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U.S. Waves Iran Into Another UN Disarmament Post

November 29th, 2013 - 10:44 pm

There’s a sort of awful symmetry to it. While such UN-sanctioned rogue states as Iran and North Korea carry on with nuclear proliferation, the UN carries on with its own proliferation of feckless Orwellian meetings on nuclear disarmament. And these days it seems there’s a high-level post for Iran at just about every meeting. That includes the New York-based UN Disarmament Commission, which on Nov. 20th held an organizational meeting at which Iran was elected as a vice chair for the 2014 main activities. Iran’s Fars News Agency celebrated this as Iran’s latest “success” within UN disarmament circles.

Not that it’s easy to keep track of all Iran’s recent UN disarmament posts. The UN has a Disarmament Conference, based in Geneva, which was chaired by Iran last spring. Then there is the General Assembly’s Disarmament and International Security Committee, at which Iran in early October was elected to the post of rapporteur. And of course there was the UN General Assembly’s first ever high level meeting on nuclear disarmament this September, which was engendered by Iran and showcased Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.

Now comes Iran’s election as one of eight vice-chairs to the UN Disarmament Commission.

For this to happen at the UN is not astonishing. That’s how the UN works, and that’s why it’s a strange arrangement that American taxpayers continue to be dunned for the biggest share of the funding that bankrolls the chairs on which Iran’s envoys of “disarmament” sit — while the Iranian government pays a pittance to the UN, leaving more money free back home for such stuff as its UN-sanctioned nuclear program. Indeed, just last month a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to the UN told Reuters ”Iran is absolutely not a suitable choice to be a vice chair of the U.N. Disarmament Commission.”

But what is astonishing, or ought to be, is who then apparently nodded along last week with Iran’s “election” to a vice-chairmanship on the UN Disarmament Commission. According to a UN General Assembly press release on the proceedings, Iran’s envoy was among those elected as a vice chair “by acclamation.” (For those of you who are used to the quaint idea that elections should involve actual votes, it might be useful to know that at the UN the balloting is often dispensed with unless a member state actively calls for a vote; the preferred approach is consensus — the candidate is acclaimed by all, and that’s that).

In other words, Iran was a shoe-in. No one called for a vote. Iran was chosen by acclamation of the entire membership of the UN Disarmament Commission — and that includes the United States.

Was this another perquisite offered by the U.S. and other “world powers” to Iran as part of the “peace for our time” short-term stop-gap already-coming-unglued nuclear deal struck last weekend in Geneva? Or simply another spineless U.S. moment at the UN? Or does it by now all run together?

 

The Smile of Iran’s Chief Nuclear Negotiator

November 22nd, 2013 - 9:28 pm

If only it were as delightful to watch the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva as it apparently is to take part in them. Not since Rep. Nancy Pelosi told us we had to pass-the-bill-to-find-out-what’s-in-it have the news cameras captured such quivers of delight over things so huge and appalling. Politicians are of course prone to play to the cameras. But at the Geneva bargaining table, the ranks of smiles go on and on. On the world powers side (“world powers” being the shorthand for the P5+1, which is the shorthand for the U.S., UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) the chief smiler is European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, beaming across the table at the Iranian team, nodding and chatting with the expression of a fondly indulgent aunt handing out sweets to the kids.

But the smiler at these talks who most bears watching is Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He arrives smiling at the negotiating venue. He tosses out cheery greetings as he walks toward the meeting room. At the bargaining table, he settles in with an affable smile, and in this video clip he moves on at one point to a guffaw — such fun, these nuclear talks!

Why is Zarif smiling? There is the obvious. Those world powers across the table are itching to hand Iran what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accurately described as the “deal of the century” — the ticket to the nuclear arsenal the Tehran regime covets, and for which the infrastructure would be left in place. So eager are some of these world powers to produce a signed piece of paper that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for the second time in a month, decided to race to Geneva, ready to close the deal. Evidently it is no deterrent to the Obama administration that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — Zarif’s real boss — chose to punctuate rounds two and three of these nuclear talks by delivering a speech to Basij militiamen (who hailed him with chants of “Death to America”) in which he compared Israel to a “rabid dog,” said its officials “cannot be called human,” and added, “the Israeli regime is doomed to failure and annihilation.”

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Department of Peace for Our Time

November 16th, 2013 - 11:27 pm
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Neville again.

American healthcare aside (“If you like your plan…”), there are some promises that President Obama has kept. Notably, his promise last year to Russia’s Vladimir Putin — accidentally overheard by the entire world, via an open microphone — that once he’d won the 2012 presidential election, he’d have more “flexibility.” He was true to his word. With this September’s Russia-brokered deal over Syria’s chemical weapons, the Obama administration showed flexibility enough to compete with Cirque du Soleil.

Now, just when it seemed that U.S. policy toward Russia could hardly become more flexible without requiring all Americans to dine daily on borscht (or does the Affordable Care Act already include a provision for that?), here comes a story in the New York Times, headlined “A Russian GPS Using U.S. Soil Stirs Spy Fears.” The gist is that the State Department is gung-ho to allow the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos (which coordinates with Russian military launches), to install on U.S. turf some half a dozen electronic monitor stations for a Russian Global Positioning System. The Times reports that not everyone in the administration thinks this is a great idea. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency see this plan as a threat to U.S. security: “They fear that these structures could help Russia spy on the United States and improve the precision of Russian weaponry.”

But does that worry the State Department? Not according to the Times, which goes on to provide the following account of the State Department’s rationale:

For the State Department, permitting Russia to build the stations would help mend the Obama administration’s relationship with the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, now at a nadir because of Moscow’s granting asylum to Mr. Snowden and its backing of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Come again? I have read that paragraph over, at least half a dozen times, and it still doesn’t make sense. If the Obama administration’s ties to Putin’s regime are at a low, the reason is not that the U.S. has snubbed or damaged Russia, but that Russia’s Putin has mocked and undermined the U.S. First came Russia’s dalliance with American fugitive Edward Snowden. Then came the aborted showdown over Syria, in which Russia, one of Assad’s chief weapons suppliers, walked away with the jackpot, sending warships into the Mediterranean and wielding diplomacy to translate Assad’s use of chemical weapons into a ticket for the Russian-backed survival of his regime and alarming expansion at U.S. expense of Russian influence in the Middle East. Surely, if the U.S.-Russia relationship is to be improved, it is Russia that owes the U.S. some conciliatory moves. Not the other way round.

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The Modesty of Our Veterans

November 11th, 2013 - 8:25 pm

Former Staff Sergeant Clinton L. Romesha was awarded the Medal of Honor this past February for “conspicuous gallantry,” risking his life above and beyond the call of duty, in Afghanistan, on Oct. 3, 2009. Having twice deployed to Iraq, and then to Afghanistan, Romesha was serving at Combat Outpost Keating, in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, when the outpost was attacked by more than 300 Taliban-led fighters, occupying high ground on all sides, out-numbering the troops at Keating by more than five-to-one, and wielding small arms, rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades  and anti-aircraft machine guns. The soldiers at Keating fought back in what became a 12-hour battle. Romesha was wounded by shrapnel, but went on fighting, continually exposing himself to enemy fire, killing more than 10 of the Taliban-led fighters himself, calling in coordinates for critical air strikes, leading efforts to provide covering fire for injured comrades, and braving overwhelming fire to recover the bodies of the fallen.

Romesha was just one of the veterans who received an award this past Saturday at a banquet in Washington hosted by the American Veterans Center. Also among the awardees was Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the Navajo Code Talkers. As the web site dedicated to them describes it:

They were young Navajo men who transmitted secret communications on the battlefields of WWII” — using encryption based on the Navajo language to send signals the enemy could not crack. From 1942-1945, vital to the American war effort, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, they served in every major battle in the Pacific Theater.

Also receiving an award was Lt.-Gen. Frank E Petersen, Jr., the first black aviator and general in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. Petersen served in the Korean War, flying 64 combat missions, and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and six air medals. He went on to serve in Vietnam, where he flew 250 combat missions, was shot down and rescued, and led a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, the Black Knights, which received the 1968 Hanson Award for “best squadron in the USMC.”

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It’s a sign of just how fast the balance of world power is shifting, that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin oversaw a huge exercise of Russia’s nuclear forces this Wednesday, involving — as the AP reported – “multiple test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, a formidable demonstration of Russia’s resurgent military power.” This follows the entry of Russian warships into the Mediterranean, concurrent with the Russia-brokered deal to relieve Syria’s Assad regime of its chemical weapons, at the cost of relieving the U.S. of any real influence in what might come next. That followed the biggest war games launched by the Russian military in more than two decades, involving, as the AP also reported, “160,000 troops, about 5,000 tanks, more than 100 aircraft and dozens of navy ships.”

This week’s nuclear attack drill was eye-catching not only for its size and scope, but for how relatively little attention Russia’s nuclear exercise drew in an America currently focused on the chaos of canceled health insurance policies, soaring premiums and a dysfunctional HealthCare.gov web site. The Russian drill was no small event. As defense expert Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reports, the drill “included the test launch of two land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and two submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).” More specifically, the land-based missiles included a silo-based SS-18, a missile with “a range of up to 10,000 miles and up to 10 warheads, or multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs),” and an SS-25, or Topol missile, test-launched from the Russian base of Plesetsk, “capable of launching up to four MIRVs” with “a range of up to 6,200 miles.”

Russian forces also test-fired short-range missiles, and, as Gertz further reports, Russian air defense forces “also fired S-400 and S-300 anti-aircraft and anti-missile interceptors at incoming ballistic missiles targets. … The strategic missile exercise highlights Moscow’s large-scale nuclear forces buildup under Putin.”  (You can sample more of Gertz’s well-informed reporting on Russia’s missile development in his June 25 article, “Treaty Cheating.”)

This is a staggering contrast with the scene I witnessed 18 years ago, while working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in newly post-Soviet Russia. In 1995, I visited the Plesetsk space base and missile range — located about 500 miles north of Moscow, and site of this week’s SS-25 test launch. Back then, Russia was on the ropes, and trying out a lot of projects to convert Cold War military equipment into anything that might turn a profit. I went to watch a rocket launch, but it was an SS-25 that the Russians were trying to adapt to carry civilian-use satellites into space.

It was a display both impressive and pathetic. The Russians had struck a deal with an Israeli technical institute, to use an adapted SS-25 to put an Israeli prototype communications satellite into orbit, for the use of amateur radio buffs. Members of the press were invited — Israeli, Russian, and Moscow-based foreign reporters. It turned into a rolling fiasco. The Israeli reporters, arriving from Tel Aviv, were held up by Russian customs officers, who tried to confiscate their satellite phones. The chartered plane to take reporters from Moscow to Plesetsk was late taking off — in those days, it sometimes took a while at Russian airports to hunt down fuel. When we got to Plesetsk, with little time left before the launch, there was an altercation between some of the reporters, who wanted a closeup shot of the missile ready for launch, and a Russian military officer, who wanted them to go no closer than the safely distant viewing area. I still remember him screaming at one of the press liaisons, “No! They cannot go there! I am about to launch a ballistic missile!”

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Just when you though there wasn’t enough bad news to fill the day, Syria amid its civil war now has a suspected polio outbreak. On Oct. 19, the World Health Organization reported that it had received information about a cluster of “hot” cases of accute flaccid paralysis, some of which could be positive for polio, in Syria’s Deir Al Zour province. Now UNICEF and the World Health Organization are taking this seriously enough to announce that they plan to vaccinate millions of Syrians against polio (good luck with that…). In neighboring Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian’s have sought refuge, authorities are planning a similar campaign for children under five.

The source of the outbreak is not yet clear. CNN reports that outside of Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan, polio has been largely eradicated, with fewer than 300 cases reported worldwide last year. CNN further reports on speculation by public health experts that this disease might have been brought to Syria by Islamic militants from Pakistan, who came to join the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime: “There are signs that the polio strain is from Pakistan.” This Syrian outbreak could easily be an awful but unintended result of the civil war that began in 2011.

But even if this outbreak is entirely a matter of unintended, horrific collateral damage, it does bring to mind the dangers posed by Syria’s biological weapons program. So, for that matter, does the locale, if only by association with another form of WMD — Deir Al Zour being the Syrian province where President Bashar Assad with North Korean help was building a clandestine nuclear reactor, until the Israelis destroyed it in 2007 with an air strike.

While world attention has been focused these past two months on the Russia-brokered deal to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons (and even that is highly problematic), there have been no visible provisions to deal with Assad’s biological weapons projects. In the Sept. 27 United Nation Security Council Resolution 2118, proposing to deal with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons, there are just two brief and toothless mentions of biological weapons, along with chemical and nuclear — calling on UN member states to refrain from providing any support to “non-State actors” that try to make or acquire such weapons, and demanding that non-State actors refrain from such ventures. But there are no measures included for relieving Assad (or any non-State actors) of whatever biological weapons or related programs that might be part of Syria’s arsenal.

Should we be worried? You bet. Just this past July, the U.S. State Department reported that the U.S. government “is concerned, based on information available during the reporting period” (which was not ancient history, but 2012), that Syria, which has signed but not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, “may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations under the BWC if it were a State Party to the Convention.” The unclassified report (see page 16) noted that the U.S. “had designated four Syrian government entities as WMD proliferators”  due to concerns involving the development not only of chemical but also biological weapons. State also cited a 2004 report from Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center that said Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (one of the Syrian government entities designated by the U.S.) “had been developing ricin-based biological weapons.”

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Having won a seat for the first time on the United Nations Security Council, Saudi Arabia turned around a day later and rejected it, citing the Council’s double standards and failure to uphold international peace, justice and security.

As UN moments go, this is a classic — if only for its sheer absurdity. It is precisely because of the UN’s double standards that a country such as Saudi Arabia can win a seat on the Security Council in the first place — with 176 of the 193 members of the UN General Assembly voting yes. As as friend of mine puts it, the Saudi move smacks of Groucho Marx’s joke that he would never join any club that would accept him as a member.

Obviously, the real problem is not a sudden Saudi aversion to UN double standards per se. If it were, Saudi Arabia would not still be running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, in General Assembly elections to be held Nov. 12. As far as I’m aware, the Saudis — who with no evident concern about hypocrisy have served previously on the Human Rights Council  – have not dropped their bid to reclaim a seat.

There’s a lot of speculation right now on why the Saudis did their about face on a Security Council seat, especially after their ambassador to the UN in New York, Abdallah  Al-Mouallimi, initially told the press that “our election is much to rejoice over.” In a statement released Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry cited a hodge-podge of reasons for the boycott, ranging from the failure to apply “deterrent sanctions” to the Syrian regime, to such stock stuff as the failure to “make the Middle East a free zone of all weapons of mass destruction,” and the continuing failure to resolve “the Palestinian cause” to Saudi Arabia’s liking.” What makes the most sense to me — though it’s just a guess — is that the Saudis suddenly realized that in dealing with hot issues such as Syria and Iran, they might be better off dealing in the backrooms, rather than having to put their diplomatic cards on the table in Security Council votes.

But whatever the reasons, if the Saudis want to denounce double standards and demand better behavior from the UN Security Council, why not hold them to it?

Right now it’s unclear how the UN might fill that suddenly vacant two-year nonpermanent seat, for 2014-2015. Candidates for the Council’s 10 rotating seats are usually nominated by regional blocs in the General Assembly. From these slates, the GA then elects the winners, with a required minimum of two-thirds of the GA’s 193 votes. But what Saudi Arabia has just done, in walking away from a win, is highly unusual.

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Assad’s Nobel Peace Prize?

October 16th, 2013 - 3:08 am

Reportedly, Syria’s President Bashar Assad made a joke the other day that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize “should have been mine.” Whether he really said that is unclear. The report came from a pro-Damascus newspaper in Lebanon, Al Akhbar. Agence France-Presse picked up the story, but noted that Al Akhbar did not actually say when Assad produced this quip. Nor, if Assad actually did say it, would I rush to assume that he meant it as a joke. Dictators — particularly those who kill people in large numbers — have a way of persuading themselves that what they are doing is noble and necessary work. It would be no surprise to discover that Assad really does believe he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

But whether or not Assad actually said it, either as a joke or some sort of entitlement manifesto from an alternate universe, the truth is that in some ways the Norwegian Nobel Committee did indeed award its prize to Assad. Not by name, and surely not by intention. This year’s official winner is the outfit whose inspectors, along with United Nations personnel, are now tasked to unburden Assad of his poison gas arsenal: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

But what is the OPCW, really? Based in The Hague, and created to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that entered into force in 1997, the OPCW has been depicted in most media coverage as a champion of good works; the world’s leading chemical weapons watchdog. It has an annual budget of about $100 million (22% of that supplied by the U.S.) and a staff of 450, working out of a distinctive semi-circular building in the Dutch capital of The Hague. In most media coverage since Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the OPCW has been summed up simply as a body diligently ridding the world of chemical weapons, with various factoids thrown in about the how many inspections it has done, in how many countries, and who belongs to this organization. With Syria’s accession this week, the CWC has 190 State Parties, including 187 UN member states, plus the Holy See, plus two Pacific island territories off New Zealand  with a total combined population of 14,000 (who, you may be relieved to know, have agreed not to acquire chemical weapons, or to give them up if they discover they have any). There has also been the list of the six holdouts, in which the democratic state of Israel (which has signed but not ratified the CWC) stands out as an anomaly against the other five: Egypt, Angola, South Sudan, Burma and one of the motherlodes of Syria’s chemical weapons program, North Korea.

A closer look at the OPCW provides at least one broad hint as to why Israel would not be eager to join this gang. The OPCW is a diplomatic romper room for Syria’s intimate ally and fellow terrorist-sponsoring state, Iran. Iran spends a significant portion of its time at the OPCW denouncing Israel (which Tehran’s envoys call “the Zionist entity”) and demanding that the “international community” pressure Israel to join the CWC and place itself under the OPCW regime. Iran has enjoyed a seat on the OPCW’s executive council every year since 1998; sits on all three of its main subsidiary bodies, including its budget advisory committee (you pay, Iran plays); and serves as a vice-chair of the OPCW’s General Conference. Iran has hosted OPCW training sessions, and the OPCW sees no problem with employing Iranian nationals  as weapons inspectors, which it has in fact done.

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Even in today’s interconnected world, a lot of news is bundled by region — and so it often works with rogue states and their neighborhoods. The past few months have been an especially lively period for wayward states in the Middle East, where by diplomatic sleight-of-hand the regimes of Damascus and Tehran have been transformed from terrorist-sponsoring WMD proliferators into erstwhile or potential partners of the U.S. in nonproliferation. In August the big focus was on Syria, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and the ensuing deal — in which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin translated Assad’s nerve gas into a bargaining chip for re-expanding Russian influence and a dwindling role for the U.S. in the Middle East (in which Secretary of State John Kerry is now praising Syria’s President Bashar Assad).

September brought the Iranian regime’s “charm” offensive, in which President Hassan Rouhani traveled to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, snubbed President Obama’s offer to meet in person, and lectured the world on Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He was rewarded with a presidential phone call, the return to Iran of a million dollar griffin-shaped silver drinking cup  and plans for nuclear talks next week in Geneva.

While that’s been going on, Americans have had plenty of distractions on their home turf, between news of the federal shutdown, debates over what’s actually been shut and footage of news anchors trying unsuccessfully to log onto the new government healthcare web sites.

Amid all this, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on North Korea. It’s been eight long months since Pyongyang’s third nuclear test — way back in February. It’s been three years since North Korea advertised to the world that along with its plutonium path to the bomb, it had installed at its Yongbyon complex a uranium enrichment facility  (which on satellite imagery appears to have since doubled in size). Given the tempo of the modern news cycle, that’s prehistoric.

But that steam rising from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex is not for making tea. South Korea’s main intelligence agency has confirmed the reports of a number of U.S. analysts  that North Korea has restarted the Soviet-built reactor that was shut down in 2007, as part of a failed nuclear freeze deal that was bracketed by North Korea’s first and second nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009. There is some debate over whether this reactor is more dangerous as a source of plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear bomb program, or as a facility so decrepit that it might go haywire and produce what Russia has warned could be a “man-made catastrophe.”

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A lot of the more workaday outrages at the UN were eclipsed last week by the performance of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, new celebrity of the General Assembly stage. But as the (radioactive?) dust settles, let us turn to largely unnoticed but imminent “election” of Iran as rapporteur for — of course — the General Assembly’s main committee on Disarmament and International Security, best known at the UN as the First Committee.

This Committee should not be confused with the UN’s Disarmament Conference in Geneva, the gridlocked body on which Iran held the rotating chair for four weeks this spring. As did North Korea in 2011 (that chair rotates alphabetically through the membership, the alphabet being apparently of greater weight to the Conference than the actual business of disarmament).

The First Committee, by contrast, is located at UN headquarters in New York, and is a relatively busy shop, populated by all 193 members of the UN General Assembly. This is where the members gin up scores of draft resolutions every year for consideration by the General Assembly, on subjects such as weapons of mass destruction, nonproliferation and disarmament. These are toothless in their direct import, but can swing considerable weight in shaping debates, and spawning conferences and conventions that lead to drumbeats for more of the same.

Every October, to coincide with the newly opened year-long session of the General Assembly, the First Committee elects a bureau, consisting of a chairperson, three vice chairs and a rapporteur. For the previous session, the chair was Indonesia, with vice chairs Lithuania, Peru and Kenya, and the rapporteur was Norway.

This year will be different.

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