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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
An anonymous Free Syrian Army officer, speaking to London’s Asharq al-Awsat, said that the militia is buying weapons from a number of sources, including the Assad-sympathetizing shabiha militia. This shows the danger that Assad has put himself in with his many unsavory bedfellows. The Shabiha got their start as (to borrow a phrase from Assad’s lexicon) armed gangs that made their money through smuggling that the regime tolerated as long as they remained loyal. Now, while they help Assad wipe out his unarmed opponents by day, they aid his armed opponents by night. That’s the cost of doing business with these types.
This might be a foretaste of a future Iranian revolution, should one occur. The IRGC, like the Shabiha, is not loyal to the regime alone–they have growing interests in the economy, including in the black market. If the Islamic Republic starts to fall apart, elements of the Pasdaran might start playing both sides in much the same fashion.
This is not the only unsettling news about semi-official forces moving weapons. There have been reports in the Israeli media that Hezbollah has taken possession of some of Syria’s formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. If they can integrate these into their array of rockets, Israel will be at a new level of vulnerability. Reports indicate that perhaps 40% of the Israeli population does not have gas masks. An all-out Hezbollah rocket attack would be a disaster for Israel; a chemical attack would be even worse. This prospect could shape Israel’s strategic calculations toward Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran.
After being initially embraced by many Westerners, the Arab Spring has become a subject of concern. The crowds of Tahrir and Tunis chant for freedom, for participation, for democracy; their spokespeople are young “latte liberals” with perfect English; their rallies see Muslims and Christians side-by-side in clouds of tear gas. However, the elections they established have heavily favored Islamist parties who are ambiguous on religious pluralism, on nonsectarian governance, and on individual liberty. What’s going on?
The logos of the hardline an-Noor Party (left) and the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (right), two Egyptian Islamist parties that will likely be able to form a strong coalition should they choose. (Image via the FJP's English website, fjp25.org)
There are of course many factors driving this gap. The people that came out to protest in Tahrir, especially the ones that Western (and Qatari) media outlets chose to interview, were not a representative sample of the Egyptian public. At the core, however, are two different visions of freedom. In Egypt, and in many Middle Eastern countries, a collective vision of freedom predominates; in America, and many Western countries, an individualistic vision of freedom predominates. The West’s confusion thus results from a miscommunication–when Westerners cheer for “freedom” in Egypt and beyond, they expect one thing and find something unfamiliar. Individual freedom is the right of one person to choose to live their life and express their views as they see fit, provided they do not harm others. Collective freedom is the right of a common group to live in a society that accords with its vision.
A massive poster of Ben Ali turns up in Tunisia, months after his overthrow, prompting citizen anger:
. . . and revealing a surprise. Brilliant publicity stunt by Engagement Citoyen.
Well, my prediction that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would make an offer to the U.S. in his U.N. address was wrong. The speech was his usual ramble–calls for global governance, complaints about inequality, references to “global arrogance,” Holocaust denial, and the like. One of the more comical moments was a reiteration of his calls for investigation of the “mysterious September 11 incident,” followed by a complaint that “the main perpetrator” had been killed rather than brought in for questioning, which he hinted was an attempt to prevent bin Laden from “identify[ing] the elements behind” the attack. 9/11 Trutherism and the notion that bin Laden was behind the attacks are apparently not contradictory in Ahmadinejad’s world.