The Iran-Israel Nuclear Conundrum: Obama’s Next Move

This week President Obama silenced the drums of war sounded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Republican leaders to attack Iran; but not for long.

Against the backdrop of the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention, Netanyahu railed that Iran was on the brink of enriching uranium to weapons grade level and threatened to launch unilateral air strikes against Tehran. GOP presidential hopefuls endorsed the call for “Holy War,” and decried Obama’s policy toward Iran as “appeasement.” As expected, Obama told AIPAC conventioneers that he has “Israel’s back,” and implored all to give “sanctions” and “diplomacy” a chance.” We’ve seen this movie before, right? Wrong.      Continue reading

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Russia’s Strategy to Block Obama’s Bid for Nuke Free Iran

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BROOKS FOREIGN POLICY REVIEW: ANALYSIS 

October 7, 2009

by Webster Brooks, Editor BFPR

 

 

Since assuming office, the nexus of President Obama’s diplomacy to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon has focused on convincing Russia to endorse tougher sanctions against Tehran and scaling back its support of their nuclear program. Instead, Moscow has attempted to leverage the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to improve its own geo-strategic position by undermining American power in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. The chances that President Obama will secure meaningful Russian support to halt Iran’s nuclear program are remote for two reasons. First, as Defense Secretary Gates recently stated, Iran’s uranium enrichment program has advanced too far to be stopped, even if the U.S. or Israel launches air strikes against its nuclear sites. Second, Moscow regards Iran as a strategic ally. Russia’s national security interests will not be threatened, but enhanced by a nuclear armed Iran. President Obama cannot be faulted for negotiating with Russia to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, the political assumptions underlying President Obama’s overtures to Moscow are troubling. It remains to be seen if President Obama’s desire to “reset” relations with Moscow means that he regards Russia as a potential ally, strategic competitor or strategic adversary. Clearly, the nature of Russia’s involvement with Iran’s nuclear program and its actions strongly conflict with America’s national security interests. Thus a valid question arises; what does the President Obama want from Russia and what is he prepared to concede to Moscow? 

Moscow’s position in Iran is formidable and multi-faceted. Over the past two years, Russia has actively strengthened its position in Iran and the Persian Gulf. In February 2009 Russian scientists completed Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor that can produce enough nuclear material for thirty atomic bombs a year (off the books). Russia and Iran signed a ten-year nuclear fuel contract to operate Bushehr after Moscow provided the technical expertise, nuclear fuel, equipment, parts, and other components for the reactor. Russia is also receiving spent fuel from Iran to reprocess into low-grade enriched uranium material. In March 2009, Moscow also began executing its contract to deliver advanced long-range S-300 air-defense systems to Iran. Combined with its purchase of the Russian made TOR-M1 surface-to-air system, Iran is racing to deploy its own missile defense shield in an effort to discourage if not complicate possible airstrikes against their nuclear sites. If Iran is able to field a credible defense missile shield system around its nuclear sites and platforms for medium and short range missiles, Tehran’s capacity to project power in the Persian Gulf will be greatly enhanced. 

Iran’s missile and nuclear program are exerting tremendous pressure on the U.S., NATO and its regional allies. When President Obama cancelled the missile defense shield plans for Poland and the Czech Republic on September 17, it was widely suggested that he caved in to Russia to win Putin’s support for stronger sanctions against Iran. Arguably, President Obama and NATO’s revised plan to more quickly deploy a comprehensive mobile land, sea and space- based missile interceptor system across Europe and the Caucuses could hardly be considered capitulation. Nevertheless, Russia is clearly angling for opportunities to sow confusion and discord in the U.S.-led NATO Alliance, which it regards as an adversarial block.  

  In addition to Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, Moscow is also preparing to come to Tehran’s aid should the U.S. impose sanctions targeting  gasoline imports to Iran. Currently, imported gasoline products make up one-third of the country’s consumption, most of which are shipped to Iran through the Persian Gulf. Sanctions on Iranian gas imports could devastate the Iranian regime and economy, thereby forcing Tehran to make real concessions on its nuclear program. Iran is importing more than 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) and has already started stockpiling gasoline in preparation for possible sanctions. Russia and other former Soviet states would be able to fill Iran’s basic import needs by ship and rail transport from the north and the Caspian Sea basin. Russia is one of the largest refiners of oil products in the world and could increase its capacity to supply Iran with refined gasoline for a considerable period of time. Moscow would also reap massive profits from a spike in energy prices if sanctions are imposed. Tehran’s dependency on Russia would also increase if sanctions on gas imports are enacted; something the U.S. wishes to avoid. Along with gas imports from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Malaysia, Iran could survive sanctions on imported gasoline which is considered the strongest weapon in President Obama’s arsenal to nudge Iran off the nuclear weapons path.   Russia’s strategic relationship with Iran on its nuclear program, weapons sales and energy issues is vital to Russian national security interests. Moscow is not only seeking a beachhead in the energy rich Persian Gulf that challenges U.S. supremacy, but Russia desperately wants to secure its southern perimeter in the Caucuses. Fearful of militant Muslim movements like Chechnya spreading among the 20 million Muslims within its borders, Moscow has reached an understanding with Iran not to fan the flames of Shiia Muslim extremism in Russia, the Southern Caucuses or bordering Central Asia states.   At the same time that Russia is buttressing Iran as a strategic ally in the Persian Gulf, Moscow has started building a counterweight to Iran by initiating arms sales to its chief regional rival; Saudi Arabia. In 2008, King Abdullah agreed to a $4 billion deal to purchase 150 Russian T-9 tanks, 100 MI-17 and MI-35 tanks hundreds of BMP Armored Infantry Combat Vehicles and 20 BVIC air defense systems. Putin also offered the Saudi’s nuclear reactors and cooperation on a space program to invest in launching Saudi satellites. Abdullah’s shift to allow the Russians arms sales shocked the United States and Western Europe who fear Moscow’s growing role in the Persian Gulf.  

For all these reasons, President Obama’s attempts to cut a deal with Russia to shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program are fraught with danger. The price Moscow is demanding to halt its support of Iran’s nuclear program is American acknowledgement that Central Asia is within Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence. It is not a price President Obama can afford to pay. Nor can Russia guarantee that Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be thwarted.

In the aftermath of the October 1 meetings in Geneva between the P-5+1 and Iran, President Obama said “Talk is no substitute for action. Our patience is not unlimited. If Iran fails to live up to its promises of cooperation, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely and we are prepared to move toward increased pressure.” Obama gave Iran two weeks to allow the newly disclosed uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom to be inspected by the I.A.E.A . Obama also urged Iranian to ship low-enriched uranium to a third country to further process the material for use in a research reactor in Tehran. Obama said “Taking the step of transferring its low-enriched uranium to a third country would be a step toward building confidence that Iran’s program is in fact peaceful.” According to reports Russia agreed to perform the further processing of low-enriched uranium from Iran. France would fabricate it into fuel assemblies for use at the Tehran research reactor, which is under international inspection. All the parties to the talks agreed to return to the negotiating table in late October to continue discussions.  Iran will likely concede to inspections of the Qom facility, as they were caught red-handed trying to conceal the existence of the facility. It is also possible that Iran may agree to ship “some” of its spent fuel to outside countries (principally Russia). But under no circumstances will Tehran agree to suspend their uranium enrichment activities. Thus the stage is set for yet another showdown in late October. As part of the P-5+1 group Russia will play a critical role in the outcome of the talks. That should give President Obama pause for concern.   ***

  Webster Brooks is a Senior at the Center for New Politics and Policy (CNPP) and Editor of Brooks Foreign Policy Review, the international affairs arm of CNPP. His articles on foreign policy have appeared in numerous newspapers and websites in the Middle East, Eurasia and in the United States. He may be contacted at editor@foreignpolicyreview.org  The Center for New Politics and Policy is based in Washington, D.C.   

Obama’s Critics on Missille Defense Shield Cancellation Are Wrong

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BROOKS FOREIGN POLICY REVIEW ANALYSIS

September 27, 2009

“President Bush was right that Iran’s ballistic missile program poses a significant threat. That’s why I’m committed to deploying strong missile defense systems which are adaptable to the threats of the 21st century. This approach is also consistent with NATO’s missile defense efforts and provides opportunities for enhanced international collaboration going forward and we are bound by the solemn commitment of NATO’s Article V that an attack on one is an attack on all.”                                                                                 

Critics charging that President Obama’s cancellation of the missile defense shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic marked capitulation to Russia and weakened Europe’s defense against Iranian and Russian missile attacks are dead wrong. Quite the opposite, the President’s new plan deploys a more potent, high tech, land, sea and space-based system to defend all of Europe and the Caucuses. Obama’s revised “Star Wars” plan is more mobile, less detectable and will be deployed faster than the original plan for ten ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland and forward-based X-band missile radar in the Czech Republic. Arguably, the Obama-Gates universal interceptor missile system will put the United States on the cusp of uncontested global military superiority by making itself and its allies highly impenetrable to Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian missile attacks.

Appearing with President Obama at the September 17 announcement, Defense Secretary Gates stated that “We have now the opportunity to deploy new sensors and interceptors in northern and southern Europe that in the near term provide missile defense coverage against more immediate threats from Iran or others.” Given that Iran is nowhere close to fielding long-range missiles, Gates reference to “others” was obviously directed at Russia. Gates outlined the new plan that will deploy Aegis class warships equipped with SM-3 mobile missile interceptors that can be moved from one region to another. The U.S. has fifteen destroyers and three cruisers equipped with the Aegis combat system which is being developed into a worldwide, sea based, rapid deployable missile shield structure. These new capabilities are being coordinated with Norway, Spain, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Indeed, in February 2008, the USS Lake Erie, an Aegis class guided-missile cruiser, shot down an American satellite in space in its testing phase.  Further, Gates said Phase 2 of the universal interceptor missile system will include “upgraded land-based SM-3s” by 2015.

In addition to deploying the universal interceptor missile system, the Obama Administration and NATO are upgrading the integrated European Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) with current Patriot and Nike Hercules components.  MEADS will include forward-based X-band radar, 360 degree surveillance radar, missile launchers and next-generation Patriot interceptor missiles. MEADS will be interoperable with other defense systems, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the Aegis sea-based missile defense systems. Obama has requested and will receive $600 million in funding from Congress for MEADS in the next fiscal year. Doubters concerned about President Obama’s commitment to missile defense should also take comfort in the August announcement of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency that its modified Boeing 747-400F airplane was successfully deployed with a laser weapon that “found, tracked, engaged and simulated an intercept with a missile seconds after liftoff.’ This fall the first live attempt to bring down a ballistic missile will be tested. As for the “defenseless” Czech Republic and Poland, the Pentagon has already opened talks with both countries about hosting a land-based version of the SM-3 missile interceptors and other components of the system. American plans call for 96 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles in Poland, capable of selecting targeting and homing in on the warhead portion of an inbound ballistic missile. 

Obama’s detractors that claim Poland and the Czech Republic were betrayed in exchange for Russian support for sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program should think again. It’s true that Russian President Medvedev applauded President Obama’s decision to “cancel” the missile defense shield system. After all, he’d look foolish criticizing what Russia had so publicly demanded. On September 22, Medvedev also suggested Russia would consider supporter tougher sanctions against Iran. But behind the walls of the Kremlin there are growing concerns about Russia’s encirclement by the U.S./NATO buildup of a global missile interceptor system. Moscow has seen this movie before. President Reagan’s original Star Wars plan set off a run of defense spending in the USSR that contributed significantly to the economic hollowing out of the Soviet state. When Russia responded to the Poland-Czech Republic missile defense shield by threatening to place Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad on Poland’s border, it evoked a sense of an escalating Cold War buildup. If Russia ultimately supports damaging sanctions against Iran it won’t be because they feared ten fixed-site land based missile interceptors and a radar installation outside of Prague; Putin and company have a larger strategic problem to counterbalance.  

It must also be said that after all the rhetoric about the Polish and Czech people being abandoned to the Russians, surveys consistently demonstrate that a majority of Poles opposed the stationing of American missiles inside their borders. In the Czech Republic, over two-thirds of the public opposed the basing of the interceptor missile radar. For those who are still not clear about President Obama’s capacity for flexing American military might, he defended his vision of the Star Wars 2 universal missile interceptor system by saying, “President Bush was right that Iran’s ballistic missile program poses a significant threat. And that’s why I’m committed to deploying strong missile defense systems which are adaptable to the threats of the 21st century. This approach is also consistent with NATO’s missile defense efforts and provides opportunities for enhanced international collaboration going forward and we are bound by the solemn commitment of NATO’s Article V that an attack on one is an attack on all.”  Commenting on the new missile defense system the conservative Wall Street Journal recently stated that “Never has Ronald Reagan’s dream of layered missile defenses – Star Wars, for short – been as close, at least technologically, to becoming realized.”

America’s military buildup of ground forces and the largest CIA station in Afghanistan and its aggressive push to place military installations across Central Asia are exerting enormous pressure on Russia, China and Iran. In the final analysis, President Obama will not be able to stop Iran’s drive to master the uranium enrichment cycle or develop a nuclear weapons program. What we witnessing now with the deployment of Obama’s Star Wars 2 missile defense system is a rapid buildup to contain the emerging Eastern Axis in Tehran, Beijing and Moscow.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy Gamble and the Iranian Nuclear Problem

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Germany

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Germany

September 22, 2009

BROOKS FOREIGN POLICY REVIEW: ANALYSIS

By Webster Brooks

While there are many unanswered questions about Saudi Arabia’s evolving foreign policy, Riyadh’s response to Iranian enlargement in the Middle East already suggests that great change is at hand. The Saudi’s are engaged in active diplomacy with Iran while simultaneously fighting proxy wars against them, pursuing a massive military buildup, inviting the Soviets into the Persian Gulf and debating nuclear deterrence to push back the “Persian threat.”

 

Containing Iran’s drive for dominance in the Middle East has risen to the top of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy agenda. Tehran’s enlarged footprint in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Gulf States has diminished Saudi Arabia’s political power across the Middle East. The threat to Riyadh’s national security interests are being felt with immediacy. Iranian backed Shiite militias control southern Iraq and threaten Saudi Arabia’s northern border. In Yemen, Iran is supporting the al Houthi Shiia insurgency against President Saleh’s government on the Kingdom’s southern border. With the specter of Iran’s nuclear program looming over the House of Saud, Riyadh is recalibrating its foreign policy to counter the possibility of a new existential threat. To combat Iran’s imperial reach King Abdullah has transformed Saudi Arabia’s once secretive cloak and dagger diplomacy into a fully engaged foreign policy agenda aimed at establishing Saudi Arabia as maximum leader of the Arab World. But King Abdulla’s multifaceted efforts to staunch the Iranian juggernaut have met with limited success. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy continues to undergo profound change that will require more accommodations to Tehran, greater independence from the United States, closer ties to Russia and an unprecedented military buildup that could include a Saudi nuclear program.    For decades, maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf and insuring the safe passage of oil through its critical shipping lanes defined Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy universe; a policy based on Riyadh’s reliance on American military power. The nexus of U.S.-Saudi relations was containment of Iran and Iraq whose highly militarized states constituted a direct threat to Riyadh. But the 1979 Iranian revolution that bought a radical Shiite theocracy to power, and President Bush’s ill-advised Iraq invasion that led to an Iranian backed Shiia government in Baghdad has changed the balance of power in the Persian Gulf.    With Saddam Hussein’s buffer state deposed and nothing standing between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s hegemonic designs, King Abdulla initiated a decisive shift in the Kingdom’s policies toward Tehran. Riyadh no longer treats Iran as a permanent adversary but a strategic competitor. Rather than leading a Sunni Arab united front to isolate Tehran, King Abdulla opened a permanent dialogue with Iran on a full range of diplomatic issues. Since Iranian President Ahmadinijad’s surprise invitation to address the religious pilgrimage in Mecca in 2007, Saudi and Iranian leaders have negotiated understandings over Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both countries have sought to “manage” conflict between their competing religious and political factions to minimize sectarian bloodshed. In each instance Iranian backed Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, the Mahdi and Badr Forces in Iraq and HAMAS in Palestine have held the upper hand militarily. Thus, the Saudi’s have funneled arms and money to defend their Sunni allies, while negotiating compromises with Iran to preserve political options for their Sunni compatriots. Although King Abdullah slowed Iran’s momentum in Lebanon where the Cedar forces won the spring elections and HAMAS and al Fatah are at an impasse, Iran is clearly emerging as the Gulf’s dominant force. Indeed, the Iraqi Shiia ascendency to power under Nouri al Maliki constituted an enormous strategic setback for Riyadh. Expanded Iranian access to Iraqi oil, its waterways and its strategic energy platform in Basra has greatly strengthened Iran’s economic, military and political position across the Middle East.    With a weak national army, vulnerable borders and having dismissed American forces from its soil in 2003, King Abdullah has embarked on a military buildup that consumes 11% of the nation’s GDP. To counter Iran’s growing threat he turned to an unlikely ally; Russia. In 2007, following discussions with President Vladimir Putin, King Abdullah agreed to a $4 billion deal to purchase 150 Russian T-9 tanks, 100 MI-17 and MI-35 tanks, hundreds of BMP Armored Infantry Combat Vehicles and 20 BVIC air defense systems. Putin also offered the Saudi’s nuclear reactors and cooperation on a space program to invest in launching Saudi satellites.  Speculation that the Saudi arms deal with Moscow included a proviso that Russia would oppose Iran’s nuclear arms program has not materialized. Abdullah’s shift to allow the Russians arms sales shocked the United States and Western Europe. As a major arms and nuclear materials supplier to Iran, Russian arms sales to Saudi Arabia afford Moscow powerful leverage in the Persian Gulf at a time when American and Western European influence is declining.

Notwithstanding the Russian arms deal Saudi Arabia will remain in the U.S. sponsored Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) defense pact. The Saudi’s will install an $8 billion border security system, procure coast guard vessels, surveillance aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and a telecommunications network as part of the GCC agreement. But the Moscow agreement was a serious warning that Riyadh is no longer marching in lockstep with the U.S., especially when its national security interests are at state.  Similarly, the debate within the House of Saud about President Obama’s response to the Iranian nuclear threat has raised the issue of Riyadh pursuing a nuclear path.

The Saudi’s are skeptical about President Obama’s imprimatur to convene talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Irrespective of the fact that no proof exist that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, the Saudi’s are convinced Iran won’t suspend its enrichment activities or permit more intrusive inspections. Should the U.S. or Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities Tehran would likely respond with attacks on Saudi oil tankers, close Gulf shipping lanes, sabotage Saudi oil facilities and foment Shiia unrest within the Kingdom. While the Saudi’s are split on the issue of an attack against Iran, at the end of the day the decision is not theirs to make. It is this sense of frustration at the lack of a credible conventional and nuclear deterrent that has prompted the Saudi’s to consider a nuclear program.      

The prospects of Saudi Arabia attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program are remote. The Kingdom has no nuclear power facilities. Its scientists have no experience in enriching uranium for reactor fuel or operating nuclear reactors. Further, no evidence exists that Riyadh has tried to procure nuclear weapons from foreign suppliers. Saudi Arabia has joined the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to develop a joint nuclear energy program. In May 2008, they also signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. on nuclear energy cooperation. Were the Saudi’s to move in the direction of a nuclear weapons program, they would undoubtedly face heavy international criticism, risk isolation and stiff economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the possibility of Riyadh going nuclear cannot be ruled out. If Iran brings a nuclear weapons program on-line, or Saudi confidence in America’s ability to protect the Kingdom collapses, or a new leader succeeds King Abdullah with a pro-nuclear weapons agenda, Riyadh could reverse course.   

While there are many unanswered questions about Saudi Arabia’s evolving foreign policy, Riyadh’s response to Iranian enlargement in the Middle East already suggests that great change is at hand. The Saudi’s are engaged in active diplomacy with Iran while simultaneously fighting proxy wars against them, pursuing a massive military buildup, inviting the Soviets into the Persian Gulf and debating nuclear deterrence to push back the “Persian threat.”

 Beyond Riyadh’s preoccupation with Iran, the broader currents of change sweeping over the Middle East are challenging the Saudi foreign policies as well. The Saudi’s are already softening their position towards Shiia Muslim communities in Arab countries in response to the “Shiia awakening.” The clamor for democracy that is bringing new forces to power through elections is forcing the Saudi’s to enter new alliances with a more diverse set of players. The growing role of non-state actors, militias and ethnic breakaway movements has exposed the limitations of Riyadh’s reliance on petro-dollars to simply buy off whole governments. The Saudi’s attempt to pay the Kurds $1 billion dollars to postpone the referendum on Kirkuk for ten years is a classic if not embarrassing case in point. Even the Saudi’s role as the grand mediator’s of Sunni Arab conflicts is being challenged by tiny Qutar that recently brokered peace arrangements in Lebanon and Yemen.    There is a “New Middle East” coming into being. How Saudi Arabia adjust its foreign policy to meet the Iranian challenge and embrace the winds of change engulfing the region will determine if Riyadh is prepared to meet the test of leadership in a new age.  ******