Monday, November 30, 2009

Iran Totally Freaks

Today, Iran announced plans to build 10 more nuclear plants in response to impending sanctions from the IAEA. Here's a quick list of reasons this was a bad move on Iran's part.

1) Iran is already being isolated by the international community. Striking from a point of weakness is usually not the best for either international stability or the self interest of the weak state. Threatening to further defy the IAEA only makes Iran's problem worse.

2) Iran doesn't have the capability to build 10 new plants in the 2 month deadline it set for itself (see article). One of the major components of successful deterrence, any Intro to IR student knows, is capability. Iran had to put its money where its mouth was. It seems like it may have put its foot there instead.

3) This knee-jerk reaction demonstrates to the international community that Iran is nervous, meaning it takes the threat of sanctions seriously. Policy debates here in Washington have often focused on what carrots and sticks the West actually has on this issue. Iran's empty threat shows that sanctions are likely to alter Iran's behavior. In other words: we found a stick.

4) Big changes at the end of a tedious power-balancing process are very dangerous. In the Middle East especially, they tend to predicate armed conflict. Recall Nasser's nationalizing the Suez Canal or Hizbullah capturing two Israeli soldiers.

You'll note in both of these cases, Israel was the party to respond with military force. This situation is no different. Israel has a very fine red line, and once it crosses it military action happens, regardless of international pressure. Making statements about quickly and vastly expanding your nuclear program is a sure-fire way to find your state on the wrong side of that red line. In taking such drastic action, Iran dramatically raised the stakes for an armed confrontation with Israel.

[I should qualify by saying that because the US urged Israel to give sanctions a shot, and they seem to be working, Israel is ultimately not likely to use this development as a justification to attack Iran. But Iran almost certainly did not consider its point in its value calculus because its threat was a brink statement not aimed at Israel specifically.]

The ultimate outcome of Iran's nuclear program still remains to be seen. Sanctions are an effective threat but they also must be leveraged effectively. But today's event illustrates that the U.S. and the West have some hope of being able to resolve the issue non-militarily, which will be uplifting in the wake of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan tomorrow night. Don't forget to tune in.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bibi's Thanksgiving Treat

At 7:30pm local time, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced an 11-1 vote by his cabinet to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank. The freeze will not include Jerusalem, and will expire in 10 months.

The freeze, while incomplete, is a significant signal from the Netanyahu administration that it is ready to align itself closer to U.S. policy. While Netanyahu has successfully waited out the clock on Obama, the U.S. would do well to tout this as a victory and begin to apply pressure on the Palestinians. Glossing over Salam Fayed's preemptive comments that the freeze wasn't good enough, the U.S. should now begin exerting pressure on the Palestinian leadership. Netanyahu has thrown the Obama administration a bone by giving them a chance to move forward from a policy support for a freeze which has had limited success. This time, Obama should know to bid higher and apply more active pressure on the Palestinian leadership.

Specifically, he should focus on the content of Palestinian textbooks. Omissions of the Holocaust and gross mis-characterizations of the Jews are far more counterproductive to peace than settlements, and changing their content could be done using international funds and without compromising the Palestinian identity. Yet, creating a more historically accurate Palestinian curriculum would be a significant win for Israel on an issue on which the Palestinians are clearly in the wrong.

Yet, the U.S. must be careful not to let a Palestinian PM candidate use U.S. demands in the same way Netanyahu did, building a constituency at the expense of U.S. interests. Abbas will try to leverage his decision to not run for PM against any U.S. demands, and the American administration must be careful about letting things stall as they did this time. The next round of pressure will be a test of whether or not the Obama administration has learned from its mistakes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cynicism for a Tuesday

Comedian Ray Hanania's Jerusalem Post editorial about his "candidacy" for the PA is a perfect example of the wonderland that the Middle East can be sometimes.

The past week has seen threats, taken seriously by the West, that PA president Mahmoud Abbas would resign. Then, in response to Israeli indignation over the ordeal, Salam Fayad threatened...a state. Despite a Palestinian state being part of the Israeli position in negotiations, Israel not only took the threat seriously but criticized the plan, under which Palestinians would take responsibility for national sovereignty, security, and their economy. Which is exactly what Israel would have wanted them to do in an ideal world anyway. Except not actually because Israel wants some control. But not so much that they couldn't have just called the Palestinian's bluff on this one.

The article actually has nothing to do with this whole ordeal, but it mirrors the same kind of craziness the whole mess represents. Despite being from an American Palestinian comedian, the article is more moderate, pragmatic, and well-reasoned than 99% of discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Which of course means it's ludicrous anti-Israel screed in the eyes of the talkbackers, who levy all sorts of ideological assaults upon the peace plan which was not only a) written by a comedian but b) is actually pretty moderate and based on the accepted positions of most governments in the world. What kind of situation has the conflict in the Middle East become when a unilaterally declared Palestinian state is a threat, and the best peace plans come from the comedians, who are then criticized not for being comedians but for being reasonable?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quick Iran note

Israel's seizure of an Iranian shipment of weapons to Hizbullah is likely to put further pressure on Iran as it continues negotiations with the P5+1 over the country's nuclear program. Combined with today's protests marking the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Iran, the government has looked fairly weak. It remains to be seen, however, if the West will be able to wield enough leverage over Iran to hash out a deal which is reasonable to both sides.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Quick Clinton notes

Quick thoughts:

Sending Clinton to Israel is an excellent move by the Obama administration. She's higher ranking than Mitchell and she carries credibility and pro-Israel presumption. She also signals that the settlement freeze is a priority for the Obama administration. Clinton is now getting grief from the Arab states for supporting what they feel are inconsistent concessions, but this is pretty clearly for political purposes rather then out of a genuine feeling that the U.S. is selling out the Arab world. At this point it's unrealistic to think there will be a total settlement freeze, at least without any Palestinian concession, but to the extent that progress is possible, Clinton is doing a pretty good job.