Posts Tagged ‘Russia’
Tehran confirms its industrial computers under Stuxnet virus attack
DEBKAfile Exclusive Report September 25, 2010, 6:07 PM (GMT+02:00)
Mahmoud Alyaee, secretary-general of Iran’s industrial computer servers, including its nuclear facilities control systems, confirmed Saturday, Sept. 25, that30,000 computers belonging to classified industrial units had been infected and disabled bythemalicious Stuxnet virus.
This followed debkafile‘s exclusive report Thursday, Sept. 23, from its Washington and defense sources that a clandestine cyber war is being fought against Iran by the United States with elite cyber war units established by Israel. Stuxnet is believed to be the most destructive virus ever devised for attacking major industrial complexes, reactors and infrastructure. The experts say it is beyond the capabilities of private or individual hackers and could have been produced by a high-tech state like America or Israel, or its military cyber specialists.
The Iranian official said Stuxnet had been designed to strike the industrial control systems in Iran manufactured by the German Siemens and transfer classified data abroad.
The head of the Pentagon’s cyber war department, Vice Adm. Bernard McCullough said Thursday, Sept. 22, that Stuxnet had capabilities never seen before. In a briefing to the Armed Forces Committee of US Congress, he testified that it was regarded as the most advanced and sophisticated piece of Malware to date.
According to Alyaee, the virus began attacking Iranian industrial systems two months ago. He had no doubt that Iran was the victim of a cyber attack which its anti-terror computer experts had so far failed to fight. Stuxnet is powerful enough to change an entire environment, he said without elaborating. Not only has it taken control of automatic industrial systems, but has raided them for classified information and transferred the date abroad.
This was the first time an Iranian official has explained how the United States and Israel intelligence agencies have been able to keep pace step by step of progress made in Iran’s nuclear program. Until now, Tehran attributed the leaks to Western spies using Iranian double agents.
Last Thursday, debkafile first reported from its Washington sources that US president Barack Obama had resolved to deal with the nuclear impasse with Iran by going after the Islamic republic on two tracks: UN and unilateral sanctions for biting deep into the financial resources Iran has earmarked for its nuclear program, and a secret cyber war with Israel to cripple its nuclear facilities.
In New York, the US offer to go back to the negotiating table was made against this background.
Leaks by American security sources to US media referred to the recruitment by Israel military and security agencies of cyber raiders with the technical knowhow and mental toughness for operating in difficult and hazardous circumstances, such as assignments for stealing or destroying enemy technology, according to one report.
debkafile‘s sources disclose that Israel has had special elite units carrying out such assignments for some time. Three years ago, for instance, cyber raiders played a role in the destruction of the plutonium reactor North Korea was building at A-Zur in northern Syria.
Some computer security specialists reported speculated that the virus was devised specifically to target part of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, either the Bushehr nuclear plant activated last month – which has not been confirmed – or the centrifuge facility in Natanz.
debkafile‘s sources add: Since August, American and UN nuclear watchdog sources have been reporting a slowdown in Iran’s enrichment processing due to technical problems which have knocked out a large number of centrifuges and which its nuclear technicians have been unable to repair. It is estimated that at Natanz alone, 3,000 centrifuges have been idled.
H.P.’s Foreign Entanglement
Peter J. Henning follows issues involving securities law and white-collar crime for DealBook’s White Collar Watch.
The last month or so has not been very pleasant for Hewlett-Packard.
The company’s recent 10-Q disclosed that the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission have expanded an investigation of possible bribe payments in connection with contracts the company obtained in Russia. Such payments may violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (F.C.P.A.), an area where the federal government has investigated more aggressively over the last few years.
This disclosure comes on top of other recent legal problems at H.P. Joe Nocera’s recent column in The New York Times described H.P.’s directors as “the most inept board in America” for its lawsuit against its former chief executive, Mark V. Hurd. On Aug. 30, the Justice Department announced a $55 million settlement of a civil fraud claim against H.P. for paying “influencer fees” — in other words, kickbacks — in return for favorable recommendations to the federal government to buy the company’s products.
As Mr. Nocera pointed out, H.P. is unlikely to succeed in its legal battle with Mr. Hurd, but that is more of a distraction than anything else. A widening F.C.P.A. investigation, on the other hand, may end up costing the company millions of dollars in legal fees as it deals with demands for documents while conducting its own internal inquiry. And any settlement with the government would likely involve both criminal fines and civil monetary penalties, along with other remedial measures, ratcheting the price up further.
The bribery investigation began in Russia in connection with a contract with a former German subsidiary of H.P. that involved the installation of a computer network in, of all places, Russia’s chief prosecutor’s office. Russian and German prosecutors are looking into the transaction, which took place from 2002 to 2006, and have requested documents from the company.
In its 10-Q, H.P. notes for the first time that the investigation is not limited to that one contract in Russia: “The U.S. enforcement authorities have recently requested information from H.P. relating to certain governmental and quasi-governmental transactions in Russia and in the Commonwealth of Independent States subregion dating back to 2000.”
It is not clear how many contracts or transactions may be involved, but the expanded time frame and geographic scope probably means the inquiry will be an extended one, rather than something H.P. can wrap up quickly. As sometimes happens, once one part of a multinational company is scrutinized for bribery, problems in other areas can pop to the surface.
The recent settlement by Siemens of overseas bribery charges shows how corruption can spread throughout a company. Subsidiaries operating in France, Argentina, Turkey and the Middle East were found to have paid bribes to obtain contracts, and Siemens paid $800 million in criminal fines to the Justice Department and disgorgement to the S.E.C. as part of the settlement.
The F.C.P.A. is part of the federal securities laws, and most cases involve the S.E.C. along with the Justice Department because one part of the act requires corporations to maintain proper books and records, something that is rarely done when a bribe is paid. The Justice Department has become much more aggressive in pursuing foreign bribery cases, including conducting an undercover sting operation that resulted in more than 20 people being arrested on charges of offering bribes to participate in a fictitious security contract with an African nation.
The recent addition of enhanced whistle-blower rewards in the Dodd-Frank Act authorizes the S.E.C. to pay 10 percent of any recovery realized, up to a maximum of 30 percent, to those who provide valuable information related to any type of securities fraud. F.C.P.A. cases are very likely to be among the most common instances for whistle-blowing by corporate employees.
F.C.P.A. charges are also very difficult to defend once the government obtains evidence that payments were made to foreign officials “in obtaining or retaining business” in that country. The act recognizes two defenses to a charge, first the payment was lawful under the laws of the country where it was made, and second the expenses were reasonable for the promoting the product or implementing the contract.
Neither defense has been successfully offered in court to this point. Even worse, according to an article by Kyle Sheahen that will be published shortly in the Wisconsin International Law Journal, “the defenses are virtually useless in practice.”
Even if H.P. is found to have violated the F.C.P.A., that does not mean the company’s ability to win government contracts would be at risk. Professor Mike Koehler, who analyzes these issues on the FCPA Professor blog, noted that the Siemens settlement did not seem to have any real effect on the company’s relationship with the federal government. “One of the unfortunate beauties of engaging in bribery the U.S. government terms ‘unprecedented in scale and geographic scope’ is no slowdown in U.S. government contracts in the immediate aftermath of the enforcement action,” he noted.
The impact from any F.C.P.A. violation may change, however, under a bill under consideration in Congress. The legislation, called the Overseas Contractor Reform Act and passed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July, requires debarment from future government contracts for any person or company found in violation of the F.C.P.A. The bill states the policy that “no Government contracts or grants should be awarded to individuals or companies who violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”
Whether the House and Senate will pass the legislation remains to be seen, but corporate integrity is, like mom and apple pie, not easily opposed. While the current aversion to corporate America may be abating, this is the type of reform that may well take hold to put some more bite into the F.C.P.A.
For H.P., a burgeoning foreign bribery investigation is not good news because of the costs and uncertainly it engenders. If the Overseas Contractor Reform Act becomes law, it will make it even more imperative that the company try to avoid any finding of a violation of the F.C.P.A., perhaps through a deferred or non-prosecution agreement that can let it avoid a finding of a violation.
– Peter J. Henning
The Overseas Contractor Reform Act
H.P.’s Foreign Entanglement – NYTimes.com
Drought, Fire and Grain in Russia
August 10, 2010 | 0856 GMT
By Lauren Goodrich
A History of Drought and Wildfire
Exports and Foreign Policy
Read more: Drought, Fire and Grain in Russia | STRATFOR
First, it is very important to understand that militant activity in Afghanistan is nothing new. It has existed there for centuries
Militancy and the U.S. Drawdown in Afghanistan
September 2, 2010
By Scott Stewart The drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq <http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20100830_iraqs_security_forces_after_us_withdrawal?fn=9717046652> has served to shift attention toward Afghanistan, where the United States has been increasing its troop strength in hopes of forming conditions conducive to a political settlement. This is similar to the way it used the 2007 surge in Iraq to help reach a negotiated settlement with the Sunni insurgents that eventually set the stage for withdrawal there. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the Taliban at this point do not feel the pressure <http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20100830_afghanistan_why_taliban_are_winning?fn=1217046690> required for them to capitulate or negotiate and therefore continue to follow their strategy of surviving and waiting for the coalition forces to depart so that they can again make a move to assume control over Afghanistan. Indeed, with the United States having set a deadline of July 2011 to begin the drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan — and with many of its NATO allies withdrawing sooner — the Taliban can sense that the end is near. As they wait expectantly for the departure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan, a look at the history of militancy in Afghanistan provides a bit of a preview of what could follow the U.S. withdrawal.
A Tradition of Militancy
First, it is very important to understand that militant activity in Afghanistan is nothing new. It has existed there for centuries <http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20100212_border_playbill_militant_actors_afghanpakistani_frontier?fn=8817046654> , driven by a number of factors. One of the primary factors is the country’s geography. Because of its rugged and remote terrain, it is very difficult for a foreign power (or even an indigenous government in Kabul) to enforce its writ on many parts of the country. A second, closely related factor is culture. Many of the tribes in Afghanistan have traditionally been warrior societies that live in the mountains, disconnected from Kabul because of geography, and tend to exercise autonomous rule that breeds independence and suspicion of the central government. A third factor is ethnicity. There is no real Afghan national identity. Rather, the country is a patchwork of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and other ethnicities that tend also to be segregated by geography. Finally, there is religion. While Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim country, there is a significant Shiite minority as well as a large Sufi presence in the country. The hardcore Deobandi Taliban are not very tolerant of the Shia or Sufis, and they can also be harsh toward more moderate Sunnis who do things such as send their daughters to school, trim their beards, listen to music and watch movies.
(click here to enlarge image)
<http://web.stratfor.com/images/maps/Afghan_Pakistan_ethnic_800.jpg?fn=2617046671> Any of these forces on its own would pose challenges to peace, stability and centralized governance, but together they pose a daunting problem and result in near-constant strife in Afghanistan. Because of this environment, it is quite easy for outside forces to stir up militancy in Afghanistan. One tried-and-true method is to play to the independent spirit of the Afghans and encourage them to rise up against the foreign powers that have attempted to control the country. We saw this executed to perfection in the 1800s during the Great Game between the British and the Russians for control of Afghanistan. This tool was also used after the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and it has been used again in recent years following the 2001 U.S. invasion of the country. The Taliban are clearly being used by competing outside powers against the United States (more on this later). But driving out an invading power is not the only thing that will lead to militancy and violence in Afghanistan. The ethnic, cultural and religious differences mentioned above and even things like grazing or water rights and tribal blood feuds can also lead to violence. Moreover, these factors can (and have been) used by outside powers to either disrupt the peace in Afghanistan or exert control over the country via a proxy (such as Pakistan’s use of the Taliban movement). Militant activity in Afghanistan is, therefore, not just the result of an outside invasion. Rather, it has been a near constant throughout the history of the region, and it will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
When we consider the history of outside manipulation in Afghanistan, it becomes clear that such manipulation has long been an important factor in the country and will continue to be so after the United States and the rest of the ISAF withdraw. There are a number of countries that have an interest in Afghanistan and that will seek to exert some control over what the post-invasion country looks like.
- The United States does not want the country to revert to being a refuge for al Qaeda and other transnational jihadist groups. At the end of the day, this is the real U.S. national interest in Afghanistan. It is not counterinsurgency or building democracy or anything else.
- Russia does not want the Taliban to return to power. The Russians view the Taliban as a disease that can infect and erode their sphere of influence in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and then move on to pose a threat to Russian control in the predominately Muslim regions of the Caucasus. This is why the Russians were so active in supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime. There are reports, though, that the Russians have been aiding the Taliban in an effort to keep the United States tied down in Afghanistan, since as long as the United States is distracted there it has less latitude <http://www.stratfor.com/russias_window_opportunity?fn=1217046642> to counter Russian activity elsewhere.
- On the other side of that equation, Pakistan helped foster the creation of the Pashtun Taliban organization and then used the organization as a tool to exert its influence in Afghanistan. Facing enemies on its borders with India and Iran, Pakistan must control Afghanistan in order to have strategic depth <http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20100316_afghanistan_campaign_part_3_pakistani_strategy?fn=1117046681> and ensure that it will not be forced to defend itself along its northwest as well. While the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban and the threat it poses to Pakistan will alter Islamabad’s strategy somewhat — and Pakistan has indeed been recalculating its use of militant proxies <http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/pakistan_new_phase_militant_proxy_saga?fn=5017046637> — Pakistan will try hard to ensure that the regime in Kabul is pro-Pakistani.
- This is exactly why India wants to play a big part in Afghanistan — to deny Pakistan that strategic depth. In the past, India worked with Russia and Iran to support the Northern Alliance and keep the Taliban from total domination of the country. Indications are that the Indians are teaming up with the Russians and Iranians once again.
- Iran also has an interest in the future of Afghanistan and has worked to cultivate certain factions of the Taliban by providing them with shelter, weapons and training. The Iranians also have been strongly opposed to the Taliban and have supported anti-Taliban militants, particularly those from the Shiite Hazara people. When the Taliban captured Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, they killed 11 Iranian diplomats and journalists. Iran does not want the Taliban to become too powerful, but it will use them as a tool to hurt the United States. Iran will also attempt to install a pro-Iranian government in Kabul or, at the very least, try to thwart efforts by the Pakistanis and Americans to exert control over the country.
A History of Death and Violence It may seem counterintuitive, but following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the casualties from militancy in the country declined considerably. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies Armed Conflict Database, the fatalities due to armed conflict in Afghanistan fell from an estimated 10,000 a year prior to the invasion to 4,000 in 2002 and 1,000 by 2004. Even as the Taliban began to regroup in 2005 and the number of fatalities began to move upward, by 2009 (the last year for which the institute offers data) the total was only 7,140, still well-under the pre-invasion death tolls (though admittedly far greater than at the ebb of the insurgency in 2004). Still, even with death tolls rising, the U.S. invasion has not produced anywhere near the estimated 1 million deaths that resulted during the Soviet occupation. The Soviets and their Afghan allies were not concerned about conducting a hearts-and-minds campaign. Indeed, their efforts were more akin to a scorched-earth strategy complete with attacks directed against the population. This strategy also resulted in millions of refugees fleeing Afghanistan for Pakistan and Iran and badly disrupted the tribal structure in much of Afghanistan. This massive disruption of the societal structure helped lead to a state of widespread anarchy that later led many Afghans to see the Taliban as saviors. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the communist government in Kabul was able to survive for three more years, backed heavily with Soviet arms, but these years were again marked by heavy casualties. When the communist government fell in 1992, the warlords who had opposed the government attempted to form a power-sharing agreement to govern Afghanistan, but all the factions could not reach a consensus and another civil war broke out, this time among the various anti-communist Afghan warlords vying for control of the country. During this period, Kabul was repeatedly shelled and the bloodshed continued. Neither the Soviet departure nor the fall of the communist regime ended the carnage. With the rise of the Taliban, the violence began to diminish in many parts of the country, though the fighting remained fierce and tens of thousands of people were killed as the Taliban tried to exert control over the country. The Taliban were still engaged in a protracted and bloody civil war against the Northern Alliance when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. During the initial invasion, very few U.S. troops were actually on the ground. The United States used the Northern Alliance as the main ground-force element, along with U.S. air power and special operations forces, and was able to remove the Taliban from power in short order. It is important to remember that the Taliban was never really defeated on the battlefield. Once they realized that they were no match for U.S. air power in a conventional war, they declined battle and faded away to launch their insurgency. Today, the forces collectively referred to as the Taliban in Afghanistan are not all part of one hierarchical organization under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar. Although Mullah Omar is the dominant force and is without peer among Afghan insurgent leaders, there are a number of local and regional militant commanders who are fighting against the U.S. occupation beside the Taliban and who have post-U.S. occupation interests that diverge from those of the Taliban. Such groups are opportunists rather than hardcore Taliban and they might fight against Mullah Omar’s Taliban if he and his militants come to power in Kabul, especially if an outside power manipulates, funds and arms them — and outside powers will certainly be seeking to do so. The United States has tried to peel away the more independent factions from the wider Taliban “movement” but has had little success, mainly because the faction leaders see that the United States is going to disengage and that the Taliban will be a force to be reckoned with in the aftermath. Once U.S. and ISAF forces withdraw from Afghanistan, then, it is quite likely that Afghanistan will again fall into a period of civil war, as the Taliban attempt to defeat the Karzai government, as the United States tries to support it and as other outside powers such as Pakistan, Russia and Iran try to gain influence through their proxies in the country. The only thing that can really prevent this civil war from occurring is a total defeat of the Taliban and other militants in the country or some sort of political settlement. With the sheer size of the Taliban and its many factions, and the fact that many factions are receiving shelter and support from patrons in Pakistan and Iran, it is simply not possible for the U.S. military to completely destroy them before the Americans begin to withdraw next summer. This will result in a tremendous amount of pressure on the Americans to find a political solution to the problem. At this time, the Taliban simply don’t feel pressured to come to the negotiating table — especially with the U.S. drawdown in sight. And even if a political settlement is somehow reached, not everyone will be pleased with it. Certainly, the outside manipulation in Afghanistan will continue, as will the fighting, as it has for centuries.
Militancy and the U.S. Drawdown in Afghanistan
“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR ”
— The MasterBlog http://the-masterblog.blogspot.com
Shrinking Societies: The Other Population Crisis
The earth’s population is growing at an alarming rate, but in some countries the lack of growth is the biggest problem
A Japanese woman’s role in society is to give birth, and “all we can do is ask them to do their best per head,” said Hakuo Yanagisawa, Japan’s former health minister. His remark, as reported by Bloomberg in 2007, drew criticism for being sexist, but it touches on one of Japan’s most pressing issues: its rapidly aging and shrinking population.
Japan is expected to see its population contract by one-fourth to 95.2 million by 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based research group, making it the fastest-shrinking country in the world.Former Eastern Bloc nations Ukraine and Georgia came in second and third, respectively, in a ranking of more than 200 countries by Businessweek.com based on the Population Reference Bureau’s 2010 World Population Data Sheet.
These countries defy the global trend—but that doesn’t mean they’ll be spared problems of their own. The world population is expected to expand by 37 percent to 9.5 billion in 2050, according to the report, but growth will not be evenly distributed. Developing countries will grow the most, with the population in Africa expected to double.
Meanwhile, other regions will shrink as the boomer generation ages, people have fewer children, and workers leave for opportunities abroad. The most widespread decline is projected in Eastern Europe, where birthrates have declined since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The number of people in every country in the region, except the Czech Republic, is forecast to contract. By 2050 the region will have lost 13.6 percent of its population, according to data from the Population Reference Bureau.
“Europe, Korea, and Japan have gone into panic mode,” says Carl Haub, a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau. A declining population impacts a country’s economic growth, labor market, pensions, taxation, health care, and housing, according to the U.N. Globally by 2050, the number of older persons in the world will exceed the number of young for the first time in history, according to the U.N. The imbalance will create havoc in the pension systems and make it difficult to support retired and elderly persons, Haub says.
Despite these economic and social consequences, there have been no easy long-term solutions for countries trying to reverse this trend. “Demographic changes are pretty glacial,” says Haub.
That does not mean governments are not trying. Many countries are on a mission to raise the number of births. Although migration patterns affect many countries—such as Lithuania, where the number of people leaving the country is several times the number entering it—they change quickly and can be difficult to project.
Japan’s fertility rate fell from 1.57 children per woman in 1989 to 1.26 in 2005, according to Haub. It has rebounded to 1.4, but remains below the rate needed to replace the population: 2.
To encourage people to have more children, the government started implementing a series of programs called “Angel Plans” in 1994, says Toshiko Kaneda, senior research associate at the Population Reference Bureau. The plan offers counseling to couples, increases child-care services, and provides a monthly stipend of 26,000 yen (approximately $303) per child to ease the burden of raising a family.
In Germany, where the fertility rate is 1.3, the government pledged to increase the number of nursery schools and introduced an allowance that pays 67 percent of a parent’s income for the first year after a child is born if he or she stays home.
Even in Iran, where the fertility rate is 1.8, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently introduced a policy that pays families for every child born and deposits money into the child’s bank account until he or she is 18.
Such policies only have moderate success, says Dimiter Philipov, a research group leader at the Vienna Institute of Demography in the Austrian Academy of Sciences. As subsidies mainly cause people to have children earlier, the number of births typically increases in the first few years after a policy is passed. The allowances are much lower than the amount needed to raise a child, but “this is a success because it brings in more babies and makes population changes smoother,” he says.
Also, while declining fertility was once attributed to the falling marriage rate, today the deteriorating job environment also affects people’s decisions to have children, according to NLI Research Institute in Japan. Thus, in developed countries, rather than offer financial incentives, Philipov says, it is more effective to relieve pressure on parents through child-care services and ensuring job security for mothers. “Some would say no one has done it better than France,” where there is a broad menu of services for women and parents, says Haub.
Ideal Fertility Rate
Some argue the need to boost the fertility rate might not be so urgent. Tomáš Sobotka, a research scientist at the Vienna Institute of Demography, wrote in February in a column for The Guardian in the U.K. that demographers have been envisioning the demise of Europe since birthrates in the region began declining in the late 19th century, but “it is not population size but affluence and technology that make some countries more powerful than others.”
Philipov says a debate has emerged about the ideal fertility rate. Advances in science and technology that boost productivity might compensate for a fertility rate below the replacement level, such as 1.7 to 1.8, he says.
Still, a fertility rate of 1.4 or 1.5, as seen in many countries, is “too low,” Philipov says. At that level, the number of entries into the labor force becomes too narrow, making it difficult to support pensioners and children.
As fewer children are born, the fastest-growing age group in the world is people age 80 and older, according to the U.N. In 2000, there were about 4 people over age 85 for every 100 people ages 50 to 64; by 2050, it will rise to 11.
The situation is more dire in places such as Japan, where the Population Reference Bureau predicts there will only be one working-age person for every person over age 65 in 2050. Already, there are long waiting lists at nursing homes in Japan’s cities. To meet demand, the government has been recruiting, testing, and training nurses from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Also, new technologies are being introduced in Japan to serve the elderly, although they are no substitute for people. For example, companies have reportedly been designing robot caretakers, devices for remote medical care, and cars that monitor brain activity to assist older drivers.
Over the next 40 years, the age pyramid will be upside down and technological advancements will only provide limited relief. While demographic trends are difficult to change, Haub says, “something will have to happen.”
Click here to see the 25 countries with the fastest-shrinking populations.
More Than 5 Reasons Why Israel Won’t Strike Iran Anytime Soon
by Judith Miller
August 19, 2010
History sometimes repeats itself in the Middle East, but not always. Twice before, Israel has attacked Arab nuclear reactors before they were loaded with the fuel rods that could have produced plutonium Pu 239 for an atomic bomb. Both strikes against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and Syria’s North Korean-built reactor in 2007 were surprise attacks. In neither case did Israel receive Washington’s blessing. In the case of Iraq, Israel didn’t even warn its close friend, Ronald Reagan, in advance.
This pattern has led two former Bush administration officials – John Bolton and Michael Anton — and a very well-connected journalist to warn that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear installations soon if sanctions fail and Washington does not strike.
Jeffrey Goldberg argues in the Atlantic that Israelis think such a determination is likely to be made by spring of 2011. Bolton added fuel to the nuclear fire this week, so to speak, by arguing that if Israel does not strike before Russia is scheduled to load nuclear fuel rods at Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr this Saturday, it will lose the chance to stop Bushehr. Attacking a nuclear plant once it has gone “critical,” warns Anton, would risk the release of a radioactive plume that might kill civilians and poison surrounding areas, causing what he calls in what is surely the week’s understatement “a P.R. uproar.”
No one really knows what Israel’s military and political elite or President Obama, for that matter, intends to do about Iran next year, after sanctions have a chance to bite.
Avner Cohen, whose new book “The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb,” is being published in October, tells me that “any pretense to predict or even to assess the likelihood of war against Iran is really the pretense of knowing something we truly do not know.” He fears, as I do, that a confrontation with Iran might start inadvertently, over a non-nuclear issue.
But I also doubt that Israel is likely to move against Bushehr before it goes critical — or anytime soon, for that matter.
First, and not foremost, Israel and America are both far more concerned about Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities than the Bushehr reactor. Why? Because Moscow is not only supplying, but charged with removing the spent, or used fuel rods at Bushehr and getting them out of Iran. This agreement, plus monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog, gives some modest assurance that the reactor’s nuclear fuel won’t be secretly diverted to make a bomb.
Also, as Anton notes, even if Iran manages to divert some spent fuel, it’s not clear Teheran has the technology, or the capability, to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods for a bomb.
No, this is not perfect. Russia’s behavior, too, leaves much ground for suspicion. But altogether, it suggests that Bushehr is not as grave a danger as Iran’s dogged determination to develop an independent fuel cycle with a nuclear enrichment capability at existing and planned new facilities, despite more than a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions warning it not to do so.
For better or worse, the Obama administration does not see the Bushehr reactor as a grave proliferation risk. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the administration agreed not to oppose Russian help to Bushehr to help secure Russia’s vote for the latest round of U.N. sanctions in June.
Second, attacking Iranian nuclear facilities is obviously a far tougher military challenge – to say nothing of the likely political ramifications — than demolishing a single nuclear reactor in Iraq or Syria. Iran’s facilities, as we have been repeatedly told, are widely dispersed, buried, and hidden.
Third, Iran has the ability to strike back – using its proxy, Hezbollah to Israel’s north, and Iranian-assisted Hamas in Gaza, to Israel’s south. Nor would such retaliation likely be directed solely at Israel. Hezbollah has long tentacles and has previously struck in South America, Europe, and even Egypt. As American intelligence agencies have also warned, it also has a network of agents and supporters inside the United States.
Fourth, the Obama administration thinks that its sanctions, though nowhere nearly as tough as those imposed against Iraq, are already hurting Iran. Even Iranian economists complain that sanctions are making it more expensive and difficult for Iran to do business abroad, modernize its nuclear and oil sectors, and attract foreign investment. No one knows, however, whether sanctions will bite sufficiently to change Iranian behavior.
Fifth, Israeli leaders still suspect that Washington will strike Iran so that it doesn’t have to, when and if it becomes clear that Iran is not changing its nuclear policies. This may be a false hope. Many Obama officials agree with Robert Kaplan, who argues, also in The Atlantic, that containing a nuclear Iran is the least-bad of all the bad policy options available.
Finally, putting aside the wisdom (or dangerous folly) of such a military strike, conservatives and liberals alike tend to agree, Israeli military action against Iran before Washington concludes that its sanctions policy is not working IS likely to poison already tense U.S.-Israel relations, which as John Bolton acknowledges, “are more strained now than at any time since the 1956.”
A rupture with the U.S. may not be an existential threat. But as Anton writes, “it would be dire enough that it’s not worth risking unless the consequences of inaction truly are existential. That’s a hard and unenviable call to have to make.”
For all these reasons, history may not repeat itself in the Middle East. Israel may not strike Iran as it did Iraq and Syria.
But other indicators suggest an increasingly perilous Middle East, with or without such Israeli military action. The Arab-Israeli peace process appears deadlocked. America’s withdrawal from Iraq and its losses so far in Afghanistan create the perception throughout the region, rightly or wrongly, of American weakness and exhaustion.
Israel is being subjected to a fierce campaign to delegitimize its right to exist.
And Iran, after the failure of its Green Revolution, is in ever more dangerous hands. As Gary Sick, whose website hosts a fierce debate about Gulf policy, wrote recently, Iran increasingly resembles “the corporatist states of southern and eastern Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s that we call fascist.”
Yes, things do change in the Middle East, but as Atlantic editor James Bennet warned in the introduction to his dueling articles on what to do about Iran, “in fits and starts,” and since the collapse of the Oslo peace talks over a decade ago, not for the better.