There are big hopes for next week’s 6-party talks with North Korea. Christopher Hill, key negotiator for the US, has said that the US is hoping for progress.

It’s likely that this progress will happen, and that the Koreans will get what they’ve been seeking, which is aid. It is also very likely that the financial sanctions against imposed on the regime in 2005, will be adjusted. The US has engaged in separate talks for those sanctions, but those talks are certainly linked to the nuclear issue. After all, it was after the October test and the December talks, that the US was ready to have serious dialogue about the financial sanctions.

While Hill is being careful in what he’s saying and has made it clear that specific concessions on North Korea’s side are a requirement, there have been reports that North Korea will be more lenient in accepting those concessions. And accepting US aid.

What does this all mean? If the talks next week are successful, then the Koreans would have won a double victory. Not only are they now able in nuclear technology (and could re-ignite any program that gets slowed down), they could potentially be recipients of very needed foreign aid.

The nuclear program, having yielded results, can be stalled for this aid. And rebooted if that aid stops.

Sometimes hard power can still produce results.

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Talabani talking with Syria

January 14, 2007

Iraqi President Talabani is continuing to show a pro-active stance in Iraqi foreign policy. Following the official return of diplomatic ties with Syria in November, the President is now meeting with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus.

Syria is a vital player in the region and, over the years, has had important relations with Iran: the ties between the two nations developed when Syria sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. It’s also worth mentioning that the Iraq Study Group’s report released in early December favored dialogue with Iran and Syria, Iraq’s immediate neighbors. President Talabani seems to be following this policy, even if the US is reluctant to do the same. In fact, the Iraqi President has become a somewhat unnamed figure in Iraqi leadership.

In his address to Americans Wednesday, President Bush did not mention Talabani, only mentioning Prime Minister Maliki. This is consistent with US foreign policy of late, which has been centred on dealing exclusively with Maliki.

Part of the reason that the US is dealing with Maliki is that as Prime Minister he is the one dealing with domestic issues and the US’ main concern is the domestic insurgency in Iraq. However, if one is to accept US reports of Iranian and Syrian involvement in the insurgency, then Iraq’s foreign policy is key. In that sense, President Talabani is doing his job well: he met with the Iranian leadership in November and is now meeting with Assad in Syria.

In fact, Talabani is showing an independent approach to foreign policy, and the US has been very keen on having Iraqis take the lead in securing their own safety.

If its intentions are peaceful, then the US must consider talking to Iran and Syria as well. The two countries have shown that they are ready to talk and this is not a direct result of the announced troops surge. Reportedly, the meeting between Talabani and Assad has been a year in the making.

Is Iran next?

January 12, 2007

The idea of the US attacking Iran seems far-fetched and unrealistic. Not only is the US’ military over-stretched, strategically any operation could spell disaster. Iran’s facilities are not as exposed as Iraq’s were and Iranian infrastructure would not be taken out of order as easily, with an intricate underground network existing in Iran.

However, considering President Bush’s address to US citizens on Wednesday night, reality doesn’t seem to matter much to this Administration.

There continue to be signs that the Administration is interested in facing off against Iran.

Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran against impeding US efforts in Iraq. Prior to her warning, US troops stormed an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq and detained five diplomats, violating international norms on treating diplomats . Were a US or British consulate raided in like fashion, an immediate response would be rightly implemented.

Could the US be provoking Iran? Northern Iraq, after all, borders with Iran.

Is the additional troops deployment into the region meant to solve Iraq or does it have another purpose? Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski asserts that the additional troops have “no strategic benefit” and “will not resolve with finality the ongoing turmoil.”

Could Iran really be next?

One of the US’ most (if not the most) faithful allies in the region, Israel, has already been reported to have plans to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Israel has denied those reports. However, they did not surface without a reason. Iran has been the recipient of very harsh rhetoric from both the US and Israel and while there may be no concrete plan on Iran, something is in the works.

On Wednesday night, President Bush made several allusions to Iran, accusing the state of supporting radical “Shi’a elements” in Iraq. The President also mentioned facing “extremist challenges” in the region and said that “this begins with addressing Iran and Syria.”

A raid targeting Iranian diplomats followed on Thursday. On Friday, Secretary Rice warned Iran and said the US would not “stand idly by” if Iran’s “regional aggression” continued. This all fits into a pattern of high-ranking officials speaking out against Iran, and warnings against its regional role.

The latest warning comes from US intelligence chief Negroponte who has expressed concerns over the country’s intentions, citing the country’s alleged funding of terrorist activities.

Keeping President Bush’s address in mind, Iran just might be next.

When the US went to war with Iraq a few years ago, it cited the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by Saddam Hussein’s regime as a reason for the war. Since the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, there has been no proof of WMD in the country. Luckily, the US (as well as Britain, Italy and Australia) had plans for democracy in Iraq, which culminated in the so-called Purple Revolution of the January 2005 elections. Surprisingly, those elections did not result in much violence and outlooks were positive.

But 2006 saw the violence in Iraq grow to huge proportions, some saying the country was in a state of civil war. US troops have had trouble subduing the violence and more troops may be on the way, with the Bush Administration circulating the idea of a surge option. An exit from Iraq was an option a few months ago, but it now seems farfetched.

Yet the US could use its troops elsewhere. In a major failure of US foreign policy, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in early October. While the US was busy figuring out what to do in Iraq, North Korea (DPRK) quietly brought its nuclear program to a new level. While rhetoric against the DPRK continued, it never seemed that the US was pro-active about negotiating with the alienated regime. After all, the US’ financial sanctions were working and were putting North Korea into a position of no exit. So the Korean leadership went ahead and made the US listen by detonating its nuclear weapon.

More conspicuous perhaps is the case of Iran. The Iranians have been progressing with their civilian nuclear program and are openly enriching uranium, which could very well mean that they too are developing a nuclear weapon. If the US wanted to use its military as a deterrent with Iran, it cannot, because now its troops are very much stuck in Iraq.

Furthermore, Iran is increasingly becoming an active regional player that may be needed for stability in Iraq. Iran has already met with Iraqi President Talabani and has plans on co-operating with Syria to stabilize Iraq. But it also wants US forces out of the region. So any negotiations — direct or indirect — that the US has with Iran will be connected with the future of Iraq, and the US’ role in it. Not the scenario that President Bush was hoping for.

And to end the year, Iraq has executed its former president Saddam Hussein. While the conviction of Hussein is the work of an Iraqi court (and the sentencing carried out by Iraqis), it is hard to divorce the trial from US interests or US meddling. After all, why did Hussein’s dialogue with justice have to start with the Dujail trial and his crimes against humanity not include the Iran-Iraq war (where chemical weapons, likely provided by the US via Germany, were employed)? Why was Hussein in US custody until his hanging? Doesn’t that make him a Prisoner of War, as his lawyers argued on Friday? And why was Saddam Hussein treated to a dubious trial, which a leading US human rights organization has called flawed? That, of course, was the verdict of Human Rights Watch. The US President, however, seems content with the hanging citing a fair trial and as well as Iraqi rule of law.

Would the Iraqi leadership really hang its dictator during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the the Sacrifice, when the Arabs are supposed to pardon? That would be the biggest mistake for any new government, and its hard to conceive that the sentence was carried out without US encouragement if not enticement.

The hanging itself will not change how things go in Iraq. Hussein was no longer in control. If anything, the execution may make things more difficult, as Hussein still has supporters in Iraq and the insult of hanging him on the first day of Eid al-Adha may add fire to the discontent.

And US foreign policy seems stuck on Iraq, with the US incapable of facing up to North Korea and Iran. After all, it looks like the six-party talks with North Korea will require more than what US negotiator Christopher Hill is ready to offer, and will probably require the help of China. And there seems to be no clear policy for dealing with Iran, though the US was successful in passing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear enrichment.

The UN Security Council has passed a resolution condemning Iran for its nuclear enrichment. Key was the support of China and Russia, who have been reluctant on approving earlier drafts of resolutions against Iran.

Iran has responded by questioning why the UN has not condemned Israel for its nuclear arms. This criticism was made possible by a recent slip by Israeli PM Olmert.

The resolution has been long in the making and has been specifically tailored to make sure it would be adopted. Specifically, Bushehr, the Russian nuclear power plant built for Iran, is not mentioned. The resolution’s sanctions also allow countries to unfreeze assets of the companies dealing with Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missiles program, because freezing them is left to countries’ discretion.

It’s not clear what the US’ intentions with Iran are, but after some time out of the spotlight, Iran is back in the forefront of US foreign policy. The US this week made it its intention to pass a resolution. At the same time, reports circulated earlier this week, suggesting the US may send another carrier to the Gulf region as a sign for Iran.

It’s clear that the Iranian resolution will not stop Iran’s nuclear program, but it is a criticism of Iran which is approved by members of the Security Council, apart from the US. This is something that could be used in the future to justify US foreign policy.

While Europe (in consultation with US) is looking to soften the proposed UN resolution on Iran, to accommodate opposition from Russia and China, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert called for dramatic steps to be taken against Iran. Understandably, the Israeli leader’s remarks come in light of repeated anti-Israeli statements by Iranian President Ahmadinejad. The Israeli PM said that inl light of Ahmadinejad’s statements, he is not even ruling out a military strike against Iran.

“I expect significantly more dramatic steps to be taken. Here is a leader who says openly that it is his aim to wipe Israel off the map. Israel is a member of the United Nations,” said Olmert.

Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli rhetoric is certainly unacceptable and is intended for a domestic audience in Iran. But the rhetoric must be contextualized; the Iranian President’s statements are made in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Part of the issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the lack of agreement on which territories would go to Palestine if a two-state solution is put forward: Jerusalem holds historically significant sites both for Israelis and Palestinians. So Ahmadinejad is making loud remarks, but he does not mean to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, because in so doing he would be destroying Palestine as well.

This is the reason that Ahmadinejad’s radical anti-Israeli remarks are made domestically and not when Ahmadinejad is exercising diplomacy internationally. The Iranian President’s discourse has, notably, been remarkably different when he traveled to New York to address the UN General Assembly.

European states have reportedly drawn up a new text for the Iran Nuclear resolution. The previous draft had been rejected by China and Russia.

Unidentified officials have told The New York Times that the new text allows for Iran’s civilian nuclear program to go on, as the prohibitions have to do with activities linked with making a nuclear weapon. It also removes restrictions on the nuclear reactor being built by Russia in Bushehr. The revision is undeniably meant to get China and Russia on board and it’s likely that the Europeans will get the support of the two veto-yielding powers.

The key issue for Russia is the idea of nuclear energy and what Russia stands to gain economically if Iran is to develop its nuclear program. With Bushehr off the new proposal, the Russians will be able to complete the power plant without obstruction. If the project is successful, they stand to gain more similar contracts, as Iran is looking to expand in the nuclear field. The new text also urges Iran to go ahead with the proposals put forth to it in June, which include stopping uranium enrichment. Because it will need to enriched uranium for its nuclear energy, Iran may chose to have it enriched in Russia, as was proposed a few weeks ago. This would benefit Russia economically as well.

China has economic ties with Iran as well and may want to participate in helping Iran shape its nuclear energy program as well, reaping the economic benefits received by Russia thusfar (the Bushehr plant is worth 800 M$).

The revised resolution which is to be formally presented on Monday is more reflective of the changing reality of countries like Iran, which are undergoing new stages of development that include nuclear energy production. In the same trend is India, which is currently in the process of finalizing a deal on cooperating with the US on its own nuclear energy program.

For more, see Nuclear Energy on Rise, Iran on Board.