The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Trump’s Syrian Mistake

The Daily Escape

(Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque, photographed before the war, in 2009)

Joshua Landis edits a blog called “Syria Comment”, and his last post was about Trump’s strategy for taking Raqqa from ISIS. He thinks allying with Turkey at the expense of the Kurds is a mistake.

Wrongo’s March 13 post discussed Trump’s Syrian strategy:

We are watching a continuation of the policy that predates the Trump presidency, the balkanization of Syria by alternative means…Trump’s “A Team” of generals seem to have fallen back on the old plan.

Landis thinks that Trump is planning to give the Turks free hand in taking Raqqa and most likely all of the Euphrates Valley. Turkey has proposed taking Raqqa from the north at Tel Abyad. The map below points out the geography:

Tel Abyad is the large black dot near the top of the map. This approach would drive through the middle of the Kurdish region (the purple shaded area above), cutting it in two. This splitting of the Kurdish territory is the main reason Turkey has offered to take Raqqa. From Landis:

Turkey hopes to establish its Arab proxies in a new “Euphrates state” in eastern Syria. This would partition Syria into three states: a western Assad-ruled state; an eastern Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel-ruled state, and a northern Kurdish state.

If the US allows Turkey to do this, it will lose the Kurds as allies in the attack on Raqqa, or in any other part of ISIS territory. Turkey says it is the only way that they can participate, because Assad’s army has already taken territory east of Aleppo, which has cut off Turkey’s access to Raqqa via al-Bab. Landis asks:

Why are the Kurds willing to take Raqqa even though they do not have territorial interests in and around Raqqa? They are investing in their relationship with the US. They assume that it will serve them well over the long run when it comes to their political aspirations.

A major issue with following Turkey’s plan is that they have dangerous Islamic fundamentalist allies. Turkey’s Arab rebel allies include Ahrar al-Sham, (similar to the Taliban, and adamantly opposed to the US). If the Turkey/Ahrar coalition rules the Euphrates post-ISIS, it will become a haven for Salafists and al-Qaida’s coalition.

For the past five years, Turkey has teamed with al-Qaida’s forces in Syria. It allowed them to mass inside Turkey in 2013. Turkey has no problem with them being part of its Arab force, since their strategy is to use the Salafists as proxies in thwarting Kurdish regional ambitions. More from Landis:

These…are the reasons that American generals do not want to work with Turkey. They don’t trust it, both because it wants to attack our Kurdish allies and because it is soft on al-Qaida-like rebel groups.

Our generals don’t fully trust this NATO partner to act in America’s interest!

What’s more, there is a likelihood that Iran, Russia, Syria, and Iraq would move against a Turkey-led Sunni land grab. They will not allow a Sunni rebel enclave in the middle of their spheres of influence. Landis: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

The US would [then] be expected to side with Turkey and the Sunni rebels in a long and escalating war against the Shiites. I think this is a swamp waiting to suck the US into its malodorous depths.

For more than 15 years, we have been engaged in a war in the Middle East. Now, the Pentagon is planning to send another 1, 000 troops to Syria in the coming weeks. This is indeed an endless war.

Let’s get ISIS, but we shouldn’t be teaming solely with the Turks in the effort to destroy ISIS. The great Orange negotiator should stand up to the Turks on this.

Now for some Syrian music. Here is Refugees of Rap with their song, “Haram” (“Forbidden” in Arabic):

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Sample Lyrics (translated):

Came out of the house
I smelled gunpowder
Voices from the minarets

Say go back to your houses
Shells on the neighborhoods come down like rain
I felt more scared, I felt a sense of danger
I completed my way and approaching death to me more and more
Average people say Allahu Akbar
I saw the neighborhood; neighborhood was red in color
The smell of blood and body parts in front of me scatter
I ran to help my friend was injured
Hospitals in dire need of blood donation and mosques shouting
Walls in the streets become white in color


If The Saudis Want to Fight Iran, the US Should Stand Back and Watch

According to breaking news, the Saudis severed ties with Iran after protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy in riots over the execution by Saudi Arabia of the Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The Saudis are leaning on the Gulf States to break relations with Iran also.

Remember that Iran is a Shiite nation while the Saudis are majority Sunni, as are the Gulfies.

We don’t know if the Saudi charges and verdict against al-Nimr were trumped-up, or if his execution was a deliberate provocation, but, why didn’t Iran do a better job of guarding the Saudi embassy? Wrongo’s first thoughts went back to the 444 days that the US embassy was held by Iran. Was there a better way for Iran to remind America of that historic black eye?

Was Iran dumb, or simply ready to flex their new, post-sanctions muscles against Saudi Arabia?

And what about the new king in Saudi Arabia? Are these executions more about internal House of Saud politicking rather than a direct message to Iran? Is it more important for the Boy Prince Saud to establish his anti-Shia cred with his opponents in the ruling family? A secondary effect may be to rile the Iranians, since the Boy Prince is currently losing his wars in Yemen and in Syria. Perhaps a provocative execution is just what he needs to shore up public support.

The Saudis have now accused Iran of supporting terrorism. At the same time, some US lawmakers want to move the goalposts and make recent Iranian missile firings an issue, even though those missiles were never were part of the deal between the US and Iran.

Expect to see these two issues – Iranian support of terrorism and the Iranian missiles – to be dominant themes in the GOP primaries in an effort to tarnish Obama and Clinton while hoping to stall implementation of the Iran Nuclear deal. The GOP posturing about the Saudi execution continued with Republican presidential hopefuls failing to condemn the executions, while highlighting the strong alliance between Washington and Riyadh on the Sunday bobble head shows.

The fun then went full Sharia with Ben Carson suggesting that the nuclear deal struck last July between Iran, the US and five other world powers pushed Saudi Arabia to violently repress its Shiite population:

The Saudis have been one of our strongest allies in the Middle East, and I think it’s unfortunate that we put them in the position we have by showing the support to Iran that we have with this foolish deal…There’s no reason for the Saudis to believe that we’re really on their side when we do things like that.

And when you hear a medical doctor making excuses for mass executions, you gotta just change channels. And since you know he is vehemently pro-life, you have to cringe while you do it.

Carly Fiorina dismissed Iran’s reaction to the death of the leading anti-government protester:

I take the Iranian condemnation with a huge grain of salt…This is a regime that tortures citizens routinely, that thinks nothing of executions, that still holds four Americans in jail. Saudi Arabia is our ally, despite the fact that they don’t always behave in a way that we condone…Iran is a real and present threat.

You’ve got to hand it to these GOP candidates. It’s nearly impossible to be on the wrong side of nearly every geopolitical issue, but these folks are actually nailing it!

Wahhabism is the state-sponsored form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabism throughout the Middle East is without question a greater threat to ME peace than Iran’s missiles.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia executed 158 people. They justify the executions as part of its strict interpretation of Sharia law. Punishing government protesters with death while citing Sharia law has led The New York Times editorial board to compare the kingdom’s judicial system to that of ISIS. Yet, unlike ISIS, Saudi Arabia currently sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and, as both Fiorina and Carson noted, Saudi Arabia is considered a key US ally in the fight against the Assad regime in Syria.

Because of this, even our State Department did not fully condemn the Saudi executions, only voicing “concerns” over the practice. Here is empty suit spokesperson John Kirby:

We have previously expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and have frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi Government…

Weasel words from the State Department.

We should see this as a time to re-balance our ME policy, and be less pro-Sunni.

We shouldn’t have a dog in this fight.


America’s “Fill in the Blanks” Middle East Policy

(There will be no further posting until Monday 10/26, since Wrongo and Ms. Oh So Right are attending a weekend family reunion)

We have been talking about our failed strategy in the Middle East for several days. Here is a great observation by Tom Englehardt that summarizes our all-too-true ME reality:

Sometimes I imagine the last 14 years of American war policy in the Greater Middle East as a set of dismal Mad Libs. An example might be: The United States has spent [your choice of multiple billions of dollars] building up [fill in name of Greater Middle Eastern country]’s army and equipping it with [range of weaponry of your choosing]. That army was recently routed by the [rebel or terrorist group of your choice] and fled, abandoning [list U.S. weaponry and equipment]. Washington has just sent in more [choose from: trainers/weaponry/equipment/all of the above] and [continue the sentence ad infinitum]. Or here’s another: After [number, and make it large] years and a [choose one or more: war, air war, drone assassination campaign, intervention, counterinsurgency program, counterterror effort, occupation] in [Greater Middle Eastern country of your choice] that seems to be [choose from: failing, unraveling, going nowhere, achieving nothing], the [fill in office of top U.S. official of your choice] has just stated that a U.S. withdrawal would be [choose from: counterproductive, self-defeating, inconceivable, politically unpalatable, dangerous to the homeland, mad] because [leave this blank, since no one knows].

Englehardt’s blog, TomDispatch, has an important article by Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department, who spent a year in Iraq. The article is entitled: What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came? − What Could Possibly Go Wrong (October 2015 Edition)

You should read it all, but here are some extensive quotes:

In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.


There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

And more:

What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.

And finally: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?

What are we doing in the ME?

Why are we doing it?

What end state do we want?


Why the Hysteria about Russia and Syria?

Tom Friedman gets it right:

Today’s reigning cliché is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart.

The hysterical neocon viewpoint was amply represented by who else but John McCain, who told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that he could confirm that Russia’s initial strikes were:

Against our Free Syrian Army (FSA) or groups that have been armed and trained by the CIA, because we have communications with people there.

There was no similar howl of angst when NATO member Turkey started bombing the West’s friends the Kurds, instead of ISIS. So, no hypocrisy here.

And McCain calls them our FSA? We have no FSA, although the CIA trains a few groups. The prevailing neocon fantasy, that we could have prevented the Syrian mess by training and arming a bigger, badder “Free Syrian Army”, continues to pollute the Syrian issue, preventing honest debate. We trained and armed a million soldiers in Vietnam, 300,000+ in Iraq, and tens of thousands in Afghanistan. How did those efforts work out?

And our training of Syrian “moderate rebels” has been a total bust.

But, the Russians’ first foray didn’t hit ISIS, they hit other groups. Word is they hit targets north and west of Homs (al-Rastan, Talbisah and al-Zafaraaneh). This is an area controlled not by ISIS, but other rebel groups. And right on cue, we heard that they hit the Syrian “moderates”.

Imagine, the US couldn’t find “moderate” rebels for 3 years, but the Russians found them in 24 hours!

McCain characterized the Russian air strikes as:

An incredible flouting of any kind of cooperation or effort to conceal what their first — Putin’s priority is. And that is of course to prop up Bashar al-Assad.

It’s time for the US to move on. We need to accept the reality that Assad won’t be dealt with until the Islamist threat in Syria and Iraq is contained. It’s also time to let the Russians have a shot at containing the Islamist threat. Whatever Russia’s entry into Syria does for the confrontation with ISIS, it has clarified our thinking. Our strategy says we can’t work with Assad and Iran to attack ISIS. Putin’s strategy says work with Assad and Iran to attack Assad’s enemies and ISIS simultaneously:

• Putin’s first priority will be to secure the Russian base at Tartus and its air base at Latakia. That is what he has done with his initial strikes, as some insurgents have already tried to hit the Russian air base with rockets.
• After securing western and central Syria, Russia will work to take out ISIS, starting with eliminating a few ISIS groups that threaten Russian territory.

So, what should we be doing? Col. Pat Lang has a few ideas:

1. Obama should act as if Russia and Iran are more than just rivals and adversaries. This will take courage and leadership on his part to explain to the American people.
2. Obama must fully coordinate operations, intelligence analysis sharing and logistics with Russian and Iran.
3. We should forget about positive contributions to the ISIS fight from Turkey. Turkey is a major part of the problem.
4. We should ignore Saudi Arabia’s wishes with regard to Syria, since they support the jihadis.

Friedman describes the big advantage to letting Putin take the lead in Syria:

Let’s say the US did nothing right now, and just let Putin start bombing ISIS and bolstering Assad. How long before every Sunni Muslim in the Middle East, not to mention every jihadist, has Putin’s picture in a bull’s eye on his cellphone?

No one is arguing that Bashar al-Assad is a benevolent leader, but when US media and analysts at some think tanks start describing al-Qaeda as “moderate”, we need to rethink our strategy. Again.

You can’t go into Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS and simultaneously try to depose Assad, only to gripe when Russia also goes into Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS and props up Assad.

That sword cuts both ways.

The bottom line is that the US, and its ME and European allies are going to have to admit that getting rid of Assad is a secondary priority to our absolute requirement to contain and ultimately eliminate the threat from ISIS. They also must admit that none of the groups that the CIA and our ME allies have trained and supported represent a viable alternative to the Assad regime.

The sooner we do, the sooner Syria will cease to be the jihadi chessboard du jour, on which ISIS and a civil war in Syria have left hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead.

We need to turn a corner. Our current thinking has failed.


Did the AP Promote an Untruth About Iran?

Last Wednesday, PBS NewsHour reported about the Iran nuclear deal, and how it stood with Congress: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Associated Press reports today that under an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate one location it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms. This comes about halfway through the 60-day period that Congress has to scrutinize the Iran nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other countries…

Sadly, it turned out that this allegation in the AP story was untrue. George Jahn wrote the story, in which he cites a “draft” of an agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran on inspection of Iran’s Parchin site, rumored to be the location of their nuclear weapons program. Further complicating matters, Jahn’s story went through several edits soon after its release.

Fortunately, a report by Max Fisher at Vox walks you through the evolution of Jahn’s story. Fisher relies heavily on Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk, who was quick to note the level of duplicity coming from Jahn:

The oldest Washington game is being played in Vienna…And that is leaking what appears to be a prejudicial and one-sided account of a confidential document to a friendly reporter, and using that to advance a particular policy agenda.

What Fisher missed, though, is that George Jahn is the poster child for the type of behavior that Lewis describes. Emptywheel reports that Jahn has been playing precisely this game at AP for years, mostly surrounding Iran and its nuclear program.

In reading about how events evolved after Jahn put up his first version of the story, it pays to look at these events in the light of the usual tennis match of lopsided accusations and the propaganda that develops around it. Iran deal opponents jumped on the story so quickly that it seemed that they had a heads-up regarding when it would go live. Republicans in Congress were able to get their comments on the “secret side deal benefiting Iran” into some of the early revisions of Jahn’s article.

And that may have been the precise reason that Jahn was given the copy of the draft agreement, because his viewpoint was seen as the last, best chance to disrupt the deal in Congress.

One more point needs noting in this context. Deal opponents, as mentioned above, were quick to spin the agreement between the IAEA and Iran as being kept secret because it is such a sweet deal for Iran. That paints the picture that the IAEA is on Iran’s side.

As Vox notes, confidentiality in agreements of this type are the norm.

Juan Cole reports on an email from Gary Sick, an expert on Iran and security, who pointed out that the Accord actually provides for the inspectors of the IAEA always to be present at such inspections. The reason for the presence of Iranian experts is that there is a long history of outside nuclear inspectors being sent in by the Great Powers for espionage. As an example, the 1990s UN inspections of Iraq were infiltrated by US intelligence. So, the Iranian inspectors are there to keep an eye on the UN inspectors, not to cover up Iranian activities (to which the IAEA will have full access).

AP ultimately removed most of its allegations from the story.

Once again this is proof that there is absolutely no downside for a “journalist” to report negative news about Iran (or in the case of the PBS News hour, quickly pass it along). In fact, there is a strong possibility that a serial fabricator like George Jahn will be able to continue to have his work published, even after being proven inaccurate more than once.

One of the problems citizens face in evaluating complex geopolitical issues is that they are often unexplainable in sound bites. This is true for global warming, or for lung cancer from cigarette smoking. It is also true for the Iran deal, which leaves us too easily confused by parties with an agenda. And although many of our journalists are admirable, some people advertised as journalists just aren’t very good – there are always a few Judith Millers (who sold us the Iraq War) with an agenda.

From the reporting leading up to the Iraq War, reporting on Israel in Gaza and now Iran, the US media has a lot to answer for. This was not just careless reporting, since the AP deliberately left out contradictory language from the document they quoted. We need to demand more accurate and unbiased reporting.

This was far from a proud moment for journalism.


The Baddest Bad-ass GOP Hawk

This is Wrongo’s last column on Iran for a bit. There are several million words written every day about the nuclear deal, and events may yet overtake us all on the subject. But, it is difficult to let it disappear in the rear-view mirror without looking at the Republican presidential candidates’ trying to say that they will tear up the deal on the day they take office.

Consider Scott Walker, who, according to the Weekly Standard, wants to make it clear that he is the baddest Republican hawk. Walker spoke to reporters after an appearance at the Family Leadership Summit, saying that the next president must be prepared to take aggressive action against Iran, possibly including military strikes, on the day he or she is inaugurated. Walker said he would not be comfortable with a commander-in-chief who is unwilling to act aggressively on day one of a new presidency.

Makes you want to know what Walker thinks should happen on day two, or does his planning just stop on day one?

Jeb Bush tried to be the responsible baddest hawk. The Weekly Standard reported that Bush said in response to Walker’s statement:

One thing that I won’t do is just say, as a candidate, ‘I’m going to tear up the agreement on the first day.’ That’s great, that sounds great but maybe you ought to check in with your allies first, maybe you ought to appoint a secretary of state, maybe secretary of defense, you might want to have your team in place, before you take an act like that.

These positions aren’t really different, and both are reckless. Vowing to undo the agreement puts pressure on all GOP candidates to articulate an alternative. And why should voters trust the Republican nominee with the presidency when he is eager to boast about his readiness to start a war against a country that just negotiated a nuclear weapons agreement with the US and its allies?

The US would not be defending itself or anyone else, (that means you, Israel) by launching an attack on Iran, but it would be committing a breach of the UN Charter. In the process, it would also be exposing our forces and some of Iran’s neighbors to retaliation. And, it would risk dragging the rest of the region into a larger war.

Politically, Democrats will make the case that the only alternative to the Iran deal would be war, so supporting the agreement should end up being the majority position in the US. Already, a Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that 56% of Americans support the deal, though about 60% are skeptical that it will work, suggesting that, Americans want to give it a try, even if success is far from assured.

Even the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison disproved:

If Iran were building a nuclear weapon, the US would be in the wrong to launch a “preventive” attack on them. To do so after Iran starts scaling back and limiting its nuclear program would be an even greater crime. Walker’s thinking about “very possibly” attacking Iran immediately after taking office would be indefensible warmongering even if there were no deal with Iran.

George W. Bush’s preventive war against Iraq was the stupidest blunder in the history of US foreign policy. That only 12 years later, so many Republican presidential candidates are considering the possibility of repeating that blunder in Iran is appalling.

While no one thought it was possible, Scott Walker is making George W. Bush look thoughtful. Walker is trying to out-hawk the rest of the Republican field, but instead, is coming across as a kook. Next, in an attempt to outdo Walker, some candidate will pledge he’ll launch a nuclear strike on Iran on Election Day.

Most of the Republican candidates basically are in favor of a war with Iran, and there is little doubt that the Republicans will beat that war drum all the way to November, 2016.

And if Walker is a real Republican, he’ll get America’s corporations to build a private nuclear strike capability; and he would pledge to use it after the New Hampshire primary.

His right-wing talking point would be that we can’t have the government picking winners and losers when it comes to manufacturing a nuclear crisis or nuclear weapons.


Hawks Ignore a Key Point in Iran Deal

One of the big objections by Israel and the GOP hawks to the Iran deal is that release of sanctions enables Iran to purchase advanced weapons that the sanctions have prevented for 30 years. And with the release of Iran’s $100 billion in blocked funds, it will have big bucks to spend on them. Robert Farley reports that both Russia and China have been looking forward to this moment. Some say they pushed hard for the nuclear deal, since they had much to gain in the form of weapons sales.

The fact that Russia and China didn’t break the sanctions regime a long time ago should be considered almost a miracle, but Farley thinks that despite their interest in tweaking the US, neither favors a nuclear Iran. In the past, Iran acquired weapons from both Russia and China, as well as from the US. We can expect them to look to Russia and China, since Iran is a tempting buyer in the emerging arms export competition between Moscow and Beijing.

But, Matthew Weybrecht at the Lawfare blog thinks that most arms sales to Iran could still be a few years in the future. He reports that, according to the Implementation Plan (Annex V), sanctions relief will begin upon IAEA-verified implementation of (specified) nuclear-related measures. It is not entirely clear when “IAEA-verified implementation” will begin, but Weybrecht thinks it will probably be sometime in early 2016.

Why? Because a copy of the proposed UN Security Council Resolution (UNSC) has been leaked to the press. The Resolution terminates the previous Iran sanctions, but also immediately imposes a new regime that retains certain arms restrictions, including continuing the arms and ballistic missile embargoes for five and eight years, respectively.

These new (really continuing) restrictions came in a separate “statement” (which the UNSC requires all states to comply with) and actually takes the form of permitting specific purchases, but only with the advance, affirmative permission of the UNSC.

In effect, this amounts to an embargo from which the UNSC can grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and the US can use its veto to block transfers it does not like. The Obama administration gets to claim that the arms embargo will stay in effect for years after Implementation, and that it can veto any Iranian purchases it worries could destabilize the region.

It is now possible to see a little into the future: Iran gets its $100 billion back, but they will have trouble getting approval to purchase advanced weapons like cruise missiles, which would be deeply worrying to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Gulf States. And the international restrictions probably mean that neither China nor Russia will want to take the risk of exporting them to Iran.

Iran has a relatively impressive air defense network, but it will require an infusion of new technology to provide real protection from Israel or US air attack. Approval from the UN for new air defense weapons may prove impossible to get in the near term.

Farley indicates that Iran has other needs, including modern ground combat vehicles, modern small naval vessels, and a host of support equipment. Those probably would be approved by the UN.

Iran would probably be permitted to purchase low-end aircraft from either China or Russia. Planes from either country would represent an improvement over current Iranian capabilities. In the longer term, depending on how well the nuclear deal holds together, Iran could purchase aircraft on par with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

So, who won the negotiation?

The US and the rest of the P5+1 get to retain the most important military restrictions for at least a few more years.

Iran gets significant economic relief from the sanctions and gets to claim it got all the sanctions immediately eliminated.

Yet, it bears noting that if China and Russia didn’t break the arms embargo before, there is little reason to think they will do that going forward. And if they did, would they continue down that path after the UN Security Council said “no” to a specific arms deal?

But, Iran with access to modern military weapons could pose a greater threat to the region than an Iran with a few crude nuclear devices it could never use. That potential risk, along with the nuclear risk, is now postponed for a few years in the future.

This is the agreement we’ve got. Implementation will be challenging, even if all parties are acting in good faith, not just because its constraints are complicated, but because irreconcilable parties in Iran and the US, including most Republicans, favor its demise.


Monday Wake-Up Call – July 20, 2015

The Wrongologist is like many who tried to read “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon back in the day, and could not finish it. However, there is a wonderful thought in the book: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

That thought describes the campaign by those who are against the Iran deal. Get people thinking about anything but the deal, and there is a good chance it will not be approved in Congress.

But this isn’t only a US-Iran deal. Our Congress can’t derail the deal, it can only nullify US participation in it. If that happens, we will be the ones left out. For more than a decade, Iran has been near the top of our Middle East agenda. Along the way, the risks inherent in Iran’s nuclear program have been inflated, in part because it helps drive the prevailing Western view of Iran as a rogue state; in part, because it was crucial to the sanctions regime that the Western countries constructed, and ideally, it might have helped to topple the regime.

This view prevails today in Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as among Washington’s neo-cons, all of whom see Iran as the major source of disorder in the region.

Before getting bogged down in the debate about the deal, stop and appreciate the single most important accomplishment here. We live in a world where nuclear weapons are easy to develop or to purchase, which is a huge potential problem. We must have a non-proliferation program that the international community agrees on and will make every effort to enforce.

What’s key in the Iran deal is that the world united to say that it’s very important that we don’t sit back and do nothing while new countries get nuclear weapons. In this sense, the accomplishment isn’t really specific to Iran. The most significant thing is that we can agree that non-proliferation is the goal, and come together to prevent the spread of nuclear weaponry. If Turkey or Saudi Arabia decide tomorrow that they want a nuclear weapons program, there will be a credible system in place to deter them.

And if blocking Iran from making a nuclear bomb was the real goal, this deal offered the best choice. Despite what Netanyahu and American chicken hawks believe, we cannot eliminate their nuclear program by bombing Iran. The West cannot invade Iran and succeed with that goal. either. If you take Netanyahu and the neo-cons at their word, sanctions won’t work.

So, it is not surprising that the deal’s opponents offer NOTHING as an alternative.

Time will tell if the deal delivers on what it’s supposed to do. Iran has been an implacable foe of the US (and vice-versa) for 36 years, and that isn’t going to change overnight. But there is the real potential for a thaw in the hostile relations between our two countries, and this makes Israel and our (Sunni) Arab friends and enemies very uncomfortable. This deal also gives us a chance to take a look at the mess in the ME within a new paradigm. The old paradigm has not worked. It created a hole so deep that the region is at risk of never being able to crawl out of it.

While our traditional allies are understandably anxious, they’ve come by their anxiety honestly. And, if we take Einstein’s definition of insanity being the belief that doing the same thing over and over again will give you a different result, then our allies and their friends in Congress are insane.

The most prominent arguments against the deal aren’t really arguments at all. The people making them don’t like the deal because they don’t like Iran, and because the deal has some upside for Iran. That is, of course, the nature of deal-making. The chicken hawks don’t want to come out and say they oppose diplomacy in all forms and simply want a war with Iran, so we get their reframing and bluster instead.

Peacemaking has risks. War also brings risk.

The one lesson Americans never ever seem to learn is probability assessment. Our politicians always lock into one factor they are sure will predict the future with certainty.

Well, it’s time for them to grow up. If the Iran deal is a curtain, it is a deal that allows us a good amount of time to figure out what’s behind the curtain.

Behind every curtain is another curtain, the future, and nobody knows what’s back there. So, wake up Congress, debate the deal, but approve it.

Here to help wake them up is #3 in our songs of summer series, here is “Summertime” by Janis Joplin from 1969:

If your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good lookin’, you better not cry.

If you read the Wrongologist in email, you can see the video here.


Sunday Cartoon Blogging – July 19, 2015

We live in an amazing time. Donald Trump is again running for President, and the Huffington Post has decided it will not cover his run, because they consider him to be a joke.

Yet, the Republican base is happy with Mr. Trump. WaPo reports that 57% of Republicans now have a favorable view of Trump, compared to 40% who have an unfavorable view. That is a complete reversal from a late-May Post-ABC poll, in which 65% of Republicans saw Trump unfavorably. The Donald has pushed some candidates polling numbers down to the point where it could affect their ability to raise money.

Since Trump is currently polling at the top of the big group of Republican presidential candidates, the media shouldn’t assume his candidacy is a joke. They should be taking him seriously. Trump’s approval numbers with Republicans is currently the biggest story in the political campaign, and the reasons why he’s so popular deserves to be front and center.

He is the Cliff’s Notes version of today’s Republican Party.

What he is saying resonates with many in their base, which has been diligently cultivated and grown for the last 40 years. Now, their crop is coming in. Consider that Sen. Ted Cruz is only in his third year of his first term in office and Sen. Rand Paul is only in his fifth year. Except for Scott Walker, not one of them has a political record they can run on. The rest are bottom of the barrel careerist pols.

Once, we thought that no one could be lower in that barrel than Nixon. Then we had Reagan. And then, GWB. Hard to believe that the next Republican presidential candidate could be lower in the barrel than GWB, but if there is someone, the GOP will find him/her, and about 45% of the electorate will vote for him/her.

So, don’t focus simply on the media’s carping about Trump’s comments on Mexicans, because 55+% of American Republicans agree with him.

Trump’s bombast actually helps the others:

COW Trump Favor

Pluto is clearer to us than the 2016 Super PACs:

COW Pluto Transparency

Obama now has to deal with our domestic Ayatollahs about Iran:

COW Nuclear GOP


Iran deal will never be good enough for some on the Right:

COW Bad Deal


Harper Lee’s book has startling revelation:

COW Harper Lee Cosby


The Greek deal is mythic:

COW Greek Deal



The Story Behind Iran’s Nuclear Story

Reuters reported last night that Iran and major powers extended the deadline to negotiate an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program to at least Friday. The comprehensive deal under discussion is aimed at curbing, and reversing in some cases, Iran’s nuclear work for the last decade or more, in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that have slashed Iran’s oil exports and crippled its economy.

It is unclear whether an agreement will be reached, but it is sure that few in Congress will be happy with the outcome, regardless if there is an agreement or not.

It may be useful to remember that Iran’s Nuclear Program was a child of Washington in the first place. It is possible to date the start of Iran’s nuclear program to December 8, 1953, the date that President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered what was later called his Atoms for Peace speech to the UN.

Eisenhower laid out a program to use atomic energy “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” Under the program, the US would provide research reactors, fuel, and scientific training to developing countries eager to harness the power of the atom.

Among the first countries to take the United States up on its offer was Iran.

In 1957, Tehran and the US signed a nuclear cooperation agreement, called the Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms. Two years later, in 1959, the Shah of Iran created a Nuclear Research Center at the University of Tehran, and in 1967, the US delivered a five-megawatt nuclear research reactor and the enriched uranium needed to fuel it. In addition, the Atoms for Peace program offered Iran a chance to study in the US, since they had no homegrown nuclear experts. This lack of nuclear engineers meant that Iran could not use the US-delivered Tehran research reactor for nearly a decade.

Needing nuclear experts, Iran turned to MIT in 1975 to create a special program to provide Iranian experts with scientific and technological training on nuclear energy. This program gave Iran its first group of professional nuclear engineers. The first nuclear reactor that we provided would later be used by Tehran to carry out some of its more controversial work, including some of the country’s earliest experiments with uranium enrichment.

Iran later admitted to using that same reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance that could be used to start a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.

Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in July 1968, on the first day it was opened for signature. Tehran ratified the treaty in 1970, putting it among the first states to do so and on paper, giving it the right to enrich uranium.

It is useful to remember that Israel, the most vocal critic of a nuclear deal with Iran, remains one of just four nuclear capable states (India, Pakistan and North Korea) that have not signed the NPT.

But despite early cooperation, signs of distrust between Washington and Tehran emerged early. Like today, Washington was concerned with Iranian plans to reprocess used (“spent”) nuclear fuel. The separated plutonium from this process can be used to fuel reactors, but also can be used to make nuclear weapons. To make sure nuclear materials were not diverted to making weapons, Mr. Eisenhower proposed establishing a watchdog within the UN. That watchdog would later become the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that we rely on today for nuclear inspections.

Juan Cole reports that, according to declassified national security documents, from 1975 and 1976, Washington opposed Iranian plans to build a nuclear reprocessing facility, and the issue became a major sticking point in negotiations to sell US nuclear power reactors to Iran:

The US used to have a policy of promoting reprocessing because it was a way of recycling useful atoms…But this policy changed right at the end of the Gerald Ford administration and then reinforced by Jimmy Carter…to no longer support, and, in fact, to oppose reprocessing.

Washington’s nuclear cooperation with Iran came to an abrupt halt in 1979, swept away by the Iranian Revolution that ended the rule of the Shah. With the capture of our embassy in Tehran and the holding of American hostages for 444 days, all formal ties between Washington and Tehran were cut off until the start of the current nuclear negotiations.

Atoms for Peace provided Iran with a foundation for its nuclear program. It offered both key technologies along with education in nuclear engineering and physics. The program clearly helped Iran move up the nuclear learning curve.

Now, the question is, can Secretary of State Kerry put the toothpaste back in the tube?