Can Iran Be Contained?

Washington’s latest approach to the Iranian missile threat seems to be rather an old-fashioned one: isolating the problem (financially for instance) and attempting to destabilize it from within — in other words: containment.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writing for The Washington Post, isn’t having any of it. It is wrong, she writes, “to think a nuclear Iran can be contained.”

The theory of containment is a Cold War one, notes Pletka, and applying it to modern-day Iran is false. There is no mutually assured destruction because the Obama Administration is too hesitant to ensure it; there is no clear leadership in Iran, especially after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s heavily contested reelection last June; and there are no allies nearby, for the neighboring Arab states are afraid of Iran. Iran on the other hand, doesn’t lack self-confidence.

Tehran probably sees itself more in the mold of India, a great power whose nuclear weapons are acknowledged and now accepted, than of North Korea, a lunocracy without serious global aspirations or influence.

If Iranian officials ponder withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty, it’s because they no longer want to be constrained by status-quo powers and their status-quo treaties.

Pletka’s argument doesn’t sound too convincing however. After all, containment worked pretty well in the past. What’s really so different about Iran?

Moreover, Pletka largely ignores the Israeli perspective. She admits that a nuclear Iran will be tempted to use its nukes “as a shield from behind which it can engage in adventurism in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel” and that the latter is unlikely to tolerate that, but Israeli action can harm America’s interests.

Obama administration officials confess that they believe Israeli action will preempt our policy debate, as Israel’s tolerance for an Iranian nuke is significantly lower than our own. But subcontracting American national security to Israel is an appalling notion, and we cannot assume that an Israeli action would not provoke a wider regional conflict into which the United States would be drawn.

Thus America must strike now lest it be drawn into a “wider regional conflict” that Iran is unlikely to instigate in the first place? With troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and supposedly still fighting a Global War on Terror, it appears America is already quite involved in a wider Middle Eastern conflict.

The very reason Iran is developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is because it is afraid of Israel and the United States. Pletka believes that Iran is bullying us all into accepting it as a nuclear power while hardly anyone in Washington likes the notion of that — and Israel is unlikely to accept it.

Israel Threatens Force Against Settlers

Although the Israeli Goverment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank altogether, it is imposing a moratorium on the building of new homes in the occupied territories — and it is willing to use force against Israeli settlers who refuse to abide by it.

Some Jewish colonists were so enraged by the government’s announced settlement freeze that Defense Minister Ehud Barak felt compelled to warn them that military force might be used if they continue to flout the ten-month agreement. Settlers have repeatedly blocked inspectors and security personnel from entering their communities with resistance growing increasingly hostile.

According to a memo leaked to Israeli media, the Defense Department is preparing to deploy unmanned drones to photograph illegal settlement construction. The document goes on to specify that military police, special forces and communication specialists to jam cell phone frequences could all be called upon to enforce order.

The plan was probably leaked by settler sympathizers although there are skeptics who suggest that the authorities themselves were responsible as it could help the government portray itself as willing to confront domestic opposition for the sake of attaining peace.

Peace, however, is hardly to become a reality any time soon. With about 300,000 Israelis currently living in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authorities rejected the Netanyahu Goverment’s compromise to slowdown settlements construction with the exception of East Jerusalem and 3,000 homes currently under construction in the West Bank. Seeing as how the United States also insist that Israel shut down settlement construction in its entirety, there is little reason to assume that any sort of negotiations will be resumed in the near future.

The Iranian Missile Threat

One might not be too much impressed anymore with reports about Iranian missile tests, seeing as Iran is still wrecked by student uprisings while their president uses his UN podium time to deny the Holocaust. Fortunately there is John Noonan at The Weekly Standard to explain why they are something to worry about nevertheless.

First, the Sajjil-2 is a solid fuel rocket. That’s the type of power source that we use in our own Minuteman III rockets, as solid fuel is stable in flight and requires no preparation time ahead of a launch. Liquid fuel, which powers the Iranian Shahab-3 fleet, is highly corrosive and sloshes around in a rocket’s downstage, destabilizing flight and degrading accuracy. It’s so toxic that the fuel eats away at a missile’s internal tanks, and thus needs to be inserted right before launch. That prep time is important, as it gives us a little extra warning prior to a hostile missile launch, which could be used to kill Iranian birds before they fly. With this new Sajjil-2 system, Iran has the ability to keep their missiles hot and ready for execution, killing any chance of an advanced warning or neutralization actions prior to a launch.

No good stuff, certainly. So far though, it appears only Israel really has to worry.

Second concern is that this missile is staged. Our Minuteman III ICBMs are a three stage, solid fuel system that have impressive range and accuracy (particularly impressive considering the fact that the fleet is approaching its 40th anniversary). Iran now has a two stage, solid fuel rocket. When they figure out how to add that third stage to the Sajill-2, they’ll have a delivery system with the legs to reach the east coast of the United States.

Wonderful. This means that when they’re done, Iran has the ability not only to threaten Israel, NATO, and American military bases throughout the region but the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

What’s more, Noonan notes that these missiles are built for a specific purpose: “strategic delivery of a nuclear reentry system.”

So what is America doing? For one thing, it announced its intention to isolate Iran financially, stopping money from going in and, hopefully, from going out, for it’s Iranian cash that is financing such nastiness as Hezbollah and the war in Yemen, among other things.

Washington also intends to loosen sanctions on computer software and boost acces to Internet services as Google and Twitter, seeing as how these are helping students organize themselves in protests against the government that are still happening throughout the country every now and then. Isolating the problem and attempting to destabilize it from within seems to be the approach nowadays — something that sounds a bit like good ol’ fashioned containment, don’t you think?

The Peace Abbas Rejected

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has revealed the peace plan that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September of last year. “Abbas did not respond, and negotiations ended,” according to Haaretz.

The peace plan encompassed an exchange of land, with Israel gaining Jerusalem and a little over 6 percent of the West Bank — parts that are home to 75 percent of the settlement population living in the occupied territory. Dozens of other settlements in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern Samarian hills and in the Hebron region were to have been dismantled.

The Palestinians were to have been compensated for the loss of territory with strips of land north and south of the West Bank and additional ground east of the Gaza Strip. To provide safe passage between the two parts of Palestine, Olmert offered to secure a highway that would remain Israeli territory but lack any Israeli presence.

Haaretz notes that in a formal reply, the former prime minister’s office claimed that their map contains a “number of inaccuracies that are not consistent with the map that was ultimately presented” but based as it is on different official sources, it ought to provide a rough idea of what was offered to the Palestinians nonetheless.

Although the Olmert Plan was less generous than what Ehud Barak offered as prime minister at the 2000 Camp David Summit, it is still difficult to understand why Abbas refused to consider it. He could have provided his people with a sovereign state and end the conflict once and for all but apparently, it wasn’t enough.

Now, due to some clumsy diplomacy on the part of the Obama Administration, Abbas is refusing to so much as sit down with the Israelis in spite of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer to largely freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank. One wonders what more the Palestinians are honestly expecting to get.

The Quiet War in Yemen

It is a conflict that has been going on for several years but one that receives little attention in our Western media: the war in Yemen. Since 2004 the Shiite Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shī‘ah Islam, are one of the most impoverished groups in Yemen and feel discriminated against by the government. Thousands of people have already been killed in the onslaught with tens of thousands more fleeing the conflict zone.

The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once described their uprising as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although it is especially the former that worries about the violence on its southern borders.

Out of precaution, Saudi Arabia built a wall along parts of the border but increasingly it has had to resort to military force to stop Zaidi fighters from entering the kingdom.

The conflict flared up again last July when in the Sa’dah province, nine foreigners were abducted by Zaidi rebels of which six are still missing. During the weeks thereafter, the Zaidis managed to gain ground until the government launched a major offensive on August 11 with air- and missile strikes against known Zaidi bases in the border area with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi kingdom got involved early November when a sentry was shot by rebels and border patrols were fired upon. On November 5, Saudi Arabia also launched airstrikes against Zaidi bases, claiming to target only rebels within its borders but actually involving itself in the Yemeni war.

Yemen can use the Saudi help. The government lacks both the funds and the public support to wage a violent campaign in the north and so far, it has been unable to break the deadlock.

It remains to be seen to what extent foreign countries, Saudi Arabia foremost among them but possibly the United States also, are willing to emerge themselves in the trenches to win this battle for Yemen. With the support of American intelligence and special forces, the war could easily be decided in Yemen’s favor but Washington risks upsetting Iran and Islamic fundamentalists worldwide which, considering the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, is not a welcome prospect right now.

Jerusalem Capital of Two States?

After conferring for two days in Brussels the foreign ministers of the European Union called for “the urgent resumption of negotiations that will lead […] to a two-state solution with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.” With a soon-to-be-appointed joint foreign minister and the Americans once again committed to bring about peace in the Middle East, Europe too appears determined to finally achieve some result.

The two-state solution is something most European countries have supported for a long time, so what’s new? Well, for one thing, the Council decrees that it “will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem,” unless both Israel and the Palestinians agree otherwise. A way must be found for Jerusalem itself to become the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state — “through negotiations.” Read more “Jerusalem Capital of Two States?”

Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?

The Obama Administration got off to a promising start in the Middle East. It announced to refocus on the war in Afghanistan; the president himself delivered a fine speech in Cairo, Egypt, in which he called upon the Muslim world to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord” and special envoys were appointed for Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Israel and Palestine.

Now, almost a year later, the new strategy doesn’t seem to have amounted to much yet. Even The New York Times, typically supportive of the Democratic administration, has to admit that Barack Obama’s credibility in the region has “diminished”. The awkward strategy of publicly demanding a settlement freeze from the Israelis and getting none has deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The administration, writes the paper, “apparently had no plan for what they would do if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said no.”

Netanyahu offered a compromise — a ten month freeze, exempting Jerusalem and the construction of schools, synagogues and 3,000 homes that were already being built. Although this went far beyond anything Israel had promised so far in relation to the settlements, the president insisted on more and in doing so, he strengthened the Palestinians in their resolve. They rejected the offer. Read more “Is Obama Failing in the Middle East?”