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A Troubling "World Island" Grand Tour: A World on Fire

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Even though President Obama did an about-face and militarily reintervened in Iraq, one still gets a sense that he does not apprehend the gravity of security events in the world. As the world’s security erodes at an alarmingly fast rate, now is a good time to step back from the liberal philosophies of international relations that capture the American worldview and the Obama administration and look anew at the world through conservative-realist lenses.

Geopolitics has fallen out of fashion in the study of international relations and foreign policy in the United States, but it is an intellectual foundation for realism. Few observers today notice the absence of geopolitical discourse save a few. A return to geopolitical analysis would help make sense of the spreading and sprawling international anarchy from which the world suffers.

One shining reference point in geopolitics is the work of British geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder, who died in 1947. When most people look at a world map, they see oceans populated by continents. But Mackinder looked at the world differently and saw Africa, Europe and Asia as a single landmass stretching from Europe through Russia, into the Middle East and over to South Asia and Asia. He called that landmass the “World Island.” Mackinder reasoned that any power that could control East Europe would command the heartland of the World Island, and, in turn, command the entire world. As distinguished military historian Lawrence Freedman reflected, “What Mackinder offered was a way of rooting the higher-level strategic discourse in the interaction between states and the enduring features of their environment.”

The World Island today is ablaze with fires of conflict. And these fires mingle and combine in today’s globalized world to an extent unprecedented in human history. Events at the western coast of the World Island impact events in the central and eastern coasts, and vice versa. The cascading effects of conflict travel across the World Island at the speed of Internet and into the minds of rivals, friends and foes.

The World Island’s coast in North Africa is on fire with political instability. Libya is torn by war between tribal militias and Egypt has resorted to an authoritarian dictatorship masquerading as a democratically elected government. Militant Islam is fueling violence beneath the Sahara, causing massive refugee flows up into northern Africa and into Europe. These refugees add to others fleeing violence and economic turmoil from the Middle East and South Asia. These increasing immigration flows are placing acute demographic pressures on European states. Refugees in the world today number some 50 million people, the greatest number of refugees since World War II.

Close to the heartland of the World Island, Russia has started a fire and Europeans are paralyzed with shock and apologetics that war has returned to Europe. While European states and NATO over the past two decades triumphantly celebrated the “winning” of the Cold War, they imprudently allowed their military prowess to disintegrate. Russia, meanwhile, nurtured its bitter, wounded pride and began rebuilding its military forces. Russia used a cunning mixture of intelligence, propaganda, duplicitous diplomacy, paramilitary, special-operations forces, threats of conventional military power and coercive economic power to conquer Crimea. Moscow is using the same toolkit—with the deadly addition of medium-range surface-to-air missiles that undoubtedly downed a Malaysian passenger aircraft—to dismantle what is left of Ukraine. Russia threatens to employ the same arsenal to intimidate (or worse) the Baltic States, and states in the World Island’s heartland. European nations are intimidated by a Russia that could retaliate against them economically with restrictions of energy supplies and investment, should they move to implement more assertive economic sanctions on Moscow.

In the center of the World Island, the Middle East is ablaze with the upending of governmental authorities and the degeneration of nation-states formed out of the post–World War I rubble. While the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the redrawing of political maps in the Middle East, the rapid regeneration of militant Islam is redrawing states on the World Island today. Osama bin Laden was put into a body bag and his old Al Qaeda leadership has been eclipsed by a variety of metastasized militant Islamic movements located around the World Island from Boko Haram, to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to al-Shabaab and to the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), which essentially erased the border between Syria and Iraq.

ISIS, or the Islamic State as it now calls itself, has ushered in a new era of sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shia Muslims, each backed by regional rivals. Al Qaeda’s founding fathers sought the capture of a nation-state, the pinnacle of power in international politics, but they never managed to gain control over Egypt or Saudi Arabia. But what the old Al Qaeda leadership tried to do and failed, the Islamic State might yet accomplish in Syria, Iraq and beyond. What was once sub-rosa and proxy warfare is now open war between Islam’s sects, the central battle space is in Iraq, where one of the schism’s culminating moments, the Battle of Karbala, took place more than a millennium ago.

While the post–World War I borders go up in smoke, Iran is using negotiations to come out from under international sanctions while preserving its robust nuclear infrastructure. Tehran wants to eventually emerge as a nuclear-weapons state to aid its bid for regional domination over Arab Gulf states and for counterbalancing the power of the United States and Israel. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states will not stay idle and will look for their own nuclear weapons to balance Iran, not trusting the United States for security backing. The Arab Gulf States judge that Washington is much too eager to protect Iraq’s Shia and to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. The Arab Gulf states fear that at their expense, Washington and Tehran are pushing to reestablish the American-Iranian strategic partnership that was severed by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Farther to the east along the southern coast of the World Island, South Asia is smoldering. Afghanistan looks poised to return to higher levels of violence as the Taliban grows in strength in anticipation of the eventual withdrawal of American and international forces. Across the border, the Taliban is striking Pakistani forces with increasing intensity to shame the civilian government and military and security services that for too long nurtured the Taliban fighters now setting fires in Pakistan. The Pakistanis, meanwhile, harbor conspiratorial fears of India and compensate for their conventional military inferiority by building up already-large nuclear-weapons inventories. The toxic mix of political instability, militant Islamic terrorism and insurgency raises dangers that Pakistani nuclear weapons could someday fall into the hands of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or the Islamic State.

At the eastern coast of the World Island, China is pressing its geopolitical weight against smaller neighbors. Beijing is building up its military power and is increasingly flexing it by asserting sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, intimidating Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. At the same time, China’s troublesome ally North Korea continues to erratically threaten war as it assiduously works on its ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons programs. If China’s Pacific neighbors are jittery about Beijing’s growing military matched by increasingly belligerent nationalism, India is also taking notice and building up its military to counter China. Meanwhile, Pakistani military officers endlessly worry that India’s military modernization is aimed at them. This acute security dilemma could yet bring Pakistan and India over the brink and into nuclear war, a scenario that neither side wants, but, more alarmingly, that neither side thinks possible.

The tour of the World Island’s fires exposes the weaknesses of many liberal visions for international politics that are shared by Obama-administration officials whose minds were incubated at the Cold War’s closing. Globalization appears not to have fostered the mutual economic interdependency between states that Joseph Nye and Robert Koehane argued (in Power and Interdependency) would lessen the role of force in relations between states. Russia and China today are much more economically integrated into the global economy than they were during the Cold War. Yet, that integration has not stopped Russia from militarily occupying Ukraine’s territory. Nor has China shied away from a military buildup and “salami-slicing tactics” to broaden its sphere of influence and control in Asia at the expense of American security partners in Asia. Democracy has not triumphed and ended history in a Hegelian sense, as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama's End of History. Not all peoples of the world acknowledge Western democracy as the destiny of mankind as evident by the rise of Russian and Chinese militant nationalism and the Islamic State’s march to break nation-states and establish unity between mosque and state under Sharia Law, just as Iran has rejected Western civilization’s separation of church and state. History, to the contrary, seems to be accelerating at a breakneck pace. The world has not ignored political squabbles to exclusively pursue rational economic interests as Thomas Friedman argued in Lexus and the Olive Tree, and as painfully evidenced by another round of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Contrary to liberal hopes, the World Island is not breaking out into a Kantian democratic peace, but rather, a Hobbesian state of war in which there is a general inclination of all mankind toward a perpetual and restless desire of power that ceases only after death.

The challenge is to use American statecraft to manage and contain the World Island’s descent into a Hobbesian state of war. That daunting task is made even harder by the broad and deep perception in the world today—by friends and enemies alike—that the United States is withdrawing from its role as the World Island’s balancer of power. American statecraft played this role—sometimes by design and at other times by happenstance—under both Republican and Democratic Party presidents during the World Wars, the Cold War and post–Cold War periods.

The American duty now is to again take up the mantle of global leadership to contain the World Island’s fires. Washington will have to balance the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish parts of Iraq. America must also focus on the “bull’s eye” of the World Island where Israel and Jordan vulnerably sit. Washington must put in place a firebreak at Jordan’s borders. Should the Jordanian monarchy fall victim to the expanding Islamic State, Israel’s security would be gravely jeopardized. Washington, meanwhile, will have to resuscitate NATO’s military power and arm Ukraine and other states threatened by Russia to keep Moscow’s reach contained. Likewise, the White House will have to ensure that “redlines” in Asia are enforced—rather than abandoned, as President Obama did in Syria—with viable preparations to militarily challenge Chinese aggression and to reassure nervous Asian allies. At both the western and eastern coasts of the World Island, Germany and Japan will need to shed their pacifist post–World War II mindsets and reassert themselves as “normal powers” to work hand-in-hand with American statecraft to stop the spreading of the World Island’s fires.

Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRLRussell.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Army/CC by 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle EastAsia

Top Gun With Chinese Characteristics: Time to Clip the Wings of China’s Mavericks

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Last month’s near miss between a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace some 130 miles off the Chinese coast has been described by many pundits as evidence of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military posture. The incident, however, isn’t necessarily indicative of an officially sanctioned Chinese policy of belligerence. Instead, the recklessness of the pilot, who reportedly barrel-rolled his 26 ton jet around the larger American plane, may be more representative of the risk-seeking behavior of relatively junior yet ego-driven commanders acting largely on their own accord. Indeed, Pentagon officials recently revealed that they believe a lone Chinese officer could be responsible for ordering several recent aggressive intercepts.

The possibility that these brazen intercepts are decisions of individual commanders rather than Beijing-directed policies doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned. Botched intercepts could quickly result in inadvertent escalation and heighten tensions between Washington and Beijing, especially if there is a repeat of an incident similar to the deadly 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and an American reconnaissance plane. To prevent routine patrols from spiraling into conflict, both the United States and China must take steps to check and marginalize Chinese incarnations of Maverick, the brash naval aviator portrayed by Tom Cruise in the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun.

While Chinese military aircraft and ships have taken a far more active role in intercepting and shadowing their American counterparts in recent years, a vast majority of these interactions are professional and entirely in accordance with international law. Just last month, for instance, a Chinese intelligence gathering ship monitored an American naval exercise in the Pacific.

Customary international law allows states to monitor ships and aircraft operating in international waters and airspace so long as the vessel of interest’s safety is not jeopardized. When intercepts endanger American military assets, they generally make it into news headlines. In 2009, for example, several Chinese government and civilian vessels harassed the USNS Impeccable, an American surveillance ship, forcing it to conduct an emergency stop to avoid a crash. More recently, a PLA Navy amphibious ship blocked the path of the USS Cowpens as it attempted to observe China’s recently commissioned aircraft carrier operating in international waters; the American cruiser was forced to take evasive maneuvers. Perhaps the most notable incident, which shares many parallels with last week’s intercept, occurred in 2001 when a Chinese J-8 fighter clipped the wing of a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft. The Chinese pilot was killed and China detained 24 American crewmembers.

In each of these cases, China accused the United States of infringing on its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a 200 nautical mile stretch off a state’s coast in which the state holds rights to marine and energy resources. While most states acknowledge the right of others to collect intelligence in the EEZ, China disagrees with this notion and considers reconnaissance in the zone to be illegal (while not-so-quietly launching its own intelligence gathering operations in the EEZs of other regional actors).

Despite Beijing’s opposition to intelligence gathering in its EEZ, the Department of Defense routinely patrols the zone with both ships and aircraft. The relatively small number of cases where Chinese intercepts endangered American assets suggests they are anomalous events, potentially directed by low-level commanders, rather than formalized state policy. These commanders may be driven by a variety of factors: nationalism, careerist cravings for promotion, or simply ego-based desires to enhance personal reputations and impress colleagues. Regardless of motivation, Beijing and Washington have a shared interest in preventing the decisions of individual commanders from dictating interstate relations.

The onus to halting reckless intercepts lies in Beijing’s hands, although Washington can take steps to help. Given that inner-workings of the Chinese military are shrouded in secrecy, it is difficult for outside observers to identify what, if any, measures China has already taken to reel in its military officers. If they haven’t already done so, Beijing must establish regulations that discipline officers who participate in or order brash and dangerous behavior. The fear of punishment may lead some ambition driven officers to think twice before partaking in potentially risky behavior. Inaction on Beijing’s part may tacitly condone a continuation of dangerous intercepts.

Beijing should also incorporate lessons on risk management from events like the recent intercept and the 2001 EP-3 incident into the curriculum of its burgeoning officer training programs. Debriefings and lessons learned have long been a central element of US military leadership and technical training. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, employs a historical case study about a B-52 bomber pilot who killed three fellow aviators while performing a prohibited maneuver at an airshow to teach its officers about the dangers of poor operational risk management and ineffective leadership.

Eventually, however, China must accept international norms that allow for foreign intelligence gathering in its EEZ. Beijing will maintain the right to professionally intercept snooping ships and aircraft, but this less restrictive interpretation of EEZs may offer less motivation to officers eager to defend China’s interests. Beijing may have started quietly taking steps in this direction. Indeed, the Chinese Defense Ministry recently claimed that the deployment of a Chinese Navy spy ship to monitor an American-led naval exercise in the U.S. EEZs was “in line with international law and international practice.”

Washington can likely make it easier for Beijing to reel in its overly brash officers by not publicly broadcasting information about China’s reckless intercepts.  The Pentagon’s highly publicized criticism of the August incident highlights the ongoing presence of American military assets in China’s EEZ; this may present Beijing with a fait accompli in which it is forced to condemn America’s “close-in reconnaissance” in order to assuage a highly nationalistic population that fears American encroachment.

Instead of a public response, the Pentagon should concentrate its efforts on quiet diplomacy and engagement that avoid drawing in emotional citizens in both countries. Diplomatic demarches, like the ones that reportedly followed earlier intercepts, are not sufficient; both nations must work collectively to develop processes to ensure professional interactions between air and maritime assets. The code of conduct talks held last week are an ideal first step.

Halting reckless intercepts and preventing inadvertent escalation is critical for regional stability, but it won’t happen overnight. Changing the mindset of military officers takes time and only a concerted effort by Beijing can clip the wings of China’s Mavericks.

Erik Lin-Greenberg is a PhD student in political science at Columbia University. He previously served as an active duty Air Force officer.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Strategic Ambiguity: Speaking Putin’s Language

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Adding a personal touch to the backdrop of this week’s NATO Summit in Wales, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.” As the Alliance struggles with finding an effective response to Russia’s aggression on its eastern border, NATO should take a page from the Kremlin’s own playbook. Instead of warning that there is no military solution to Europe's biggest crisis in decades, suggest to Putin that there might indeed be an armed response and mobilize military power as a demonstration of will. As geopolitical competition intensifies in both Eurasia and the Pacific, it is time to pull the art of strategic ambiguity off the Cold War shelf.

The opportunity to save Ukraine might have indeed passed, but it was once within reach. What if the West responded to Russia’s initial para-military invasion into Crimea with statements and actions suggesting a possible military response? Instead, Washington and Europe stated that that there was no military response to Russian aggression in Crimea. This position only served to embolden Moscow to take increasingly violent and provocative actions as each escalation was met with the same Western response.

Statements alone from Washington and European capitals suggesting the possible use of force are unlikely to have altered Putin’s course. But combined with a rapid deployment of the NATO Response Force to a base in Eastern Europe and immediate repositioning of a credible NATO maritime capability to the Black Sea, the West may have changed Moscow’s calculus. Even if unable to prevent the annexation of Crimea, the West may have deterred Russia’s continued military efforts in eastern Ukraine.

Strategic ambiguity is the practice of being intentionally vague on certain aspects of foreign policy or intended actions and carries a deterrence aspect involving will and capacity. Great or aspiring powers are unlikely to be deterred by statements alone, nor by the threat of actions requiring nonexistent capabilities. For strategic ambiguity to succeed, it must be accompanied by a credible demonstration of the possible use of force.

Strategic ambiguity is not a red line but rather an option that permits flexibility in a government’s response, potentially delays an opponent’s action, and reduces the risk of damaging credibility by not adhering to a specific course of action. Neither can it be in lieu of, or isolated from, clear political objectives. Instead, the threat of a military response may provide time to develop and pursue diplomatic options that reduce the likeliness of the use of military force. Credible strategic ambiguity creates uncertainty in the adversary by increasing the potential risk involved in a particular course of action. 

With the myriad number of crises facing governments, any additional time to build a coalition, generate consensus, gather more intelligence, or develop a comprehensive strategy is essential.  Consider the time and effort necessary to form the coalition to enact economic sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Crimea. Nearly a month passed between Moscow’s invasion and Western sanctions, which came only after Crimea’s annexation and Russian para-military force deployments into eastern Ukraine.

Strategic ambiguity is not without risk. A fundamental aspect of creating uncertainty is messaging, which is often the most difficult aspect of foreign policy in that it requires navigating the labyrinth of pitfalls with allies, domestic constituencies, adversaries, and selecting the appropriate diplomatic verbiage to convey a specific policy. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, deliberations between the United States and its allies and partners, including any options not agreed upon, need not immediately become part of public record. Instead, statements presenting a unified position which leaves all options available, combined with credible initial actions, would give the adversary reason for pause and possibly permit the opportunity for a diplomatic solution.

Russia has demonstrated that the era of geopolitical competition has returned, and the West’s military strategy must incorporate an art of coercion, intimidation, uncertainty and deterrence.  The NATO rapid-response force is a good start, but it must be part of a comprehensive effort as Ukraine is far from Putin’s last foray into Eastern Europe.

Chris Musselman is a US Navy Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. These views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsSecurity

Iran's Tango with Latin America

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Machiavelli warned centuries ago in his seminal work The Prince: When threats are identified well in advance, they can be quickly addressed—but “when, for lack of diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognize them, remedies are too late.”

There is perhaps no better example of the dramatic consequences of such a failure than the current situation with the Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL). Symptoms were overlooked or dismissed. No regimen was implemented to prevent the disease from spreading. ISIL metastasized into a global threat.

Boko Haram in Nigeria, which just declared its own Islamic caliphate and is wreaking havoc beyond Borno and Yobe, also illustrates Machiavelli’s point. By late 2012, it had carried out numerous deadly attacks, prompting Congress to highlight the escalating danger Boko Haram posed and the need to designate it as a foreign terrorist organization. It took more than a year and many more victims for such a determination to take place.

Regrettably, the United States appears intent on repeating the same mistakes with Iran.

July 20 came and went without an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The multiparty talks were extended for four months and additional sanctions relief provided to the Iranian regime. This marks yet another victory for Tehran. Once again, Iranian negotiators fooled the rest of the world into believing that it is a responsible stakeholder, rather than a gross human-rights violator and state sponsor of terrorists determined to be nuclear-weapons capable.

The regime’s immediate priority is influencing or dictating developments in its neighborhood—Iraq, Gaza strip, Syria, Lebanon and certain Gulf states. However, it is expanding alliances elsewhere to encircle and threaten perceived enemies, while mitigating actual or potential costs resulting from its policies. One of the regions that Iranian officials and agents consider fertile ground and that the regime has been tilling for some time is the Western Hemisphere.

Iran-Western Hemisphere

Iran’s first vice president Eshaq Jahangiri recently met with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. As many other Iranian leaders have done before in visits to the Americas, Jahangiri described Iranian-Venezuelan relations as “fundamental” and emphasized Tehran’s continued willingness to expand ties at all levels. Venezuela’s Ambassador to Tehran told Fars News last month that Venezuela is prepared to become a hub for Iranian exports to other Latin American nations. While the specifics may differ, this is not surprising. The Iranian regime has sought to “export” its radical ideology, using all means necessary, since the onset of its Islamist revolution.

Iranian-backed entities, such as The House of Latin America in Iran, continue to sprout throughout the region with the seemingly benign aim of “boosting relations between the Iranian people and those of Latin America.” However, their true objective appears to be promoting violence and repression and damaging U.S. interests.

The House of Latin America has hosted Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, a visit to Iran by the son and daughter of one of the butchers of Latin America, Che Guevara, and has translated books into Farsi by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. In fact, The House of Latin America in Iran recently announced it will be publishing a compendium of articles and other papers by the former Cuban dictator and, in conjunction with the “campaign of solidarity between Iran and Cuba,” a book on Cuba and international affairs.

The bilateral relations between these pariah states entered a new phase after a May 2001 visit by Fidel Castro to Iran. During a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Castro declared: “Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.” For his part, Khamenei affirmed: “The United States is weak and extremely vulnerable today…US grandeur can be broken.”

International experts and the U.S. Congress have documented a decades-long systematic effort to establish clandestine intelligence stations and operatives, using official Iranian diplomatic facilities, as well as educational, religious and cultural institutions as cover for their terrorist network. And U.S. intelligence and military officials have in recent years, expressed concerns about a growing presence in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela, of members of Iran’s elite Qods Force, which spearheads Tehran’s global terrorist efforts and is involved in the regime’s missile and nuclear activities.

Networks have been uncovered operating in Latin America that benefit Iran and its partners in terrorism including narcotraffickers, smugglers of consumer goods, counterfeiters, money launderers using front businesses, exchange houses and U.S. financial institutions. In the United States, sanctions have been imposed on individuals or entities in the region believed to be violating Iran-related sanctions. Criminal action has also been undertaken when activities cross into the U.S. homeland. And investigations continue to this day. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Latin America, as a national-security priority, barely registers with the Executive Branch when decisions are being made on strategy, assets, resources and funding to counter vital threats, such as terrorism and proliferation. The Quadrennial Defense Review for 2014, for example, placed greater emphasis on global climate change than on security developments in the Hemisphere.

Latin America and the Caribbean tend to be looked at through the prism of drugs, criminal violence or illegal immigration. Anything that challenges this myopic view, such as Iran expanding its operational reach into the region, is either ignored or the threat minimized to justify the way things have always been done. On numerous instances, U.S. agencies responsible for an avalanche of data about the transnational, cross-regional nexus between narcotrafficking, arms networks and terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, have been marginalized and the Western Hemisphere links to these particular security risks erroneously set aside or treated solely as “law-enforcement matters.”

The Western Hemisphere, at minimum, must be integrated into broader national-security discussions.

The original 9/11 Commission report warned against compartmentalizing and ignoring potential dangers or signs of escalation. It highlighted as a key lesson from the 9/11 attacks the need to deny sanctuaries to terrorist groups. This was reaffirmed in the ten-year review released by leading members of the Commission. “Geographic sanctuaries,” the Commissioners recently stated, “enable terrorist groups to gather, indoctrinate and train recruits, and they offer breathing space in which to develop complex plots.” While referring primarily to the broader Middle East, they noted the evolution of terrorism in other areas and the need to prepare for both current and emerging threats. It is a warning that applies globally as terrorism knows no boundaries.

Refocusing on a national-security-based approach to terrorism and Iranian activities in Latin America

The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States noted a complex international terrorist operation aimed at launching a significant or “catastrophic” attack cannot do so with just anyone, at any time or from just anywhere. A number of components would be required: “time, space” for adequate planning; “a command structure…possessing the…contacts to assemble needed people, money, and materials”; “opportunity and space to recruit, train, and select operatives with the needed skills and dedication”; “a logistics network able to securely manage the travel of operatives, move money, and transport resources (like explosives) where they need to go”; “reliable communications between coordinators and operatives;” and “opportunity to test the workability of the plan.”

When it comes to Iran in the Americas, we have several starting points or events that pre-date the 09/11 terrorist attacks and help build the case that Iran and its surrogates have, or are building, the capability cited in the 9/11 report to inflict harm on the United States, our interests and allies. Seven years before 9/11, the July 18, 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, Argentina clearly demonstrated that the region provided Hezbollah with all it needed to carry out a complex operation in the United States’ backyard.

Was AMIA an isolated incident or part of a broader strategy? Could the United States, Israel or regional allies have anticipated the AMIA attack? Were tripwires or warning signs missed?

AMIA attack as test for future operations targeting the United States and its interests

On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck filled with explosives into the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. The attack was a prelude to more attacks just two years later. This explosion destroyed the embassy, a Catholic church and a nearby school building. Twenty-nine people were killed and over 200 wounded. A group identifying itself as Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility for the attack, but many experts believe this group had backing from and ties to Iran and Hezbollah.

The destruction caused by the 1992 attack on Israel’s diplomatic mission would pale in comparison to the death toll and injuries that would come two years later with the AMIA bombing. Many years of meticulous investigations by Argentine prosecutors have definitively concluded that the AMIA attack was “decided and organized by the highest leaders” of the Iranian government who, in turn, “entrusted its execution to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.” It was approved in advance by: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's then foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's then minister of security and intelligence Ali Fallahijan and Iran’s then so-called president, described as a “moderate” by the international media and some Western leaders, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

On November 9, 2006, Argentine Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, pursuant to the request from AMIA special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, issued arrest warrants for Rafsanjani, Fallahijan and Velayati, as well as:

·  Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC);

·  Ahmad Vahidi, a former commander of the elite Al-Quds Force of the IRGC;

·  Hadi Soleimanpour, a former Iranian ambassador to Argentina;

·  Mohsen Rabbani, a former cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires;

·  Ahmad Reza Asghari, a former official at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires; and

·  Imad Moughnieh, a leading operations chief of Hezbollah.

Soon thereafter, INTERPOL issued Red Notices for Hezbollah operative Moughnieh and for Iranian officials Fallahijan, Rezaei, Vahidi, Rabbani and Asgari. This allows for the global circulation of warrants for the arrest and extradition of these individuals. To date, none have been detained and arrested. There has been no accountability. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime has rewarded many of the AMIA terrorists with more senior and influential posts throughout the years.

A great deal more must be done to bring these terrorists to justice, including by the United States and its allies. For example, only Vahidi is listed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s watch list or SDN list. This oversight must be immediately corrected and terrorism-related sanctions imposed on all AMIA perpetrators. International collaboration is also needed to bring these individuals to justice, including, but not limited to, arrest and prosecution. This would send a strong message to Iran, Hezbollah, other global terrorists and their state sponsors, that they will be made to suffer the consequences of their actions.

Target: The United States

Based on his experience investigating Iran’s activities leading up to and following the AMIA attack, Alberto Nisman has stressed that the Iranian regime uses “terrorism as a mechanism of its foreign policy” in support of “its final aim…to export its radicalized vision of Islam and to eliminate the enemies of the regime.”

Iran’s mullahs deemed the United States an enemy long before the 1990s attacks in Argentina. The regime made its intentions abundantly clear at the onset of the Iranian Revolution. In November 1979, it seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage for over a year, subjecting them to psychological and physical torture. This initiated decades of terrorist attacks, directly or through its proxies, that claimed the lives of Americans and other victims. This was more than just a symbolic event. Many, including a former CIA official and former hostage, believe the global war on terrorism began then. The West just did not begin to notice until much later. The same is true of AMIA and the Israeli Embassy attacks.

To Iran, the United States is the “Great Satan” and must be destroyed. The regime will attack our friends, allies, and interests until it can strike in the U.S.

The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States with a bomb at a busy Washington, D.C. restaurant may be an indication of what is to come. The federal complaint filed by U.S. prosecutors in this matter, as well as statements by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, referred to Iran’s role in conceiving, sponsoring and directing the plot.

One of the men charged, Gholam Shakuri, has a direct link to the Iranian regime. Shakuri was described in Department of Justice documents on the case as an Iran-based member of the “Qods Force, which is a special operations unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).” The investigation into this foiled plot revealed that the co-conspirator, Manssor Arbabsiar, met on a number of occasions in Mexico with a DEA confidential source posing as part of a drug cartel. According to the indictment, the Iranian-orchestrated plan was to hire violent narcotraffickers to carry out the assassination using deadly explosives, “without care or concern for the mass casualties that would result.”

This case was one of many developments prompting the passage and enactment into law of the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act. The Act declares U.S. policy as countering Iran’s growing presence and activities in the Hemisphere. It called for the development of a comprehensive strategy to address this problem and for Congress to be kept regularly informed of developments pertaining both to the threat and U.S. approach.

Report to Congress

The Department of State submitted to Congress in July 2013 the report and strategy required by this Act, claiming that Iranian influence in the Hemisphere was waning and suggesting that there was no need to alter the U.S. approach. Members of Congress, U.S. and international experts disputed the conclusions in the report based on mounting evidence to the contrary, including increased bilateral agreements and diplomatic missions; greater presence of agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the IRGC and Qods Force.

An in-depth 2012 study on the MOIS, for example, conducted by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division under an Interagency Agreement with the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Program, described some of the methods and tactics the Iranian spy service employs to expand its operational reach and capacity. Agents “may operate undercover as diplomats in Iranian embassies or in other occupations in companies such as Iran Air, branches of Iranian banks, or even in private businesses. It is thought that many Iranians who are employed in foreign educational organizations such as universities also may work for MOIS.” The joint Congressional-Pentagon report described how Iran’s intelligence and security agency operates “in all areas where Iran has interests, including…in the Americas” with the United States included in the regional reference.

Yet, the report submitted a few months later by the Department of State, pursuant to the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, did not take this into account or integrate into the assessment incidents directly related to the U.S. homeland or that involved Iran or Hezbollah—such as the plot to assassinate a foreign ambassador on U.S. soil and which had a Mexican connection.

Based on Capitol Hill testimony provided by U.S Government officials, as well as private experts from diverse backgrounds, it is easy to deduce who takes the matter seriously and who does not. However, the goal is not to place blame. The focus must be on putting in place an integrated strategy to address Iran-related and other hemispheric security challenges.

A holistic approach would have considered the role of illegal drug networks in facilitating terrorist financing activities in and through the region. Former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun testified before Congress that terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah “understand that the Mexican drug trafficking cartels now dominate” this illicit infrastructure in the United States. These terrorist groups, “most assuredly recognize the strategic value of exploiting that activity…for moving their vision forward in this part of the world.”

Drug trafficking routes are also being used by Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies to smuggle “contraband and people” into the U.S. In 2002, for example, Salim Boughader Mucharrafille, was arrested for smuggling hundreds of individuals into the United States, including Hezbollah and Hamas supporters. A footnote in Chapter 3 of the report by the 9/11 Commission staff confirms these ties, adding: “Boughader-Mucharrafille…relied on corrupt Mexican officials in Beirut, Mexico City and Tijuana to facilitate their travel. Specifically, Boughader obtained Mexican tourist visas from an official at the Mexican embassy in Beirut…” Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiracy to provide material support and resources to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, crossed into the United States via the border with Mexico before proceeding to Michigan to carry out his mission for the terrorist group. According to the indictment, “Kourani’s activities within the U.S. were overseen by his brother…who, at all times relevant… was the Hizballah Chief of Military Security for Southern Lebanon.”

General John Kelly, who heads the U.S. Southern Command responsible for the Caribbean, Central and South America, recently confirmed that Hezbollah is already tapping into the “crime-terror convergence”.

The 2013 State Department report to Congress, however, treated Iran and Hezbollah as distinct or isolated from each other and de-linked their activities in Latin America and the Caribbean from those in the United States.

A year later, the administration has not reviewed its findings, as it promised Congress it would do. There are no indications U.S. intelligence agencies have been tasked with delving further into Iranian activities in the Hemisphere, nor that additional resources have been provided. The lack of cross-regional coordination or integration continues in large part. These deficiencies must be immediately addressed and developments in the Americas must be given a higher priority.

Integration and Prioritization

The Western Hemisphere should be factored into calculations of how to counter Iran globally and in more ways than applying limited, cosmetic sanctions on a handful of Tehran’s enablers. Information gleaned from Iranian regime operations in the Americas and those of its surrogates could not only help protect the U.S. homeland, but could generate information useful to other countries in the region and beyond. The full range of resources should also be made available to U.S. officials tasked with preventing the Americas from becoming a sanctuary, operational center or launching pad for Iran, its surrogates and other terrorists seeking to harm the United States, our interests or allies.

Distant history, as well as recent events with IS/ISIS/ISIL, has proven Machiavelli correct. Policy makers should heed his warning and not make the same mistakes with respect to Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere. Hopefully, the soon-to-be-released report on this matter by the Government Accountability Office will help galvanize the Executive Branch and Congress into action.

Yleem D.S. Poblete, PhD is former Chief of Staff of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs. During her almost two decades of government service, she worked on the Committee’s investigative and legislative efforts concerning the AMIA attack, on post-9/11 legislation, and was responsible for several bills enacted into law pertaining to Iran.

Image: Iran president website

TopicsForeign PolicyTerrorism RegionsIranSouth AmericaUnited States

Israel's Nuclear Weapons: Widely Suspected Unmentionables

Paul Pillar

Some things, or possible things, are important enough that we would be foolish to presume or pretend that they do not exist even if we lack any official confirmation or acknowledgment that they in fact exist. One such possible thing is of high importance to security issues in the Middle East. Almost everyone outside of government who writes or speaks about these issues takes as a given that Israel has long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons. No Israeli government, however, has ever said publicly that Israel has such weapons, and neither has the U.S. government, under any administration, said so either.

Let us be very careful in how we discuss this subject. The world is full of widely accepted conventional wisdom, some of which turns out not to be true. After all, we do not know whether Israel has nuclear weapons. So let us not frame a discussion of this subject in terms of assertions of fact. Instead, we can play off the widely held consensus on the subject, discussing implications of the consensus itself and other implications if the consensus happened to be correct.

One disadvantage of this approach is that to adhere scrupulously to the agnostic qualifiers that the approach requires makes for clumsy prose that is uncomfortable to read. A way to cope with this problem is inspired by the late Alfred Kahn, the Cornell economist who served in Jimmy Carter's administration. Kahn is best known for deregulating the airline industry as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. He later was Carter's anti-inflation czar, in which post the blunt-spoken Kahn was once chastised by his political betters at the White House for warning of a possible “depression”. Don't use the word depression, he was told. Kahn complied, but rather than resort to some awkward circumlocution such as “an economic downturn that is more serious than what is customarily called a recession” he started using the term banana as a substitute for the word he was not supposed to utter. When the head of the United Fruit Company complained to him about this negative use of the term, Kahn switched to kumquat as his substitute word whenever he discussed the danger of a depression.

Using both Kahn's technique and his term, in the rest of this essay let kumquats mean “Israel's widely suspected nuclear weapons” or, in its more complete form, “Israel's widely suspected nuclear weapons—so widely and strongly suspected that just about everyone who says anything about related topics takes them as a given, even though we cannot say for certain that they exist.”

Kumquats are not just a subject of conventional wisdom. They have been carefully addressed by serious historians and political scientists and have been taken into account in countless analyses of security problems in the Middle East. They also routinely figure into global rundowns of nuclear weapons arsenals, such as from the Ploughshares Fund or the Arms Control Association, with Israel listed alongside the eight declared nuclear weapons states. The Arms Control Association's inventory estimates the number of kumquats at between 75 and 200. Most other estimates are similar; a more detailed examination of kumquats and associated Israeli military forces that appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists twelve years ago used the same range. The fullest understanding of the kumquat program can be found in the writings of the foremost historian of that program, Avner Cohen, including in his most recent book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb.

Cohen and co-author Marvin Miller argued in an article four years ago that the policy of non-acknowledgment of kumquats has outlived whatever usefulness it had for Israel, and that Israel should change that policy. According to these authors, the policy was grounded in an understanding that Golda Meir and Richard Nixon reached in 1969, by which the United States would not make a public issue out of kumquats as long as Israel did not acknowledge their existence. Cohen and Miller contend that being more transparent about this capability would enable Israel to demonstrate that it is a responsible nuclear power, to participate in arms control endeavors that are in Israel's interests, and to diminish one of the grounds for the international community to treat Israel as an outlaw pariah state. Greater transparency also would facilitate useful discussion and debate among Israelis themselves of issues related to ownership of kumquats, such as questions of safety, command and control, and identification of circumstances in which the kumquats might ever be used.

From a U.S. point of view, the policy of not saying anything publicly about kumquats has also long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had, for the reasons Cohen and Miller offer as well as for others. The very fact that there is now such a broad and strong consensus about the existence of kumquats, which was not yet the case in 1969, is one reason. Moreover, keeping any mention of kumquats out of bounds inhibits full and fruitful discussion about Israel's security, with the Israelis themselves as well as among American politicians and policy-makers. Anyone who professes to have high concern about Israel's security—which includes almost every American politician—ought to favor uninhibited and fully informed discussion of the subject.

Arms control also is at least as important to U.S. interests as to Israel's, at both regional and global levels. Regionally, proposals for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone (or in some variants, a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone) are worth discussing, however much realization of such a goal will depend on resolution of political conflicts that will determine the willingness of regional states to give up whatever weapons they currently have. Any such discussion will be a feckless charade, however, as long as neither Israel nor the United States will say anything about kumquats.

That the United States is so out of step on this subject with the rest of the world is taken by the rest of the world as one more example of double standards that the United States applies to shield Israel. Even further, it is taken as not just a double standard but living a lie. Whatever the United States says about nuclear weapons will always be taken with a grain of salt or with some measure of disdain as long as the United States says nothing about kumquats.

The issue of Iran's nuclear program, negotiations on which will be coming to a climax this fall, is highly germane to this problem. We have the spectacle of the government of Israel being by far the most energetic rabble-rouser on the subject of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, to the extent of repeatedly threatening to attack Iran militarily. Some might call this irony; others would call it chutzpah. Anyone would be entitled to say that any state that not only refuses to become a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or to subject any of its nuclear activities to any kind of international inspection or control but also already possesses kumquats or their equivalents has no standing to conduct such agitation about Iran, which is a party to the NPT, has already subjected its nuclear activities to an unprecedented degree of intrusive inspection, and is in the process of negotiating an agreement to place even further limits on its nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful.

The need for full and well-informed discussion of Israel's security will play into any debate in the United States about a completed nuclear agreement with Iran. Fully taking into account kumquats—which, as noted above, private scholars and nongovernmental organizations estimate to number in the dozens or scores—also underscores how misplaced is the preoccupation with an Iranian "breakout" or feared rush to build one or even a few bombs. Whatever the United States may or may not say on the subject, it is safe to assume that Iranian leaders believe that kumquats really do exist, and probably in the numbers that private experts estimate.

The U.S. refusal to discuss this subject has other, less direct, distorting and stifling effects on discourse in the United States about Middle Eastern security issues. When the U.S. government takes a posture such as this, it has damaging trickle-down effects, not necessarily visible to the public, on the broader discourse. Then there is the sheer silliness of the posture. With such a broad and strong consensus about kumquats and all the extensive discussion that has already taken place about them elsewhere, clearly the official U.S. posture serves no purpose in safeguarding U.S. security interests. It is only a legacy of a policy constructed to deal with a situation U.S. policy-makers faced 45 years ago.

The U.S. posture appears to outsiders inconsistent not only with the broader consensus but also with some of the United States' own public revelations. Six years ago the U.S. government released a redacted and declassified version of an intelligence estimate from 1974 about prospects for nuclear proliferation, in which the lead judgment about Israel was “We believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons.” The kumquat program has since had, of course, 40 years to progress from wherever it may have been in 1974.

Within the past couple of weeks the U.S. government has publicly released another pertinent set of previously classified material: about 100 pages of documents from internal U.S. government deliberations about the kumquat problem in 1968 and 1969, spanning the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The documents make interesting reading, although so far the the press has given almost no attention to them apart from an article in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. A strong refrain, spanning both U.S. administrations, running through these deliberations was that any Israeli development of nuclear weapons would be a major negative for U.S. interests. As one interagency assessment put it, “The disadvantages to U.S. global interests are such that a major U.S. effort to induce Israel not to produce nuclear weapons is justified.” U.S. policy-makers faced several complications in trying to achieve this objective, however, including the already-emerging problem of Israeli colonization of territory conquered in the Six Day War less than two years earlier. An interagency study group described this part of the quandary this way:

"Use of leverage on the NPT/nuclear issue may seriously detract from our capability to influence Israel on the settlement issue. On the other hand, if we decide to defer using pressure on the nuclear question so as to preserve leverage on a possible peace settlement, we must ask how long we are prepared to do this in the face of Israel's rapidly advancing program, and the knowledge that, the longer we put off making Israel feel the seriousness of our purpose, the harder it will be to arrest Israel's program."

Another complication was the fear that using the most obvious source of U.S. leverage over Israel—arms supplies, with shipment of F-4 Phantom jets being the top Israeli interest at the time—would only make the Israelis more determined than ever to push ahead with the development of nuclear weapons. The State Department in particular argued this point, and was generally in favor of relying only on persuasion rather than leverage to try to slow down the Israeli program. The Department of Defense favored taking a harder line and using the arms spigot as a tool of leverage without fear of endangering Israel's conventional advantage over its neighbors, noting that “for the present Israel's military superiority is complete.” The documents do not take us to the end of this interagency debate or to whatever Nixon and Meir said to each other in private. But in effect the outcome was a passive don't ask, don't tell approach.

Even at that early stage the kumquat program, like the colonization program, involved a lack of Israeli cooperation with the United States. Israel already was playing the verbal game of saying it would not be the first state to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The declassified documents record repeated U.S. efforts to get Israel to state that not “introducing” weapons meant not producing or stockpiling them. The Israelis refused to do so and instead suggested that as long as weapons were neither tested or announced they would not have been “introduced.”

The timing of declassification of government documents can reflect many different and mostly mundane factors, such as when someone happened to submit a Freedom of Information Act request and how fast the wheels of the bureaucratic review process turn. It would be nice to think or at least to hope, however, that this latest release of documents signals a willingness by the current U.S. administration to take a step away from shielding Israeli activities that, even more now than when the policy-makers of 1969 were deliberating, involve significant “disadvantages to U.S. global interests.”      

TopicsIsrael Nuclear Weapons RegionsMiddle East

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