Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

Attention: Iran is happening.

Welcome back to al-Ra°yee, and I’ll spare you all the long-winded excuse for why the blog has been hibernating for the past several months. Egypt threw me a curve ball that I was wholly unprepared for, and picking up the pieces of a failed 8 month adventure abroad has left me “busy” for lack of another word. In any sense, it’s good to have you all back for the time being.

Rather than serve as a means to chronicle my escapades and discoveries abroad, this blog entry has found purpose elsewhere. Assuming that the majority of my readership is drawn from those friends and family members whose Facebook profiles I chronically creep occasionally look at, it appears that despite how politically-astute my network of acquaintances actually is, it is particularly quiet about certain issues in international relations that I find most pressing at the moment. Granted, the U.S. government did shut down, the ongoing Syrian civil war rages on, Egypt is still in democratic shambles, and Israel-Palestinian dialogues are fragilely underway, but I don’t see much commentary about Iran? You know, Iran: the Islamic Republic nestled between the two countries we fought in for over a decade, the country who’s upper political echelons frequently spewed anti-Israeli rhetoric and “Death to America” chants during the mid-2000’s , and the country that took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979/led Ben Affleck to accept more awards than any person who starred in Daredevil ever should? Well, not to be overly optimistic or dramatic, but the times are a’changin. The P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany) and Iran are about to begin a second round of highly-unprecedented and highly-important discussions (after a widely-acclaimed first round of discussions that came close, but no cigar, to striking a deal) on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, and you should be waiting with bated breath as much as the rest of the DC international relations intelligentsia is.

To provide some background information, Iran’s recent presidential elections yielded a semi-moderate candidate named Hassan Rouhani. Though Rouhani touts a pragmatic and moderate political platform Hassan Rouhani chooses image of key to symbolise presidential campaigncharacterized by a desire to rejuvenate the economy, respect human rights, and mend international relations, he should not be considered a true reformist akin to the efforts of former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. Rouhani is a regime-insider in every sense of the word having served in various high-level positions within the Khamenei regime – including as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Rouhani was solely responsible for the last substantive nuclear deal cut between European powers and Iran in 2004 when he agreed to suspend Iran’s nuclear ambitions (much to the chagrin of Iranian hardliners) due to the widely-perceived fear of American regime change in the region. Rouhani’s experiences in the belly of the beast are not a bad thing, however. Having created an extensive network of internal regime contacts, confidants, and cohorts, Rouhani may very well possess the structural know-how and an intimate understanding of the limits of the Iranian presidency’s ability to actually elicit change. Rather than compete with the Supreme Leader on hot button issues — something his predecessors often did and failed at — Rouhani has ever-so-delicately pressed forward with his agenda while making sure to have the Supreme Leader’s blessing every step of the way. Rouhani’s leash is short and fleeting, however, and he faces widespread criticism from the status-quo hardliners who would sooner see Rouhani fold under domestic and international pressure for immediate results than actually work together to see Iran flourish like it once did. Should Rouhani fail to strike a nuclear deal soon (he is already over 100 days into his presidency, mind you), his critics at home may deem the efforts futile and revert back to a foreign policy strategy dominated by anti-Americanism and aversion to change.

iran-sanctions_0Problems and challenges to the rekindling of the relationship do not fall squarely on Tehran’s shoulders, however. Perhaps the single greatest barrier to substantively mended Iranian-American relations resides several miles down Constitution Avenue on Capitol Hill. Though the hard-hitting and invasive sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic for several years have worked/succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, an assessment shared by myself and prominent Iran expert (and guest-lecturer in my US-Iran Relations class) Barbara Slavin states that the threat of additional congressional sanctions (proposed by the bellicose Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), et al.) stands the chance to unravel all that has been achieved since Rouhani’s election. If sanctions have succeeded in illustrating for the Iranian regime that economic progress at home cannot be achieved without rapprochement with the West, then further sanctions in the wake of Iran coming to the negotiating table will only affirm to the Islamic Republic that the U.S. is not serious about coming to an agreement, that there is no incentive for them to concede any aspect of their nuclear program, and that our true motives are regime change or bust. Unfortunately, Congress’ track record for pushing through Iranian sanctions (such as those JUST PASSED in July, 2013) has a higher success rate (91%) than Peyton Manning’s current completion percentage (71%) thanks to special interests, foreign lobbying, and most significantly: ignorance. Now, rather than choc this one up to yet another ill-developed foreign policy of President Obama, it’s worth noting that the case of Iranian sanctions is something that the White House and Congress are decidedly at odds over. In fact in a recent Foreign Policy article, various State Department and White House officials condemned proposed congressional efforts for new sanctions on Iran as a “march to war” and went on to say that additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot ….  it would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn’t interested in a nuclear deal.

I get it, though. Skepticism and weariness of Rouhani are understandable. The West, and let’s not forget the Iranian people, endured eight venomous years under Ahmadinejad, and despite Rouhani’s election there are still regime hardliners who support an anti-Western foreign policy and generally anti-American attitude. However, for fear of reverting back to the same narrow-minded and ill-informed mentalities that have stunted U.S.-Iran relations for the past 40 years, we have to be willing to try something new now that a fruitful (and perhaps the most fruitful) opportunity has presented itself. We must be willing to extend an olive branch, let bygones be bygones, and have cautiously optimistic faith that Rouhani means what he says. For lack of having any better insight into what Rouhani and the Supreme Leader actually seek to accomplish, we must take their goodwill gestures and “international charm offensive” at face value. Gone are the days of Ahmadinejad making it easy for Americans to write off Iran as an oppressive, confrontational, and pariah nation of America and Israel haters, and we have unfortunately entered an era where the greatest obstacles to Iranian-American peace are the same individuals who would rather pout shut down their own government than negotiate with their fellow countrymen – much less a mullah from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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Geek-HackingAmidst the plethora of U.S. national security threats buzzing in the media today, one issue stands tall amongst the others when discussed at the highest echelons of our military and legislature. Cybersecurity, or what I would call the prevention of widespread disruption, destruction, and/or capture of our invaluable electronic technology systems, has become the proverbial flavor of the year for security strategists after recent attacks stemming from places such as Israel, Iran, and the perpetually bothersome China. Senator Joe Lieberman, Sec.Def. Leon Panetta, and a host of other national security A-listers have all warned of our gaping vulnerability to a devastating cyberattack, and President Obama has gone so far as to deem cybersecurity “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation” and that “America’s economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cybersecurity.”

It’s only fitting to recognize Secretary Panetta’s provocative likening of the U.S.’ current susceptibility to such attacks as a “cyber Pearl Harbor” waiting to happen, and doing so sheds light onto the strategic and defensive importance of the matter. While I agree that the U.S. is diverting an insufficient amount of time and treasure to addressing this threat, I fail to hear any experts say is how vulnerable our enemies are to the same threats that are causing the single strongest nation in the world (the U.S., if you had any doubt) to quiver in its boots. Perhaps it is the U.S.’ strategic prerogative to lull potential adversaries into a false state of security, buttering them up for a crippling blow when the time is right? Though Secretary Panetta may need to tiptoe around words like “offense” and “attack” when testifying on the Hill, I am bound by no such political correctness and will delve deeper into various facets of the U.S. cyberarsenal.

Much like its Cold War cousin, a policy of cyberdeterrence based on mutually-assured disruption (the new M.A.D.) is the most viable defensive strategy that the U.S. could adopt in this situation. Though many theorists may cite the famous “best offense is a great defense” adage to support their claim of earmarking more preventative measures, I would be remiss if I did not draw their attention to the unscathed nature in which the United States operated during the height of the Cold War. It was our investment in silos, warheads, and bombers that psychologically pummeled our adversaries into submission, not reliance on bomb shelters, gas masks, and sirens. I hope Mr. Panetta’s comments do stimulate conversation about the DoD’s use of offensive cyberwarfare tactics, especially in an era where conventional military means are quickly becoming obsolete.

Presuming that Iran and China remain the primary conductors of cyberespionage that the U.S. faces today, we should rest assured that both countries stand to suffer tremendously at the hands of cyberattacks on their home soil. The Middle East and East Asia have become not only as technologically dependent as the rest of the developed world, but are also experiencing a rapid expansion of technology usage in their respective societies despite relatively successful efforts to suppress media exposure during times of crisis. One need only look at the roles Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook played during events such as the 2011 Arab-induced revolutions*, the “Innocence of Muslims” video backlash, and the widely circulated footage of Neda Agha-Soltan dieing at the hands of a Revolutionary Guard sniper in the 2009 Iranian protests to see the full-integration of technology in each nation. Mixing a sudden denial of service from said technology, crumbling financial services, and already disintegrated public opinion towards the host regime would create an environment ripe for collapse and disarray. Therefore the rebuttal that Eastern societies are better suited to survive in “disconnected” environments (compared to the West) neglects the extent of technological development in the two regions over the past decade.

Aside from the e-assassins sitting in Pentagonian war-rooms across the river, let’s take a minute to consider America’s true e-cavalry waiting for the bugle to sound: internet-based social groups. I recognize that members ofanon U.S. Anonymous, 4chan’ers, and other internet cliques are often our government’s greatest critics, but I strongly believe that in the event that these groups’ precious intarwebz, cat pics, Call of Duty sessions, and Mountain Dew XP caches are no longer accessible thanks to Iranian or Chinese cyberattacks, the U.S. would instantaneously gain a harrowing new fighting force in the global cyber war. I’ve personally seen /b/ (a hyper-NSFW sub-community of 4chan) locate, disparage, and dismantle crooked burger-joint employees, playground bullies, and competing social websites using only commercially available software, open source image analysis, and the collective power of nationwide internet geekdom. The sheer havoc that could be wrought on informal and unsuspecting technologies abroad without presupposed legal repercussions or oversight during a wartime scenario (assuming the U.S. government would continue it’s streak of inability to prosecute and locate most domestic e-villains), could be monumental when supported with conventional military and special operations maneuvers.

To think that our enemies do not sense the same vulnerability to cyberattacks that we do, given the unprecedented amount of technological dependence that the entire world has acquired over the last decade, would be both a strategic and naive blunder. Just as fear of nuclear retaliation mitigated some of the most tense and volatile Cold War showdowns the world has ever faced, I believe the same fear of reciprocal cyberattack – whether formal or informal – are enough to keep most potential adversaries at bay. The United States wields one of the most technologically savvy, connected, and resilient societies in the world, and any attempt to drastically compromise U.S. national security in cyber capacity would surely elicit a response far more detrimental than our foes would ever expect.

That being said, your move e-thugs…

(*I say “Arab-induced revolutions” because I feel the phrase “Arab Spring” doesn’t give enough credit to revolutionary movements (like those in China) that reverberated outside of the Middle East during the same period)

(source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/world/panetta-warns-of-dire-threat-of-cyberattack.html?pagewanted=all)

As if American exceptionalism and maverickism (Microsoft spellcheck anyone?) could not swell any larger, Washington recently removed the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Despite persistent condemnation of organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah who, might I add, have received legislative votes of confidence from their respective Palestinian and Lebanese populations at one point or another, the MEK has become an interesting exception to the rule: a former terrorist organization with American, Iranian, and Kurdish blood on its hands turned U.S.-approved champion of regime change and democratic values.

To provide some background information, the MEK is an assembly of revolutionary and militant Iranian forces dedicated to the overthrow of the current regime in Tehran. The MEK has a checkered past characterized by flip flopping allegiances with both the Ayatollah and Washington over the past 50 years. Whereas the MEK initially aligned itself with Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1979 Revolution due to their shared disdain for Shah-begotten western liberal interests, they soon found themselves at odds with the Ayatollah due to the inherent power vacuum that a lack of political opposition naturally foments. Seeking political refuge in Iraq during the early 80’s, the MEK proved to be a considerable thorn in Tehran’s side while fighting tooth and nail on behalf of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. Fast forward to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, MEK encampments near Fallujah were prime bombing targets for US forces due to their large caches of Iraqi-supplied weaponry and residual allegiance to the Saddam regime.  The MEK quickly brokered a ceasefire/surrender with U.S. forces, which bred natural criticism within Washington for Bush’s negotiations with a then-terrorist organization. More recently, and perhaps most importantly, the MEK has proven a valuable source of intelligence for U.S. security officials seeking detailed information about Iranian nuclear developments.

The MEK’s removal from terrorist organization list creates several moral dilemmas for the U.S. State Department and for U.S. national security in general.  For starters, the MEK’s history is replete with violent acts against Iranians, Kurds, and Americans alike. By sweeping these violations under the proverbial rug, the U.S. portrays itself as a malleable player of “favorites” amongst the who’s who of unsavory global non-state actors (NSA’s), further undermining our reputation around the world. Simultaneously, Hamas and Hezbollah continue to be vilified in mainstream American rhetoric (and rightfully so), despite being legitimate members of their respective nation’s[1] majority coalitions. How, then, can the U.S. so easily forgive an organization that has been credited with the deaths of not only 6 Americans in the mid-1970s, but also countless Iranian countrymen and “innocent” Kurdish Iraqis[2]? It’s simple: because the U.S. has been utilizing groups such as the MEK for decades against almost every adversary we’ve had since the turn of the 20th century.

Before we jump to a “Bush is to blame” conclusion with regard to the alleged funding and training of MEK forces in the mid-2000’s (which is a moot point anyway given the overwhelmingly bipartisan support for their removal from the list), let’s scroll down U.S. foreign policy’s Facebook Timeline a bit- which I hear they too are having a hard time adjusting to. Beginning with JFK’s infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, we find that Presidents of both parties have been equipping and training rogue NSA’s on behalf of U.S. national security prerogatives for generations. Shocking, I know, but America’s Democratic (with a capital “D”) poster child also utilized disgruntled foreign nationals as instruments of [ultimately disastrous] U.S. foreign policy. The same can be said of JFK’s CIA funding of Dominican rebels and their assassination plot against the entrenched dictator Rafael “The Goat” Trujillo, Reagan’s clandestine funding of the Contras in Nicaragua, and Bush Jr.’s use of indigenous Tajiks in Northern Afghanistan as spotters and guides during the initial days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

According to this trend, President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s removal of the MEK from the foreign terrorist organization list should come as no surprise as Iran blossoms into a greater and greater threat with each passing spin of its centrifuges.  As long as the MEK provides credible intelligence regarding Iranian nuclear developments, as long as the MEK continues to relentlessly lobby our politicians, and as long as figures like former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former National Security Advisers, and former UN Ambassadors continue to endorse the MEK’s removal from the list, the U.S. will continue the tradition of selective favoritism towards organizations as historically distasteful as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran.

(Source: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-859784)


[1] I use “nation” liberally in terms of defining the Palestinian state.

[2] “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards” – Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the NCRI: MEK’s political manifestation (pictured above with former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani)

Over the last few years, the U.S. navy has had several “run ins” with Iranian maritime vessels, reinforcing the theory that the next great military showdown is most likely to occur within the confines of the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. The strait, which has Iranian borders to the north and U.A.E. borders to the south, is critical to trade routes in and out of the Persian Gulf, with specific importance given to the large volume of oil which passes through its waters each day. With 20% of the world’s oil trade moving through the strait each year, it’s no wonder that Iran continues to posture the passageway’s closure as a focal point of the Islamic Republic’s wartime deterrent.

Reports of Iranian procurement of speedy new gunboats called “Challengers” seem startling at first, especially given the country’s history of harassment tactics against U.S. gunships in the area (like this: http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/13/exclusive-u-s-harassed-by-iranian-ships/), but the situation needs to be looked at a bit more strategically. The U.S. remains THE, not “a”, premier naval superpower in the world today. The U.S.’s naval might far supersedes the resources of almost all other nations (both friendly and otherwise) COMBINED when talking about aircraft carriers, support aircraft, and SLBM capabilities. Granted, Iran’s asymmetrical approach to naval confrontation presents a new challenge to U.S. naval strategy in the region, and the approach bears a striking resemblance to the asymmetrical tactics being used against U.S. troops in Afghanistan today. Fortunately, the trivial methods used in the streets of Kabul are not easily implemented by enemies at sea. U.S. vessels have a wide array of long range detection and threat mitigation tools used thwart enemy ships no matter how fast, numerous, or unsuspecting they may be. Additionally, with long range U.S. bombing capabilities from sea and air, the Iranian navy would not be able to sustain a long term harassment campaign without incurring significant collateral damage to their mainland and conventional naval assets accordingly. Coupled with the almost certain probability of a multi-pronged war front when Turkey and the EU chime in from the west (as per NATO mutual defense guidelines), Iran’s best case scenario is to delay and/or impede an inevitable U.S. [naval] victory in the Gulf and onward.

In conclusion, to quote Mr. Millen from the source video, “Yes, modern navies are capable of dealing with situations and threats like this.” Good thing the U.S. Navy is “modern” eh?

(source: http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/24/irans-new-super-fast-naval-gunships/)