Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mullah Omar Reportedly Dead (Again)

The Afghan government has indicated it believes Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban has been dead since 2013. This has been reported in the past, and given the man's habit of avoiding publicity and staying out of sight (even when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan), this is extremely difficult to verify. There are only a few known photographs of the man; he is extraordinarily camera-shy. The US wanted ad simply describes his height as 'tall', rather than even giving a range of possible measurements. He has been reported dead in the past, but this time the White House has said the reports are credible.

These reports indicate that Omar died in a Pakistani hospital 2 years ago. This is important because Pakistan's support of the Taliban (as well as other terror figures like Osama bin Laden) has been alleged many times. How would Mullah Omar have reached a Pakistani hospital if he was in Afghanistan as the Pakistanis have insisted? It seems most likely that Pakistani intelligence was sheltering Omar, or at least turning a blind to his presence in the country. It was reported in 2011 that Omar spent time in a Pakistani hospital for a heart attack before being released. If true, this would be more reason to believe that Pakistan had a significant role in protecting Mullah Omar, a terrorist desperately wanted by the United States.

Afghanistan has long complained about Pakistani's meddling in their affairs, this would be sure to fuel speculation in Afghanistan about Pakistan's role in this regard. The Taliban are still supported by many people in Afghanistan, but Afghans evidently view Pakistan more negatively than any other country. This is likely to negatively affect attitudes of Afghans towards Pakistan.

The other major implication of this news is the challenge to Taliban unity. They've been united under Mullah Omar for two decades; he was seen as a uniting figure, even though he was not as media-friendly as Osama bin Laden. Without this man as their known leader will the Taliban implode into factionalism or will a new leader step up? I expect the group to break apart, though the threat posed by ISIS could keep them together.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Khamenei's Eid al Fitr Speech

Ayatollah Khamenei's Eid al Fitr speech has received quite a bit of attention in the international press (herehere and here) because it is the first time Khamenei has spoken directly about the recent nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran. The speech was nothing out of the ordinary, as Khamenei repeated the same tropes he has repeated for decades. This was immediately jumped upon as proof that Iran, and Khamenei in particular, negotiated in bad faith, that Iran will never change et cetera et cetera. It is much more complicated than this.

Once again, the people saying this do little more than display their intense narcissism and lack of political acumen. These speeches are nearly always about domestic issues more than international ones (even when talking about international affairs), and at the same time they must be taken in context. Khamenei is a reactionary, a pragmatic one at that, but his political bent remains one way and will remain this way. This doesn't mean that Iran isn't going to change; Khamenei himself is threatened by this change and must act to mitigate this. The Eid al Fitr speech is a way for him to do this.

Rouhani, like Khatami a decade ago and Montazeri 30 years ago, is a challenge to the Ayatollah's politics. This coming year is a most important one, as the Majles and the Assembly of Experts both are slated to hold one of the most significant elections in the history of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei wishes to ensure his legacy continues once he dies, which means stifling domestic dissent, especially reformists, and electing a conservative AoE, so that if Khamenei were to die during this 8 year term, an 'acceptable' principalist candidate (or candidates) are selected to succeed him.

Iran needed the sanctions relief, and this gives room to Rouhani and his administration to improve the economy (one of the few important things the Iranian president has some degree of control over), but at the same time Khamenei wants to makes sure that the hardliners are not sidelined. I expect crackdowns, especially in the media (probably a closure or a lawsuit directed at reformist newspapers or journalists), as Khamenei tries to give a boost to the Islamic right.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Iran Deal Thoughts

Before the terms of the deal were announced there were a few things I was worried about. These fears have been mostly alleviated though there are still a few concerns over the timing of some aspects of the deal. Most importantly it looks as though the White House's JCPOA released in April was nearly 100% accurate, despite outrage from the Iranians, who at the time insisted that the US reneged on terms. The key difference here in my opinion, is the arms embargo being lifted.

As I previously noted, the JCPOA from the White House was fairly clear in stating that ballistic missile, terror and human rights sanctions would remain. This is more or less accurate, though the ballistic missile embargo is to be removed before 8 years after the adoption date of the deal. We have no idea what the world will be like in 8 years, so this is not the worst result, considering these restrictions will remain in the near future. If we do need to re-implement sanctions, we have up to 8 years to figure it out.

Another key difference between the April framework and the agreement today is that the IAEA will have DAILY access to Natanz-the facility where enrichment will continue. The earlier document stated 'regular' access, so daily is probably the best possible permutation.

Other aspects I found to be interesting regarding the deal:

  1. 4 (and a bit of a 5th) of Obama's 9 executive orders sanctioning Iran will be removed. The 4 that remain are related to human rights issues, and Iran's support for Syria. Despite some commentators saying otherwise (, certain technologies including surveillance equipment will continue to be sanctioned. 
  2. Iran will address ALL possible military dimensions within 3 months (some parts in 1 month), while the IAEA has an additional 2 months (5 from tomorrow) to verify.
  3. 'Adoption Day' will be approximately 90 days after the 'Finalization Day' and is the starting point for other timed clauses.
  4. If there is a general dispute this is sent to an 'advisory board' made up of the 8 parties (P5+1 and EU and Iran). Each party has 1 vote. The dispute has 15/15/5 day periods at the end of which a dissatisfied party can walk. 
  5. As stated in the original JCPOA from the White House, there will be 25 years of monitoring and surveillance of uranium ore production in Iran.
  6. If Iran does not wish to give access to a site there is a 14 day period for resolution. If this is not resolved, an additional 7 days are allowed for 'committee' discussion and a further 3 days for implementation. 
  7. Iran will establish a 'Nuclear Safety Centre', but appears as though they will NOT be joining the Convention on Nuclear Safety. The previous Iranian ambassador to the UN claimed in January 2013 that they would, so this is very disappointing, but establishing the Centre is better than nothing. 
  8. Many individuals and institutions are removed from nuclear sanctions lists. However, the individual who has posted the Iran Deal text to DocumentCloud (this same one is distributed by major media sources) somehow managed to delete the section headers so the precise details of this are unclear at this point.

Overall the deal looks pretty good (most of the 'good' things that I noted before are still there), and importantly, the White House's JCPOA was (mostly) accurate. I was very worried that even further capitulations would be made, but they appear to have stood firm on nearly every issue (embargoes are a bit of an exception). I am worried about the dispute resolution time frame, and the very short time period that is given to resolve the PMDs is quite troubling. On the other hand, this short amount of time *could* force Iran to act quickly and to get this taken care of. This will work if the United States is willing to walk away if Iran fails to act in good faith. If they are not, then this is a horrible set of clauses and could cause irrepreable damage to the US and its foreign policy.

Pre-Iran Deal Text Thoughts

After days of anticipation, anonymous diplomats on both sides (Western and Iranian) have told reporters that there is a deal between the P5+1 and Iran potentially resolving the nuclear dispute.

While the text of the deal is not available yet, and they've yet to even announce the deal, what we've seen so far includes bits about IAEA access to military sites, and the arms and ballistic missile embargoes. It was also reported that all of the airplane related restrictions will be lifted, giving a much needed reprieve to Iran's dilapidated domestic air travel industry.

A big worry from the West is that the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program will remain unaddressed in the deal. To ensure that Iran doesn't cheat and create a nuclear weapon, the West wants the IAEA to have unfettered access to Iranian military sites, especially Parchin. Reuters seems to think that Iran will have the right to refuse access to the IAEA, though this refusal would mean that the P5+1 and Iran would convene and 'arbitration board' to discuss the reasons why the IAEA wants access and why Iran does not wish to give it.

Of course the West would want complete access to everything, but this is unrealistic. If Iran decides to cheat this could be a problem as the implementation, the timetable and the resolution process in a situation like this can be sensitive.

The arms and ballistic missile embargoes are a bit tricky because of how the White House's fact sheet claimed that these would continue. It was not stated that these would be phased out over time, so my primary concerns of an immediate lifting of the embargoes are alleviated for the time being. We also do not know exactly when the 5 and 8 year periods begin, and what the terms are.

A major concern for me, even though I've been fairly supportive of the entire process under Obama (including outreach, sanctions and negotiations) is the inclusion of non-nuclear issues into the agreement. Iran has many problems including human rights and terrorism, but there have been efforts to keep these, and other regional concerns such as Yemen, Syria and ISIS (not to mention the Israel/Palestine conflict) out of the nuclear negotiations.

The aircraft industry restrictions pre-date the nuclear dispute and therefore one would think that this is not a part of the negotiations. While I personally think this should obviously be removed because it appears to be a civilian matter (there may be military or other reasons for these restrictions that I am unaware of), I find it troubling that they have been included along with the arms and missile embargoes. Even if these sanctions were motivated by the nuclear dispute, it is disturbing that even though White House explicitly stated that these non-nuclear issues would remain as is, they have somehow been included. It does not give much confidence in the PR abilities of the administration.

More to come (probably in a different blog)

*'Snap-back' sanctions are not addressed because they are too complicated and impossible to gauge without the actual text

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Will the Iranian Arms Embargo Remain?

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Iranian nuclear negotiations is the sanctions, their meanings and classifications, and the circumstances under which they may be removed. For months, or perhaps even years, Iranian officials have unanimously and unequivocally stated that 'all' sanctions must be removed, and removed immediately. The P5+1, especially the Americans have stated that nuclear sanctions are a part of the negotiations, while 'non-nuclear' sanctions are not. Recently, Iranian rhetoric softened slightly when Ayatollah Khamenei stated that there will be a time-table for the removal of sanctions rather than immediate and complete reversal. The latest statement from the Iranian negotiating team in Vienna however, insists on removing an arms embargo placed on Iran.

They are, as far as I can tell, referring to the UN Security Council Resolution 1747, unanimously supported in 2007, punishing Iran for proliferation concerns and not fully complying with the IAEA. The sanctions clearly have a nuclear connection, but at the same time, explicitly mention ballistic missiles. The factsheet released by the White House in April in the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) emphatically states that while nuclear sanctions will be removed, "U.S. sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal." The following excerpt from the JCPOA indicates that there is a plan to create a new resolution reaffirming the embargo on "conventional arms and ballistic missiles".

Given the inconsistencies here, there are a few important questions to be asked: 

  1. Will the arms embargo remain or be renewed in some way?
  2. Is Iran reneging on previously agreed terms?
  3. Did the White House put this in the JCPOA while it was still up for negotiation?
  4. Is this appeasement of hardline constituencies? Is one side trying to take advantage of the other? Does Iran not want a nuclear deal after all?
These questions are incredibly important, not only for understanding the contributions made by the different sides, but also because there are legitimate concerns over weaponry going to and coming from Iran. Hezbollah and other terror groups are armed by Iran, and easing restrictions on the Iran's armaments is bound to create further instability. Israel has not been afraid to bomb Syria, Lebanon and Sudan when they feel threatened by a possible arms transfer, usually of more advanced weaponry. The likelihood of this happening again would be much higher with this arms embargo removed. Iran may change its behavior towards its terror clients in the long-term, but a radical reduction in the scope and frequency of its covert actions is unlikely in the short term.