The Upcoming Iran Meeting of December 5

It seems like Iran and the United Nations Security Council have been jostling about Tehran’s nuclear program forever. It’s the same old equation: the UN try to adopt a deal that Iran would accept, but then the deal falls apart after a few days of consideration. Such was the case last year when Iran and the Security Council both accepted an agreement whereby 2,600 pounds of low enriched uranium would be sent to France and Russia for further processing. Originally, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad agreed on the contours of the deal. But when the Iranian president came back home, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the conservative clerics forced him to renege on the proposal.

The nuclear talks between the United States and Iran have been stalled ever since, with both sides refusing to budge on their positions. For the United States, it’s Iran’s refusal to uphold international demands that have been the sour point. For the Iranians, it’s the perception that the West is simply trying to deprive their right to produce nuclear energy under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And for Turkey, Brazil and everyone else in between, it’s a combination of the two.

So when news breaks that Iranian and European negotiators have finally agreed on resuming the broken down talks later in December, questions automatically surface as to whether this round will be any different from the last.

The Washington Post reported a few weeks ago that both sides have in fact settled on December 5 for talks to begin. But so far, the topics of the discussions, let alone where the talks will be held, are still up for debate. Tehran wants to negotiate in Turkey, the same country that brokered a fuel swap deal earlier this year. The Security Council, on the other hand, is fearful that talking in Turkey will only bring a powerful pro-Iranian voice into the process; something that the United States surely want to avoid.

From this early date, it’s difficult to believe how the December 5 negotiations can work. While economic sanctions from the EU, United Nations and United States have inflicted harm on the Iranians for the past few months, it appears that these punishments have only hardened Teheran’s position on their nuclear enrichment rights. And in Washington DC, patience with diplomacy is running thin. With Republicans set to assume dominance in the lower chamber of Congress, the Obama Administration will be pressured to act tougher — and for most Republican legislators, tougher means using or threatening to use force.

Diplomacy is complicated and at times infuriating, especially when the country you are trying to negotiate with carries a bulk of Western distrust on their shoulders. But without diplomacy, there are only three options available for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue: more sanctions, military force, or Cold War style nuclear containment. All three are controversial, and all three may only exacerbate the situation. Compromising face to face is something that every reasonable person can support.

Al Qaeda Terrorist Convicted in New York

The Obama Administration’s counterterrorism policy just received a terrible setback. After a five day jury deliberation only a few blocks from where the World Trade Center towers once stood, a civilian jury decided to convict a known Al Qaeda operative on a single count of conspiring to destroy American government property with an explosive device.

The defendant in question was a man named Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani who law enforcement experts believed played an instrumental role in Al Qaeda’s 1998 suicide bombing on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Some 224 people were killed on those attacks, among them twelve Americans.

According to American counterterrorism officials, Ahmed Ghailani was one of the operatives involved in the plot. Throughout the trial, New York prosecutors claimed that he personally bought the explosives that were used in the attack, then skipped town to Pakistan once the operation was orchestrated. He has been on the American government’s terrorist list since. Pakistani authorities managed to capture him only six years later when he was subsequently transferred to a CIA interrogation facility for questioning.

So after all of this evidence, why was Ghailani convicted on just one count?Or, to put it more dramatically, why was a member of Al Qaeda acquitted of 284 other charges, including murder, conspiracy to commit murder and terrorism?

Part of the answer concerns the lack of evidence directed against Ghailani in the first place. There was a whole lot of speculation as to his involvement but the actual proof was hard to come by. The star witness in the trial — a man named Hussein Abebe who claimed to have sold Ghailani the explosives — was excused from testifying by the presiding judge. That left a wide gap in the prosecutor’s case.

Something else that could be responsible is the nature of civilian trials in general — something that Republicans and New York legislators have been consistently hammering the Obama Administration on.

In contrast to military tribunals or military commissions that handle the bulk of war related crimes, civilian courts are governed by strict rules that provide defendants with a whole range of rights. Whereas a military commission may have permitted evidence based on CIA interrogations, civilian trials are more inclined to throw that evidence out. This is precisely what Judge Lewis A. Kaplan did with respect to Ghailani, arguing that he was tortured numerous times by the agency throughout his detention.

In the end, the trial will probably be seen as a failure by most. A terrorist being declared innocent on 284 charges while being convicted of only one leaves a bad taste in the Obama Administration’s mouth, particularly since the president has stressed his intention to continue to try captured terrorists through the regular court system.

In the end, justice was in fact served. Ghailani faces a minimum of twenty years in federal prison, with the possibility of a life sentence during his January 25 hearing.

The result wasn’t pretty, but the civilian courts did their job, convicting a killer on the one hand while upholding the rule of law in the process.

Obama’s New Deal To Israel

In a last-ditch effort by the United States to salvage the direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent eight full hours with Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning.  The result was nothing short of remarkable from Clinton’s standpoint; the Israeli prime minister agreed that a resumption of negotiations would be a good idea. As Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace diplomat says in Foreign Policy, “any advance in the excruciatingly painful world of Arab-Israeli negotiations is significant.”

The downside is that the United States were forced to give up a lot of concessions just to convince the Israelis to take some positive steps forward. Essentially, the Obama Administration bribed Israel into accepting its position for the short term.

For a measly three-month extension of the settlement moratorium that originally expired in late September, Washington asked Congress to sell $3 billion worth of American military aircraft to the Israel Defense Forces, on top of the billion dollar aid package Tel Aviv receives on an annual basis. Perhaps more important for Netanyahu, the United States promised to veto any resolution at the UN Security Council that would embarrass Israel or condemn the occupation of Palestinian land.

The third assurance from Obama and Clinton is that East Jerusalem would be exempted from any additional freeze in Jewish settlements; a concession that the Palestinians have already stated as unacceptable. And the most consequential of all is a written American promise that this will be the last time President Obama asks the Israelis to halt settlement construction through official channels.

Netanyahu must be smiling, but all for the wrong reasons. Once again, his government was able to sidestep American demands, as well as pressure from the Israeli right. By acquring a tremendous amount of aid from Washington, Netanyahu can portray his recent trip to America as a victorious one. This may provide him with the necessary support to pass the new deal through the Israeli security cabinet; some hardliners have already indicated that they will abstain from the vote, thus virtually assuring that the proposal will be signed.

But the three month deadline is quite troubling. Even if Netanyahu successfully implements the new agreement, his negotiators will be coerced into hammering out a deal with the Palestinians on borders within an extremely short period of time (an issue that has eluded the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for close to twenty years).

The logic is simple: if borders are established, Israel can build on whatever territory is inside the Israeli line of control.

But if that deal cannot be reached within the three month timeframe (and that is unfortunately a possible scenario), then the entire enterprise is basically dead as long as Netanyahu is in the top job. Construction will continue on the West Bank, as is already happening in East Jerusalem, further eluding the possibility of a two-state solution. And Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will respond by withdrawing from the process all together.

This may be Obama’s last chance to make some headway, at least during his first term in office. Otherwise, American diplomats might as well wait until a new Israeli government is seated.

Finally a Government in Iraq

It took eight long months of frustration and political wrangling, but it now looks like Iraq’s leaders have set aside their differences over who will lead the next government. And from all of the reports coming out of the negotiations, Nouri al-Maliki will retain the post of prime minister for another four years.

The actual deal, however, is a bit more complicated than that. Maliki is undoubtedly the big winner, especially when one considers that his State of Law Party didn’t even finish first in the parliamentary elections last month. But Jalal Talabani and Ayad Allawi (Maliki’s fiercest critic) also came out on top. Of course, the constituencies that are actually included in the government are more important for Iraq’s future than the individual figures leading those positions. But even in that context, Iraq has largely succeeded in drawing all major sectarian communities into the political process.

From early reports coming out of Baghdad, Maliki will remain Iraq’s prime minister, thus giving the majority Shia population firm control over the country’s most powerful office. Talabani, a Kurd, will continue to be Iraq’s president. Ayad Allawi, the man who actually won the most votes, will chair a new body (the National Council on Strategic Policies) that will be responsible for Iraq’s security policy. And Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, is rumored to head Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, although this is still based on an aura of speculation.

All in all, the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are finally under the same roof. Bringing the Sunnis into the government was an especially important decision for Maliki & Company to make. Without adequate representation in Baghdad, there was a very real possibility that millions of Sunni men would return to the insurgency, thereby jeopardizing the entire security situation as a time when American forces are scheduled to withdraw completely by 2011. The last time Sunnis were excluded from politics (in 2005), the insurgency in Iraq spread like wildfire. This time, the United States, specifically Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Jim Jeffries, recognized that a return to the past was no longer an option.

Hard work remains to be done. While Iraq’s top positions appear to be filled, the coalition government will now get down to the tough job of dishing out ministerial duties. Who will head the Interior Ministry, which is tasked with keeping a lid on domestic violence? Who will lead the Health Ministry? These are all questions that need to be resolved quickly and efficiently. Iraqis are waiting for action that will actually improve their lives; another round of political dueling over the ministries will only increase resentment among the Iraqi people and widen the gap between the elite and the electorate.

Another query still to be answered is what role the new National Council on Strategic Decisions will have with respect to Iraq’s foreign policy. The new institution was just established, so there are no rules and regulations governing the work of the council yet. What is more, there is still a chance that Maliki will simply make decisions on his own, without the council’s input (he has circumvented ministries in the past).

All of this is for another day. The first step is actually forming a government that everyone can agree on; or at least forming a government that is tolerable for the next four years. That step has finally been taken.

A Twenty-Four Hour Long Rapprochement

At a time when President Barack Obama is busy meeting with foreign leaders on the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia, Vice President Joseph Biden has taken the initiative in meetings with other world leaders of great consequence to the United States. First and foremost is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just wrapped up an address in New Orleans to the Jewish Federation of North America.

That address occurred on Monday, which was why Netanyahu traveled to the United States in the first place. But on the preceding Sunday, the prime minister briefly held a face-to-face meeting with Biden on issues that we can only assume were related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Read more “A Twenty-Four Hour Long Rapprochement”

In India, Then Onto Indonesia

After his party suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in the midterm elections for Congress, one would hope for President Barack Obama to be able to recuperate with a nice vacation. No president likes losing, especially when the margin of defeat is so high. For Obama, who campaigned on a platform of change just two years ago, a new Republican majority is particularly disheartening.

But if the president was kicked to the floor last week, he has an ample opportunity to pick himself up and dust himself off over the next ten days. As is widely reported on this fine blog and in every major American newspaper, Obama has finally begun his tour of Asia. India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea are the four big countries on the White House docket, but Obama will also speak to Chinese president Hu Jintao and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev at the G20 summit in Seoul later in the week.

While the entire trip is indeed important — this is the chance for the United States to reassert its image with its Southeast Asian allies who are nervous about a rising Chinese military power — it is the individual meetings in India and Indonesia that could boast the greatest gains for America’s image.

As soon as he stepped off the plane, Obama met with Indian leaders on a range of issues. The trip is only three days old, but the president has already stressed the importance of a long-term Indo-American economic relationship to Indian business leaders. That meeting also included the promotion of a $10 billion trade deal which Washington hopes will spur the Indo-American relationship in a positive direction. On a symbolic note, Obama and his staff are staying at the infamous Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, the tragic site of a terrorist attack in 2008 when Pakistani militants opened fire, killing over 160 people.

But perhaps more significant than the president’s early accomplishments is what he hopes to achieve in the remainder of his trip. While Pakistan may not formally be on the agenda, the American and Indian governments will probably discuss the domestic troubles unleashed in that country behind closed doors, away from reporters. This may seem like a superficial topic, given India’s constant mistrust of Pakistan, but it is a subject that must be broached constructively. The Indians need to understand that the weakness of the Pakistani state obstructs Islamabad’s ability to tackle each and every anti-Indian militant group. Yet at the same time, the Americans need to understand where the Indian government is coming from.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country and the world’s latest emerging democracy, will also embrace Obama for the first time in his presidency. The president spent four years as a young boy in Indonesia, so it will interesting to see whether he can tout his personal experience to his advantage.

This part of the trip is perhaps the best opportunity the United States will have in the foreseeable future to show Muslims what America is all about: individual rights, respect for all cultures, tolerance. Obama’s approval ratings in the Muslim world have been declining since his Cairo speech in 2009, but that could change with a heartfelt address to the world’s largest Muslim nation.

These are all preliminary at the moment. The Asian tour has only lasted for three days so far. The next seven will make or break the trip.

A Quick Reaction on the Midterms

Now that the midterm elections are over, with the Republicans capturing the House of Representatives for the first time in four years (as predicted by pollsters), questions are swirling over what President Barack Obama’s agenda will be over the remainder of his term.

Undoubtedly, the president will be forced to cooperate with Republicans like he has never had to do before. Domestic issues as the economy, fiscal policy, the debt, and government spending loom large for both parties at this point, and I seldom see the Obama Administration getting everything it wants without a little give and take. From an historical standpoint, the situation is reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s experience in 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s Republican Party recaptured the House after being in the minority for an unprecedented forty years. At that time, Clinton managed to heed the challenge. Will Obama be able to do the same thing? The answer is up in the air.

What I’m interested in is the election’s effects with regard to Obama’s foreign policy. Even with both houses of Congress in solid Democratic hands, the Obama Administration’s lack of success abroad was pervasive. The record is clear; a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an ever-closer nuclear Iran; a chaotic Iraq; an escalated war in Afghanistan; a neglected Latin American policy. Surely an opposing party in the legislature will not make things any easier for him? Right? Wrong. Read more “A Quick Reaction on the Midterms”

Bombs, Packages and UPS

To most Americans, foreign policy, war and the threat of terrorism have not been top issues in their minds during the campaign season. The economy and unemployment, for good reasons, have taken over those honors. But as the news of yet another uncovered terrorist plot demonstrates, terrorism isn’t going to magically fade away in the near future. So even if Americans are not weary of package bombs, disgruntled Army psychiatrists (Nidal Malik Hasan, the “Fort Hood shooter”) or American-Yemeni clerics inspiring western Muslims to wage jihad, terrorists of all forms are still desired to strike a blow to the United States and Western position.

Of course, fear should never dominate an electoral season, even if most of the candidates running for the Congress engage in a bit of scaremongering in their campaign ads. Voting out of a sense of fear is dangerous, both because people tend to think irrationally when frightened and because American history is full of politicians making terrible decisions from threats that are exaggerated. In fact, Americans focusing predominately on the economy can perhaps be seen as a victory against terrorism in the long run. A big objective of terrorism is attention from the public, and American citizens have refused to cater to this demand despite a number of attacks that were thwarted at the last minute.

Now that the American campaign season is over, we would nevertheless be wise to get back to reality. Despite ten years of effective counterterrorism efforts around the world, the American homeland and the West in general are still vulnerable.

A case in point is last week’s foiled plot orchestrated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most lethal and media savvy franchise of the larger Al Qaeda movement. While the investigation is ongoing, US, European, and Arab officials are confident that AQAP’s chief bombmaking expert (Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri) was behind the plan to smuggle explosive material through sealed packages on passenger planes. Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom stated that the bombs were designed to explode while the planes were in the air. Others content that the bombs were supposed to explode once they reached their final destination, a series of synagogues in the Chicago area.

Regardless of what the target was, the plot shows that AQAP in particular will leave no tactic untouched in their quest to send the American government a message.

An American intelligence official has told the Associated Press anonymously that American law enforcement intercepted a couple of mail packages in mid September which they suspect was sent by AQAP militants. The search that was conducted did not reveal any explosives, but authorities are increasingly confident that the shipment could have been a “dry run” for last week’s attack.

Al-Asiri is an interesting case study, not only due to his high ranking in the Al Qaeda organization but also because of his operational expertise and background. According to American and Saudi counterterrorism officials, al-Asiri used a similar explosive (commonly referred to as PETN) in an attempted assassination of Saudi counterterrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef a year ago.

That attempt failed but demonstrated to the government of Saudi Arabia that the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda is quite adaptive in its techniques.  Disguised as a young repentant Muslim seeking to reach out to the Saudis, the suicide bomber approached Prince Nayef and narrowly missed his target. The plan sounds juvenile at first, until you discover where the bomb was stored: in the attacker’s rectum. Detectors missed the bomb, allowing the operation to go virtually unfettered.

Ironically, this type of attack is quite similar to the operation aboard a Detroit bound airliner last Christmas. In that plot, the same PETN was sewn into the attacker’s underwear, which again escaped the routine checking of airline security. That plot was unsuccessful as well, but only because the operator (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) didn’t know how to set off the explosion.

Now that the midterm elections are over, the Obama Administration needs to get back to work. And an urgent priority that President Barack Obama needs to contend with is the growing lethality of AQAP, coupled with an increased investment in Yemen’s counterterrorism machinery.

Rumors of Negotiation in Afghanistan

Readers who have been following the news from Afghanistan lately have undoubtedly come across several front page articles suggesting that representatives of the Taliban have engaged in “peace talks” with the government in Kabul. The New York Times has run a couple of stories to this affect. On October 20 for instance the newspaper wrote that, “Taliban elite, aided by NATO, join talks for Afghan peace.”

Talks to end the war in Afghanistan involve extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group’s leadership, who are secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops, officials here say.

From all of these stories — and from that single quotation — one may get the picture that the Taliban’s rank and file are being decapitated on the battlefield, Mullah Mohammad Omar is shivering in his boots, and that the United States are brokering a peace deal that could finally end the war after ten long years. Last week I warned that reports of NATO turning the page in the war should be viewed with the utmost caution. Indeed, the reports themselves are a bit inaccurate, in that most simplify a very complex situation.

For instance, both The New York Times and The Washington Post frequently label the Taliban-Karzai discussions as peace talks, which imply that both factions are hammering out details for what a postwar Afghanistan will look like. Throughout the history of warfare, the term “peace talks” is generally invoked when all major sides of the conflict have come to a mutual understanding that the continuation of the war is detrimental to everyone’s interests. In Vietnam, this meant a peace agreement between the United States, South Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese government — one that unfortunately collapsed within two years. In the Gulf War, the end of hostilities culminated in the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait in exchange for an end to coalition operations. In other words, peace talks lead to peace agreements, which end fighting and establish a postwar order that aims to ensure stability in the future.

The ongoing talks with the Taliban should not be considered in the same light. For one, there is no evidence that the Taliban leaders that are participating in the discussions represent the entire Quetta Shura organization. Mullah Omar, the top official in the Quetta Shura, continues to deny that his group is engaging with Hamid Karzai’s administration. The Haqqani network, perhaps the most dangerous segment of the insurgency in Afghanistan today, virtually remains irreconcilable. And the Pakistani intelligence service has yet to endorse Taliban talks with the Afghan government.

If anything, the discussions in Kabul should be seen more as efforts toward reconciliation, not a outreach to establish peace. Taliban fighters, at least in the mid to upper ranks of the organization, are clearly hedging their bets and trying to solidify their position once the United States get out of the country completely. The problem is that those Taliban who are talking may not be representing the entire organization. Rather, these Taliban “negotiators” may be trying to ensure that they personally gain some sort of powerful position once NATO soldiers depart. There is a huge difference between negotiating for personal survival and negotiating for an end to the war.

As long as Pakistani intelligence holds the reigns of the Quetta Shura and dictates what they can and cannot do, we should all question whether current exchange between Taliban and Afghan government officials is truly the beginning of a comprehensive US-NATO-Afghan-Taliban peace accord.

Clearly, any insurgent who wishes to switch sides and join the Afghan government is a welcoming development. And if the Times and Washington Post reports are to be believed, both low and high level Taliban commanders are exploring the option. But a few fighters that are willing to ditch the Quetta Shura cannot, and should not, be interpreted as a peace negotiation.

I’m sure General David Petraeus recognizes this crucial difference. But it certainly isn’t being portrayed that way in the media.

Who’s to Blame for the Arabs’ Troubles?

Those interested in the politics and culture of the Arab world may want to check out this short blog post from Tom Ricks over at Foreign Policy. Granted, Ricks doesn’t exactly contribute anything himself in terms of substance; his post merely highlights a debate between two scholars about the state of the Middle East today. But this is precisely why Ricks is one of the most knowledgeable journalists in international relations today. He knows when to step back and share the spotlight with other perspectives. Read more “Who’s to Blame for the Arabs’ Troubles?”