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"Iranians are Terrified": Iran's ISIS Nightmare

The Buzz

Iran is stuck between a rock and a hard place on ISIS and Iraq. Taking responsibility for security in Iraq – or even significantly contributing to it – would be a huge undertaking. But a fragmented Iraq on its border is a first-order concern for Tehran - it can’t just sit by with fingers crossed. The choice is complicated by Syria. Iran can’t continue to pursue its interests in Syria at the same level if it is mired in Iraq as well. It is likely that Tehran will have to choose, and it will choose Iraq.

To Iran, Iraq and Syria are similar challenges, except today’s crisis in Iraq is harder to solve and matters more. Until recently, Assad’s Syria has been a good friend and ally to Iran and still today, a conduit to the Mediterranean and Hezbollah. But Iraq is Iran’s backyard.

Iran has a lot to lose in Iraq by inaction. Last time Iraq’s interests were fundamentally opposed to Iran’s, there was a devastating 8 year long war. ISIS threatens Iran’s vast interests in Iraq: its significant influence over politics, in fact the country as a whole, including symbolic religious shrines, and trade, which reached $12 billion in 2013. Unlike in Syria, the majority Shia population in Iraq represents a real constituency for Tehran. Iraqi fragmentation threatens to stir up desires for independence amongst other minority communities, including in Iran, and force Tehran to double up efforts and resources in order to maintain its influence in Iraq. ISIS gains have peaked American interest in Iraq once more. Iran does not want any increased role for its US adversary in neighboring Iraq again. More importantly, the crisis threatens to spill over the 910 miles of porous border, which is poorly defended by the Iraqi police. 

Iranians are terrified. Many question Iran’s involvement in Syria, but they support involvement in Iraq. Syria is an optional war: a crisis where Iran can dial its involvement up or down based on its policy preferences. It is not an existential issue. But ISIS activities in Iraq pose a real threat and a genuine sovereignty concern, something Iran hasn’t seen in a long time.

To date, Iran has invested a great deal in Syria: money, equipment and above all, political capital. While many argue this policy succeeded, it’s clear that the cost is high for Tehran. Iran’s presence in Syria has caused its regional popularity to plummet, discord amongst the elite, and rising discontent amongst ordinary Iranians questioning the use of public funds to prop up a dictator. Iran sustaining a regime it wants in power is part of its capacity to lead in the region, and so far it’s working.

But getting the result Tehran wants in Syria has been difficult. Today, it is a drain on Iranian resources and political capital. It’s no surprise that Tehran doesn’t want a repeat of Syria in Iraq. But containing the crisis in Iraq will be much harder, with many more potential pitfalls.

Today, Iran is trying to broker cooperation between all factions in Iraq against ISIS. But it is also assisting Maliki in pushing ISIS back. Tehran is providing intelligence and advisors, including commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Qassem Soleimani himself since mid-June, and military assistance. Reports confirm Iranian Su-25 aircrafts were shipped to Iraq in early July, while the first Iranian military casualty was reported a few days later. But overt Iranian involvement in Iraq further risks polarizing Iraqis and deepening sectarian tensions. In addition, Maliki’s stubbornness and overly sectarian style of governing no longer makes him a safe bet for the Iranian government, which must now find ways to ensure the survival of the current Shia-led structure.

Iraq is also high stakes because of the impact failure will have on Iran. If Iran has the kind of experience in Iraq that America had in Afghanistan and Iraq - running a shattered country - there won't be a lot left over to do much else. Involvement in both Iraq and Syria will continue to erode resources while making it impossible for Iran to pull out after such investment.

Iran cannot afford to be involved in a long, drawn out conflict on two fronts. While it is improbable that ISIS will sustain its current course, it was also improbable that they would take a quarter of Iraq. But they have and Iran is worried. Tehran can’t afford to let the crisis run its course because the risks are too high. Over the years, Iran has invested patiently in both Iraq and Syria. That's why it’s so difficult for Tehran to give either of them up. But Iran will have to choose because its resources and abilities are finite.  It will likely choose Iraq. 

Image: Office of the President, Iran. 

TopicsISIS RegionsIran

What is at Stake for China in Hong Kong: Reunification with Taiwan

The Buzz

In September 1982, Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher sat down to discuss the future of Hong Kong. It was neither the first nor the last of their many meetings negotiating the 1982 Sino-British Joint Declaration that set the date for the handover of Hong Kong to China for 1997. The British colony had started as a modest fishing village in the 1840s and was now an international center of finance home to millions of people from across the world. Deng Xiaoping wanted it back. After years of imperial decline, Britain had seen its empire evaporate and its rule of Hong Kong seemed anachronistic to many observers. But the British were not going to let it go easily. They had promised to leave behind the kind of government that Hong Kong had been accustomed to for the past century and a half, namely its capitalist system based on the rule of law. However, Deng was ready to take any steps necessary, including force, to return Hong Kong to China. In what is now a famous conversation between the leaders of China and the United Kingdom, Deng bluntly reminded Thatcher that he could “walk in and take the whole lot [of Hong Kong] this afternoon.” Mrs. Thatcher replied that while he could do just that Hong Kong would not be worth a penny to him afterwards: “There is nothing I could do to stop you, but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.”

Recent developments in Hong Kong, call to mind Mrs. Thatcher’s memorable words. The people of Hong Kong in a pseudo-referendum have showed their resolve—they want more say in how their leader is elected. How the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responds will reveal China’s true nature to more than just the people of Hong Kong. For the Taiwanese, China’s actions in Hong Kong are especially important. If Taiwan is ever to take further steps towards unification with China, China’s record in Hong Kong must be spotless and the Taiwanese people must see how they will be governed and what kind of freedom they will have. Taiwan wants to see whether China will stay true to its promise outlined in the Joint Declaration of fifty years of autonomous rule in Hong Kong. Indeed, Taiwan is sure to think long and hard about the future of any further economic integration—let alone political integration—if it is the ghosts of 1989 and Tiananmen that take center stage and this Hong Kong democracy movement is stifled. The numerous free trade agreements that Taiwan has made with China in the past few years may all be for naught if the protests in Hong Kong devolve into chaos and political repression. Taiwan will be closely watching what happens.

The West will also be watching. Hong Kong wields an enormous amount of symbolic power as a place where English Common Law, free speech, and honest government hold sway. It does not bode well that a white paper released by the Chinese government in early June makes “loving your country” a key attribute of judges in Hong Kong. To trample on Hong Kong’s judicial system would be a direct assault on Hong Kong’s traditions and its legacy of Western rule of law. China should heed the importance of such a legacy. Hong Kong’s success as a financial giant rests on the confidence it instills in people who do business there. Puppet judges will destroy that confidence.  

What’s really at stake for China in Hong Kong, though, is about more than Hong Kong’s symbolic power as a center of capitalism and international finance. Hong Kong’s status as a financial center may be of secondary concern to China because the mainland already has a vibrant economic center in Shanghai.  In some ways, Shanghai has become the more important city.  If you want to do business on the mainland then Shanghai is your destination, not Hong Kong.  This is not to say that Hong Kong is unimportant. Hong Kong is still, along with London and New York, one of the world’s preeminent world capitals of finance and the CCP want to keep it that way. What is really at stake for China in Hong Kong is reunification with Taiwan.  Will the CCP kill the golden goose?  Will the CCP fear Hong Kong’s democracy movement and feel the need to crush it with an iron fist? Or will it allow for some sort of compromise in self-governance for Hong Kong—however much the CCP leadership may dislike democracy—in order to prove to Taiwan that it has a future in greater China? Ultimately, whatever China decides to do will show to, as Mrs. Thatcher famously said, “the eyes of the world … what China is like.”

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDemocracy RegionsChina

Afghanistan Election Crisis: "Likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge."

Paul Pillar

The two contenders in the disputed Afghan presidential election do not present a clear choice for us in the West to decide whom to root for, or root against. Both candidates are experienced, credible presidential timber, and we ought to be able to work constructively with either one as president. Ashraf Ghani is the more westernized of the two. He has a PhD from Columbia University, taught at other U.S. universities, worked at the World Bank, and was finance minister in the post-Taliban government of Hamid Karzai. Abdullah Abdullah is a physician (an ophthalmologist) with establishment roots in pre-communist Afghanistan; his step-father was a senior official under King Zahir Shah. Abdullah's main association with subsequent civil warfare in Afghanistan was as an adviser to America's favorite guerrilla: the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Abdullah served as foreign minister in the same post-Taliban government in which Ghani was finance minister. Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun ancestry, embodies the ethnic heterogeneity of Afghanistan better than Ghani, who is a Pashtun.

Both candidates seem to be reasonable men. Abdullah's current talk about setting up an alternative government may not sound reasonable, but it is hardly surprising in view of the prima facie evidence that there was significant fraud in the runoff election. Abdullah had won a large plurality in the first round and subsequently received the endorsement of the third-place finisher, and yet the announced result of the runoff was that Ghani had won by more than a million votes. Ghani is showing reasonableness by agreeing to a large-scale audit of the vote tally.

The cause of the political crisis in Afghanistan is not, in other words, to be found in the character of the candidates. It is to be found instead in the lack of a political culture that nurtures the habits of thought and behavior critical to the smooth functioning of a stable democracy. Those habits include several involving fairness, inclusiveness, and observance of impartial rules—and confidence that one's political opponents are displaying those habits as well.

A lack, or a weakness, of such a culture is more the norm in most of the world than the exception. Afghanistan is hardly alone in that respect. The habits and confidence required for a stable democracy are fragile and should not be taken for granted. It should be enough to remind us not to take them for granted when we see departures from fairness and from respect for democracy in our own system—such as, in recent years, efforts to make voting more difficult in order to suppress votes that would be cast for the suppressors' opponents.

A failure to recognize the importance of a democratic political culture, its relative paucity in much of the world, and the time it takes to develop one has led repeatedly to the mistaken belief that in a troubled country (be it Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, South Vietnam, or someplace else), if we just pick the right leader and give him enough support, including at times military support, stable democracy will prevail. In Afghanistan today, we have two respectable contending leaders, and more than twelve years of direct military support, and that still hasn't done the trick.

It is hard to predict where the current political impasse in Afghanistan will go. Afghans do have a long tradition of striking ad hoc deals as a way of bridging gaps between conflicting political interests. Perhaps that points to the kind of power-sharing arrangements that have been tried after disputed elections in countries such as Kenya or Zimbabwe. But likely fraud on a million-vote scale is a big gap to bridge.

Image: Flickr/ISAF.             

TopicsAfghanistan RegionsMiddile East

The New "Special Relationship": Australia and Japan

The Buzz

The rapidly warming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan has drawn considerable attention this week. Some are for it, some are against it. Some see it as a mechanism to reinforce the growth of a responsible Japanese strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Others see it as likely to entangle Australia in an emerging zero-sum strategic contest between China and Japan. And still others believe it’ll enable us—finally—to solve the issue of Australia’s future submarine.

I tend to favour the first of those views, but I want to explore a different side of the relationship here: what does the emerging ‘special relationship’ between Canberra and Tokyo tell us about future strategic relationships in Asia? Since the early days of the Cold War, the Asian security architecture has been characterized by three core elements: a set of US alliances; a range of countries pursuing national, self-reliant defense policies; and (since the late 1960s) a set of multilateral security dialogues. Actual, close, bilateral or trilateral defense cooperation between Asian countries has been rare. Yes, the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) have provided a framework for Malaysia and Singapore to interact, but FPDA tends to be an exception that underlines the more general rule.

As Asian transformation unfolded (and continues to unfold), it was always an open question what effect it would have on that architecture. Obviously, rapid economic growth and industrialization would enhance national defense force capabilities. But would more alliance ‘spokes’ gradually be added to the hub-and-spokes model? Or would there be fewer spokes as US allies gravitated towards actual self-reliance and Washington quietly encouraged greater intra-Asian cooperation? Would the multilateral structures become more influential in shaping the regional order, or less so? And would particular Asian countries form closer bonds with each other and, if so, what might be the nature of those bonds? In short, Asian transformation did more than raise uncertainties over which countries might be the positive security contributors of the 21st century; it raised uncertainties about the shape of future regional strategic relationships.

For a long time, one of those questions—the one about Asian bonding—tended to receive only a glib answer: we would see the growth of ‘strategic partnerships’ in Asia, complementing the other elements of the earlier structure. In reality, though, such partnerships have been difficult to form. True, both Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe have used the vocabulary of strategic partnership when speaking about their new bond. But they’ve also used a more exclusive term—a ‘special relationship’. In the international arena, that terminology is comparatively unusual. It’s a term that’s certainly been used in relation to the US–UK relationship, and sometimes in relation to the US-Germany relationship. It’s a phrase that bespeaks an unusual closeness.

My impression is that the term’s similarly rare in the Australian strategic lexicon and, again—when used in its genuine strategic context, and not merely as diplomatic flattery—tends to be reserved for allies. Some academics have used the term to describe the US–Australia tie (‘the other special relationship’). But, on the whole, Australian strategic policymakers haven’t spoken much about ‘special relationships’ between Australia and Asian countries. That we’ve done so in this case actually suggests a much deeper form of strategic connection between Japan and Australia than some might have imagined.

That connection has been driven by leaders: Abe and Abbott have made the connection happen, overriding the hesitancy of some in their ranks. Abbott gives every sign of being someone who’s not afraid to bite the bullet on Australian strategic relationships in Asia. His early success in strengthening the Australia–Japan relationship might be a harbinger of a more energetic Australian strategic policy towards Asia as a whole, not just towards Tokyo. Given Australian policy towards Asia has been primarily transactional, signs of deeper-level engagement are probably overdue. Meanwhile, Abe has wrought a quiet revolution in Japanese strategic policy, and shows no sign of slowing the momentum of reform running through Tokyo. But if the connection really is going to allow cooperation on something as sensitive as submarine drive trains, or even whole submarines, the degree of Japanese buy-in to the special relationship is indeed extraordinary.

Does that mean we could see other special relationships emerge in Asia as other national leaders grasp the nettle? I suspect not. The unfolding Australia–Japan relationship looks likely to be atypical of what emerges. It’s likely to set a benchmark in strategic cooperation that few other such relationships could achieve. But it does suggest that important levels of strategic cooperation among a select group of Asian states are going to be a part of the new regional architecture. And the government has done well to reach both that conclusion, and the resulting agreement, so adroitly.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. This Article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist blog here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAustralia

Continuing and Expanding US-China Cooperation on Nuclear Security

The Buzz

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, China has made significant progress in improving its nuclear security. This effort has benefited significantly from cooperation between the China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) and the US Department of Energy. This cooperation has included an extensive series of exchanges, including visits to a range of US facilities to observe nuclear security and accounting approaches; in-depth training and workshops on everything from approaches to protecting against insider threats to the design of physical protection systems to steps to strengthen security culture; a second joint demonstration of advanced material protection, control, and accounting of nuclear materials (MPC&A) technology in 2005; work to strengthen security and accounting regulations and inspections in China; and, most recently, cooperation to build a Center of Excellence (CoE) on Nuclear Security.

Then Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama announced cooperation on the CoE at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010. In January 2011, China and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding on the project. The center will serve as a forum for exchanging technical information, sharing best practices, developing training courses, and promoting technical collaboration to enhance nuclear security in China and throughout Asia. The National Nuclear Security Technology Center of the CAEA, established in November 2011, is responsible for the construction, management, and operation of the CoE. The CoE broke ground Oct. 29, 2013 and will be completed in 2015.

Cooperation on nuclear security in the civilian sector

While current cooperation focuses mainly on the Chinese civilian sector, personnel from defense facilities participate too. It is reasonable to assume that best practices associated with modern MPC&A principles learned through cooperation will be applied to fissile materials and facilities in the military sector as well, in part because the CAEA is responsible for controlling fissile materials nationwide in both military and civilian stockpiles and can transfer lessons from one to the other. Thus, it is imperative to maintain and strengthen cooperation. Future steps should include:

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to construct a more systematic and rigorous approach to design-bass threats (DBT) for each type of nuclear facility, focusing on those dealing with weapon-usable nuclear materials;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to decrease vulnerability to an insider threat, in particular at bulk processing facilities and storage facilities of weapon-usable fissile materials;

- Collaboration on applying modern material control and accounting systems and best practices for China's pilot reprocessing plant and for a pilot MOX facility that is under construction;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on China's updating and enforcing new regulations, drafting an atomic energy law, strengthening the independence of regulatory bodies, and providing adequate legal authority, technical and managerial competence, and financial and human resources to ensure regulatory capacity;

- Assistance on adopting realistic performance tests including "force-on-force" exercises. Chinese experts should be invited to witness such exercises at US sites;

- Moving forward with cooperation on security culture including implementing targeted programs to assess and improve security culture at each key site;

- In-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on how to increase international assurance about China's nuclear security conditions, including how China can make substantial amounts of information public while protecting sensitive information;

- Using the new CAEA Center of Excellence to provide training and exchanges of best practices for domestic guards and security personnel and those from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region; and

- Adding more Chinese "gifts" for the 2016 Washington Nuclear Security Summit. China should join the initiative on Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation agreed at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, incorporate the IAEA principles and guidelines regarding nuclear security into its national laws; and allow teams of international experts to periodically evaluate its security procedures.

Extending cooperation to the military sector

More importantly, to prevent nuclear terrorism US-China cooperation needs to expand from civilian efforts to the military sector, since it is the military that has custody of the largest stocks of weapon-usable fissile materials - and all nuclear weapons. Without knowing the problems that exist in the military sector, the indirect benefits of cooperation with the civilian sector for the military will be limited.

The two governments should restart the lab-to-lab program that was conducted from 1995 to 1998.  The program was designed to help create in China an interest in strengthening security systems by demonstrating the advantages of a modern MPC&A system. The collaborative program was terminated in the aftermath of the 1999 Cox Committee Report, which alleged Chinese espionage at US nuclear weapons laboratories. The Cox report was denounced by the Chinese government. Since the "lab-to-lab" program ended, direct cooperation on nuclear security and control of China's nuclear weapons has not occurred. Since 9/11, however, the two governments have undertaken significant cooperation against terrorism, and this should provide an opportunity to restart the lab-to-lab program, which would significantly benefit China's nuclear materials and facilities in the military sector.

The program should begin with less sensitive activities that are identified as mutually beneficial. The two governments could conduct in-depth discussions and best practice exchanges on a number of areas, including applications of modern seals techniques and continuous remote monitoring approaches for the storage of nuclear warheads and sensitive nuclear materials; tracking and monitoring techniques for shipments of fissile materials; and safety and security measures protecting nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. As the lab-to-lab program moves forward, based on the experience from US-Russian cooperation, China and the United States may consider mutual visits and joint work at selected key sites. Others areas of focus could include DBT approaches for sensitive facilities, advanced MPC&A applied at some sites, updating regulations and procedures, and strengthening security culture at some sites.

Conclusions

The Chinese government has taken significant steps to develop and apply approaches to nuclear security and nuclear accounting in the aftermath of 9/11. One driver of Chinese improvements has been international cooperation, in particular with the US.  Since the 9/11 attacks, China has actively cooperated with the US to improve its nuclear security in the civilian sector. Such cooperation should continue and grow stronger. More importantly, China-US cooperation should extend to the military sector that has custody of the largest stocks of weapon-usable fissile materials and all nuclear weapons.

At the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed that increased cooperation regarding the nuclear security of one country is beneficial to all nations. As Xi pointed out, "The amount of water a bucket can hold is determined by its shortest plank. The loss of nuclear material in one country can be a threat to the whole world."  President Barack Obama has emphasized that the biggest threat to US security is the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. The three Nuclear Security Summits have focused the top leaders in Beijing and Washington on nuclear security issues and enhanced consensus on the danger of nuclear terrorism. It is time to extend China-US cooperation on nuclear security to the military sector. Since the threat of nuclear terrorism is a top US priority, Beijing's cooperation on the issue would benefit the Sino-US relationship. Moreover, Beijing's active participation in building a robust global nuclear security system would improve its international image.

Hui Zhang, a physicist, leads a research initiative on China's nuclear policies for the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

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