JFP 12/30: Mossad: Iran nuke not "existential" threat; Congress attacks Taliban peace deal
Just Foreign Policy News, December 30, 2011
Mossad: Iran nuke not "existential" threat; Congress attacks Taliban peace deal
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1) Mossad chief Tamir Pardo says that acquisition of a nuclear bomb by Iran would not constitute an "existential" threat to Israel, Haaretz reports. [Memo to journalists: you cannot write "Israelis see an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat" if the head of Mossad does not agree - JFP.]
2) Democratic and Republican Members of Congress have expressed opposition to the transfer of Afghan Taliban detainees from Guantanamo to custody elsewhere, which the Obama Administration sees as critical to its efforts to promote peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, Reuters reports. [The Reuters report does not mention any Members of Congress supporting the transfer, which is striking when you consider that the Senate and half the House are on record saying that the Administration should expedite US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and press reports have indicated that diplomatic engagement with the Afghan Taliban is a key means by which US military drawdown from Afghanistan will be facilitated - JFP.]
3) Cutting off Iran's oil exports and military confrontation with Iran and could cost Americans a lot at the pump and damage an already fragile U.S. economy, argues an editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The US should acknowledge the true, weakened state of Iran's nuclear program and on that basis lay off demands for new sanctions, the editorial says. Iran can then forget about blockading the Strait of Hormuz and the Navy can stop threatening a violent response to such a blockade.
4) The Truman National Security Project has expelled former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block for attacking the Center for American Progress over its criticism of Israeli policies, Politico reports.
5) Some in the military are increasingly concerned about the role that civilian contractors are playing in the "kill chain" that leads to drone strikes, McClatchy reports. Civilians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which subjects military personnel to prosecution for war crimes or for violations of rules of engagement on use of force.
6) Military analysts say Iran's ability to slowly escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf with small attacks on commercial shipping or other incidents is a genuine danger, USA Today reports. Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that Iran doesn't need the ability to win a military confrontation in order to inflict economic damage on the U.S.
7) The Obama administration which has waffled between supporting a transition to democratic civilian rule in Egypt and appeasing the generals, writes the Washington Post in an editorial. The Obama administration may have encouraged the military council to believe it could get away with its crackdown by resisting initiatives in Congress to link U.S. military aid to a democratic transition, the editorial says. It is past time for the administration and Congress to stop treating aid to the Egyptian military as inviolate and related only to peace with Israel, the editorial says. The military must get the message that continued funding will depend on whether a full transition to civilian democratic rule takes place in the coming year.
1) Mossad chief: Nuclear Iran not necessarily existential threat to Israel
Tamir Pardo says Israel using various means to foil Iran's nuclear program, but if Iran actually obtained nuclear weapons, it would not mean destruction of Israel.
Barak Ravid, Ha'aretz, 01:23 29.12.11
A nuclear-armed Iran wouldn't necessarily constitute a threat to Israel's continued existence, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo reportedly hinted earlier this week.
On Tuesday evening, Pardo addressed an audience of about 100 Israeli ambassadors. According to three ambassadors present at the briefing, the intelligence chief said that Israel was using various means to foil Iran's nuclear program and would continue to do so, but if Iran actually obtained nuclear weapons, it would not mean the destruction of the State of Israel.
"What is the significance of the term existential threat?" the ambassadors quoted Pardo as asking. "Does Iran pose a threat to Israel? Absolutely. But if one said a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands was an existential threat, that would mean that we would have to close up shop and go home. That's not the situation. The term existential threat is used too freely."
The ambassadors said Pardo did not comment on the possibility of an Israeli military assault on Iran.
"But what was clearly implied by his remarks is that he doesn't think a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel," one of the envoys said.
Pardo's remarks follow lively a public debate in recent months over a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. One of the figures at the center of this public debate has been Pardo's predecessor as Mossad chief, Meir Dagan. Dagan has argued that Israel should only resort to military force "when the knife is at its throat and begins to cut into the flesh." He has also criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, accusing them of pushing for an Israeli attack on Iran, and warned that such an assault would have disastrous consequences.
For the past several years, Netanyahu has characterized a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel. The prime minister has even compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler and argued that Iran should be treated as Nazi Germany should have been dealt with in 1938, just before World War II. In contrast, Barak said in April 2010 that Iran "was not an existential threat at the moment," but warned that it could become one in the future.
In the cabinet, Netanyahu and Barak have been the leading proponents of a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. So far, however, they have not managed to convince a majority of either the "octet" forum of eight senior ministers or the diplomatic-security cabinet to support their position.
2) U.S. mulls transfer of Taliban prisoner in perilous peace bid
Mark Hosenball, Missy Ryan and Warren Strobel, Reuters, Thu, Dec 29 2011
Washington - The Obama administration is considering transferring to Afghan custody a senior Taliban official suspected of major human rights abuses as part of a long-shot bid to improve the prospects of a peace deal in Afghanistan, Reuters has learned.
The potential hand-over of Mohammed Fazl, a 'high-risk detainee' held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison since early 2002, has set off alarms on Capitol Hill and among some U.S. intelligence officials.
Senior U.S. officials have said their 10-month-long effort to set up substantive negotiations between the weak government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban has reached a make-or-break moment. Reuters reported earlier this month that they are proposing an exchange of "confidence-building measures," including the transfer of five detainees from Guantanamo and the establishment of a Taliban office outside of Afghanistan.
The detainees, the officials emphasized, would not be set free, but remain in some sort of further custody. It is unclear precisely what conditions they would be held under.
[Earlier reporting indicated that they would be in the custody of the government of Qatar - JFP.]
In response to inquiries by Reuters, a senior administration official said that the release of Fazl and four other Taliban members had been requested by the Afghan government and Taliban representatives as far back as 2005.
The debate surrounding the White House's consideration of high-profile prisoners such as Fazl illustrates the delicate course it must tread both at home and abroad as it seeks to move the nascent peace process ahead.
One U.S. intelligence official said there had been intense bipartisan opposition in Congress to the proposed transfer. "I can tell you that the hair on the back of my neck went up when they walked in with this a month ago, and there's been very, very strong letters fired off to the administration," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The senior administration official confirmed that the White House has received letters from lawmakers on the issue. "We will not characterize classified Congressional correspondence, but what is clear is the President's order to us to continue to discuss these important matters with Congress," the official said.
The detainee transfer may be even more politically explosive for the White House. In discussing the proposal, U.S. officials have stressed the move would be a 'national decision' made in consultation with the U.S. Congress.
The mere idea of such a transfer is already raising hackles on Capitol Hill, where one key senator last week cautioned the administration against negotiating with "terrorists." Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said such detainees would "likely continue to pose a threat to the United States" even once they were transferred.
In February, the Afghan High Peace Council named a half-dozen it wanted released as a goodwill gesture. The list included Fazl; senior Taliban military commander Noorullah Noori; former deputy intelligence minister Abdul Haq Wasiq; and Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister.
Michael Semple, a former UN official with more than two decades of experience in Afghanistan, said Fazl commanded thousands of Taliban soldiers at a time when its army carried out massacres of Shi'ites. "If you're head of an army that carries out a massacre, even if you're not actually there, you are implicated by virtue of command and control responsibility," he said. He added: "However it does not serve the interests of justice selectively to hold Taliban to account, while so many other figures accused of past crimes are happily reintegrated in Kabul."
Some U.S. military documents - select documents have been released, others were leaked - indicate that Fazl denied being a senior Taliban official and says he only commanded 50 or 60 men. But the overall picture of his role is unclear from the documents which have become public.
Richard Kammen is an Indiana lawyer who has nominally represented Fazl; the detainee did not want an attorney. "Based upon the public information with which I'm familiar, it would appear his role in things back in 2001 has been significantly exaggerated by the government," Kammen said.
Despite the congressional concerns that released Taliban will return to the battlefield, Semple said it was unlikely even prisoners like Fazl - who truly was a significant military figure for the Taliban - would alter that equation. "These people are not going to make a real contribution to the Taliban war effort even if they are able to go over to Quetta and rejoin the fight. It's not risky in battlefield terms; it's only risky in U.S. political terms."
3) Strait of horror: The United States does not need a war with Iran
Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Friday, 30 December 2011 06:06
The mishandling of relations with Iran by President Barack Obama is taking the United States perilously close to a situation that could cost Americans a lot at the pump and damage an already fragile U.S. economy.
Much continues to be made of the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, which would threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia and other American allies in the Persian Gulf area. At the same time, the damage that Israel and the United States have done to Iran's nuclear capacity through the Stuxnet virus, elimination of Iran's nuclear scientists (which Iran has claimed and the U.S. and Israel have denied) and persistent attention to its program through the International Atomic Energy Agency has made it increasingly unlikely that Iran will be capable of mounting such a weapon in the foreseeable future.
That fact has not reduced the drumfire of activity that the Obama administration has pursued, including with the Europeans at the United Nations, to place ever harsher economic sanctions on the Iranians. The latest enterprise in that body, being pursued vigorously by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice, is designed to make it as difficult as possible for Iran to handle the financial transactions involved in selling its oil.
More than half of the Iranian government's budget is covered by oil sales. Oil and gas constitute 80 percent of Iran's exports. Its oil exports provide 5 percent of the world's oil market. Therefore, shutting down its oil exports through sanctions or turmoil in the region would not only throw an enormous monkey wrench into Iran's finances, but it would also cause world oil prices to rise. For Americans that would probably mean their last view of gasoline under $4 a gallon and major damage to a fragile economy still only tentatively budging out of recession toward daylight.
In response to the severe threat that the U.S.-sponsored sanctions pose to its economic well-being, Iran has threatened to blockade oil exports exiting the Strait of Hormuz. In return, the U.S. Navy has announced its capacity to break any blockade the Iranians might seek to impose.
There is no doubt that the U.S. Navy could break the Iranian blockade. In the process, more defense money would accrue to that service, which has felt it has been given short shrift for the most part in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The trouble is that, in the process, the price of gas at the pump would rise and the U.S. economy would be hurt. In effect, the additional money the Navy would claim and receive would come straight out of the pocket of the American consumer.
The other serious problem is that such a military exchange with the Iranians would risk leading to a more general Middle East war, the last thing the United States needs as it has just completed the Iraq War and is looking for an orderly exit from the 10-year war in Afghanistan.
This mess is easy to avoid. The United States should acknowledge the true, weakened state of Iran's nuclear program and on that basis lay off the demands at the United Nations for economic sanctions against it. Iran can then forget about blockading the Strait of Hormuz and the Navy can stop threatening a violent response to such a blockade.
Neither the American economy nor the U.S. consumer needs a confrontation, much less a war, with Iran. Nor does Mr. Obama, unless he is thinking of emulating President George W. Bush's approach to the electorate in 2004 as a war president who shouldn't be replaced midstream.
4) Progressive group expels Block over CAP criticism
Ben Smith, Politico, 12/23/11 12:05 PM EST
A progressive group that is working to remake the Democratic Party's approach to national security has drawn a line around the heated Israel policy debate, expelling a member who criticized the Center for American Progress for breaking with Clinton Democrats' traditional staunch support for Israel.
Truman National Security Project founder Rachel Kleinfeld emailed the critic, Josh Block, to inform him this morning, Block said.
An intramural debate over the Democratic Party's Israel stand has swirled since a POLITICO article earlier this month noted the wide gap between groups like CAP and Media Matters on one hand, and pro-Israel congressional Democrats and figures like Block, a Democrat and former AIPAC spokesman, on the other. CAP has largely defended it's views, though a staffer apologized for using the phrase "Israel firster" (in a junior staffer's personal tweet) to describe pro-Israel Americans and its leading voice on Middle East policy, Matt Duss, promised to step down "snark that some might reasonably call unprofessional." The group also appears to have shifted its tone a bit on Israel and other regional issues in recent weeks, and Duss recently jabbed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman from the right in defense of the American Israel lobby.
5) Contractors' role grows in drone missions, worrying some in the military
David S. Cloud, McClatchy, December 30, 2011 06:59:27 AM
Washington - After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above.
The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills in central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.
"What company do you work for?" Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale demanded of the contractor after he learned that she was not in the military, according to a transcript obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
"SAIC," she answered. Her employer, SAIC Inc., is a publicly traded Virginia-based corporation with a multiyear $49 million contract to help the Air Force analyze drone video and other intelligence from Afghanistan.
America's growing drone operations rely on hundreds of civilian contractors, including some, such as the SAIC employee, who work in the so-called kill chain before Hellfire missiles are launched, according to current and former military officers, company employees and internal government documents.
Relying on private contractors has brought corporations that operate for profit into some of America's most sensitive military and intelligence operations. And using civilians makes some in the military uneasy.
At least a dozen defense contractors that supply personnel to help the Air Force, special operations units and the CIA fly their drones are filling a void. It takes more people to operate unmanned aircraft than it does to fly traditional warplanes that have a pilot and crew.
The Air Force is short of ground-based pilots and crews to fly the drones, intelligence analysts to scrutinize nonstop video and surveillance feeds, and technicians and mechanics to maintain the heavily used aircraft.
"Our No. 1 manning problem in the Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms," said Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Air Force vice chief of staff. Without civilian contractors, U.S. drone operations would grind to a halt.
About 168 people are needed to keep a single Predator aloft for 24 hours, according to the Air Force. The larger Global Hawk surveillance drone requires 300 people. In contrast, an F-16 fighter aircraft needs fewer than 100 people per mission.
With a fleet of about 230 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks, the Air Force flies more than 50 drones around the clock over Afghanistan and other target areas.
The Pentagon plans to add 730 medium and large drones in the next decade, requiring thousands more personnel.
The Air Force is rushing to meet the demand. Under a new program, drone pilots get 44 hours of cockpit training before they are sent to a squadron to be certified and allowed to command missions. That compares with a minimum of 200 hours' training for pilots flying traditional warplanes.
The Air Force also has converted seven Air National Guard squadrons into intelligence units to help analyze drone video. About 2,000 additional Air Force intelligence analysts are being trained.
After the attack that killed the Afghan villagers in February 2010, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command questioned whether civilian contractors had a "potential conflict of interest" in analyzing drone video feeds.
A civilian "might be reluctant to make a definitive call, fearing liability or negative contractual action" if he or she passed on incorrect information that was used to call an airstrike, the command said.
McHale rejected that argument. "Although I recognize that a contractor will have a corporate interest separate and distinct from the military interest, in this instance I found no action or inaction by screeners that negatively influenced the engagement," he responded, according to Pentagon documents.
By law, decisions to use military force must be made by the military chain of command or, in the case of CIA strikes, by civilian officials authorized to conduct covert operations under presidential findings or other specific legal mandates.
Writing in a military law journal in 2008, Lt. Col. Duane Thompson, chief lawyer for the Air Force Operations Law Division, warned that allowing nonmilitary personnel to communicate targeting information directly to pilots would violate international laws of war.
Moreover, civilians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which subjects military personnel to prosecution for war crimes or for violations of rules of engagement on use of force.
"Persons who relay target identification for an imminent real-world mission to persons causing actual harm to enemy personnel or equipment should be uniformed military," Thompson wrote.
6) Iran Tweaks Tensions While Avoiding Fight, Analysts Says
Jim Michaels, USA Today, December 30, 2011
Iran's latest threat to seal off the Strait of Hormuz is probably a bluff, but its ability to slowly escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf with small attacks on commercial shipping or other incidents is a genuine danger, military analysts say.
"If they are going to do something to us, it makes a lot more sense to raise the level of tension without getting into a fight," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Iran has been steadily increasing its capability to fight "asymmetric warfare," which favors using small raids and hit-and-run tactics to help even the odds when a weaker foe is fighting a larger rival.
National security analysts say the rhetoric from Tehran to close the strait masks the more likely threat: a slow escalation of tensions that would increase pressure on the United States without a direct confrontation.
It's happened before. In 1987, the United States began escorting tankers through the region after Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti tankers during the Iran-Iraq War threatened the supply of oil and pushed up insurance costs for tankers.
Iran has mines, some submarines and small boats as well as shore-based missiles, all of which can be used for small attacks to disrupt shipments or threaten supplies.
"They don't have to win," Cordesman said. "Asymmetric warfare is as much politics and economics as it is military."
7) A Provocation In Egypt
Editorial, Washington Post, December 29
On Thursday, Egypt's military regime undertook an act of repression that even former strongman Hosni Mubarak never dared to try. Police and troops raided 17 nongovernmental organization offices involved in promoting democracy and human rights - including those of the Washington-based Freedom House and U.S.-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI). According to statements by the American groups, police confiscated their equipment and documents, sealed their offices and provided no warrants.
The Egyptian MENA news agency subsequently reported that the raids were ordered by the state prosecutor as part of "the foreign funding case." For some time, the regime has been claiming that it is illegal for NGOs to receive foreign monies unless they are registered with the government, which would then control the cash flow. But the law mandating this was passed by the Mubarak regime in 2002; the former president never ventured to enforce it. Until this week, IRI and NDI operated freely; they were training Egyptian political parties on how to participate in elections and were invited by the current government to observe the ongoing parliamentary voting.
Thursday's raid consequently represents a frontal provocation by the ruling military council to the Obama administration, which has waffled between supporting a transition to democratic civilian rule in Egypt and appeasing the generals. The military is attempting to rally waning domestic support by blaming domestic disorder on sinister "foreign hands"; it is also seeking to destroy liberal, pro-democracy groups that have resisted its attempts to perpetuate its power indefinitely.
The campaign against foreign funding is a startling example of the military's illogic and breathtaking arrogance. The premise is that civilian groups that receive a few million dollars in U.S. or European funding are traitorous - while the military is justified in accepting $1.3 billion in annual U.S. subsidies. Also unquestioned is the substantial funding that reportedly flows from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab states to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, which mounted by far the best-organized campaigns in this month's elections.
The Obama administration may have inadvertently encouraged the military council to believe it could get away with this repression by stoutly resisting initiatives in Congress to link U.S. military aid to a democratic transition. On Thursday, the State Department protested the raids, saying that they were "inconsistent" with U.S.-Egyptian relations; a statement called on the regime "to immediately end the harassment of NGO staff, return all property and resolve this issue."
That may or may not produce a retreat by the generals. Either way, it is past time for the administration - and Congress - to stop treating aid to the Egyptian military as inviolate and related only to peace with Israel. The military must get the message that continued funding will depend on whether a full transition to civilian democratic rule takes place in the coming year. That means, among other things, an immediate end to the harassment of pro-democracy and human rights groups.
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