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Japan foreign minister visits Saudi Arabia

Koichiro Gemba, Japan’s foreign minister, visited Saudi Arabia to discuss contingency options to maintain Japan’s flow of oil should EU plans to sanction Iranian oil come to pass, according to Al Arabiya.  Currently Japan receives 9% of its oil supply from Iran, and 30% from Saudi Arabia, so it follows that Japan would like assurances that the Saudis can provide 25-33% more oil if need be.  The article notes that

Pressure from Washington and the European Union to boycott Iranian crude comes at a time when Japan must make greater use of thermal power plants after a massive earthquake and tsunami sparked a nuclear power crisis last March. The vast bulk of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are now shut down, amid public distrust of the technology and increased safety calls.

Despite ranging projections of how much oil Saudi Arabia still has, an short-term increase in production to help ease the burden of an embargo on Iran is feasible.

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Iran’s March Election

Welcome back for the winter quarter everyone!

In case it wasn’t already on your radar, Iran has a parliamentary election upcoming in March. The New York Times has an article posted that discusses some of the issues surrounding that election.

A likely boycott by Iran’s harshly silenced reformists and fears of election-related violence, combined with dire economic problems arising from Iran’s isolation over its suspect nuclear program, are creating new challenges for Iranian leaders as they face their first domestic legitimacy test since the disputed presidential election of 2009.

Obviously any election features competing ideas, and in Iran’s case it will be the reformists versus the conservatives. But the election will also face the challenge of achieving legitimacy, given the unexpected results (which suggesting tampering) in the 2009 presidential election. The linked article suggests that low participation from voters would imply declining legitimacy on the part of Ayatollah Khamenei and the religious hierarchy.

The article hints that the March election might mark the occasion in which massive, widespread, momentous protests begin anew in Iran. Or that they may be a prelude to major domestic upheaval or reform in the 2013 presidential election. I’m not optimistic that Iran has reached a revolutionary moment yet, but these types of things do tend to surprise people. Interestingly, the article also notes that there may be interest on the part of the Ayatollah to get rid of the position of president and have instead a prime minister, elected in a more traditional parliamentary system fashion.

Israel planning a strike on Iran?

The New York Times has an article up discussing this week’s reports that Israel is planning an attack on Iran.

Israeli officials would not confirm or deny multiple reports in the Israeli news media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were pressing for a decision on whether and when to strike a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the centerpiece of Iran’s known nuclear-fuel production, and related sites across the country.

Israel has debated the viability and effects of attacks many times in the past seven years, often to Washington’s consternation. Obama administration officials, in private conversations with the Israelis, have argued that the combination of economic sanctions and covert sabotage of the Iranian effort has been more effective than an attack could be, without the risk of provoking counterattacks or a war.

It seems like Israeli preparations for an attack on Iran surface every 15 months or so, so it is hard to say that this story will actually amount to anything.  But Israel’s behavior over the past two weeks does strike me as odd.  Following the Shalid swap, Israel has refused to turn over taxes collected from Palestinians, is aggressive in enforcing its naval blockade of aid to Palestine, is increasing settlements, and now word leaks that planning against Iran has hastened.  Perhaps its coincidence, but the confluence of so many tough actions makes it seem like something is brewing behind the scenes in Israel.

A Busy Weekend and Tunisian elections

A lot has been happening over the past few days around the region.  Obviously, Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed in Libya several days ago, which will have major ramifications for that state.  Iran has once again had to defend itself against international allegations, this time for supposedly conducting secret executions without adequate judicial proceedings.  Violence continues to accompany protests and unrest in both Syria (although Damascus and Aleppo still stand with the regime) and Yemen (where the UN has once again called for President Saleh’s ouster).  Turkey has been rocked by an earthquake; the details of which are still coming out.

Today is also the Tunisian elections, where voter turnout topped 90% according to Al Arabiya.  Remember, this election is to create a commission that will rewrite the constitution, set up an interim government, and set election dates for the President and Parliament.  Tomorrow we will be able to discuss the outcome, but today consider this New York Times article which details financing leading up to the election.  The favorite to win in the elections is the Ennahda party, which is described as being moderate Islamist.

Ennahda, which had a long history of opposition here before Mr. Ben Ali eviscerated it a decade ago, is widely expected to fare the best, and no one pretends that it owes its popularity only to its financial clout. Its moderate and modern brand of Islamic politics has struck a chord with many Tunisians.

But for months, it has been at the center of attacks from liberal rivals and liberal-leaning election officials who accuse it of taking foreign money, mainly from the Persian Gulf. Islamist groups from Egypt to Lebanon are widely believed to rely on such support from the wealthier and more conservative gulf nations, but the charges have resonated especially loudly in Tunisia, in part because regulators have sought to stamp it out.

The article goes on to express that a difficulty in regulating party financing is that Ennahda is not only a political organization but a social one.  They receive donations from the Gulf that are spent on charitable causes (which may be beneficial politically) as well as financing that is spent on campaigning.  This duel nature makes pinning down financial regulations difficult, especially for a country that is having is first (hopefully) legitimate election.

So with all that news, any thoughts?  Can Tunisia be a beacon for democracy for the region?

Iran’s plot

Not a lot in the way of news today, so I thought today it would be good to take a look at an opinion piece from Al Jazeera.  The author, Pepe Escobar, takes a skeptical view of the alleged Iranian terror plot, which Washington claims to have damning evidence of.

The whole thing smells like a flimsy pretext for a casus belli. The timing of the announcement couldn’t be more suspicious. White House national security advisor Thomas E. Donilon briefed King Abdullah of the plot no less than two weeks ago, in a three-hour meeting in Riyadh. Meanwhile the US government has been carrying not plots, but targeted assassinations of US citizens, as in the Anwar al-Awlaki case.

The Iranian government, for its part, has sent a letter to the UN Security Council accusing the United States of warmongering.

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at least introduced a little bit of common sense. “I think the US government is busy fabricating a new scenario and history has shown both the US government and the CIA have a lot of experience in fabricating these scenarios … I think their goal is to reach the American public. They want to take the public’s mind off the serious domestic problems they’re facing these days and scare them with fabricated problems outside the country.” Iran has not even established yet that these two characters are actually Iranian citizens.

There have been reports that President Obama was briefed on the possibility of a plot as early as June.  I think that whether or not you believe this story comes down to the degree to which you believe Iran is, in essence, evil, or at least is hellbent on ruining the United States.  I fall on the Iran-not-evil side of things, and so my inclination is to also approach this plot with a degree of skepticism.  My non-factual opinion is that our intelligence agencies may, when they find a suspicious target, run long sting operations in which our government inspires and advances the plot to observe what might come out of the woodwork, and then proceeds with charges before the plot is every really hot.  So, if you find a guy who dislikes America and boasts about his connections, encourage him and provide him with new connections–basically set the opportunity to act on his boasts in front of him–then observe what he does, and finally arrest him and announce that the plot was disrupted, even though his chances of acting on his boasts, and from there succeeding, were improbably low.

That’s my take at least, it’s probably wrong.

Two woah! stories

Al Jazeera reports that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel has announced that after five years of being held captive, Israel has finally struck a deal with Hamas for a prisoner swap that will free IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.  Shalit has become a sort of symbol in Israel, and while his release is of little tactical or strategic value, it is a huge political win for Netanyahu, in my opinion on the level of Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden.  There is room to question if a swap of a captured IDF soldier for many Palestinian prisoners will only encourage future kidnappings, but for now that does not seem to be a concern.

Then there is this article from the New York Times, which reports that US Federal Authorities broke up a plot of two Iranians, with connections to Iran’s Quds Force, to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the US and bomb the Saudi Embassy (I’ve been there!).  The men were supposedly attempting to hire Mexican drug cartels to carry out the operation.  The National Security Council has been on top of this plot since June.

Abdullah Alshamri, a Saudi official in Riyadh, predicted the disclosure would send Iranian-Saudi relations to “their lowest point yet.” Though no government steps had been taken, he suggested that a diplomatic row was inevitable.

“We’re expecting from our government a serious and tough reaction to give a message to the Iranians that enough is enough,” he said by telephone. “If we keep our diplomatic ties with the Iranians, they will think we are weak and they will keep trying to attack us.”

He said this was only the latest Iranian attempt to attack Saudi diplomats.

“This is their hobby,” he said. “Iran has no respect for international law.”

Edit: Professor Rob Prince, a friend of MEDG, blogged about Israel’s rough September.

Iran postures

This short article from the New York Times is pretty thick with things that deserve more details.  So I’m going to take it piece by piece.

Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defense minister, said the new missile, first unveiled a month ago and known as the Qader, which means Able in Farsi, had been mass-produced “as quickly as possible,” the country’s state-run media reported. The missile, designed to destroy warships and coastal targets, has a range of about 125 miles, the media said.

There is a picture of the new missile behind Ahmadinejad at the top of the article.  The obvious intention here is to have a weapon that threatens the US naval presence in the Gulf.  Iran’s long term goal is likely to push the US military out of the Gulf, which it views as a destabilizing force (and which we Americans view as a stabilizing force).  I’m not a military person, so I can’t get into technicalities of how effective this weapon might be, or how likely it is that the missile could successfully take down portions of the Sixth Fleet, but Iran surely hopes that our Navy is intimidated.

The announcement coincided with front-page headlines in a number of Iranian newspapers quoting the head of Iran’s navy, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, as saying he intended to deploy Iranian warships close to the Atlantic coast of the United States to reciprocate for the patrols in the Persian Gulf by the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The patrols are a constant source of irritation to Iran.

The article also points out that the US thinking is that the suggestion is ridiculous.  The Iranian Navy lacks the capability of deploying boats that far from Iran.  Besides, what is the point? Hypothetically, if such warships were understood to have any violent intent, they would have to cross the Atlantic,  where our military destroy them.  Instead, the idea works as a rhetorical device.  For many Americans, Iran approximates evil, and their deployment of warships to our coast would be anathema.  Yet they view us as an enemy too, and our warships have been patrolling their coast for years.

In another slap at the United States, General Vahidi also rejected any thought of creating a telephone hotline between Tehran and Washington. The idea that was floated a few weeks ago by Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a way of avoiding an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf, where American and Iranian naval vessels and aircraft sometimes operate within sight of each other.

“We do not need such a line in the region,” General Vahidi said, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency. “They are seeking to set up a hotline in order to solve any potential tensions, whereas we believe if they leave the region, there will be no tension.”

The US does not have any diplomatic relationship with Iran.  Perhaps Mullin’s desire to have a military channel of communication reflects the poor logic of that diplomatic stance, which we discussed here a few days ago.  Score one debate Zing! for Vahidi here.

His remarks may also have been an indirect slap at Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who endorsed the idea of a hot line when asked about it last week at a news conference at the end of his visit to the United Nations. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s standing within Iran’s hierarchy is in question because of his clashes with Parliament and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There has been a lot made over the past six months of a fall out between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.  Part of me wonders if it is exaggerated, wishful thinking on the part of those in the media who detest Ahmadinejad and would like to see him removed.  In this case, I’m reminded of when McChrystal was critical of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan in a Rolling Stone interview.  But then this case seems less severe than its American counterpart that I’ve brought up.

Iran’s latest military pronouncements come against a backdrop of continued foreign skepticism about its claims of peaceful nuclear energy development. Even Turkey, which has cordial relations with Iran, recently agreed to be one of the host countries for part of a new missile-interceptor system designed by the United States, which has expressed concern that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon that can be delivered via a long-range missile.

This paragraph implies that Turkey feels threatened by long-range nuclear missiles flying out of Iran, which I believe is not the case.  My understanding is that the US had to strong arm Turkey into putting up that missle-interceptor system.  So it is the US that is concerned and is working to surround Iran, much like we hoped to contain communism, which reminds me of a fantastic Foreign Policy article from last year.  Continuing…

Last week, American officials confirmed that the Obama administration had quietly provided Israel with bombs capable of destroying buried targets, including sites in Iran that could possibly house such a nuclear weapons program. Israel considers Iran its most dangerous enemy, and had been pressuring the United States for a supply of the so-called “bunker-busting” bombs .

I missed this news when it happened.  Bunker-busting bombs implies a preemptive strike on Iran from Israel, or at least that is the implication Iran will take away.  That would be incredibly destabilizing for the region.  I don’t like that the US made this sale.  Maybe it was to comfort Israel in the face of the Palestinian UN bid, I don’t know, but the move removes some ability of the US to control how events might transpire in the future.  If Israel were to use these bunker-busting bombs in a first strike, would Iran’s response not be to deploy as many of those Qader missiles as possible on our fleet in the Persian Gulf?  I know that the popular view is to see Iran as the irrational, militaristic, rogue, evil state, but in my view it seems like the US is doing its share of saber-rattling as well.

Honestly, I am incredibly liberal in my views on Iran.  I would prefer that the US aggressively seek rapprochement.  But what do you all think?  If Iran is damned determined to get nuclear weapons, how do we stop them?