Following the successful ousting of the Baath regime on April 9, 2003, Iraq began its transition toward a process of democratization that gradually achieved important gains in transferring some powers to the previously disenfranchised population. This transition has progressed from direct U.S. rule to partial Iraqi participation, and finally full Iraqi administration of the country. Since Iraqis reclaimed sovereignty in 2004 they have managed to write and ratify a constitution, hold regular provincial and general elections, and begin to establish a tradition of peaceful transfer of political power and parliamentary life. This is a very significant reversal of the authoritarian rule in Iraq between 1958 and 2003, when governments were only replaced by violence and coups.
However, the slow transition to democracy and the many setbacks in the process are still frustrating to many Iraqis. This is mainly because Iraqis have no consensus on the shape of their future regime. They are divided on the questions of federalism and the scope of the central government's powers; a majority government versus a power-sharing arrangement; the identity of Iraq as a neutral state with policies driven by its national interests or as a part of some larger regional context (Arab, Islamic, etc.); among many other disputes.
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Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt's political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been fraught since the revolution -- and on both sides there are those who say it's time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively to advance them.
For the United States, Egypt's revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit, long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence of a pluralistic Egyptian political system.
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During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, and its inability to dictate domestic political outcomes in another country. As President Barack Obama recently stated, "We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation." Following the misguided bluster and hubris of recent years, this humility is a laudable and needed corrective.
However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, entreaties to restraint now mask a more enduring reality: in dealing with the country's newly-empowered Islamists, U.S. policy in Egypt remains trapped in the old ways of thinking that produced a bet on authoritarian stability.
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The Arab League Ministerial Council that convened in Doha Sunday to review the Arab Peace Initiative and reevaluate the peace process concluded without any decisive action. Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani maintained that the initiative would "not be on offer for ever." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas objected saying, "It is not permissible to talk about sidelining the Arab Peace Initiative. It should stay." Abbas went on to warn that withdrawal of the initiative could lead to regional war. From press reports, there is no sign that the ministers undertook an in-depth evaluation of the initiative itself to better understand why it has not been successful, or to consider how to revitalize it.
The initiative, adopted by the League of Arab States in March 2002, was an historic opening that could have made a major contribution toward resolving the Israeli- Palestinian as well as the Israeli-Arab conflicts. When the initiative was put forward, Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel, and there was no likelihood that the architect of Israel's settlement policy would agree to the withdrawal to the 1967 lines called for by the Arab states. The primary audience for the initiative was not the Israeli government, but the Israeli people. The message to Israelis essentially was: In the context of a comprehensive peace, with your neighbors and the Palestinians, the entire Arab world will "consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended" and "establish normal relations with Israel."
Despite the estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in the Syrian conflict, the United States has shown little appetite for a Libya-style intervention, this time without United Nations Security Council approval. The Obama administration has been candid, however, about what might change its mind. In August, President Barack Obama first asserted that Syria's use, or movement, of chemical or biological weapons (CBW) would be a "red line" that would result in "enormous consequences." The British and French quickly followed suit. Just this week, the significance of these red lines was reiterated in view of intelligence reports that the Assad regime is weaponizing Sarin nerve gas.
The Obama administration has been silent about its rationales for these red lines. But reasons matter. As with any use of force in international relations, the legitimacy of an intervention in Syria would hinge on the strength of its moral and legal justifications. Are the Obama administration's red lines primarily designed to protect civilians? Or, are they intended to warn President Bashar al-Assad not to let CBW fall into the hands of terrorists? As it stands, the motivations for the red lines are unclear. Ironically, however, the Obama administration risks resurrecting the much-maligned Bush Doctrine of preemptive self-defense.
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When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent. Still, it seems strange that Republicans want to remind voters that President Barack Obama extricated the United States from a difficult and unpopular war in Iraq. But that is just what Peter Feaver did in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government on October 12. He said that the president had opened up a "civil-military problem" for himself, because "significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq." He went on to accuse the administration, and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, of blowing the chance to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, either through incompetence or a lack of serious commitment, that would have permitted the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Those are some pretty stiff charges. (Full disclosure: Feaver and I went to graduate school together. He is a great guy, but just plain wrong here.)
We can set aside, for this discussion, the big question about whether keeping that many U.S. troops in Iraq would have been a good thing. It is pretty clear what the American people think the answer is. The interesting thing about Feaver's thumbnail account of the supposed failure of the administration on this issue is the utter absence of Iraqis from the story. When the United States fails to achieve a goal, it must be either because we really were not committed to it, or we messed up. The other guys just are not that important. It really is all about us.
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While most media attention focused on the cartoon bomb presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, something even more newsworthy passed almost without notice: Netanyahu made it clear that he has endorsed U.S. President Barack Obama's policy on Iran. By literally drawing a red line to show how far he could tolerate Iran's nuclear program, Netanyahu in effect approved of the international efforts led by the Obama administration to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In fact, while he would never admit it in the midst of a campaign, even Mitt Romney picked up on this view and has, in practice, endorsed Obama's approach. That sudden outbreak of unspoken consensus is the real story of the last week of diplomacy. The real question now is what can be done with the broad agreement that there is both time and space for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program that has created a new window of opportunity. And that depends on two big wildcards: what Netanyahu's red lines really are, and Iran's real intentions and capabilities.
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Historically, Washington has been more comfortable extolling democracy than accepting its consequences, particularly in the strategically important Middle East. Algerian democracy had no place in the "new world order" of former President George H.W. Bush. His administration backed a military coup against an elected Islamist parliament in Algeria. Palestinian democracy did not fit in the "Freedom Agenda" of George W. Bush, who refused to deal with the Hamas-led government Palestinian voters elected in 2006. Now, as Egyptians build their own democracy, the Obama administration is struggling to synch its policies with its early hopes for "A New Beginning" in U.S.-Muslim relations, particularly evident in this week's New York visit by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for the U.N. General Assembly.
Morsi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was elected in 2005 with 6.3 million votes. No independent observers considered the contest free or fair, and Mubarak's landslide 88 percent victory said more about his iron-fisted rule than his popularity. Prior to being ousted in February 2011, Mubarak met multiple times with U.S. President Barack Obama: in Egypt, before Obama delivered his speech at Cairo University, as well as at the White House for bilateral and multilateral discussions.
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As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union's arms embargo on Syria.
Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."
The death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials in Libya last Wednesday should serve to draw much-needed attention to an increasingly untenable contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Even while it seeks to recover from this latest attack by Islamic radicals, the United States continues to support or tolerate the mobilization of adherents of that very same ideology elsewhere in the region, most clearly in Syria and in Bahrain. There, U.S. policymakers should expect equally frightening results.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was carried out by suspected members of Ansar al-Sharia, or Partisans of Islamic Law, a group adhering to the same Salafi (or Wahhabi) religious interpretation more commonly associated with Saudi Arabia. And while the popular anti-American protests that have continued to spread across the region cannot be painted with a single brushstroke, and doubtless have roots in local political grievances, still one feature they share is the conspicuous presence -- and organizational power -- of Sunni Islamists.
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For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country's president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.
While John Brennan's, President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, recent speech on U.S. policy in Yemen still echoed in the halls of the Council of Foreign Relations, the rebel Houthi movement was busy planning an anti-American demonstration galvanizing hundreds of supporters across the country. Although the Houthis are by no means representative of the Yemeni public, they are tapping into a widespread sentiment in order to garner sympathy and support. Originally emerging as a geographically-contained, rebellious movement seeking autonomy and independence from Sanaa's central government and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, they are now positioning themselves as a revolutionary force that seeks to advocate for the downtrodden and overturn injustice.
In 2008 -- 18 years after New York City threw him a ticker tape parade for helping to end apartheid -- it took an act of Congress to ensure that Nelson Mandela did not need a special waiver to enter the United States, finally removing his terrorist designation. In November 2011, Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah was removed from the "Individuals and Entities Designated by the State Department Under E.O. 13224" terrorist list. He had been dead for three and a half years. The "German Taliban," Eric Breininger, was dead for more than a week when he was added to the list. Although these may seem like bureaucratic oversights, they are indicative of wider problems in terrorist listing systems. While attempting to punish terrorist groups and restrict their activities, these systems have reduced the space for diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These disparate examples also highlight the continuing lack of agreement on who is a "terrorist."
Yemen's recently installed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi surprised many observers by moving swiftly to establish control over the battered nation's military. His efforts, backed by an unusually assertive United Nations mediation effort, offer a rare glimpse of hope for a nation battered by more than a year of instability and political conflict.
Few believed that the new government would be able to dislodge the entrenched power of the family of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But Hadi has already moved to sideline two prominent members of that family faction. Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, Saleh's half brother and commander of the air force, was "promoted" into a position of impotence. Tarik Saleh, Saleh's nephew and commander of a powerful brigade encircling Sanaa, was offered a new posting in the remote eastern desert province of Hadramaut.
It's easy to hate Bashar al-Assad, the crypto-modernizer-turned bloody tyrant. What is there to commend about a regime that kills thousands of its own? How could it not be fair to demonize a president who, in his first interview after coming to power after his father's death in 2000, questioned the very notion of a civil society in Syria? Yet however good righteous indignation may feel, it makes for bad policy.
When U.S. President Barack Obama called for Egypt's octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak to step aside last year, he could be confident that by doing so he was breathing new life into the "deep state" -- ruled by the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). U.S. policy was not abetting revolution in Egypt so much as short-circuiting it, even if we tried to convince ourselves otherwise. And our policy was consistent with the often inchoate sensibilities of Egypt's majority. Remember the popular refrain: "The Army and the People are One!" In that case, U.S. policy was both right and smart.
Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to begin tomorrow for the first time since January 2011. These talks will offer one of the best opportunities that the current administration has had to begin a diplomatic process that could help end the nuclear stalemate with Iran.
Since discussion about the possibility of these talks first began last month we have heard much talk about a diplomatic "window of opportunity." This phrase made its first appearance at a White House press conference where U.S. President Barak Obama explained: "We still have a window of opportunity where [the standoff over Iran's nuclear program] can still be solved diplomatically." This phrase has since been repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, among others.
Talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany resume again this weekend, with Tehran giving hints that it may take a more constructive attitude to negotiations than it did during the previous round in 2011. Iranian nuclear officials have suggested that Iran might curtail its 20 percent uranium enrichment program, which would meet almost halfway the expected demands of the United States and its so-called P5+1 negotiating partners.
The United States and its allies reportedly plan to demand the immediate cessation of uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and a closure of the hardened Fordow enrichment plant, possibly in exchange for promises of no further sanctions. If the United States and its international partners are able to achieve these objectives, they will significantly slow Iran's progress toward having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, score a victory for the two-track policy of diplomacy and economic pressure, and provide a template for more fully resolving outstanding issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program in future talks.
BERLIN - If at one time European governments believed the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran was far more frightening for the United States than for those across the Atlantic, those days are in the past. As talks near on Iran's nuclear program, Tehran should know that European officials' views are somewhere in the middle between America's caution and Israel's alarm.
This major shift among European states was on display during a recent closed-door meeting in Berlin, co-organized by the Heinrich Boell Stiftung, the political foundation affiliated with Germany's Green Party, and the American Jewish Committee Berlin. Not only did officials and experts agree with many in the Obama administration that the policy of containment has failed, all backed the demand that Iran must agree in upcoming talks scheduled for April 13 with the 5+1 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to stop enriching uranium for a certain period.
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As the brutal crackdown in Syria turns one year old with little sign of a solution on the horizon, skeptics and defenders of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine can agree: Syria has put the doctrine, which obligates states to be concerned about the welfare of those outside its borders, in crisis. Critics charge that it requires intervention on the Libyan precedent, exposing R2P as a crusading utopianism mandating perpetual war for peace. Supporters worry the doctrine will be made into a discredited farce if Bashar al-Assad is allowed to massacre innocents with impunity. In one colorful phrasing, "R2P, R.I.P."
Both are wrong. Military intervention in Syria would not only be a misapplication of R2P, but would radically weaken the doctrine's role in building both a better Middle East and a better world. Our responsibility to protect both Syrians and the R2P doctrine itself demands that we stay out of it.
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The battle of Homs is over and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have taken control of the besieged city. Yet despite what they viewed as a "tactical defeat," Syria's armed rebels, who are operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- a group of defected soldiers from the Syrian military -- vowed to continue the fight until the Syrian regime is toppled.
The balance of power tilts heavily in favor of the Syrian forces and, barring unforeseen circumstances, will likely remain so for months to come. But there is an increasing possibility that the governments of Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait could provide financial, military, and logistical assistance to the FSA in the not so distant future, bolstering its overall strength. Yet public statements by senior Qatari and Saudi officials expressing their governments' desire to arm the FSA notwithstanding, there is no evidence yet of substantial amounts of money or weapons being transferred to the rebels.
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Even before the looming confrontation with Iran, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been engaged in their own related tussle -- more civilized and subdued no doubt, but arguably no less consequential. Their dueling speeches this week were striking in the degree to which they simultaneously mirrored and defied each other. It was no coincidence.
The U.S. president lavished praise on the one Israeli in the audience who most accurately reflects his own pragmatic views (Israeli President Shimon Peres) while bringing up Netanyahu only fleetingly. The Israeli prime minister enthusiastically applauded the many Americans in the room who share his more belligerent stance (members of Congress) while politely referring to Obama. Each paid lip service to his counterpart's central claim -- Obama, by acknowledging that Israel was entitled to its own sovereign security decisions; Netanyahu by conceding that the nuclear standoff would be best resolved by diplomacy. Both then proceeded to ruthlessly tear it apart: the president, by underscoring the imprudence of precipitous military action and the need to give negotiations time; the prime minister by stating flatly that Israel had waited long enough. Finally, the two leaders took aim at statements they argued were either dead wrong, or deadly dangerous -- Obama decried careless talk of war; Netanyahu mocked the endless recitation of war's perils. Neither bothered mentioning to whom they were referring, but there was no need. Not a day goes by without Israeli officials raising the specter of military action; meanwhile, a succession of U.S. officials have warned about the catastrophe such action might provoke.
Seldom has it been as justified to be pessimistic about developments between the United States, Israel, and Iran. This dysfunctional state of affairs is getting so out of hand that the danger of war is no longer just a remote possibility but instead looms large on the horizon. David Ignatius reported on Feb. 2 in Washington Post that "[Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May, or June," though he does not believe that the final decision has been taken yet.
In a couple of days Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Washington to reiterate the Israeli position that keeping up the pressure on Iran requires a credible threat of war. In effect he will argue that President Barack Obama must toe the Israeli party line both for the sake of keeping a united front against Iran but also, ironically, because he does not want his own decision-making process on a possible war on Iran influenced by Washington.
As tensions escalate between the West and Iran over the country's nuclear program, some Western analysts cannot help but be excited that Turkey's relationship with Iran also seems to be deteriorating. Indeed, the two neighbors, who only recently appeared to be forging a close friendship, now find themselves on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, with Turkey's decision to host a NATO missile shield as yet another point of divergence. But to suggest that these tensions will lead to a complete breakdown in the Turkey-Iran relationship is to sensationalize the rift, just as earlier fears of an anti-Western Turkish-Iranian alliance misunderstood Ankara's engagement with Tehran.
To be sure, Turkey and Iran's battle for regional hegemony has intensified recently amidst historic changes in the Middle East. In Syria, Turkey has abandoned its close friendship with President Bashar al-Assad, and is leading international efforts to bolster the Syrian opposition and end the humanitarian crisis there. Iran, by contrast, remains one of the few supporters of the Assad regime, and continues to provide arms, surveillance, and training to Syrian security forces as they brutally crush protests.
With daily massacres in Homs and prosecution of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cairo, the simmering conflict in Sanaa has faded into the background. Yet on February 21 attention will turn again to Yemen on the occasion of its presidential election. The election might seem hollow, as there is only one candidate in the race, however, it is still a pivotal step in Yemen's political transition -- and the United States should use this moment to press for a real shift away from the former regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The national vote could be more aptly named a referendum, as the current Vice President Abed Rabbo Hadi Mansour, who assumed temporary authority via a deal advanced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), will be anointed Yemen's next leader barring any catastrophic outbreaks of violence.
While on the surface the election might seem like window-dressing at best, the psychological impact for Yemen of moving into the next phase is powerful. At a minimum, the election turns the page on decades of disappointment, despair, and disillusionment. And definitively removing Saleh from power could pave the way for opening new space for real political competition and accountable governance. He is a man who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, in his own words, "by dancing on the heads of snakes," through masterful skill in manipulating tribal alliances, political allegiances, and patronage networks. After prior pledges to leave power were reversed -- and months of hand-wringing when Saleh agreed to sign the deal and then three times reneged -- just having this official exit stamp is a relief.
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Critics are right to interpret the decision by the government of Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri -- to refer 43 pro-democracy activists, including 19 Americans, to trial before a criminal court, where they will be charged with distributing illegal foreign funds "with the intention of destabilizing Egypt's national security" -- as a blatant attempt to intimidate pro-democracy forces in the country.
Nor can there be the slightest doubt that Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is directly behind the attempt. The evidence is twofold. None of the three interim cabinets that have taken office since the SCAF assumed power in February 2011 has been able to undertake policy initiatives in any public sphere without military approval. Additionally, no mere civilian would be allowed to jeopardize United States military assistance worth $1.3 billion annually on his or her own initiative, as Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga has seemingly done.
When safety regulation makes automobiles safer, drivers (though obviously not all of them) are tempted to drive more recklessly, creating partially or completely offsetting effects on the overall level of safety. Economists have entertained this idea since it was first introduced by Sam Peltzman in the 1970s, some have rejected it while others, some of whom relied on data from NASCAR races, validated it. The "Peltzman effect" was also tested during the Cold War and more broadly in the realm of strategic affairs. Specifically, scholars have sought to understand the effect of the added perceived security a state acquires from nuclear weapons on its behavior in world politics.
Let us assume for a moment that Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability (which is anything but inevitable given the many technical and political unknowns), a "nuclear seat belt or air bag" so to speak, will it behave like a more reckless driver? It is no surprise that analysts have had disagreements on this issue, some strong, others more nuanced. Most analysts however believe that a nuclear Iran -- whether overtly nuclear-armed or capable of producing weapons quickly -- would present an even greater challenge to Western interests and regional security than it does today, more aggressively protecting its strategic interests, projecting its power, pursuing its ideological ambitions, and meddling in the politics and security of its neighbors. A nuclear Iran could look more like Pakistan, a country that, after its 1998 nuclear tests, was feeling more confident on the regional and international stage and was arguably taking more risks in its policies toward its historical rival, India.
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Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested recently that Israel's moment of decision on Iran would come not when it obtained nuclear weapons but, instead, how close Iran is to entering what he called "a zone of immunity." Barak's concern was that beyond this threshold it would no longer be possible to halt Iran's nuclear program.
What would comprise such a threshold? Increasingly, this means Iran's shifting of its enrichment activities to the underground facility in Qom as well as with the moving to Qom of more of the uranium previously enriched in Natanz. Barak seemed to imply that a military operation designed to abort Iran's nuclear efforts after the facility in Qom becomes fully operational would be meaningless or irrelevant -- it will be either impossible physically or so costly as to render it prohibitive.
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As the prospects for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program dim, and an anxious American public contemplates the grim prospect of military action, attention has turned again to the prospect of changing Iran's regime. But is U.S. regime change in Iran, whether through sanctions or direct action, really a viable prospect?
Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz have argued that the United States should pursue sanctions that lead to regime change. According to them, through sanctions, "a democratic counterrevolution in Persia might be reborn. A democratic Iran might keep the bomb that Khamenei built. But the U.S., Israel, Europe, and probably most of the Arab world would likely live with it without that much fear." The attraction of removing the Islamic Republic may be obvious. Sanctions may slow down Iran's nuclear drive but most likely will not roll back the program. Military strikes would do damage but are hardly guaranteed to destroy major facilities such as the recently opened Qom enrichment plant, buried beneath 300 feet of rock. For many, only a change of the regime would diminish the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
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four armed Americans in civilian
clothes in Baghdad who claimed they were there to protect Shiites heading
toward Karbala. The two men and two women were reportedly carrying automatic
weapons and driving a silver BMW with unregistered diplomatic plates. The
Iraqis said that they found this all suspicious, since there had been no prior
coordination and the law forbids such American activities without notifying the
responsible authorities. The U.S. Embassy reportedly stepped in within 15
minutes of the arrest, and the four were released without charge. It isn't
obvious exactly what was going on, but we can all probably guess.
Baghdad governor Salah Abd al-Razzaq told reporters that even if the group were U.S. intelligence operatives, their activities had nothing to do with Iraqi security and were a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. He demanded an explanation from the U.S. Embassy and a promise that it not be repeated. A diplomatic crisis seems to have been averted, but the curious episode should be a cautionary tale. Whatever really happened, this could have easily escalated into a major diplomatic showdown and a legal nightmare for the Embassy.
Expect a lot of more of these kinds of incidents in the coming days. While there hasn't been much coverage of the incident in English, it's being heavily covered in the Arab and Iraqi media. Arresting and exposing American operatives in Iraq is going to be politically popular and the local media will eat it up. A lot of ambitious political forces might find it useful to be seen on TV arresting an armed American. Armed Americans traveling around Iraq, whether security contractors or intelligence operatives, are going to be an endless source of potential crisis. And people wonder why the Pentagon staunchly opposed maintaining any U.S. military presence in Iraq without a SOFA which guaranteed immunity from prosecution for American soldiers?
Facing an unprecedented array of sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, Iran's leaders opened 2012 by announcing that a new uranium enrichment site in the mountains near Qom would soon become operational. The recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist -- believed by many to be another strike by Israel in a covert campaign to slow Iran's nuclear program -- has only further raised tensions between Iran, the West, and Israel. The assassination and related sabotage efforts may not ultimately halt Iran's program, and may in fact provoke an Iranian response that would increase the odds of escalation leading to a conventional conflict. Thus begins the latest round in the perennial international guessing game: will this be the year that Israel uses military force to try to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions?
To hear it from U.S. politicians, the Iranian nuclear program is a threat to Israel's very existence. Some urge the Obama administration to publicly support Israel's position by leaving "all options on the table" -- diplomatic speak for a military strike. But before heading down the road of military action, those concerned for Israeli security should understand not only the risks of using force against Iran. They should also take heed of the complexity of Israeli views toward Iran.
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