean Iranian leaders sense the promise of a peace agreement.  A negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would be a treasure of great value reached as a result of the hard work of diplomats and officials of all parties involved.  Yet, the bitter scenario of Iran backing out of the process after all that has been achieved remains a real prospect.  All parties went into negotiations knowing that reaching a final deal was far from a fait accompli.

Merkel was expressing strong language regarding the potential response of leveling harsh sanctions against Iran if the Geneva process failed.  Yet, her response hardly matches the February 26, 2014 statement made by US Secretary of State John Kerry that “the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.”  His statement left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if diplomatic talks were to breakdown.  There is a considerable divergence in thinking between Merkel and Kerry when they indicate they are ready to take action.  Sanctions may indeed have the potential to be very harmful and could possibly turn Iran into an “economic basket case.”  However, military action would be calibrated to destroy Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible.  The apparent reluctance of Germany to support US military action sends a message to some in Iran that there is a schism between the US and Europe on the Iran’s nuclear program, and the US would need to go it alone against its nuclear program.  Clearly, Germany, much as other European states, does not appear fully committed to its own defense against the potential threat Iran can pose to Europe.  If European leaders do not feel the collapse of the talks would warrant a military strikes against Iran, let it be.  However, if military response is desired, European leaders should standby the US, and avoid contradicting its policy in public statements.  They should explore ways to effectively support, encourage, and affirm US action.

European Security and Iran

A little over a decade ago, there was a consistent view among leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, regarding their Iran nuclear dossiers which was, “Iran wants a nuclear weapon and only a strong, consistent approach will stop it.”  European states were frightened then by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating Iran was trying then to create a Plutonium capacity, had built a heavy water facility, and was engaged in laboratory research for Uranium-238, and had worked with Uranium-239, which could detonate spontaneously.  Iran also had done research on Polonium 2010, a high neutron source which can eject neutrons, and is an element for nuclear devices. While some European countries used Polonium 2010 in laboratories as part of their fundamental research, Iran at the time had no fundamental research. Iran was also engaged in detonics research, especially catastrophic blasts.  Moreover, Iran had a rapidly growing ballistic missile research program, and had the capability with its Shahab-3 missiles to place 1 ton 1500km to reach inside Turkey and Israel.  It was developing the capability to reach Greece, and its Shahab-5 missile eventually would be able to reach Russia and Western Europe.  For the Europeans, the primary way to cope with the Iranian threat was through negotiations. Germany, France, and Britain, as Members of the European Union, were dubbed the “EU-3” in their talks with Iran.  It is somewhat unclear even at that time whether European leaders were ever fully behind military action.  However, the negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 had begun during the administration of US President George W. Bush, who seriously threatened military action against Iran.  He dubbed Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and indicated the US would attack Iran to protect the Europeans and other friends from nuclear armed Iranian missiles.

Based on Merkel’s latest comments, it seems the Europeans are willing to step away from a truly tough approach to Iran.  The comments are reflective of European attitude of wanting security but not wanting to invest in it. Interestingly, according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, European friends and allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have failed to meet their defense spending pledges.  Hagel noted that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending.  Hagel is correct when he explains that “This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.”  Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.  The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, and militarily irrelevant regarding Iran.  If the Europeans are reluctant to meet their 2 percent commitments for defense under the NATO, there is little chance they would boost their military capabilities to respond to the possible challenge of Iran.

European Criticism of the US

In addition to what could be seen as lethargy among the Europeans regarding defense, there is a sense among them that in its foreign policy, the Obama administration seeks politically expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analyses. The French seem convinced that the US was becoming disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay with the US in a November 2013 speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  For him, that explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”  Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion.  Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”  In other Western capitals, there is a view that US foreign policy is driven by Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception that Obama is taking a “legacy quest” approach has more than perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  All of these criticisms coalesce to create the impression in some parts of the world, even Europe, that the US government under Obama’s leadership is weak and willing to compromise when previous US administrations would not.

The sense of uncertainty about US intentions and capabilities led the British Parliament to vote down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request that British force join the US in military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.  What created real upheaval among European leaders were revelations by US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that the US engaged in electronic surveillance to monitor the communications of European leaders, including their personal cellphone conversations.  Expressions of outrage and criticisms over US actions were strong enough to evoke the worst reaction possible from Obama.  Yet, for his part, he has displayed great calm.  While he speaks with a golden tongue about European friends and allies, he knows that forgiveness will not be felt any time soon.  He likely senses European leaders will be difficult to work with for a while.

Nevertheless, the heaviness of maintaining Europe’s defense falls squarely on the shoulders of each respective country’s leaders.  They are the stewards of their country’s national security.  There is no desire to send anyone on a “guilt trip,” but the need to voice rage should be tempered by the demands of European security.  No benefit will be received from undermining the US leadership when a response from Obama against Iran might prove critical to Europe’s wellbeing. US support for the defense of Europe should not be taken for granted.  It has value and must be appreciated.

The Realities of the Military Option and the “Collaborative” Approach

A breakdown of the nuclear negotiations would be a weighty matter and impossible for the Europeans to handle effectively alone.  Statements about sanctions and conveying outrage after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The Iranians are capable of calculating what the consequences of such measures would be, and would try to mitigate the effects of them as best as possible.  The Europeans would need to support diplomacy with the threat force, but that cannot be achieved without US cooperation.  No state can replace the US on the world stage.

If the European leaders fully agree with taking action, they may find it necessary to press the matter forward with the US.  Despite stating that the military option remains on the table, the Obama administration might find it difficult to decide on military action against Iran.  The White House may calculate that attacking Iran preemptively to protect Europe is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high.  Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Syria and Ukraine.  After fully considering what a US attack on Iran will mean for their countries, European leaders must examine ways in which their relationships with Obama might promote a decision to proceed.  They should consider taking a more cooperative, supportive approach with him to ensure the matter is moved forward.

None of this is intended to suggest European leaders embark on an approach akin to manipulation.  Rather, they should engage in a collaborative effort with Obama.  European leaders must embrace the reality that the US holds the lion’s share of military power in the West and it is the only country that would contend with Iran if it poses a threat to Europe (even though Britain and France have nuclear forces of their own).  To that extent, the US has the greatest stake in the success of the Geneva talks in the West because a breakdown in the nuclear negotiations could lead it to war.  Although backchannels and bilateral talks between the US and Iran may be a source of consternation for European leaders, they must remain patient while the US finds its way through the process.

There must also be forthright discussions with the US on a mutually acceptable rationale for military action and the difficulties of taking military action.  They must be willing to ask the US to guarantee that it will stand with them to the extent that it would act preemptively to protect European territory; if that is what they want. European leaders must consider how they can work in partnership with the US to the greatest extent possible to formulate and implement a plan for responding against Iran.  They must make it known at the UN, in NATO, and in their respective countries capitals, that the US can count on their support.  If military action is deemed necessary, Obama should be encouraged to rise up to meet the situation.

The Way Forward

If the Geneva nuclear negotiations breakdown, the Europeans can either hope for the best or support military action.  Sanctions are the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the Geneva talks fail.  However, cutting off business deals will unlikely serve their security needs regarding Iran.  Even if European leaders were to agree that a military response is necessary, the truth is no European country has the capability to act.  A united European front in support of a military response would not help either.  The only country capable of attacking Iran to protect Europe is the US.  The US pledge to defend its European partners and allies is unwavering.  Yet, the prospect of a new war is abhorrent to the Obama administration.

It is uncertain whether pre-emptive action would be taken by the US despite having the ability to respond militarily to Iran’s program.  For Obama, the alternative exists of waiting to see if Iran will take action with a newly developed, long predicted, nuclear capability. That could have devastating consequences for Europe.  Ensuring US action will prove to be daunting.  The Europeans will need to team-up with the US and support its Iran policy. European leaders must guarantee they will stand by the US if military action becomes necessary.  Contradictory statements on Iran policy emanating from the US and Europe do not foster a perception of unity.  Unity is crucial and it will help ensure the continent remains secure.  Given the low cost that would be incurred by a collaborative and supportive approach with the US on military action, if talks fail, it would hardly make sense not to try this tact.

Negotiators Put Final Touches on Interim Iran Accord, But Ayatollah Khamenei Is Expressing Concern over Perceptions Created by Talks

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is frustrated by the popular perception that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program as a result of Western economic sanctions.

According to a January 13, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Negotiators Put Final Touches On Iran Accord,” Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) completed a deal on January 12th that would temporarily suspend much of Iran’s nuclear program as of January 20th.  That would be done in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.  The interim agreement had already been announced in November 2013, however, its implementation was delayed until after negotiators and experts worked out technical details.  Reportedly, Iran will suspend its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that had were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities.

While Western officials touted the degree to which Iran’s nuclear program had be temporarily curtailed, as reported in the January 13thNew York Times article, Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.

For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the main requirement that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  However, as the process advanced, Khamenei began to publicly express concerns and some disappointment over its results.  Despite an initial sense inside Iran’s leadership that the negotiations would rapidly bring forth favorable results, it instead has been a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which remains uncertain.  Moreover, Iranian authorities became concerned by the fact that following their decision to engage in the negotiations with Western powers, a perception took hold that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program to stave off economic ruin.

In Iran, Khamenei is known as the leader of the Islamic Ummah and Oppressed People and the person in which the spiritual guidance and functional power Islamic republic resides.  For him, the notion that Iran was submitting to Western pressure is absolutely abhorrent.  Khamenei accused the US of engaging in strenuous efforts to promote this view of Iranian weakness.  He stated:  “The nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam, and Muslims.”  Nevertheless, the view that Iran was forced to negotiate in reaction to economic sanctions is not only accepted among most experts in the US.  It is the prevailing view worldwide.  Khamenei has held out hope that, through the Geneva process, Iran would reach an agreement that fits within the ideals of Islamic Revolution as well as achieve success over what he has referred to often as “the economic pressures and propaganda campaigns of the West.”  However, perceptions of Iran’s standing in the talks could very well impact Khamenei’s final decision regarding Geneva.  At this juncture, it is not necessary for Khamenei to decide whether to proceed to halt negotiations as a final agreement has not even been outlined.  In the interim, perhaps Khamenei and Iranian foreign and defense policymakers might consider how Iran’s own efforts to influence the global policy debate on the Geneva process in its favor, how in reality, it did more to propagate perceptions on why it entered into negotiations.  Interestingly, a few changes in Iran’s approach may ameliorate the situation and may very well make the situation tolerable enough to allow reaching an agreement to become the main focus of all parties.

Image of Iran’s Power to Khamenei

Khamenei’s frustration over worldwide perceptions that Iran was forced into the Geneva process is almost palpable.  Khamenei saw Iran’s decision to enter the Geneva process purely from a position of strength as a regional power.  Such power was the basis of equality.  Viewing its entry into the Geneva process from a perceived position of strength Khamenei has made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  When it began the talks, Khamenei and Iranian policymakers believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests would be rapidly constructed.  Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the accepted view was that US had become disinterested in the Middle East as events and issues in the region do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest.  The failure of the US to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite red-lines, is a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they viewed US President Barack Obama as analytical and frail, lacking the will to fight.  They asserted that Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed appears to have become dogma among political and religious hardliners and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  It has compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands at Geneva.

Khamenei and Iranian officials saw Iran moving in the opposite direction of the US, gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East.  Khamenei stated:  “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.”  He further stated that “this major power [Iran] has influenced regional nations.”  Iran’s recent record indeed includes a number of bold and decisive actions in the region.  According to the January 13th, New York Times article, Iran has been sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region.  In Syria, Iran has deployed significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces.  It has sent an estimated 330 truckloads of arms and equipment to Syrian through Iraq to support the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Iran has also facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shiite militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, the New York Times reports Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  Iran smuggles weapons into Yemen on small boats which are difficult for Yemeni authority to track.  It is estimated that only 1 out of 10 Iranian boats that illegally come into Yemen among the thousands of commercial and fishing boats in the Persian Gulf.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shiite groups back in the 1990s, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini operatives are typically trained in Iran and operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders there.

Understanding US Power in Tehran

Despite Khamenei’s own perceptions of Iran’s power relative to that of the US and its Western partners, the US has proved not to be as relaxed on matters as his foreign and defense policy experts and advisers led him to believe.  Advice coming as a result of the “group-think” displayed in Tehran on the capabilities and possibilities of the US did not serve Khamenei well.  As a nation, the US is certainly not a push over.  It remains a nuclear armed superpower, regardless of any perceptions about its leadership.  It has become very apparent that for Iran, acquiring significant sanctions relief through the talks would be difficult, if not impossible to realize, without significant change regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Additionally, the focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process was not what Iran was doing away from its nuclear program regionally.  That has been put aside.  The focus of Geneva is specifically Iran’s nuclear program and potential for developing nuclear weapons.  The talks are aimed at preventing nuclear war.  For that reason, the talks to a great degree concern the very survival of Iran in the face of US military power.

Distress caused by coming to this understanding of the situation has increased Khamenei’s frustration over hearing economic causation theories on Iran’s decision to negotiation in the global media.  Clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Iran’s oil revenue has been reduced and its other trade has been disrupted.  Nevertheless, Khamenei still publicly rejects this perception of weakness.  He recently declared, “Our enemies do not know the great Iranian nation.  They think that their imposed sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations.  No, it is a wrong.”

Iran has made an effort promote its own positions and arguments on the Geneva negotiations as part of the worldwide policy debate on its nuclear program and the Geneva talks.  This activity has been especially noticeable online, in the social media.  (See greatcharlie.com September 3, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks: Is Twitter Part of Rouhani’s Approach to the West?”)  Indeed, just as many other nations, Iran has sought to adapt to emerging trends on the social media with the hope they can way global opinion and improve the nation’s public image as well.  However, perhaps its was not fully understood at the time the decision to engage in such activity was made that use of this type of eDiplomacy (via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the blogishere, and other means) can create difficulties.  The real threat to national governments with an online presence or even in print, radio, and television media is the foreign and defense policy pundit.  Iran fell prey to endless numbers of pundits worldwide.

Iran’s Lost Cause Against the Pundits

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pundit as an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give views about it to the public.  In the US, they are typically former government officials, political leaders and political operatives, think tank scholars, and academics allegedly with official access, particularly in Washington, DC.  Pundits respond to issues as they arise.  The serious foreign and defense policy observers among them will typically focusing on their areas of expertise.  Ideally, pundits will fill in information gaps to help an audience better understand an issue, policies, decisions, and actions taking place.  They may provide constructive criticism, “reality therapy,” and perhaps thinking that is outside of the box based on good judgment.  In this manner, pundits can make very valuable contributions to the foreign and defense policy debate.  (It is hoped visitors feel greatcharlie.com falls into that honorable category of punditry.)  However, there are also those pundits whose responses come in the form of trenchant criticisms of policies and decisions, pointing more to what is wrong than explaining how things could be improved.  Pundits are not journalists.  While they operate in the same sphere, they do so using different “standards.”  Some paraphrase and misquote to the extent that they occasionally create false impressions within the media of what was stated by an official.  This is made easier by use of sound bites and clips of official presentations.

Pundits respond to official statements on all issues that may arise.  Pundits, great and small, popular and unknown, are commenting on official statements and reports on such a rapid and immeasurable scale that even when corrections and misquotes are acknowledged such efforts to repair mistakes are obviated by new urgent and important issues.  Moreover, whenever official provide statements or attempts are made at leaking information through “trial balloons” and unofficial statements, in the end they are made in the pundits’ court: the media.  How those presentations eventually reach the public will be shaped by pundits responses, which some pundits often allege are gleaned from their own official sources.  The media is the pundits’ court, and within it, they cannot be defeated.  Whenever officials attempt to set the record straight by offering rebuttals or rebuffing such commentaries by pundits, their statements may drown among the thousands of commentaries on the blogisphere or may be met by an additional roundla of harsh remarks.  Interestingly, an effort by officials to engage a pundit in a debate in the media over a commentary, the pundit’s visibility and standing is elevated.

Grabbing the attention of an audience is most important in all media.  As a blog, greatcharlie.com, itself, is very interested in the number of visitors and views it receives on a given day, week, or month on its site.  While it would be better if blogs were sought out for their veracity and insights they present, attention is generally given to the ones that are more interesting or intriguing.  More often, those commentaries lack depth, and will more likely be unfriendly.  The more acceptable a negative view might be regarding a particular issue, the more likely this will be the case.  This has been one of Iran’s problems.  While Iran sought to promote its positions and arguments in the media, attempting to cope with popular pundits, who feel they should be hostile to its official statements, has proven to be a failed exercise.  Khamenei once expressed the hope that what he perceived to be an anti-Iran publicity campaign by the US would backfire and lead to its own global isolation.  However, that will unlikely be the case.  Among those people interested in foreign and defense policy worldwide, very few would ever take the position that Iran was equal or stronger than the US and its Western partners.  Far more people worldwide might accept more negative perspectives of Iran, due to security and economic concerns or ethno-religious and nationalist reasons.  The fact that the Geneva process is primarily referred to worldwide as the Geneva nuclear talks, which is how the US and its Western partners view the process, and not the Geneva talks on economic sanctions, as Khamenei and Iranian officials might view it, is an indicator of the perspective from which the global media has viewed the situation.

Assessment

As the supreme leader, it is understandable that worldwide perceptions of Iran would matter greatly to Khamenei.  Further, he was correct when he stated an enmity exists between Iran and the US.  Until the talks began, relations were uncongenial.  Yet, what is most important regarding the Geneva nuclear talks is what is said at the negotiation table and not what is stated in the media.  Boasts and declarations, the strong suit of the pundit, are of no value in the process.  Pragmatic thinking is required of all parties to the negotiation on this matter.

The quality of the agreement reached naturally should far outweigh concerns over what pundits far away from the negotiating table might argue.  An agreement, negotiated with the idea of equality among the parties at the table, that is respectful of the interests of all parties, that all feel is sustainable, and will preclude all from considering military solutions to the matters in discussion, will ensure peace.  This is the concept that should drive forward the Geneva process among all parties.

Book Review: Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013)

Pictured above is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.  Levitt explains that Nasrallah functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei

When foreign policy books cover topics such as terrorism or an on-going conflict provide information and insight on people and events that arise in the news and useful to refer long past its publication date, it becomes a must have for one’s library.  Matthew Levitt’s latest work, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God  (Georgetown University Press, 2013) is one of those books.  Although published in September 2013, it has been a terrific resource for background on recent events in the news such as the death the death of Hussane Laqees of the Hezbollah’s military wing in Syria, the identity of David Salahuddin, who lured missing former FBI agent and errant CIA operative, Robert Levinson to Iran, and new revelations about Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s role in the Iraq War.  

In Hezbollah, Levitt sets out to provide a strong background on Hezbollah’s effort to create a global network for terrorist activity.  Given his credentials, he was highly qualified to undertake that task.  Levitt currently serves as a fellow and director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence.  Formerly, Levitt served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the US Department of Treasury; as an FBI counter-terrorism analyst, and an adviser on counter-terrorism to the US Department of State.  He previously authored, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorrism in the Service of Jihad (Yale University Press, 2006). 

Through his initial government service at the FBI, Levitt cut his teeth in the intelligence field, working through mounds of data on terrorist groups to uncover family ties, financial networks, media sources, disgruntled employees, imminent threats, homeland plots, foreign sales, health status, financial resources, tradecraft, and recruiting tactics.  Levitt uses those same skills to breakdown Hezbollah in the same manner that served to help US law enforcement and intelligence community develop profiles on the organization.  Thus, in reading Hezbollah, one gets to look at the organization through the prism of a US intelligence analyst.   Overlaying each chapter, is a presentation of Hezbollah’s tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods.  While Levitt does not always point directly to Hezbollah’s strengths that need to be overcome such as Iran’s training and support, and weaknesses that need to be exploited such as its inability to establish stable and sustainable funding sources outside of Iran, much can be extrapolated from the text.  US officials have long-acknowledged, respected, and feared Hezbollah’s terrorist networks, not only due to its attacks on US interests abroad (such as the early 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut or the attack on US military personnel at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia), but also because of Hezbollah’s active presence in the US.  The organization was placed on the US terror blacklist in 1997 and its military-wing was placed on the EU’s terror blacklist in 2013.

Since Levitt was an intelligence analyst, he does not offer any personal stories of contacts or tangling with Hezbollah.  However, viewing Hezbollah from the perspective of an analyst that does not mean the book is not filled with excitement and intrigue.  There is enough in the true stories of Hezbollah’s terrorist activities including money laundering, bribery, kidnappings, airline hijackings, torture, car, hotel, barracks, and embassy bombings, and assassinations to satiate the wettest of appetites for action.  Levitt manages to give one a sense of what it would mean to engage the grim faced fighters who exude religious fervor and revolutionary zeal, and hold in contempt anything representative of what members call “the Western oppressor.”  Hezbollah’s lethal capacities in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East have been well-discussed.  Levitt also covers the activities that helped to establish that reputation.  Indeed, as the book is outlined Levitt begins his discussion with Hezbollah’s genesis.  He then looks at the organization’s expansion throughout the Middle East to Western Europe, from Latin America to North America, and from Southeast Asia to Africa.  He presents Hezbollah’s activities with detailing both successful and unsuccessful plots.  What might have seemed unbelievable becomes believable as Levitt reveals the lengths Hezbollah would go to strike at Western interests.  While  doing so, Levitt also highlights the success US and other Western intelligence agencies have had tracking Hezbollah anywhere it goes worldwide. 

In discussing Hezbollah’s beginnings, Levitt explains how the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the impetus for, the organization’s emergence.  Many of its initial leaders first were members of Amal, the military arm of the political party founded by an influential Shi’a cleric named Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.  He urged the Lebanese Shi’a community to improve itself socially, economically, and politically.  He also intended for the Shi’a militia he established to fight against Israel as part of the Lebanese Army.  After al-Sadr’s death, many Shi’a were disappointed by Amal’s moderate policies and the willingness of al-Sadr’s successor, Nabih Berri, to accommodate Israel politically rather than confront it militarily. 

Those disgruntled Amal members joined with other Shi’a militia groups including the Muslim Students’ Union, the Dawa Party of Lebanon, and others.  They formed their own umbrella group, Hezbollah.  Hezbollah declared its main objectives in 1985 in an open letter “to all the Oppressed in Lebanon and the World.”  Boiled down by Levitt, those objectives were: to expel all colonialist entities—the US, France, and their allies from Lebanon; to bring the Phalangists to justice for the crimes they had committed against Lebanese Muslims and Christians; to permit “all of the sons of our people to determine their future and to choose in all the liberty the form of government they desire.”; to encourage Lebanon to install an Islamic regime which Hezbollah saw as the only type of government that could “stop further tentative attempts of imperialistic infiltration into our country.”; and, to ensure “Our military apparatus is not separate from its overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier.”  As Levitt notes, at the center of the group’s insignia is not a map of Lebanon but a globe alongside a fist holding an AK-47 rifle.

Levitt makes crystal clear the connection between Hezbollah and Iran from the organization’s very beginning.  He discusses Iran’s deployment of 1500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) advisers to Lebanon to set up a base in the Bekaa Valley.  It was part of Iran’s effort to export the Islamic Revolution to the Arab World.  All of Hezbollah’s members were required to attend the IRGC training camps in the valley.  In 1985, Hezbollah proudly declared its linkage to Iran: “We view the Iranian regime as the vanguard and new nucleus of the leading Islamic State in the world.  We abide by the orders of one single wise and just leadership, represented by the ‘Waliyat el-Faqih’ and personified by Khomeini.  Levitt states that over the past three decades, Hezbollah has remained Iran’s proxy.  The US Department of Defense estimates that Iran has provided Hezbollah with weapons, and spends up to $200 million a year funding the group’s activities, including its media channel, al-Manar, and operations abroad.  He mentions others claim Iran provides Hezbollah as much as $350 million a year.  Levitt also discusses how Iran’s Quds Force fostered the emergence of Hezbollah’s branches in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait from 1994 to 1996. 

When discussing Hezbollah’s military-wing, Levitt quotes a Western government report that stated: “Little is known about [the Hezbollah military wing’s] internal command hierarchy due to its highly secretive nature and the use of sophisticated protective measures.”  Levitt notes that Hezbollah’s formal militia activity is known as the Islamic Resistance.  Its external operations wing, known as the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), is responsible for its financial, logistical and terrorist operations abroad.  While IJO activities are well-concealed, Levitt provides as much information as possible, making it the real focus of his examination of Hezbollah’s overseas activities.  Levitt explains how IJO was formed by a Hezbollah commander Imad Fayez Mughniyeh after he fled into Iran following his operation that resulted in the bombing of US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Lebanon.  Mughniyeh, who was described by the CIA as “cunning, resourceful, coldly calculating adversary for whom virtually any act of violence or revenge performed in the name of Shiism is permissible, ” would direct IJO until he was killed in February 2008. 

Regarding Hezbollah’s overall leadership, Levitt gives attention to Hezbollah’s first leader, Iraqi born Ayatollah Mohammad Husayn Fadlallah, for whom Mughniyeh was initially a body guard.  Fadlallah sought to establish the power, prestige, and authority of Hezbollah.  In following, Hezbollah developed its reputation for ruthlessness under him.  Levitt cites CIA report on Fadlallah that explained: “Fadlallah aims to bring forth defenders of the faith who are indifferent to intimidation, contemptuous of foreign influence, devoted to Shi’a Islam, and whose self-control borders on fanaticism.”  Mere contact with Hezbollah was considered a risky undertaking.  In an early chapter, Levitt points to reputation, by providing American kidnap victim’s account of being driven by his Hezbollah captors through a checkpoint held by the Amal militia group.  When the rebels asked the driver why there was a Westerner in the backseat, he simply replied “We are Hezbollah!”  The Amal militia men waved the car through.  The kidnapped American recalled how that merely claiming to be Hezbollah sounded like a threat.  

In his discussion of Hezbollah’s current secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, Levitt asserts that he maintains overall control of the political and military wings of the organization.  Nasrallah heads the Shura Council which develops the overall vision and policies, oversees the general strategies for the Party’s function, and takes political decisions. It wields all decision making powers and direct several subordinate functional councils.  However, Nasrallah presides over the Shura Council and functions as Hezbollah’s leader under the authority of the “Jurist Theologian,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomenei.  Much as his predecessor Fadlallah, Levitt proffers that Nasrallah enhanced Hezbollah’s military-wing at the request of Iran to train and advise groups overseas, including Iraqi militant groups. 

Certainly, Levitt set firm parameters for his book.  Given the degree of information he possesses, it seems he could have written much more on Hezbollah’s organization and activities.  However, what might have been useful in the text would have been a discussion of Hezbollah’s operations in the Bosnia War (1992-1995) and the Lebanon War (2006).  That might have provided a sense for the development of its tactics, how Hezbollah performed, who were the leaders in the field, and what the nature of their contacts with the Quds Force were.  Reference is made to the creation of Unit 3800, which were Hezbollah Brigades that Nasrallah formed at Iran’s request.  Unit 3800 was given to mission of targeting multinational forces in Iraq for terrorist action.  The only reference to the mustering of a similar force was Unit 1800, which was dedicated to supporting Palestinian terrorist groups targeting Israel.  It would have been interesting to know if a similar Hezbollah Brigades were ever established in Bosnia. 

Additionally, as Hezbollah is an ethno-religious, nationalist organization, a more in-depth look into the impact of the devotion to Shiism, their revolutionary zeal, and the culture of its fighters on the planning of conventional military and clandestine operations seemed required. Great risk and sacrifice are regular features of Hezbollah actions.  Some have reviewed Hezbollah and have gleaned from it that the thrust behind the organization’s moves are destroying Israel, driving the US out of the Middle East, and avenging the killing of Imad Mughniyeh.  However, through Levitt’s book, itself, it is very clear that Hezbollah thinking is far more complex.  Understanding Hezbollah means acquiring the rhythm in its actions.  That may allow for better predictions and perhaps even intimations as to its future plans. 

Further, one current event which Levitt does not give much attention is Syria.  It would have been interesting to see the extent to which the experience and lessons learned by Hezbollah over the past thirty years coalesced in its activities in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  It would be interesting to know what types of connections were made between Hezbollah and the Quds Force, the interaction between Hezbollah and Syrian militias, which Iran has organized into the National Defense Forces, and whether Hezbollah Brigades have been organized in to units such as Unit 1800 or 3800 to engage in terrorist attacks against the Syrian opposition’s Supreme Military Council and Free Syria Army, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, and Jabhat Al-Nusra.  Levitt could have explained what accounts for the significant number casualties Hezbollah has suffered in Syria despite its many years in various war zones.  Surely, that would have been invaluable in understanding the continued evolution of the organization’s military-wing.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah, overall, is an outstanding appraisal of the organization’s worldwide operations and a significant contribution to the policy debate and public understanding of state-sponsored terrorism.  Hezbollah’s capacity for global terrorism, as explained by Levitt, makes the book one to think about when one cannot continue to read it.  Indeed, it will be hard to put down after reading the first page.   It is greatcharlie’s mission to provide commentary and advice for foreign and defense policy makers, political and business leaders, and policy aficionados worldwide.  Regardless in which category one might consider oneself, greatcharlie highly recommends Hezbollah to you.  It is a must read.  Make certain that this book is on your reading list for 2014.