JFP 2/2- Russia: veto if force not barred; Taliban study belies NATO "gains"; Panetta: "combat" can end early
Just Foreign Policy News, February 2, 2012
Russia: veto if force not barred; Taliban study belies NATO "gains"; Panetta: "combat" can end early
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I) Actions and Featured Articles
*Action: Human Rights First: Tell #AlKhalifa: Drop Charges Against #Medics, End Sham Trials!
Twenty Bahraini medics tortured into making false confessions faced court on Monday to find out that the charges against them still haven't been dropped. The Bahrain government continues to pursue this baseless prosecution and others against people who are being targeted for exercising their freedom of expression. It's time to stop.
Glenn Greenwald: Sanctions v. negotiations on Iran
We have now a great irony: America's increasingly tense and dangerous conflict with Iran is characterized (one could even say caused) by the unwillingness of the Obama administration to engage meaningfully with Iran's leaders.
McDermott and 22 Reps. Press Panetta on AfPak Study Group
Jim McDermott (D-WA) called on Secretary of Defense Panetta to follow Congress' intent and create an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group to produce an independent assessment of the situation in both countries. The APSG would be similar to the Iraq Study Group, whose independent assessment shed light on the faltering Iraq war strategy in 2006.
"Occupy AIPAC": March 2-6
On Saturday, March 3rd, there will be a conference on reforming U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East away from AIPAC's priorities and towards supporting peace and popular aspirations in the region: no war with Iran, free Palestine, support the Arab Spring. Co-sponsored by CodePink/Women for Peace, the Institute for Policy Studies, and Just Foreign Policy.
Feb. 4 local actions against war with Iran
Check to see if there is an event organized near you.
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1) Russia said it would veto any U.N. Security Council on Syria that did not explicitly rule out foreign military intervention, Reuters reports. [It's not obvious what legitimate objection could be raised to the Russian demand, since such a prohibition would simply reaffirm the U.N. Charter's prohibition on the use of force against a member state in the absence of immediate self-defense against armed attack or explicit Security Council authorization - JFP.]
2) A secret US military report says the Afghan Taliban's strength and morale are largely intact despite the NATO military surge, and that significant numbers of Afghan government soldiers are defecting to them, the Guardian reports. That's in stark contrast to NATO's far more bullish official line, that the insurgent movement has been severely damaged and demoralized, the Guardian notes.
3) Defense Secretary Panetta said Wednesday U.S. forces would step back from a combat role in Afghanistan as early as mid-2013, the New York Times reports. [The Times claims this would be "more than a year before all American troops are scheduled to come home," but as the Times should know - and should correctly report - there is no statement, agreement or deadline that says that all U.S. forces must leave Afghanistan in 2014. To ask for a correction: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com - JFP.]
4) A senior U.N. nuclear inspector spoke Wednesday of a "good trip" to Iran and the IAEA said his team will return to Iran in late February, indicating progress on attempts to investigate suspicions that Iran is working on nuclear weapons, AP reports.
5) President Obama will soon get regular but incomplete reports on how oil markets are coping ahead of broader sanctions on Iran that could help him justify easing off sanctions to prevent a politically damaging jump in crude prices, Reuters reports.
The White House is bracing for a barrage of criticism if gasoline prices begin to rise with the onset of the summer driving season, according to one source close to the White House, Reuters says. If gasoline prices march towards $5 a gallon from more than $3.40 now, Republicans will attack just as Obama gears up for the November elections.
But Obama could use the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports to ease up on sanctions, Reuters says. "If the president decides he doesn't want to impose the sanctions he's got a fig leaf," said Phil Verleger an economist and consultant with PKVerleger LLC. "He can hide behind the report."
6) Egypt's generals regard $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid each year as an entitlement, linked to the country's peace treaty with Israel, writes the Washington Post in an editorial. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment.
The Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand, the Post editorial board says. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended. Before aid is disbursed, the administration is required to certify that Egypt is holding free elections and protecting freedom of expression and association. Officials acknowledge that no certification will be possible while prosecutions of "democracy promotion" NGOs continue, and that funding could run out in March. But the legislation provides for the certification to be waived by the State Department on grounds of national security. That course must be ruled out, the Post says.
7) President Obama's comments on drone strikes should start the process of greater openness about the program, says the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. Obama's remarks will make it difficult for the administration to avoid an open dialogue with Congress and the public about the utility - and morality - of the drone strikes.
8) The cycle of protest and repression continues in Bahrain ahead of the one-year anniversary of the uprising, AP reports. "The international paralysis over Bahrain has, if anything, become more pronounced with the rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program," said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini affairs at Rutgers. Sunni rulers in the Gulf accuse Bahrain's majority Shiites of offering a cozy foothold for Shiite giant Iran - even though an independent report on Bahrain's unrest found no evidence of links to Iran, AP notes.
U.S. officials have cast doubts on the Gulf Sunni Arab rulers' narrative that Iran is behind the Bahrain protests - a theme also pushed by the army of international public relations consultants hired by Bahrain, AP notes. But despite disbelieving this story, U.S. officials are reluctant to cross their allies among the Gulf Sunni Arab rulers.
9) Contrary to Newt Gingrich's claims, Iran is not going to park a nuclear-armed boat at the ports of Jacksonville, New York, or any other American city, writes Max Fisher in The Atlantic. It would obviously not be in Iran's interest to do so. The Republican primary field's exaggeration of the Iranian threat might make for good politics, but it misleads both Iranian leaders as well as U.S. voters, making both of them more likely to make bad choices.
1) Russia says U.N. must rule out Syria intervention
Steve Gutterman, Reuters, February 1, 2012, 5:30pm EST
Moscow - Russia said on Wednesday it would veto any U.N. resolution on Syria that it finds unacceptable, after demanding any measure rule out military intervention to halt the bloodshed touched off by protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
"If the text will be unacceptable for us we will vote against it, of course," Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin told reporters in Moscow via a videolink from New York. "If it is a text that we consider erroneous, that will lead to a worsening of the crisis, we will not allow it to be passed. That is unequivocal," he said.
His remarks came hours after Russia's envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, said there was no chance the Western-Arab draft text could be accepted unless it expressly rejected armed intervention.
Russia says the West exploited fuzzy wording in a March 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya to turn a mandate to protect civilians in the North African country's uprising into a push to remove the government, backed by NATO air strikes, that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
2) Taliban believe they will take over from US and Nato in Afghanistan - report
Taliban believe they will take over from US and Nato in Afghanistan - report
Pakistan and Nato reject assertions by Taliban and al-Qaida detainees in document based on interrogations
Julian Borger, Guardian, Wednesday 1 February 2012 10.58 GMT
A secret US military report says the Taliban, heavily backed by Pakistan, are confident they can win the Afghanistan conflict, and that they are gaining popular support at the expense of the Kabul government.
The report, The State of the Taliban 2012, is the latest of a series drawn up by a US special operations taskforce on the basis of interrogations with 4,000 suspected Taliban and al-Qaida detainees.
Its conclusions, that the Taliban's strength and morale are largely intact despite the Nato military surge, and that significant numbers of Afghan government soldiers are defecting to them, are in stark contrast to Nato's far more bullish official line, that the insurgent movement has been severely damaged and demoralised.
According to published excerpts, the report finds that "Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact."
The authors, American researchers attached to special forces, conclude that the weakness and venality of the government in Kabul is an increasing source of strength for the insurgents. "In the last year, there has been unprecedented interest, even from [Afghan government] members, in joining the insurgent cause. Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over [the Afghan government], usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders.
3) Panetta Sets End to Afghan Combat Role for U.S. in '13
Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, February 1, 2012
Brussels - In a major milestone toward ending a decade of war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday that American forces would step back from a combat role there as early as mid-2013, more than a year before all American troops are scheduled to come home.
[The NYT is wrong. There is no year in which "all American troops are scheduled to come home." To ask for a correction: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com - JFP.]
Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary's words reflected the Obama administration's eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.
Promising the end of the American combat mission in Afghanistan next year would also give Mr. Obama a certain applause line in his re-election stump speech this year.
Mr. Panetta said no decisions had been made about the number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013, and he made clear that substantial fighting lies ahead. "It doesn't mean that we're not going to be combat-ready; we will be, because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves," he told reporters on his plane on his way to a NATO meeting in Brussels, where Afghanistan is to be a central focus.
The United States has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, but 22,000 of them are due home by this fall. There has been no schedule set for the pace of the withdrawal of the 68,000 American troops who will remain, only that all are to be out by the end of 2014.
[Again, the assertion is false. There is no schedule that says all U.S. troops are to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. To ask for a correction: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com - JFP.]
Mr. Panetta offered no details of what stepping back from combat would mean, saying only that the troops would move into an "advise and assist" role to Afghanistan's security forces. Such definitions are typically murky, particularly in a country like Afghanistan, where American forces are spread widely among small bases across the desert, farmland and mountains, and where the native security forces have a mixed record of success at best.
The defense secretary offered the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq as a model. American troops there eventually pulled back to large bases and left the bulk of the fighting to the Iraqis.
4) UN official announces new Iran talks after 'good trip,' indicating progress on nuclear issues
Associated Press, Wednesday, February 1, 4:38 PM
Vienna - A senior U.N. nuclear inspector spoke Wednesday of a "good trip" to Tehran and the agency said his team will return to Iran's capital in late February, indicating progress on attempts to investigate suspicions that Iran is secretly working on nuclear weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's announcement of a renewed mission to Tehran Feb. 21 came just hours after the return of a senior team and word from the team leader that a new trip was planned "in the very near future."
Neither the IAEA's formal statement nor mission Head Herman Nackaerts gave details on what the agency's experts may have achieved. But any headway would be significant after more than three years of Iranian stonewalling on attempts to investigate the allegations.
Nackaerts spoke of "three days of intensive discussions," telling reporters at Vienna airport that - while "there still is a lot of work to be done" - the IAEA is "committed to resolve all the outstanding issues, and the Iranians said they are committed too."
Asked how the visit was, he replied, "we had a good trip."
The IAEA statement also suggested some progress by indicating that the Iranian side did not reject the agency's requests out of hand, as it has in the past on the issue of weapons work. It said the agency team "explained its concerns and identified its priorities, which focus on the clarification of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program."
5) Analysis: Oil reports may offer Obama an out on Iran
Timothy Gardner, Reuters, January 31, 2012, 4:13 p.m. CST
Washington - President Barack Obama will soon get regular, albeit incomplete, reports on how oil markets are coping ahead of broader sanctions on Iran that could help him justify easing off sanctions to prevent a politically damaging jump in crude prices.
Under the latest Iranian sanctions signed into law late last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration must begin issuing reports by Feb 29 and every two months after that on oil production and prices as the United States moves to squelch Iranian oil shipments.
The law imposes sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran's central bank. It's designed to rein in Iran's nuclear program by targeting its ability to sell oil, the country's lifeblood.
The administration has nervously moved ahead with sanctions as it negotiates with some of Iran's biggest customers to reduce their imports of its oil.
The irony is that while the sanctions were designed to hit Iran, global oil prices could rise due to rising tensions over the sanctions and that could trouble Obama.
The White House is bracing for a barrage of criticism if gasoline prices begin to rise with the onset of the summer driving season, according to one source close to the White House. If gasoline prices march towards $5 a gallon from more than $3.40 now, Republicans will attack just as Obama gears up for the November elections.
But Obama could use the EIA reports, which look at production and prices in countries besides Iran, to ease up on sanctions if they suggest energy security was at stake.
"If the president decides he doesn't want to impose the sanctions he's got a fig leaf," said Phil Verleger an economist and consultant with PKVerleger LLC. "He can hide behind the report."
Tensions between Iran and the West have been on the rise since the EU said this month it would embargo Iran's oil exports from July 1.
The International Monetary Fund has warned a supply disruption caused by the sanctions could push oil prices up by $20 to $30 a barrel, exacerbated by the thin oil stocks held by many consuming countries.
The Obama administration has time to decide if the EIA reports suggest prices will rise to an uncomfortable level. The EIA will issue three of the reports ahead of the June 28 deadline in the law that allows Washington to sanction foreign banks in countries such as China, India and South Korea that purchase petroleum from Iran.
But some doubt the EIA, riven by budget cuts, can give a complete picture of oil markets because of knowledge gaps especially in Asia, where demand has been growing the fastest.
"There are massive problems with the data," said Edward Morse, the global head of commodities research at Citigroup in New York. He believes the EIA could get a clearer snapshot if it get more money in the budget, but even then the picture would not be complete.
Nevertheless, the EIA report could act as a political shield if Obama decided to temper the sanctions. Mark Dubowitz, a advocate for tougher Iran sanctions and head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it will be "difficult for Congress and for others to hold the administration's feet to the fire" if Obama used the EIA report as a reason to ease up.
George Lopez, an expert on international sanctions at University of Notre Dame, said Obama would have to tread carefully and not appear as being soft on Iran. But ultimately the president has much wiggle room. "Previous presidents have dialed back on sanctions for reasons far less compelling to national security than high oil prices," he said.
6) Egypt's witch hunt threatens a rupture with the U.S.
Editorial, Washington Post, January 31
There is a grotesque incongruity in the tour around Washington this week of an Egyptian military delegation even as seven Americans who work for congressionally funded pro-democracy groups are prevented from leaving Cairo and threatened with criminal prosecution. What makes it worse is that the ruling military council refuses to recognize the seriousness of the crisis it has created in the U.S.-Egyptian alliance.
The persecution of the Americans, which has been escalating since their offices were raided Dec. 29, is an extraordinary provocation by the generals who succeeded Hosni Mubarak. Despite repeated appeals, including by President Obama, military council chief Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi has failed to deliver on promises to call off the witch hunt and return confiscated funds and property. Over the weekend, three of the Americans, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, moved into the U.S. Embassy compound in Cairo out of fear for their safety.
Meanwhile the Egyptian military delegation, headed by Fouad Abdelhalim, defense minister for arms affairs, is here on a business-as-usual mission to discuss security cooperation - including the weapons purchases Egypt makes with the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid it receives each year. The generals regard this funding as an entitlement, linked to the country's peace treaty with Israel. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment.
Preserving the alliance with Egypt, and maintaining good relations with its military, is an important U.S. interest. But the Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended.
Administration officials say Gen. Tantawi has been warned repeatedly that the aid money is at risk. But they tend to blame Congress, which attached conditions to the 2012 military funding over the administration's objections. Before aid is disbursed, the administration is required to certify to Congress that Egypt is holding free elections and protecting freedom of expression and association. Officials acknowledge that no certification will be possible while the prosecutions continue, and that funding could run out in March. But the legislation provides for the certification to be waived by the State Department on grounds of national security. That course must be ruled out.
The campaign against the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, along with a half-dozen Egyptian and European groups, is being led by Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga, a civilian holdover from the Mubarak regime. Ms. Aboul Naga, an ambitious demagogue, is pursuing a well-worn path in Egyptian politics - whipping up nationalist sentiment against the United States as a way of attacking liberal opponents at home. The regime's calculation has always been that it can get away with such outrages because U.S. policymakers will conclude they can't afford a rupture in relations with Egypt. But if such a break is to be avoided, the generals must be disabused of the notion that U.S. military aid is inviolate.
7) America's Drone Wars
Editorial, Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2012
President Obama's comments on drone strikes should start the process of greater openness about the program, especially the targeted killing of Americans.
President Obama's public acknowledgment of the CIA's secret drone campaign in Pakistan puts new pressure on the administration to defend the policy openly. That's a welcome development. The president should now be equally forthcoming about the rationale for the targeted killings of American citizens.
In an interview conducted by Google and YouTube on Monday, Obama defended the use of drones as "judicious" and added that "obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA," Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas. An administration official told CNN that the president's remarks about the secret program were not a "slip-up." Nevertheless, on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney refused to discuss the drone program, withholding comment on "supposed covert programs."
Both the fact of the strikes and their general location have been open secrets for some time. But before Obama's remarks, the administration assiduously refused to confirm U.S. involvement, largely in deference to a Pakistani government that has complained about what it sees as violations of its sovereignty. Yet the drone strikes were public knowledge in Pakistan, and the administration's silence about them was as incredible there as it was in the United States.
Casual as they may have seemed, Obama's remarks will make it difficult for the administration to avoid an open dialogue with Congress and the public about the utility - and morality - of the drone strikes. The operative word is "open." Obviously the administration will not disclose the timing or precise locations of strikes. But the policy itself deserves more justification.
Now that Obama has been candid about the drone strategy, he owes the nation a further explanation about one of its most worrisome manifestations: the killing of American citizens without due process. Last year in Yemen a drone killed Anwar Awlaki, a native of New Mexico and a key figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. So far the administration has not laid out a convincing legal rationale for the assassination.
Reportedly Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. will publicly address the legality of targeting Americans in the next several weeks. He needs to be specific about that question and about the criteria used in the Awlaki case. (For example, was there a determination that Awlaki could not be captured alive?) He also should release to the public the memorandum from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel on which the administration relied. If Obama is willing to be more candid, so must the rest of his administration.
8) Bahrain boils as uprising nears 1-year mark
Brian Murphy and Reem Khalifa, Associated Press, February 1, 2012
Manama, Bahrain - It's usually well after midnight before Bahrain takes a breather. The thud of riot police stun grenades trails off, the stinging tear gas mist is carried away and the protest chants against the Gulf kingdom's rulers go quiet until the next day. Then the cycle of unrest resumes in one of the longest-running - and perhaps most diplomatically complex - chapters of the Middle East uprisings.
"Egypt, Tunisia, Libya," demonstrators now shout during running battles with security forces. "Bahrain's leaders are next."
A year ago this month, Bahrain's majority Shiites took inspiration from the Arab Spring to sharpen long-standing grievances against the Sunni monarchy, accused by Shiites of relegating them to second-class status in the Western-allied nation. Within days of the first protest march, Bahrain was sliding into a crisis that would bring more than two months of martial law, more than 40 deaths, hundreds of arrests and ongoing clashes so disruptive that the U.S. Embassy last month relocated workers into safe haven neighborhoods.
But the troubles also reach far beyond the tiny flame-shaped island off the Saudi coast. The past year has turned Bahrain into a crossroads for every major showdown in the region.
Drawn into the mix is Saudi Arabia as protector of Bahrain's Sunni dynasty. Archrival Iran is an angry bystander at the fierce crackdowns on fellow Shiites. And the U.S. is Bahrain's conflicted partner.
Washington watches the violence with growing unease but is fearful of souring relations either with the Saudis or Bahrain's leaders who host the Navy's strategic 5th Fleet - one of the Pentagon's main counterweights to Tehran's military.
"The international paralysis over Bahrain has, if anything, become more pronounced with the rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program," said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini affairs at Rutgers University. "It's every tough problem in the region funneled into one small place."
It also highlights the intense difficulties facing the West - and Washington in particular - if pro-reform rebellions someday spread further in the Gulf.
The Gulf Arab states, anchored by Saudi Arabia, are critical front-line allies against Iran.
Any threats to the Gulf's autocrats would be perceived in the West also as an assault on important political interests.
"It was much easier for the U.S. to cut loose (former Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak than it would be with any of the Gulf states," said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University. "The Arab Spring is definitely weighing heavily on the minds of Gulf rulers and their Western partners."
Safeguarding the 200-year-old Sunni hold on power is seen as an act of self-preservation. If Bahrain's rulers lose their grip, the thinking goes, then the domino-style risks grow for other rulers from Kuwait to Oman. Adding to the collective hard line: They accuse Bahrain's Shiites of offering a cozy foothold for Shiite giant Iran - even though an independent report on Bahrain's unrest found no evidence of links to Tehran.
That hasn't discouraged Gulf officials from brandishing Iran as the string-pullers of the Bahrain unrest. In an interview in Davos, Switzerland, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former intelligence chief, told The Associated Press that Iran is "going behind our backs" to spark revolt in the region.
Days later, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, denounced the "double standard" policies of Western powers to back other Arab uprisings but keeping a distance from Bahrain's Shiites to protect their strategic interests.
American officials, speaking privately, have cast doubts on the Gulf Arab narrative that Iran is behind the Bahrain protests - a theme also pushed by the army of international public relations consultants hired by Bahrain. Washington, instead, has urged for more talks with both sides and has put a "pause" on a proposed $53 million arms sale.
Earlier this week, however, Washington said it would sell some military equipment, without disclosing any further details.
"Washington is clearly unwilling to move this to the next level by using whatever political and military leverage it has to strong arm Bahrain's leaders," said Jones, the professor. "The U.S. doesn't buy into the idea that Iran is waiting in the wings in Bahrain. But it also cannot appear to be going against its deep alliances with the Gulf Arabs."
Bahrain's protesters display no pro-Iranian slogans or banners.
But they indirectly echo Iran's anger toward Saudi Arabia, which Tehran regards as an unwelcome "occupying" force in Bahrain. At Manama's airport, the green Saudi and red-and-while Bahraini flags are displayed with crossed staffs. Pro-government Sunnis adorn their cars with bumper sticks mixing the two country's national colors.
"We feel we are a colony of Saudi Arabia now," said 30-year-old Ameera Mohammad, who joined other women chanting anti-government slogans last week in the Shiite district Diraz. "The government has lost its legitimacy."
9) Newt Is Wrong Again, or, 4 Reasons Iran Is Not Nuking Jacksonville
Wild-eyed alarmism makes Iranian leaders and U.S. voters more likely to make bad choices.
Max Fisher, The Atlantic, January 31, 2012
There are a number of very good reasons that the U.S. should want to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb: it would destabilize the already unstable Middle East, give Iran greater cover for adventurism abroad, provoke Israel and possibly Saudi Arabia, and increase the possibility of nuclear war. But one of those reasons is not, as Newt Gingrich put it at a recent event in central Florida, "If Iranians get nuclear weapons, they don't have to fire a missile. They can just drive a boat into Jacksonville. Drive a boat into New York harbor."
Iran is not going to park a nuclear-armed boat at the ports of Jacksonville, New York, or any other American city. There are a number of reasons why -- I explain a few of them below -- but what's more important than the wrongness of Gingrich's comment is the dangerous trend it represents.
Republican presidential candidates have been fighting to outdo one another on who can build Iran up as the scariest and most immediate threat. Mitt Romney named it the greatest threat since the Soviet Union, Herman Cain called for outright regime change, Michele Bachmann suggested they were dead set on sparking "worldwide nuclear war." The politics of this are obvious and easy; the scarier you make Iran, the more likely voters are to prefer your confrontational rhetoric. People respond to fear, and it's easier to understand "Iran is evil" than the complexities of why an isolated Iranian regime might seek nuclear capability and how they would use it. But this increasingly outlandish fear-mongering is dangerous in itself.
Imagine you're a high-level Iranian official. All your adult life the only system you've known is Iran's, which is nominally quasi-democratic but strictly authoritarian, a system where everybody gets in line behind the Supreme Leader, whose bidding is law. You hear reports that a prominent American official named Newt Gingrich, whom your advisers tell you could become the next American president, is playing up the threat you pose to the U.S. and openly contemplating a preemptive war against you. Do you respond by shrugging off his comments as meaningless campaign rhetoric that would probably not translate into policy, or do you start thinking about how to defend your country from this apparently erratic threat?
The Republican primary field's exaggeration of the Iranian threat might make for good politics, but it misleads both Iranian leaders as well as U.S. voters, making both of them more likely to make bad choices. The U.S.-Iran relationship is complicated and dangerous enough without Gingrich or others disseminating bad information. People tend to behave irrationally and aggressively when they believe they are cornered. This is the situation that some Republicans are trying to portray, with violence as our only option. Iranian leaders may be increasingly perceiving that they are cornered as well (with plenty of help from whomever is killing those Iranian scientists), and according to a U.S. intelligence report, may see attacking the U.S. directly as an increasingly attractive defensive option. There's a lot more than just campaign trail alarmism at play here, but with Gingrich and Romney doing seemingly whatever they can to hype the danger and terrify people, it certainly isn't helping.
(1) It wouldn't serve Iranian interests in any way. Iran hawks sometimes like to portray the country as irrational and suicidal, but the country's leadership has so far demonstrated a shrewd and skillful knack for self-preservation. Maintaining rule over a large and diverse country like Iran is a very hard thing to do, and since the regime has persisted for over three decades despite internal strife and external pressure, it's probably safe to assume that they're not idiots or wackos. But nuking an American city would be both dumb and irrational, as it would do nothing to promote Iranian interests. Though the leadership could believe that small-scale attacks or subterfuge might deter the U.S., it has every reason to believe that a nuclear attack would provoke a devastating response from the U.S. and the world.
(2) The U.S. would probably retaliate with a nuclear bomb. When Obama clarified his nuclear policy in 2010, he laid out exactly when he would and would not consider nuclear force. The nuclear posture review, as it was called, emphasized that the U.S. would feel free to use nuclear weapons against a country that deployed an illegal nuclear weapons program: namely, Iran. He also announced that the U.S. still have several thousand nuclear warheads. Even if Iran destroyed an American city, it understands that the response could very well be the total nuclear annihilation of Iran. It's impossible to know for sure if Obama would go through with this, but even if he doesn't, surely he would invade instead.
(3) Iran wants nukes for deterrence, so it would never use them preemptively. The Iranian leadership understands that it is isolated and besieged. That's exactly why it would want a nuclear bomb: to deter the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, or others from attacking. To put their (possibly sole) warhead on a boat and send it far away would make it useless as a defensive weapon. Using that warhead would also guarantee a U.S. attack, which would also defeat the entire purpose of having a deterrent.
(4) Bush already thought of this. The George W. Bush administration started worrying about a ship-borne nuclear bomb immediately after September 11, 2001, and by that November has passed legislation to start screening cargo for nuclear materials or other hazards. The smartest part of the Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism, as the law is called, is that much of the screening takes place in far-away ports, before the ships ever arrive at American shores. Risk factors -- say, if a ship took cargo in Iran -- automatically trigger additional screening. Though the idea was to protect against non-state terrorism, the now expansive program would screen against an Iranian bomb as well.
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