Archive for ‘September, 2015’

Trading with the Mullahs

datePosted on 18:45, September 17th, 2015 by Pablo

I was a replacement panelist invited by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs to join a discussion in Wellington on the Iranian nuclear agreement. It was a a pleasant event that addressed the pros and cons of the deal. I was impressed with some of the speakers, particularly Dr. Parsi from Lund University (speaking via Skype). I was less impressed with the Israeli discussant and the statements (not question) by an official from the Iranian embassy who was in the audience.  All in all, it was an engaging affair and I encourage the Institute to continue with such public outreach efforts.

I spoke a bit about how the deal can be viewed on two analytic levels: as a First Image (interstate) issue and as a Second Image (domestic sources of foreign policy) matter. I mentioned that a way to conceptualise the agreement is as part of a “nested game” (to use a game theoretic term): the deal is part of a series of interlocked interactions (or “games’) that can be seen much as those iconic Russian dolls are (one inside the other) or as building blocks towards a larger whole. I noted that the core of the agreement was to exchange trade for recognition and security–in other words, Iran gets more trade and recognition of its legitimate interests and stature as a regional power by putting the brakes on its nuclear weapons development program with an eye to cancelling the weapons program altogether should the agreement prove beneficial for all sides. They main lever is another trade-off: dropping of international sanctions against Iran in exchange for a rigorous international (IAEA-managed) inspections regime.

For those who are not familiar with the agreement, it is not a bilateral US-Iran affair although they are the major players in it. Instead, the treaty was negotiated by the P5+ 1 parties and Iran, the P5+1 being the permanent UN Security Council members (the US, UK, France, China and Russia) plus Germany. For those interested in the details of the deal, the official US government position is outlined here (which includes the text of the full Agreement itself). A US translation of the Iranian interpretation can be found here. The fact that the P5 agreed to the deal is remarkable given their history of disagreement and subterfuge on matters of international security.

There was an interesting sidebar about “breakout time” introduced by the Israeli, who waxed hysterical about the apocalyptic implications of the deal. Dr Parsi noted that “breakout” refers to the time needed to enrich uranium to weapons grade, in response to the Israeli claim that the deal gave the Iranians a breakout potential of one year. Prior to the deal, that enrichment breakout threshold was two weeks. The point is that “breakout” time refers to the time needed to begin enriching uranium to weapons grade rather than the time needed to build a bomb.

Dr. Parsi noted that “breaking out” on enrichment is not the same as putting nukes on missiles. I said nothing at the time but here I actually know a bit without being a nuclear scientist ( I studied nuclear strategy under one of the original strategists behind the nuclear bombing of Japan and so-called MAD theory. He grappled with the moral dilemmas involved in front of me and my student cohort at the University of Chicago (home of the Manhattan Project) and later changed his mind with regard to MAD). The notion that Iran can start enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium to weapons grade in a short period of time and then quickly build a missile launched nuclear warhead is simply mistaken.

From a technical viewpoint beyond the specifics of Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing programs, the problem of weaponising nuclear material is simple. Unlike the multi-ton “dumb” bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki using concentrated high explosives as triggers focused on the nuclear material, the bulk of testing then and now consists of reducing the nuclear payload to a size that can be carried in the nose cone of an (increasingly small and light) intermediate range or intercontinental missile (IRBM or ICBM). The smaller the size of the delivery vehicle, the better its chances of avoiding surface to air or air to air interception. Given that requirement and the need for accuracy, nuclear payloads share very tight space with guidance systems. All of which is to say that given the weight constraints on a high velocity long range projectile, the “bomb” has to be miniaturised for maximum bang for the buck. Doing so requires downsizing the trigger mechanism from focused high explosives to something else. Laser triggers are one option. There are others.  All of them are off limits to the Iranians irrespective of the deal. So not only is the fear of “breakthrough” unfounded and exaggerated for political purposes, but the real concern regarding mounting nukes on missiles is subject to  both contractual and non-contractual enforcement.

My general view is that the agreement is worth doing. Other speakers and I commented on the downside, which mostly involves the reaction of Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies as well as domestic opponents in Iran and the US. I noted that there are disloyal hardliners in both the US and Iran that have potential veto power over the deal in the future should governments change, and that it was imperative for the soft liners or pragmatists to accrue tangible benefits from the deal in order to resist the sabotage efforts of hardliners who have vested interests in keeping tensions alive between the two countries. I made the point that Iran is more akin to Cuba than North Korea, and can be brought into the community of nations so long as it was recognised as a regional power with legitimate interests.

Speaker’s times were very limited (7 minutes each), so I was unable to fully address what I had intended to say. So let me do so here.

The lifting of sanctions on Iran as part of the quid pro quo at the heart of the deal opens a window of trade opportunity for New Zealand exporters and importers (more so the former than the latter). Coincidentally,  Foreign Minster Murray McCully has announced that in a few weeks he will be leading a trade mission over to Iran to discuss those opportunities. This is in advance of the implementation of the accord (which goes into effect at the start of next year) and is, as far as I can tell, the first official Western government led trade mission to Iran in the wake of the signing of the agreement.

But let us be clear on what that mission needs to entail. Although Iran’s human rights record needs to be mentioned, however pro forma by McCully, to his Iranian counterparts, the point that must be emphasised is that New Zealand’s opening of trade relations with Iran is absolutely, explicitly contingent upon Iran adhering to its part of the bargain. Should Iran in any way shape or form renege on the letter or the spirit of the agreement and the inspections regime that it authorises, then McCully needs to make clear that New Zealand will terminate or at least suspend until Iran complies all imports and exports to the Persian giant.

I say this because under McCully and Tim Groser MFAT has turned into the Ministry for Trade with Anyone for Trade’s sake. Human rights and non-proliferation are not part of the Groser/McCully negotiating agenda. But in this instance both need to be and the latter has to be. The profit margins of New Zealand exporters and importers and the tax revenues derived thereof must not and cannot supersede New Zealand’s commitment to upholding the terms of this non-proliferation agreement in the event of violations. Those involve re-imposing sanctions, and the bottom line of private interests must not come before the commitment to non-proliferation, especially given New Zealand’s long held diplomatic stance on the matter.

McCully also needs to explain to New Zealand importers and exporters that any contracts they let in Iran are contingent and externally enforceable. That is, they are contingent on Iranian compliance with the inspections regime and the overall thrust of the Agreement (which is to reduce the prospect of weaponising its nuclear program); and they are subject to outright cancellation or suspension by the New Zealand government under penalty of law in the event Iran reneges or violates its side of the bargain. There are opportunity costs and risks involved, and these need to be outlined to interested parties in advance of the mission.

From announcements so far, it does not appear that the National government is interested in making such demands of the Iranians or its market partners. Instead, it appears that it is opportunistically jumping to the head of the cue of potential trade partners and will let the private sector lead the charge into trading with Iran. That is curious because McCully speaks of “not getting offside” with the P5+1, but the very fact that he mentions the possibility of “getting offside” indicates that he and his MFAT minions are considering the costs and benefits of doing so.

The Iran deal hinges on two things: verification and enforcement. There are instruments in place to verify that Iran is upholding its part of the deal. The sanctions will begin to be lifted on January 1, 2016. But it is enforcement of the terms that is the most uncertain aspect of the Agreement. If New Zealand does not explicitly tie its renewed trade with Iran to the latter’s compliance with the terms and be prepared to halt trade with Iran in the event that it does not comply, then it will begin the slippery slope of undermining the deal. For a Security Council member that depends more on reputation than power for its influence, and which has a past record of leadership on non-proliferation, that is a hypocritical and ultimately vulnerable position to be in.

Is there a Kiwi word for “mission creep?”

datePosted on 16:51, September 11th, 2015 by Pablo

Well, it was bound to happen. After all the hemming and hawing and the kerfuffle that led to the announcement that New Zealand was sending 143 troops to Iraq as trainers and their force protection, the Prime Minister has now said the he would consider eventually sending to Syria a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) such as those previously deployed in Afghanistan. He said as well that he was open to the idea of deploying NZSAS in Syria as target selectors for anti-Daesh air-strikes. So much for his previous ironclad assurances that the training mission was the extent to which the NZDF would get involved in the anti-Daesh fight.

What is interesting about his statement is that he has the order of engagement reversed. For the PRT (which deploy about the same number of personnel as those currently stationed in Iraq) to be tasked in Syria Daesh will have to be pushed out of it, or at least significant portions of it. Even then, the mission will be difficult as the experience in Bamiyan attests (six of the nine NZDF combat dead came from the Bamiyan PRT, and Bamiyan was considered one of the safer Afghan provinces). However, for an eventual PRT deployment in Syria to happen, the conflict against Daesh will have to be ramped up exponentially, which is something the European members of the coalition and Australia are currently in the process of doing. The UK has started to use lethal drones against Daesh targets (primarily British citizens), and the French and Australians have decided to increase the number of air strikes they will fly against Daesh in Syria as well as Iraq.

Part of the air battle against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria is the use of UK, Australian and US special forces as target finders. US Army special forces are now fighting alongside Kurdish peshmerga in northern Syria, and it is widely believed that UK and Australian SAS are doing a bit more than just finding targets for air strikes, to include nighttime raids on Daesh facilities and troop formations in Iraq as well as Syria.

The New Zealand government denies that the NZSAS is in the conflict theatre, but it would be naive to take that assertion at face value given the close working ties between the NZSAS and the afore-mentioned special operators already there. If for no other reason, that scenario is possible because deploying of SAS assets in Syria in any role requires a fair bit of lead-in time, something that has now grown short as the migrant crisis deepens. There is some urgency to finding a front and back-end solution to the crisis: addressing the refugee flows on the back-end in Europe but upping the ante on the front-end (the Syrian/Iraqi conflict zone) so as to stop the refugee flows from continuing.

That is going to take some doing. The Iraq armed forces are no closer to re-taking Ramadi than they were before the NZDF “advisors” arrived in May. The oil refinery town of Baiji, north of Camp Taji where the NZDF troops are stationed, is still surrounded by Daesh fighters and at risk of falling to them. Mosul remains in Daesh hands. In Syria the Russians have decided to put skin into the game by sending the 1000-strong 810th Marine Brigade to Latakia (where Russia maintains an electronics signals intercept station) while reinforcing its naval base at Tartus. US intelligence has reported hearing Russian voices on Syrian armoured communications, which is not surprising given that Russian crews fought in Syrian tanks in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.

Russian involvement should be seen as a potentially positive development as it has indicated that it is open to joining the coalition against Daesh. It differs on the question of what to do with Assad, but the hard fact is that no solution to the Syrian civil war will come without Russia at the negotiating table (and Iran, for that matter). Sending combat troops to bolster Assad gives the Russians increased leverage as well as a greater stake than what they already have (which is considerable given that over 100,000 Russian citizens live in Syria and the Assad regime is its closest ally in the Middle East). Most importantly, it takes pressure off the West to solely shoulder the burden of rolling back Daesh. With the Russians and Iranian-backed shiia militias (including Hezbollah) on board in both Syria and Iraq and air strikes on Syria added to the coalition target list, a simultaneous pincer movement on Daesh in Iraq and Daesh in Syria can begin. Cutting off cross-border re-supply routes will be a priority and once that is accomplished, the squeeze can be placed on places like Mosul and Raqqa (the de facto capital of the Islamic State).

There is much more to the scenario and it will inevitably be ugly. Turkey is now involved but spending more time trying to kill Kurdish PKK fighters than those of Daesh (and the PKK obliges the Turks by turning its guns on Turkish targets) That will have to change, or at least Turkey’s security priorities will have to be reversed–Daesh first and then the PKK. Iran and the West will need to find an accommodation with regard to the former’s armed proxies in Iraq and Syria (something that has tacitly occurred in Iraq between Coalition forces and the al-Sadr Brigades). Other European and Middle Eastern nations will have to increase their military contributions to the fight. But it is clear that there is movement in these regards.

It appears that the refugee crisis has been the tipping point for that to occur, which is why the front- and back-end solution set is now being addressed and why John Key is being asked about what NZ proposes to do on both ends. If his recent waffling about the NZDF role is anything to go by, the process of mission creep could soon be underway and may well have started already.

Some thoughts on Syrian refugees.

datePosted on 16:57, September 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I must be getting soft, but the image of the drowned Syrian child haunts me. Perhaps it is because I have a two year old or perhaps I am just getting sentimental and weepy in my advancing age, but it is doing my head in. I am not going to be the same for having seen it.

I say this because I have watched and read the coverage of the crisis for a while now and like so many others have not only wondered why the EU cannot craft a viable humanitarian response, but have also been struck by the nasty attitude of so many commentators here in NZ as well as in Europe, most of them on the Right, when considering the plight of these godforsaken people. So let me outline my thoughts on the matter.

The Syrian civil war is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Had it been a natural disaster with the same human impact, I doubt that the response would be the same as it is today. It no longer matters who started it, who is involved, who is to blame and when it might end. The people who are fleeing the war are non-combatants whose hand has been forced by events beyond their control. Those who say they have a choice to stay or go are either fools or cynics. That is like saying that a person subject to domestic abuse has a choice to stay or go. Or that a person has a choice to stay or go in a fire. Sure, they could stay but is that really an option? Did that Syrian child and his family really have a choice? Did they deserve their fate for having “chosen” to seek refuge in a supposedly safe part of the world? (the mother and two boys, ages 3 and 5 died; the father survived and has returned back to Kobani to bury them).

When people up stakes, leave most of their material possessions behind and bring their children on perilous journeys to foreign lands to which they have no prior ties and which are culturally alien to them, they are not “migrants.” They are refugees fleeing catastrophe. It does not matter if the catastrophe is human or environmental in nature (and in Syria it has been both). The bottom line is that they have undertaken great risk–in fact, they are risking it all–to flee the country of origin because of a calamity that is no fault of their own. They are refugees seeking safe haven wherever they can find it (which means a place that is stable and economically viable), and any attempt to define them otherwise is not only wrong but viciously inhumane.

Many of those leaving are secular Muslims and Christians who have been targeted by either Assad’s forces, Daesh or both. Many are the bulk of the shopkeeping and white collar service classes whose livelihoods have been destroyed by four years of war. The majority are moderate in their beliefs and political orientation, which is why they (or at least the men) have chosen not to fight. Their children have no educational opportunity at home, much less future careers.  They do not seek passage to Europe to establish a caliphate or even Islamise it. To the contrary, they are fleeing exactly that possibility.

For those who say that they should have “chosen” to seek refuge in Gulf or North African Muslim states, be aware of two things: 1) they are refused at the borders; and 2) they are considered undesirables in any event given their relative secularisation and the fact that they are considered second-class Arabs (as are Palestinians) by many Gulf oligarchies (they very same that are funding and arming Daesh). So that possibility simply does not exist.

Refugees do not choose to leave or where to stay. They may have their preferences but they live at the mercy of others. But that is the operative term: mercy. Along with compassion and empathy, that is what distinguishes open societies from closed ones.  And yet Europe has shown itself closed-minded on the issue in spite of the ongoing tragedy unfolding on their beaches and doorsteps.

Unfortunately, in today’s polarised ideological climate those virtues are disappearing in the West. That includes New Zealand, where Islamophobia and the “greed is good” mantras of the so-called neo-liberal elite have combined to encourage xenophobic, “me first”  “f*** them” attitudes in the population. In spite of the fact that as far as I can tell no Syrian has ever done harm to New Zealand (and NZ has a small Syrian expat community), the National Party and its supporters do not want to increase the country’s refugee quota in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It apparently does not matter that NZ’s international reputation as a humane and open society rests in part on its attitude towards refugee issues. Nor does it apparently matter that as part of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has a diplomatic obligation to lead by example. Or that a broad reading of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine suggests that protection be awarded to those fleeing conflict as well as those immediately subject to it.

Say what you will, the Syrian exodus is a true humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing are refugees, not migrants. The world, or at least that part of it that is open and funded on notions of compassion, empathy and mercy, has a duty of care to them. It is therefore imperative, and a matter of pure humanity, for Europe and other open societies to step up and help the refugees as much as possible. We may ask ourselves why China, Russia and other nations do not heed the call of the desperate. But the fact is that it does not matter whether they do or not. The moral imperative is to ourselves as well as to those in need.

That is why it is despicable for the Key-led government to shirk its responsibilities on this matter. We have the room, the facilities and the community to support an increased refugee quota targeted at the displaced Syrians. The people we accept will be vetted and are highly unlikely to be interested in jihad or Islamisizing the country. If we can spend $28 million on a flag referendum and $42 million on a boat race challenge, then surely we can find some (considerably less) money to cover the costs of their assimilation. And who knows, we as well as they might be the better for it.

To not do something is a sorry indictment of what we have become as a society, and for those in the government that refused to act, their collective shame will last long after they have departed. The bottom line is clear: regardless of partisan orientation the time to act is NOW.

Go The Donald!

datePosted on 15:25, September 1st, 2015 by Pablo

I am lucky to be able to vote in the US as well as NZ, and very much relish the opportunity in both countries. In the US I am registered as a voter in Florida, which is a closed primary state. “Closed” primary states are those in which a voter has to declare a party preference prior to the primaries in order to vote in them. For years before and after I established a residence in Florida I listed my political affiliation as “Independent,” something that allowed me to choose a primary to vote in the “open” primary states where voting preferences did not have to be declared prior to primary season (they only have to be declared and ticked off on the day at the balloting station). In 2008 I decided to switch my declared affiliation to Democrat so that I could vote in the Florida Democratic Party primary given that not only were Obama and Hillary running for president, but there were races for the US House, Senate and local seats that needed to see Republicans defeated.

This year I am going to switch affiliation to Republican. Why? Because that way I can vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primary in the hope that he makes it to the GOP National Convention next July. It has been a very long time since either major party has had a brokered convention where several candidates are in the running for the presidential nomination, and should The Donald survive until then the craziness will be well and truly on. Since he is totally unqualified to be dog catcher much less president and unelectable in the general election, it is my sincere hope that he hangs in all the way to the convention and either becomes the GOP candidate, determines who is, or runs a third party candidacy after losing out in the convention to one of the others. The only thing better would be for Kanye to join that gaggle of fools and trolls but, alas, he is going to wait until 2020 to run.

Already The Donald has become to the GOP what Miley Cyrus is to pop muzak: a wrecking ball. The Republican National Committee must be choking on their Cohibas (illegal until the recent diplomatic reopening with Cuba) and dying a slow death every time he speaks or when they read the polls. Because let us be clear: Trump appeals to the stupidest, xenophobic, economically illiterate, racist, bigoted, misogynist, white cultural supremacist elements in US society. He follows in a long line of populist demagogues that extends back through Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan, George Wallace and Huey Long.  He may purport to speak unvarnished truth but in fact what he says is most often non-sensical rubbish that fails to address reality much less the intricacies of democratic governance with a division of powers: he is going to “do the deal” with whomever; most Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers; he will “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” (along 1,900 miles of topographically challenging terrain that includes numerous sensitive ecological zones and wildlife corridors); he will deport “illegals ” and their “anchor babies,”  (all 14 million of them); he will simultaneously confront China, Iran and Russia; he will make the US military “great” again so that no one will “mess” with it (forgetting that the US spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined–US$610 billion or 20 percent of US federal spending and 3.7 percent of GDP–and still has people “messing” with it); he will provide better women’s health care in spite of gutting Planned Parenthood and removing health care for “alien” women because he “cherishes” women in general (ignoring the fact that two of his wives were not citizens when he married them). Everyone in politics but him are incompetent or idiots. His speeches are endless repeats of these and other inane mantras interspersed with self-congratulatory self-praise and personal insults directed at his rivals, all other politicians and anyone who disagrees with him.

The truth is that he has no plan, has no policy agenda, has no friggin’ clue what it is like to deal with the complex issues that confront the US. And that is why the rednecks and dimwits like him. He makes the hard seem easy.

What is great about this is that he is forcing the other GOP candidates to respond to him, and they have stepped up to the plate in predictable style. Among other gems, Ben Carson (the neurosurgeon) says homosexuality is a choice because men go to prison straight and come out gay; Scott Walker just suggested that building a 3,987 mile wall on the Canadian border is worth looking into; Jeb Bush wants to abolish Planned Parenthood and believes that the invasion of Iraq “turned out well;” Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio want walls and deportations even though they are children of recent immigrants who were legally documented after, not before their arrivals. They all claim that the US military and its veterans have been crippled by Obama even though it was Bush 43 who ordered them into two simultaneous wars while cutting back veterans benefits as well as the budget for post-combat trauma rehabilitation. They all claim that ISIS is an Obama invention even though it was Dubya’s purge of Saddam’s army that provided the leadership material for what became ISIS’s fighting forces. They all oppose gun control and climate change science and all support hacking, fracking, drilling and spilling regardless of environmental consequence. They all oppose abortion and gay marriage even if some of their past records indicate otherwise. The list of idiocy goes on but should not surprising given that Rick Perry, Rich Santorum, Mike Huckabee and several snivelling weasels remain in contention.

As things stand now, the GOP primary is a circus. There may not be any juggling or animal acts, but there sure are a lot of clowns, and The Donald is the ringmaster. Even if the number of viable candidates drops to 2 or 3 by the time of the GOP convention, it will be Trump who sets the Right’s narrative for the general election. Yippee!

It looks like the US media has decided to sit back and watch the circus unfold. Fox News tried to undermine him in the first debate that it aired, but his nasty personal attacks on the female panelist only strengthened his support among the troglodyte crowd and has forced Fox to backtrack and give him coverage as the Party favourite. All other outlets are content to watch the train wreck proceed while offering the mediocre tedium that passes for informed analysis by the usual spectrum of pundits. As a result, the GOP favourite, Jeb Bush (or “Mr. Low Energy,” as The Donald calls him) has seen his coverage slip to the sidelines along with the other yokels. Likewise, for all of the Fox News chest beating, Hillary Clinton is getting a general pass by the press because her sins are run of the mill when it comes to DC politics and her campaign is about practicable policy, not theatrics.

The key to the outcome will be seen in January when the first GOP primaries are held. If The Donald does well in them he will be hard to stop. So the RNC has to find a way to do him in either before then or to go all out nuclear on him should he prevail in Iowa or New Hampshire. That is when the questions about his draft dodging, drug use, association with organised crime, commercial racism, trust fund baby status, adultery, academic record embellishment and a host of other peccadilloes and not-so-small sins will find their way into the mainstream media. But even then he may be too big a juggernaut to derail in time for the GOP to coalesce around another candidate who may stand a chance in the general election.

I cannot begin to express how delighted I am to watch this unfold. The Donald may well force the GOP to split into two, with the Tea Baggers on one side and the corporate sponsors on the other.

Either way, he is single-handedly killing the US Right as a unified political force.

For that I have one thing to say: Go The Donald!