The Hidden Risks of S.Res.574

Over at The National Interest‘s Buzz blog, I discuss the implications of a newly-introduced piece of legislation that would call for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for inciting genocide. While Ahmadinejad certainly deserves scorn and isolation (and I expect his speech tomorrow at the General Assembly to remind us of that, although perhaps less than in prior years), all moves against Iran are not automatically smart moves. S.Res.574 is among the less-smart moves. There are issues beyond the ones I discuss in the Buzz post that I’d like to elaborate on more here.

Within Iran, the principlist faction (more or less Iran’s neoconservatives) won rhetorical battles with the reformist camp by arguing that reformist diplomatic initiatives had given the West concessions but yielded nothing–the Khatami Administration, for instance, offered the U.S. some cooperation in Afghanistan, voluntarily stopped elements of the nuclear program, and attempted to start a “dialogue between civilizations,” yet left office having been branded a member of the axis of evil and facing increased risk of international sanctions. If this is how the international community responds to concessions, say the principlists, why make them? Why negotiate when the conclusions of negotiation are predetermined and unfavorable? A key element of this rhetoric of late has been the “injustice” of the international system (Iranian leaders are eager to point out that the Security Council is structured on power, not democratic principles) and Iran as a primary victim of international injustice. Indicting Ahmadinejad would confirm this narrative and strengthen the hand of the most anti-diplomatic camps of the principlists; it would not help the reformists much, as many already regard Ahmadinejad as a criminal.

There is a second troubling matter–taking legal action against a foreign head of state. This is morally satisfying, but the world is full of unpleasant leaders, and sometimes America must work with them. Our dirtier allies will not appreciate a sudden American friendliness with international judicial regimes; dirty leaders on the fence about relations with America may see a moralistic foreign policy as a sign that they would be better off with American rivals like Russia or China that are more committed to a mind-your-own-business Westphalian international system.

Of course, as I suggest at TNI, S.Res.574 is not likely to have any serious impact–among other things, the Senate has not ratified the Rome Statute, which founded the same International Criminal Court that the Senate is calling on to try Ahmadinejad. The international community is likely to pay little attention to a nonbinding resolution in the Senate, which the same day began processing a resolution “congratulating the Nunaka Valley Little League Junior girls softball team on winning the 2012 Little League Junior Softball World Series” and two days later to congratulate itself for “the 50th anniversary of the signing of Public Law 87-788, an Act commonly known as the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Act.” S.Res.574 is little more than election year pablum.

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Nuclear Security and the Relationship with Pakistan

Over at The Diplomat, I have a piece on the important argument made by former Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqan that the U.S. and Pakistan should end their “marriage” for mutual benefit. A key American objection to this is nuclear security–namely, shouldn’t the U.S. cultivate relations with Pakistan so it can increase the likelihood that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will fall into the wrong hands.

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Saudi Economic Woe

Much can be said of Saudi Arabia’s economic problems–the inequity, particularly affecting the Shia and women, the dependence on imported labor, the existence of widespread poverty in a land of enormous prosperity, etc. In a piece for the National InterestI examine the broader problem–the way massive oil revenues and a massive bureaucracy combine to create severe distortions and stifle private economic activity. Despite its enormous resources, the Kingdom has developed a weak and fragile economy. It’s not clear that there’s a solution to this, as the economy of the state and the politics of the state are intrinsically linked (for a much deeper and more technical treatment than I could hope to provide, check out  Steffen Hertog’s Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats). By shaping this economy and leaving the education system in the hands of the clerics, the House of Saud has made itself necessary. It has made–probably in part by accident–a society too conservative, too contradictory, and too economically feeble to replace them without creating severe instability.

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Morsi in Tehran

Over at the National Interest’s media critique blog, the Buzz, I argue that Tom Friedman was wrong to say that Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi should be ashamed of himself for his four hour visit to Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement summit. (I don’t want to be accused of piling on, so I will note that I thought Friedman was wrong before Morsi ripped Iran’s support of Assad). While Morsi’s trip, and the associated attempt to form a new Syria contact group composed of regional states, will likely have little real impact, it’s an important signal that Egypt is back in the Arab world’s political scene. 

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Three Recent Essays: Iran’s Subs, Huma Rights Violations, and the Case for Pessimism on Syria

My July 3 National Interest piece argued that Iran stands to waste a huge pile of money if they attempt to develop nuclear submarines. Iran is clearly using the subs as an excuse to lawfully boost enrichment above the current 19.75% level. They have also suggested that problems fueling their ships abroad may lead them to develop nuclear powered commercial vessels . . . I have not done the math but I am suspecting these would carry enormous opportunity costs that would take years to pay off, if they can be paid off at all. Hints are already coming out that a higher level of enrichment could be in the cards–most recently, a Khamenei aide stated that if international pressure continues, Iran may move up to 56% enrichment. Western negotiators should latch on to this matter. Higher enrichment is not necessary for naval reactors–it’s merely preferable–and Iran does not have good reasons to develop nuclear vessels anyway. While we shouldn’t get too hasty and say this all means Iran really is going for the bomb, it does shred the common Iranian refrain that the purpose of the nuclear program is fully peaceful and aimed only at economic and scientific advancement. The current levels and rates of enrichment make this scarcely plausible (Iran claims it is making the 19.75% enriched uranium for, among other things, fuel for an array of yet-to-be-constructed research reactors). Higher enrichment makes Iran’s multiple goals quite clear.

On July 23, I weighed in for MENASAWorld on the accusations that the Secretary of State’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin, is a secret Muslim Brotherhood infiltrator. Since the strangeness of this claim was already exposed in depth by heftier writers than me, I took a different angle, arguing that with or without legions of Muslim secret agents, the United States would have opened up to the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood secret agents, incidentally, are easily spotted: most will be in regular contact with a cleric about whether taking a cyanide pill during Ramadan would break the fast or whether it is unclean to use a shoe phone.

On July 31 I suggested in the National Interest that Western observers are mistakenly viewing the Syrian civil war as a war of national liberation in which the displacement of the regime will be welcomed by all sectors of society. In fact, I suggest, the fall of Damascus will merely mean that the rebels now have the upper hand in the conflict, and not that it is anywhere close to over. The mutual distaste that has sprung up between sects friendly with Assad and those friendly with the opposition will make reconciliation extremely difficult. If the rebels can drive him from the capital, Assad will retreat behind the mountains of the Syrian coast and hold off further advances by the Free Army.

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Egypt’s Democratic Hopes Imperiled

Check out my piece in The National Interest:

The emergence of an elective presidency in Egypt will essentially be the rise of a third branch of government. There is an enormous institutional potential here. While the president will be forced to carve out authority from the two older branches, the position will come with enormous weight. A capable president could play the older branches off each other and force them to resolve their tensions via appeals to the public. Ultimately, the president would aim to eliminate the old executive, returning the military to a quieter role in politics and consolidating his power. All this would be enormously beneficial to the development of a legitimate and democratic government in Egypt.

In spite of the complex political and social forces the revolution unleashed, the Egyptian on the street now faces an unpalatable binary choice: a Thermidorian turn to the old elite or increased authority for the deeply controversial Islamist party.

Commentary: Egypt’s Democratic Hopes Imperiled | The National Interest.

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You know who SHOULD intervene in Syria? Israel.

Crazier ideas have worked before. The Israeli security sector is very uneasy with what’s happening right now across the Golan. Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez have never been friendly, but the Israel-Syria conflict has long been stabilized and fought through proxies. There’s a worry that the fall of the House of Assad will yield more urgent tension–at best, a fledgling government may attempt to shore up support by getting pushy about the Golan Heights. At worst, they see a small chance that Israel will have unstable Islamist governments in its two historic state rivals, plus Hezbollah on its northern border. What can Israel do to prevent that unhappy geopolitical outcome? More than you’d think.

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Throw Gasoline on the Fire: The Rush to Arm Syria’s Fragmented Rebels

With Russia and China blocking serious international action on Syria, numerous states have begun seeking ways to intervene indirectly. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are reportedly already giving weapons to the Syrian rebellion. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has suggested that this is among the options on the table in the long run for the U.S., and in today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen argues that the time to start sending in weapons is now. Cohen:

In short, Syria is dangerous. But that not a reason for passivity or incoherence. As the Bosnian war showed, the basis for any settlement must be a rough equality of forces. So I say step up the efforts, already quietly ongoing, to get weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

Cohen extends the argument in that vein–that a stronger FSA will be a viable opposition, forcing Assad to negotiate and ushering in a new era of stability. Failing to arm the Syrian rebels ensures that the present bloody stalemate will continue. Shipping weapons, training rebel forces, and creating humanitarian enclaves will bring the conflict to a resolution, or at least to a ceasefire. In return for some modicum of authority, the FSA will be expected to guarantee the rights of minorities, assuaging Alawite and Christian fears of Sunni vengeance.

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Iran’s Star-Crossed Regime; Pro- and Anti-Regime Hackers Accidentally Working Together?

The leadership of the Islamic Republic must feel like today emerged from the bygone era in which the rulers of Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies would only take action after careful consultation with their astrologers, for the stars aligned against them. The opposition has chosen 25 Bahman, which in most years falls on February 14th, for an annual protest which has forced the regime to crack down publicly for the second year in a row. February 14th is of course also Valentine’s Day, a holiday which the regime despises as a symbol of Western sexual mores. The Washington Post‘s Tehran correspondent, Thomas Erdbink, reported that restaurants in Tehran were heavily booked. Khamenei and his ilk are unable to prevent a dual challenge to their regime–one political, one social.

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How would a Syrian civil war affect American interests?

The Russian-Chinese veto of a rather weak Security Council resolution that would have increased the international pressure on Syria has brought the international search for a diplomatic solution to an impasse. Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they have no interest in lending international legitimacy to a campaign for the end of Assad’s rule, so further actions will risk their fury. It’s likely that the next step will be stronger moves from the Arab League and the Arab Spring’s new great power, little Qatar. However, the end of the U.N. process has provoked a gush of violence around Syria that will certainly yield more calls for physical action. Calls for international support for the Free Syrian Army rebel group are becoming more common. This is an aggressive step that could lead to an all-out civil war. If the rebels win, there could be great opportunity for a regional transformation–Iranian influence in the Levant would be strangled, and a new government might change Syria’s decades-old rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Lebanon might become more stable. However, a rebel victory is hardly certain. Several constituencies within Syria still want Bashar in power, and he’s being fed a steady supply of Russian arms. Providing the rebels access to similar volumes of weaponry might yield a long and bloody war. How would this affect America’s interest in the region?

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