As US-Iran rapprochement inches toward at least partial consummation in Geneva, I wish to offer a few observations:
1) The Iran nuclear weapons threat has always been a McGuffin, an excuse for various powers to advance an anti-Iran agenda.
2) Chief among the usual suspects is, of course, Israel under PM Netanyahu. If the Israeli government is able to spin Iran as a nuclear (almost) capable existential threat to Israel, then Israel can make an absolute claim on US sympathy, support, and protection. If Iran returns to good relations with the United States, the US will arguably become less willing to bear the sizable political, diplomatic, and economic cost of deferring to Israel’s priorities—on the Palestinian question, on regional security, and its obstinate refusal to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal and integrate it into the international arms control regime.
3) The other regional power most interested in thumping the Iran-threat drum is Saudi Arabia. However, I would argue that the high-profile anti-Iran stance of the Kingdom (probably symbolized but not necessarily created by the notorious Prince Bandar) has little to do with the threat of “Iran hegemonism” (a canard frequently retailed in the big-name press) and a lot to do with Saudi Arabia’s decision to go pro-active against the popular democratic agitation expressed by the Arab Spring uprisings by supporting conservative Sunni theology and governance, not just in Shi’ite inflected countries like Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, but also in nations like Libya (where Saudi Arabia and its creature, the Gulf Co-Operation Council were the primary motive force in demanding intervention against Gaddafi) and Egypt. It’s easy for Saudi Arabia to piggyback on the anti-Iran campaign promoted by the US and Israel and cite Iranian subversion as a pretext for the campaign of conservative Sunni rollback; if Iran is removed from the league table of existential enemies subverting the Sunni heartland, Saudi Arabia is left in the exposed position of protecting Wahhabi obscurantism against liberal democracy. That’s not a happy place to be.
4) Western observers have been rather surprised by France’s unapologetic sabotage of the Iran nuclear negotiations in Geneva at Israel’s behest. I saw some left-of-center complaining that France’s motivation was the greedy desire to muscle in on the lucrative Saudi arms business. Perhaps, but I think the strategic nature of French involvement should be emphasized. Recall that France’s traditional sphere of influence in the Middle East has been the Levant—that chunk of coastline that includes southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. France claims a paternal interest in the bloody, fascistic and pro-Israeli antics of the Lebanese Maronite community, a Catholic grouping whose origins date back to the Crusades and is perhaps the most conspicuous legacy of the French enthusiasm for meddling in the Middle East. Before Syria blew up, France was at the center of an initiative to install Bashar al-Assad in the affections of the West. Also, recall that the Libyan adventure was a creature of French enthusiasm; that France was also easily the most eager advocate of a US military strike on Syria after somebody crossed President Obama’s gas warfare red line. With the United States displaying a desire to tilt toward Iran, if only a little bit, the Middle East jigsaw puzzle has been shaken up and France has the best potential of any Western power to shape and profit from the new alignment. We can justifiably bitch about France carrying Israel’s water, but if the US pivots toward Asia, as it has promised, there is a strong case for redefining the Arab Middle East as a Mediterranean construct, with France playing the role of keystone (and Iran scolder-in-chief). If Iran wants a European ally, well, Germany is probably there for the asking.
For the edification of China Matters readers, I offer two pieces from the archives below the fold.
First, a piece on the longstanding Saudi eagerness to push dissent into the sectarian pigeonhole, not only in Bahrain but in the entire Persian Gulf region. Hopefully, this provides a corrective to the rather ludicrous assertions of Iranian subversion, typified by allegations that the minority Assad regime is suicidally promoting sectarianism in Syria. The truth is, the Sunni affiliation of the Syrian majority is considered to be a dragon to be awakened in the service of conservative Saudi rollback against non-sectarian democracy, both in the kingdom and in the region.
Second, a discussion of the perennial question of whether Israel can pose a credible unilateral threat to Iran’s nuclear program with a military strike. When I originally wrote the post, it was considered unlikely that Saudi Arabia would provide refueling facilities to Israeli fighter bombers, and plausible that the US occupying forces in Iraq might provide the service. How things have changed. Under the current circumstances, I would say that Saudi Arabia’s enthusiasm for fighting to the last American has simply been transferred to Israel. I think that neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia have the stomach to bomb Iran and, perhaps, start a regional war without strong US backing of the sort that the Obama administration appears loathe to provide; hope I’m right. In any case, the real game is in Syria and western Iraq, regions that if not for that exasperating problem of al Qaeda blowback, would be viewed with unalloyed joy as fertile fields for conservative Sunni rollback and continued bloodshed, no matter what happens with Iran.
Monday, April 04, 2011
Update: Justin Gengler, a University of Michigan graduate student, did demographic work in Bahrain and is blogging on his findings at Religion and Politics in Bahrain. According to Gengler, the government of Bahrain has been engaged in stealth naturalization of Sunni immigrants (and, if I read the article correctly, naturalization of Sunnis resident in the Saudi city of Dammam) in order to dilute the Shi’a majority. He takes issue with the commonly reported 70/30 Shi’a/Sunni split that I used in this post. According to his research, conducted in 2009, the population of Bahrain is now on the order of 58% Shi’a and 42% Sunni. CH, 4/5/11
While we are diverted by the opera-bouffe spectacle of the civil war in Libya’s desert, a genuine tragedy—and potential geopolitical trainwreck—is unfolding in Bahrain.
Those plucky demonstrators we saw occupying the Pearl Square roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, have been swept away by government security forces—together with the 300 foot monument at the roundabout, which came to symbolize the aspirations of the protesters and was therefore demolished by the government in a representative display of heavy-handedness.
The Bahraini government received an important assist from Saudi Arabia, which dispatched troops and tanks under a mutual security pact of the Gulf Co-Operation Council called Peninsula Shield.
The government has gone to great and dangerous lengths to paint the democratic aspirations of the peaceful, largely Shi’a demonstrators for democracy as a sectarian assault on the emirate backed by that Gulf boogeyman, Iran.
The repression has turned into an operation of conspicuous bigotry, brutality, and mendacity that does not bode well for the future of the emirate, political liberalization inside Saudi Arabia, or peaceful coexistence between Iran and the Gulf states.
In recent days, Bahrain has used live ammunition—shotguns—against demonstrators and blanketed Manama with checkpoints, some manned by personnel masked with sinister black balaclavas. After a group of Shia legislators resigned in protest, the government officially accepted their resignations—so they could strip the legislators of their immunity and render them liable to criminal charges. Main opposition newspaper—shut down. Only hospital in Manama—occupied by security forces so that wounded demonstrators can be apprehended, abused, and/or disappeared.
In classic Orwellian doublespeak, the government declared that the hospital had been “liberated”. “Liberating” the hospital apparently involved beating at least one male nurse senseless in the parking lot.
Beneath it all, a dangerous undercurrent of government fear and rage.
It looks like the Bahrain and Saudi security forces are utterly out of their depth. Their state of reference is pursuing and suppressing terrorists. By treating these peaceful, non-sectarian demonstrators as sectarian terrorists, they seem to be sowing the seeds of the emirate’s eventual destruction.
The expected outcome of systematic government-directed hatred would be ethnic cleansing, but there’s one problem with that. Shi’a are not a marginalized and easily purged minority; they are the majority, accounting for about 70% of the native population. The Sunni—who dominate the island in cooperation with their Saudi allies—are the minority. If one counts the large army of foreign workers in the emirate, the Sunni bosses account for less than 10% of the population.
No wonder the Sunni emir felt he needed some Saudi muscle.
The prognosis seems to be embittered Shi’a majority and paranoid Sunni rulers in Bahrain. Even under ordinary circumstances, Shi’a are inclined to a lively sense of grievance concerning historical and current Sunni persecution, raising the prospect of security problems for Saudi Arabia in handling its own Shi’a minority (about 15%) even after the stompings and beatings quiet things in Manama.
The big story in the Gulf appears to be that many of the governments, with weak to non-existent popular bases, vulnerability to democratic agitation, an inability to accommodate dissent (unless “accommodation” means bouncing a nightstick off somebody’s head and hauling them away), and an uncertain sense of where the Obama administration stands on the whole “democratic values vs. strategic interests” conundrum, are panicking and in need of a scapegoat to justify heavy-handed security measures that will otherwise alienate significant (ironically, significant moderate) sections of their populace.
The spooked regimes are justifying their disproportionate reaction by claiming the demonstrations are part of a seditious scheme sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah. A war of words has already broken out between Iran and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the issue. Turning the Gulf states’ rhetoric against them, Iran declared that Bahrain has forfeited its legitimacy, implying that Iran can do an R2P intervention on behalf of the embattled Shi’a of Bahrain like the humanitarian intervention the Gulf Co-operation Council incited in Libya.
The clownish nature of reporting on Bahrain was revealed when a leader declared he wanted the emirate to solve its problems without outside interference, Iranian or Saudi. This was of course headlined in the Saudi-owned al Arabiya as Bahrain’s Shiite opposition asks Iran not to meddle.
The seemingly suicidal line of framing the issue as Iran-fueled sectarian jealousy instead of legitimate democratic agitation was carried on in the article by a Bahraini official:
“We want to affirm to the world that we don’t have a problem between the government and the opposition … There is a clear sectarian problem in Bahrain. There is division within society,” Sheikh Khaled said.
Don’t forget Kuwait, which is about to execute two Iranians and a Kuwaiti for spying, is expelling three Iranian diplomats from Kuwait, and has withdrawn its ambassador from Tehran.
An informative article on the Kuwait affair in Arab Times quotes an analyst in Dubai as saying that “the Kuwaiti government was ‘under huge pressure from Sunni MPs … and the media to take action, not to let this go without proving their displeasure.’”
An April 3 article in Arab Times, Persian Conspiracy seen to target GCC countries, gives another hint of where things are going, along the line of runaway paranoia, scaremongering, and propaganda overreach, courtesy of that ubiquitous government mouthpiece, “Sources say”:
KUWAIT CITY, April 3: The Iranian plan includes dangerous plots against the Gulf nations, not just Bahrain. Kuwait, in particular, is one of the targets and the spy network is only a tip of the iceberg, because the main objective is for the Iranian Naval Forces to invade some islands in the country and other Gulf nations under the pretext of protecting Shiites in Bahrain, say security sources in the Gulf.
Sources disclosed the Bahraini and Kuwaiti foreign ministers revealed the conspiracy uncovered by the security departments in both countries in the recently-concluded meeting of the GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh. After hearing the report, the GCC foreign ministers presented recommendations, which will be implemented soon, because the GCC nations are keen on revealing the truth to the international community.
Sources said the implementation of the Iranian plan started several months ago, claiming the chaos and conflicts in Bahrain are just the beginning of an attempt to disrupt peace in the Kingdom. Sources revealed the initial plan was for the unrest to continue for two to three weeks in order to give the Iranian, other Arab and international satellite stations enough time to extensively cover the massacre of Shiites in the country.
Consider that plot to have the international media to “extensively cover the massacre of Shiites” pretty much foiled.
One doesn’t hear much about the brutal suppression of dissent in Bahrain in the Western media.
Ssome say the Libyan adventure was part of a plan to distract the West with a lovely little war against a crazy dictator so the journos wouldn’t be out covering the over-the-top suppression of a bona fide democracy movement by Saudi Arabia’s BFF (and host to Commander, United States Naval Forces Central Command (COMUSNAVCENT) / United States Fifth Fleet and 1500 US personnel) Bahrain.
Credit where credit is due: Newsmax, which often traffics in eye-rolling right-wing paranoia, had a good article on Bahrain by Ken Timmerman. When Newsmax has to carry the load for American news organizations, you know the situation is pretty grim.
Iran’s PressTV has tried to make Bahrain their CNN/Al Jazeera moment.
There is a sizable void to fill, since CNN has reported very little on Bahrain (four of their correspondents were detained and released only after signing “an undertaking not to exceed the limits of their mission”–they ostensibly entered Bahrain to report on “social media” but instead tried to report on the disturbances).
I didn’t find any signs that the U.S. State Department stood up for America’s press freedom agenda in this particular case.
Al Jazeera, owned by Qatar, has no interest in airing the dirty and/or bloody linen of the emir next door.
Bahraini hospitality toward news-gatherers of the Persian menace obviously has its limits.
Press TV’s most recent report featured its Bahrain correspondent, Aris Roussinos, pushing a luggage cart through Heathrow Airport while giving an informative and thoughtful interview on the kinds of things that the Bahrain government was apparently not at all keen on him seeing as he spent a week in Bahrain evading the authorities and observing the crackdown.
If freedom-loving consumers of global media find Iranian reporting intolerable, however, here’s a 17-minute clip from an Australian investigative show called Dateline. It features nervy reporting by reporter Yaara Bou Melhem from inside Bahrain, and a stark picture of the hidden war that we’re not supposed to see.
The report can be viewed in its entirety at Dateline‘s website.
The reporting is deliberately low-key, a welcome contrast to the hyperventilating outrage needed to keep the humanitarian intervention balloon inflated in Libya (or the anti-Iranian jihad barreling along in the Gulf states, for that matter).
In one sequence, a Human Rights Watch representative directs the reporter’s attention to a crime scene that has come to symbolize the worst excesses of Bahrain’s riot police: the place where a young man, Hani Jumah, was beaten. Apparently, he was not a demonstrator; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as riot police swept the area. The camera pans on the bloodstained floor of a deserted construction site as the HRW staffer relates with forensic detachment: “We found fragments of his kneecap…we also found one of his teeth.” And you’re left to wonder: how does someone get beaten so severely a piece of his kneecap is dislodged from his body? The young man was taken to the hospital for treatment, then got disappeared from the hospital. His family was summoned to retrieve his body four days later.
I originally found the Dateline clip on the Facebook page of Bahrain’s leading human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab. He’s featured in the report, describing how 25 masked security personnel paid him a night visit to object to his activities with a three-hour session of interrogation and verbal and physical abuse.
A consistent theme is the persistent efforts of the regime and its personnel to characterize opposition as “sectarian”. One wounded protester described being beaten in the hospital (before he was transported to a police station for further beatings) and being told that he had ruined the country and would be “sent back to Iran.”
Nabeel’s site is mostly in Arabic. But if you open Google translator in a separate tab, you can cut and paste the text and a surprisingly good English translation floats onto the screen like a message from another world—which, if you think in terms of the media blackout in Bahrain, is exactly where it’s coming from.
Before and after pictures of the Pearl Monument from the Happy Arab blog.
Friday, February 03, 2012
“Israel to attack Iran” is a hardy if never-blooming perennial. I rerun this post (originally written on the occasion of Israel’s bombing of an alleged nuclear facility in Syria in 2007) every year as a reminder of the rather daunting technical issues involved in flying from Israel to Iran and blowing things up in a truly convincing fashion, even as the same threats are put forward again and again.
Blowing things up in a truly convincing fashion involves a) flying there b) getting refueled in mid-air c) getting rearmed d) going back and do it again and again against Iran’s dispersed and hardened nuclear facilities.
So it won’t be an orgasmic one-off like the Osiraq reactor strike against Iraq, a nice quasi-surgical demonstration of civilized Israeli warfare. It would be a grinding, prolonged assault, presumably with plenty of Iranian casualties, and with the unmistakable, sustained assistance of a local ally to keep the planes in the air.
Iran’s nuclear facilities are beyond the combat range of Israel’s fighter bombers. So Israeli planes would not only need to overfly Iraq or Saudi Arabia and/or Turkey with or without permission; they would have need to get refueled over Iraq or Saudi Arabia as well on the return trip.
It doesn’t look like the US is going to provide refueling facilities, leaving it up to local partners (unlikely/infeasible) or Israel itself.
This year, the presence of a pro-Iranian government in Iraq would make it necessary for Israel to cross Iraqi airspace without permission, and defy the Iraqi government in prolonged fashion by having Israel’s tankers hovering over Iraq for multiple bouts of mid-air refueling.
And I don’t think Turkey’s going to be keen about permitting overflight, since they aren’t even signing on to the proposed bilateral sanctions against Iran.
That leaves the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an aggressive rollback against Iran in particular and Shi’ites in general, and the London Times quoted an anonymous Saudi source as saying Israeli jets attacking Iran would be waved through Saudi airspace.
Doesn’t quite pass the smell test for me, though. I don’t think the Saudi government is happy to harass the Iranians, but I don’t think they have the stomach for taking the Israeli side in a full-blown war.
On the record comments in December from Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s top security honcho, will undoubtedly be dismissed as disinformation by Western observers because he’s calling for a nuclear-free Middle East (a slap at Israel!), but I think his statement more closely reflect Saudi reality:
Replying to a question about the possibility of an attack on Iran to force it to roll back its nuclear program and the impact of such an action, Prince Turki reiterated that the impact will be “calamitous … cataclysmic, not just catastrophic.”
He said that Iranian actions have provoked worldwide opposition but at the same time suggests that Iran’s nuclear program is being singled out, while Israel is being given a clean chit. Any unilateral decision to launch a military attack aimed at halting the nuclear program of Iran could have huge consequences, he warned.
As to the technical issues of refueling, the IDF has made a big deal of demonstrating that it does not need US refueling services, as this report indicates:
In the last days of May and first week of June, 2008, Israel staged an impressive and well-reported exercise over Crete with the participation of the Greek air force. More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets, as well as Israeli rescue helicopters and mid-air refueling planes flew a massive number of mock strikes. Israeli planes reportedly never landed but were continuously refueled from airborne platforms. Israel demonstrated that a 1400 km distance could be negotiated with Israeli aircraft remaining aloft and effective. Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility is 1400 km from Israel.
Early in 2011, the Jersusalem Post reported Israel took delivery of a 707 for conversion into a tanker for refueling its F15-I fighter bombers coming back for Iran. How many additional tankers Israel has is “classified”, but an unsourced thread puts the total number of converted 707s to eight.
The JPost article went on to say:
The air force has conducted a major upgrade of its tanker fleet in recent years and now plans to wait for the US Air Force to choose its future tanker before buying additional aircraft.
Reading between the lines, maybe the United States is not particularly keen on delivering tankers and enhancing Israel’s capability to conduct unilateral air operations against Iran.
Accordingto Karl Vick at Time magazine, Israel doesn’t have the tanker capacity or, for that matter the ordnance, to devastate Iran for weeks:
What everyone agrees, however, is that as formidable as the Israeli Air Force is, it simply lacks the capacity to mount the kind of sustained, weeks-long aerial bombardment required to knock down Iran’s nuclear program, with the requisite pauses for damage assessments followed by fresh waves of bombing. Without forward platforms like air craft carriers, Israel’s air armada must rely on mid-air refueling to reach targets more than 1,000 miles away, and anyone who reads Israel’s order of battle sees it simply doesn’t have but a half dozen or so. Another drawback noted by analysts is Israel’s inventory of bunker-busting bombs, the sort that penetrate deep into concrete or rock that shield the centrifuge arrays at Natanz and now Fordow, near Qum. Israel has loads of GBU-28s, which might penetrate Natanz. But only the U.S. Air Force has the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator that could take on Fordow, the mountainside redoubt where critics suspect Iran would enrich uranium to military levels.
So, why do we keep talking about Israel’s threats to attack Iran?
I’ve frequently commented that the main purpose of the attack-Iran threat is to yank America’s chain, and forestall possible rapprochement between the United States and Iran.
The Obama administration knows this, I think, and I find its politically-motivated willingness to continue with the sanctions charade, and the low level but cruel and destabilizing program of assassination, sabotage, and economic warfare against Iran rather shameful.
The Mystery of the Dropped Fuel Tanks
An e-mail from a reader concerning the Israeli raid on a purported North-Korea-linked military facility in Syria stated:
FYI, the combat radius of an F-15 in deep strike mode is 1800km
The distance to the Syrian target is ~ 700 km.
No need for drop tanks……..
Hmmm. Too interesting to pass up.
The Internet is a treasure trove for armchair commanders and aviation and weapons enthusiasts. Industrious googling yielded the following information:
During the raid, some Israeli aircraft jettisoned two external fuel tanks up by the Turkish border.
The tanks were from an F-15I fighter bomber , called the “Ra’am” or “Thunder”, itself the Israeli variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle.
In agreement with my correspondent, the Observer states the Ra’am is:
…the newest generation of Israeli long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km when equipped with the drop tanks.
But I think the Observer (and perhaps *gasp* a loyal reader) got it wrong. Either they confused cruising range with combat range, or confused the current F15I with its previous incarnations (for instance the F15C does have a combat radius of 2000 km).
The F-15E is a completely different animal from previous F-15s, which were sleek interceptors, designed “without a pound for the ground” i.e. no air to ground armament, for those days of air-to-air combat with the parfait knights of the Soviet bloc.
It’s meant to carry big bombs and missiles to blow up stuff on the ground and the people standing in it or next to it, and fight its way out if necessary.
So it’s got bigger engines and less range than previous F15s.
To achieve this radius, it needs its internal fuel plus external fuel.
Internal fuel capacity is 5,952 kg.
External fuel consists of two components:
Conforming fuel tanks or CFTs with a total capacity of 4500 kg. They are integral parts of the plane—one report I read said the plane isn’t really designed to fly without them—and can’t be jettisoned.
Then there’s another 5500 kg in conventional external fuel tanks—the kind that were dropped during the mission.
With a fistful of caveats, the combat radius for an F-15I without the external fuel tanks would be around 500+ miles.
Distance from the Hatzerim airbase (home of the F-15I-equipped 69th Squadron) near Beersheba to Dayr az Zawr: 420 miles.
So you might think that the conventional external fuel tanks weren’t needed for this particular mission, and the only reason to carry them was for road-testing prior to some Iran-related hanky-panky.
Maybe yes, maybe no.
If the Israelis really did bomb Dayr az Zawr, it’s unclear why they went barnstorming up to the Turkish border a hundred miles away.
But they certainly did go, and to fly that kind of mission including a flyby of the Turkish border, I think they would need the external fuel tanks.
Maybe the Turkey excursion was to test some fancy new electronic countermeasures equipment mounted on another plane, called “Suter”, to disrupt Russian air defense hardware recently supplied to Syria—and Iran, for Israel’s benefit and our own.
Aviation Week put out the story courtesy of “U.S. officials”:
A Kuwaiti newspaper wrote that “Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory. Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions.”
We got a certain amount of military chest-thumping about how cool this new gear is, but these planes only jettison their fuel tanks if they’ve been engaged and need extra speed and mobility, which leads one to believe it couldn’t have worked too great.
As to Israeli insistence that they’ll take out Iran if we can’t get off our collective rears, I found this analysis interesting and persuasive.
It argues that the Israeli air force simply doesn’t have the horses to haul the armament needed to make a terminal dent in the hardened and dispersed Iranian facilities on a 1200-mile mission—remember, more fuel means fewer weapons carried–unless the U.S. either assists in the refueling of the Israeli planes or allows them to stage the assault U.S. from bases in Iraq.
And maybe not even then.
Theoretically, the Israelis could do this, but at great risk of failure. If they decide to attack Natanz, they will have to inflict sufficient damage the first time – they probably will not be able to mount follow-on strikes at other facilities.
When all the analyses are done, there is only one military capable of the sustained widespread air operations required to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons research program – the United States.
So it looks like the Israelis could start something—but it would be up to Uncle Sam to finish the job.
I take this as support for my thesis that a key data point for Israel from the Syria raid was the nature of the U.S. support it did—or did not—elicit, and what that would mean for Israel if it conducted a dramatic but less than conclusive raid on Natanz with the hope that the U.S. could be dragged into the campaign.
So: War with Iran—it’s up to us. Don’t know whether that’s reassuring or disturbing.