IRAN (AND ISRAEL): COVERT OPERATIONS, SANCTIONS, AND NEGOTIATIONS?
Leaks have officially sprung in Israeli's seemingly airtight campaign to attack Iran. This month Israeli military chief Lt. Benny Gantz told Ha'aretz newspaper that the Iranian government is too "rational" to build a nuclear bomb, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert openly scorned Netanyahu's negligent race to war. This public disagreement shows that Israel's intelligence and political brass both (1) know Iran poses no nuclear threat and (2) are willing to publicly say so in order to dilute the dangerous hysteria. Fortunately – though unfortunate that it comes down to Israel's whims – the world can breathe a momentary sigh of relief around the possibility of open war on Iran.
Also this month, supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the nuclear weapons race and called the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons "a serious violation of the most basic humanitarian rules." Reading almost as an anti-proliferation spiritual teaching, this statement is no small side note.
But while the option of overt war on Iran may be on the back burner for now, reports this month have disclosed that covert military operations against the country are alive and well. As the Washington Post revealed in early April, the flying of CIA drones, expanded spy networks inside the country, and National Security Agency eavesdropping have been part of the U.S. militarization against Iran for at least three years.
Also this month, journalist Seymour Hersh revealed that from 2003 to 2005 U.S. Joint Special Operations Command trained the Iranian opposition group M.E.K – a group officially on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations – at a national security site in Nevada. Hersh reports that last month two senior Obama Administration officials confirmed to NBC News that M.E.K. units were involved in the assassinations of Iranian scientists (five since 2007), and that they were "financed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service." A former senior intelligence official affirmed this to Hersh, adding that "the operations benefitted from American intelligence."
Publically meanwhile, the U.S. and permanent Security Council members (plus Germany) met with Iranian officials in April for the first time in a year to restart negotiations around the country's nuclear program. It's a baby step in the right direction that openly ignored Israeli criticisms. The general mood on all sides emerging meeting was optimistic, though Iranian officials have said they would break off negotiations if sanctions continued.
Sanctions on Iran, imposed in large part to appease Israel, have potentially disastrous consequences for Iranians and the world. As analyst Juan Cole thoroughly explains here, the new round of sanctions against Iran aimed at preventing the sale of its oil (a tactic tried in 1950 with dreadful political blowback) threatens rising economies such as South Korea and India, and will certainly drive up global oil prices.
Domestically for Iran, Cole notes that economic sanctions can "send the middle-class into a spiral of downward mobility, leaving its members with ever fewer resources to resist an authoritarian government." He credits the sanctions with the decline of Iranian's Green protest movement of 2009, which demanded electoral transparency and democracy and could be considered as the first inklings of the 2010 Arab Spring.
For Washington's part, it seems to see no contradiction in continuing covert military operations and sanctions while attempting negotiations. It is a treacherous balancing act that holds more promises of confrontation than peace.
Meanwhile, as the world focuses on Iran, Israel legalized three more settlements deep inside the West Bank. On the heels of a hand-delivered letter from the Palestine Authority, requesting a restart of negotiations, the legalization of these outposts has once again flipped Palestinians, the "peace process," and the international community the bird.
AFGHANISTAN: THE WIZARD'S SHOW GOES ON
Once again, Washington hasn't gotten the memo that 69% of the U.S. public has: the war in Afghanistan a disaster and it's time to leave. After eleven years and $450 billion, Afghanistan is worse off than before the U.S. invasion. Each month a new story comes out of the country that drives home the fact that the war must end immediately. For April it was the gruesome photographs revealed of U.S. soldiers posing with body parts of Afghans.
But Washington barrels onward, this month settling on a US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement with Kabul that promises U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan until 2024! The agreement makes no decision on permanent bases but Afghan troops will be funded at an estimated $4 billion a year as tasks such as raids and detentions are handed over from U.S. military. At the NATO summit in Chicago this May, Defense Secretary Panetta will ask for and most likely receive $1.3 billion more for Afghan forces from European allies.
Some austerity. This is what we call throwing money at a catastrophe. It also shows how skilled military officials are at ignoring the facts on the ground. Twenty percent of all U.S. combat deaths come from attacks by Afghan military personnel. The U.S counterinsurgency strategy, which relies heavily on these Afghan troops, does not need money. It needs to be scrapped.
Washington's attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have so far failed because they have been struck on conditions that are completely out of touch with the fact that the U.S. is, yes, losing. Washington demands the Taliban put down its arms, sever ties to Al-Qaeda, accept the Afghan constitution and the legitimacy of the illegitimate Karzai government, and (now) approve of U.S. military presence for another decade.
As Foreign Policy in Focus' correspondent Colin Hallinan succinctly lays out here, this kind of thinking about Afghanistan is "hallucinatory." Instead, he suggests that serious negotiating terms could begin with a number of alternatives: a ceasefire, shelving any long-term plans to keep Special Forces in the country, ending drone raids on Pakistan, forming a national unity government, insuring non-military aid to the country, and "sponsoring a regional conference to keep Afghanistan neutral and non-aligned." Imagine that.
But from the looks of how the NATO summit is shaping up, the conversation will be based on the fallacy of strong Afghan security forces and future steps will be limited to economic, political, and military solutions. NATO's oversight and stubbornness on Afghanistan will continue to cost lives on all sides, domestic economies, and the fate of the region as a whole.
Talks to mend the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. also failed this month as Washington refused to apologize for airstrikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border. Since November Pakistan has blocked NATO supply lines into Afghanistan, responding to the demands of its citizens to end drone strikes and U.S. impunity. Not wanting to appear militarily weak in the run-up to elections, Obama will most likely choose macho over mind, further isolating a country whose fate is tied to that of Afghanistan. The U.S. will only gain Pakistan's support if it ends its drone war and respects the sovereignty of a country tired of being a launch pad for regional militarism.
ESCALATING DANGER IN SYRIA
Despite an agreed upon ceasefire on April 12 and U.N. resolution to send 300 unarmed observers into Syria, the situation worsens with over 10,000 deaths and ongoing clashes between the Assad regime and opposition forces. Washington and Western European members of the U.N. have painted themselves as peaceable solution-seekers, while countries such as China and Russia are portrayed as backers Assad's campaign of violence. Yet one only needs to do a bit of digging to see how the former are undermining their own diplomatic efforts and dooming them to failure.
Before the observers and ceasefire agreements, a group of 70 nations calling themselves the "Friends of Syria" met in Istanbul in late March to discuss the country's current crisis and future. These nations included the U.S., France, Germany, and Arab League countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As the Associated Press reported, the meeting concluded with the "Friends of Syria" agreeing to support the Syrian National Council "as the 'legitimate representative' of all Syrians and the 'leading interlocutor for the opposition with the international community.'" The head of the Syrian National Council said that it would begin to pay salaries of fighters in the Free Syrian Army and countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia among others pledged millions in funds. According to Ha'aretz, Germany and the United Arab Emirates will create a fund for the eventual rehabilitation of Syria, an ominous preemption of an unresolved conflict.
At a press conference following the meeting, Hillary Clinton said the U.S. would supply opposition forces with communications and increase its "humanitarian aid" to Syria to $25 million. Though neither the U.S. nor western powers like the U.K. said they would openly arm the opposition, their participation in the meeting as the Financial Times called it effectively gives a "blessing to a Saudi Arabian bid to arm the opposition."
As far as anyone knows, the plans and promises made at this meeting are still in force despite the Kofi Annan's 6-point peace plan and the (slow) deployment of 300 observers. (It is no wonder that the Assad regime now refuses to accept foreign observers from "Friends of Syria" countries.) Meanwhile there has been no weapons embargo on the country whatsoever, only this tacit nod for regional allies to arm the opposition and an unrestrained flow of armaments to the Assad government.
Washington and its allies are playing with fire when it comes to Syria—fueling sectarian divisions in the region, risking lives, and making very real the possibility of a drawn-out civil war.
With new projects and actions planned, this Spring will be both promising and challenging for social movements in the states. Gatherings like the Drone Summit and the Counter-Summit for Peace and Economic Justice are important in making sure the fundamental role militarism plays in shaping the U.S. economy is not lost in the national dialogue. But protesting militarism always provokes a military response: Chicago's host committee for the NATO summit has raised $55 million for the conference's "security" – $36 million donate from corporations and $19 million in government grants. If there were any doubts as to how precious the military machinery is to the U.S. and the private sector's role as its financier, they should be gone. Time to be out in the streets pulling the curtain back – we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.