Nelson Mandela: A Memory

Nelson Mandela-A Memory

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 5, 2013

“One thing alone I charge you. As you live, believe in life. Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long.”

W.E.B DuBois, historian, activist, founder of the Niagara Movement, and author of the “The Souls of Black Folk.”

Those words are taped on my desk next to James Baldwin’s searing quote from “The Fire Next Time”: “A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that they be wicked but only that they be spineless.” Nelson Mandela, the great clarion of African freedom, whose history was the very embodiment of courage, above all else believed in life. And like DuBois and Baldwin, he understood perseverance.

With the news that Mandela’s breath finally failed him—his lungs were savaged by the tuberculosis he acquired during his 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa—two memories came to mind.

In the spring of 1961, I stood in a vast crowd of people in London’s Trafalgar Square to hear a stream of speakers denounce apartheid, a term I had never before encountered. In part my ignorance was because I was an 18-year-old, fresh out of high school, where I had majored mainly in football and beer, but also because I was an American, and the word was simply not on my political radar screen. A few of us knew about the Sharpeville massacre the previous year, when South African police had murdered 69 peaceful demonstrators, but “apartheid” was as yet an exotic vocabulary word for me.

When I returned home to San Francisco to start college, a few of us tried to get some traction on the issue. The UN had called for an international boycott in 1962, but it had been almost completely ignored by the West. Even Britain’s supposed anti-apartheid Labor Government rejected joining the UN boycott.  It is hard to get Americans to look beyond their shores unless a lot of body bags are coming home. In any case, most of us were swept up in the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, and then the fight to end the war in Southeast Asia. The anti-apartheid movement went on the back burner.

It was not that Americans were unaware of apartheid—even though I doubt that a lot people, even in the civil rights movement, could have given the definition of the Afrikaner word: “the state of being apart”—it was that no one quite knew what to do about it. Until the anti-apartheid movement came up with the idea of divesting in companies that did business with the Pretoria regime, it seemed a bridge too far.

But starting in the 1970s that began to change and, without belittling any other area of the country, Oakland and Berkeley led the way. As the singer and activist Harry Belafonte said, San Francisco’s East Bay was “The birthplace of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement.”

But it was a long, slow slog.

In 1972 Berkeley Congressman Ron Dellums (D-Ca) introduced the “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act,” which ended up dead on arrival in Washington. The following year Berkeley Mayor Lonnie Hancock tried to get the city to divest from companies investing in South Africa, but the effort failed. It took six years of repeated efforts to get Berkeley to divest. When it finally did, it became one of the first in the nation to do so.

The turning point in the fight against apartheid came in 1984, when students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley demanded that the biggest university in the world divest its billions of dollars of investments in companies that did business with South Africa.  At the time I was a reporter, who wished them well, but had no great hopes of success. I kept thinking of a line from a poem by Irish revolutionary Padraic Pearse about those who had gone out “to break their strength and die, they and few, in bloody protest for a glorious thing. They shall be spoken of among their people. The generations shall remember them, and called them blessed.”

How wrong I was. Memories of the past can sometimes blind us to the potential for the future.

The students built shantytowns on campus, besieged the Board of Regents and took over historic Sproul Plaza for six weeks. The University responded in typical fashion: tear gas, arrests, expulsions and stonewalling, all of which was like trying to douse a fire with gasoline. Civil rights groups and trade unionists joined the demonstrations, along with people throughout the Bay Area. The University soon found itself at war with the whole East Bay.

The pressure was just too much, even for the powerful and wealthy Board of Regents. In 1986 UC withdrew $3 billion from companies doing business with South Africa, dwarfing modest divestment decisions by universities like Harvard. Dellums re-introduced the divestment legislation, and in 1986 the U.S. Congress passed it. It was the death knell for apartheid.

Mandela remained in prison until 1990, when it became clear to the South African government that it could no longer withstand the international pressure to release him and terminate the system that had enchained a people for over 40 years. While apartheid was officially ended in 1990, it was not until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that it was finally buried.

And that leads to the second memory.

On July 1, 1990, Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum and told 58,000 people, “It is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the unbanning of our organization [the African National Congress] came as a result of the pressure exerted on the apartheid regime by yourselves.” He thanked the crowd and held his fist in the air. No, Berkeley students, faculty, civil rights organizations, town residents and trade unionists did not bring down apartheid by themselves, but because they persevered and had spine, they started the avalanche.

It is sometimes hard to remember these lessons because DuBois was right: ends come slowly and history is long. But in the end it is those who fill the plazas, who chain themselves to doors, who shrug aside tear gas and billy clubs—who persevere in the face of prison, exile, even death—to whom history’s laurels go.

We shall miss this dear man who loved freedom and humanity so much that, no matter what was done to him, would not break. He set the bar high. We honor him by clearing it.

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Iran and Enhancement

Iran & Enhancement

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 2, 2013

There are any number of obstacles that could trip up the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1”—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany— but the right to “enrich” nuclear fuel should not be one of them. Any close reading of the 1968 “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (NPT) clearly indicates that, even though the word “enrichment” is not used in the text, all signers have the right to the “peaceful applications of nuclear technology.”

Enriched fuel is produced when refined uranium ore—“yellowcake”—is transformed into uranium hexafluoride gas and spun in a centrifuge. The result is fuel that may contain anywhere from 3.5 to 5 percent Uranium 235 to over 90 percent U-235. The former is used in power plants, the latter in nuclear weapons. Some medical procedures require fuel enriched to 20 percent.

Iran currently has some 15,700 pounds of 3.5 to 5 percent nuclear fuel, and 432 pounds of 20 percent enriched fuel. International Atomic Energy Agency investigators have never turned up any weapons grade fuel in Iran and have certified that Teheran is not diverting fuel to build nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies, including Israel’s, are in general agreement that Teheran has not enriched above 20 percent. A nuclear weapon requires about 110 pounds of uranium fuel enriched to between 90 and 95 percent.

Iran insists it is not building a weapon, and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against the production of nuclear weapons as being contrary to Islamic beliefs.

The U.S. and its allies claim that the NPT does not include an inherent right to enrich fuel because the words “enrich” do not appear in the document. But the Treaty clearly states, in at least two different places, that the only restriction on nuclear programs is the production of a weapon.  It is worthwhile to examine the two passages.

The preamble to the NPT affirms “the principle that the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology, including any technological by-products which may be derived by nuclear-weapon States from the development of nuclear-explosive devices, should be available for peaceful purposes to all Parties of the Treaty, whether nuclear-weapon or non-nuclear weapon States.” (Italics added)

Since one cannot produce a nuclear weapon without enriched fuel, and since it is impossible to obtain weapons-grade nuclear fuel on the open market—it violates the Treaty (and common sense)—all nuclear weapons states enrich fuel. Several non-weapons states, including Japan and Germany, do as well.

The second passage is Article IV, which has two parts:

1)   “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop, research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.” [Articles I and II bar countries from transferring or receiving nuclear weapons or “any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapon…”].

2)   “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

The NPT has been signed or agreed to by virtually every country in the world, with the exceptions of Israel, India, Pakistan and South Sudan. North Korea, exercising its rights under Article X, withdrew from the Treaty in 2003. In theory, those countries who do not sign the NPT cannot buy uranium on the open market, but the Bush administration subverted this section of the NPT by agreeing to sell uranium to India. The Obama administration has not repudiated that decision, although the Indians have yet to act on it.

Rumor has it that France supplied the Israelis with the knowledge of how to build its bomb, and Apartheid South Africa supplied the fuel. India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons on their own. North Korea may have received the technical knowledge on how to produce its nuclear weapon from Pakistan, although there is no “secret” to building a bomb. All one needs is the right fuel and some engineering skills.

Delivering a bomb is another matter. Putting one on a missile requires miniaturization, which is devilishly hard, and delivering one by aircraft is unreliable if the target country has even a semi-modern anti-aircraft system.

It appears as if the P5+1 will eventually allow Iran to enrich fuel, although to what percentage is the rub. Will 20 percent be a red line for the P5+1? One hopes not. While 20 percent is closer to bomb-grade fuel than 3.5 or 5 percent, the increased inspection regime already agreed to two weeks ago would quickly spot any attempt to produce weapons-grade fuel. In any event, the 20 percent fuel can be configured in a way that makes it virtually impossible to upgrade it to bomb-ready material. There is also nothing in the NPT that bars enriching to 20 percent.

At this point the heavy water reactor at Arak is also a potential obstacle to an agreement. Commenting on Iran’s commitment to building the Arak reactor, Teheran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said that such a reactor is a “red line, which we will never cross,” indicating, at this point, that Iran intends to follow through with the project. Iran did, however, invite UN inspectors to examine the plant.

Heavy water reactors produce plutonium, which can also be used in nuclear weapons. The Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium weapon, and many of today’s nuclear weapons use it as a fuel. Heavy water reactors are efficient and don’t require an extensive enrichment industry, but they are expensive and produce what is unarguably the most dangerous and toxic substance on earth.

However, there is nothing in the NPT that differentiates between light water reactors and heavy water reactors, and signers have the right to use both technologies. Whether that is a good idea is entirely another matter, but certainly not an excuse for the massive sanctions that have tanked the Iranian economy. Every country has the inalienable right to do something dumb, like produce plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years (and you wouldn’t want to get too close to it even after that).

Adherence to the NPT is no obstacle to an agreement. The roadblocks will come from Israel—which is not a party to the Treaty—the Gulf monarchies, the Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress, and the alliance between the neo-conservatives who successfully pushed for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

A close reading of the NPT is something everyone can do. The document is only four and a half pages and its language is accessible to anyone. In contrast, wading through the 53-page “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty” , a document certainly as important as the NPT, is an ordeal. But a close reading of the NPT is not necessarily comfortable for the governments of the U.S., China, France, Britain, or Russia. In particular Article VI:

“Each of the parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

 

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Pandora and The Drones

Pandora & The Drones

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2013

In November 2001, when the CIA assassinated al-Qaeda commander Mohammed Atef with a killer drone in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the U.S. held a virtual monopoly on the technology of lethal robots. Today, more than 70 countries in the world deploy drones, 16 of them the deadly variety, and many of those drones target rural people living on the margins of the modern world.

Armed drones have been hailed as a technological breakthrough in the fight against terrorists who, in the words of President Obama, “take refuge in remote tribal regions…hide in caves and walled compounds…train in empty deserts and rugged mountains.” But much of the butcher’s bill for the drones has fallen on people who live in those deserts and mountains, many of whom are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time or get swept into a definition of “terrorist” so broad it that embraces virtually all adult males.

Since 2004—the year the “drone war” began in earnest—missile firing robots have killed somewhere between 3,741 and 5,825 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and injured another 1,371 to 1,836.  The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that this death toll includes between 460 to 1,067 “civilians” and as many as 214 children.

But, because how the U.S. defines “civilian” is classified, it is almost impossible to determine exactly who the victims are. Up until recently, it appears that being between the ages of 18 and 60 while carrying a weapon or attending a funeral for a drone victim was sufficient to get you incinerated.

In his May address to the National Defense University, however, President Obama claimed to have narrowed the circumstances under which deadly force can be used.  Rather than the impossibly broad rationale of “self-defense,” future attacks would be restricted to individuals who pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and who could not be “feasibly apprehended.” The President added that there had to be a “near certainty that no civilians would be killed or injured.”

As national security expert and constitutional law professor David Cole points out, the new criteria certainly are a more “demanding standard,” but one that will be extremely difficult to evaluate since the definition of everything from “threat” to “civilian” is classified. Over the past year there has been a drop in the number of drone strikes, which could reflect the new standards or be a response to growing anger at the use of the robots. Some 97 percent of Pakistanis are opposed to the use of drone strikes in that country’s northwest border region.

The drones that roam at will in the skies over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, are going global, and the terror and death they sow in those three countries now threatens to replicate itself in western China, Eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, highland Peru, South Asia, and the Amazon basin.

Drones have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and countries across the planet are building and buying them. Many are used for surveillance, but the U.S., Britain, Sweden, Iran, Russia, China, Lebanon, Taiwan, Italy, Israel, France, Germany, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all own the more lethal varieties. The world’s biggest drone maker is Israel.

For a sure-fire killer you want a Made-in-the-USA-by-General-Atomics Predator or Reaper, but there are other dangerous drones out there and they are expanding at a geometric pace.

Iran recently unveiled a missile-firing “Fotros” robot to join its “Shahad 129” armed drone. China claims its “Sharp Sword” drone has stealth capacity. A Russian combat drone is coming off the drawing boards next year. And a European consortium of France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Greece and Switzerland is developing the armed Dassault nEURon drone. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of drone programs worldwide jumped from 195 to 680. In 2001, the U.S. had 50 drones. Today it has more than 7,500.

While drone promoters claim that robot warfare is the future, they rarely mention who are the drones’ most likely targets. Except for surveillance purposes, drones are not very useful on a modern battlefield, because they are too slow. Their advantage is that they can stay aloft for a very long time—24 to 40 hours is not at all unusual—and their cameras give commanders a real-time picture of what is going on. But as the Iranians recently demonstrated by downing a U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone, they are vulnerable to even middle-level anti-craft systems.

“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment,” says U.S. Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of Air Combat Command. “I couldn’t [put one] into the Strait of Hormuz without putting airplanes there to protect it.”

But over the tribal areas of Pakistan, the rural villages of Yemen and the coast of Somalia they are virtually invulnerable. Flying at an altitude beyond the range of small arms fire—which, in any case, is highly inaccurate—they strike without warning. Since the drone’s weapon of choice, the Hellfire missile, is supersonic, there is no sound before an explosion: a village compound, a car, a gathering, simply vanishes in a fury cloud of high explosives.

Besides dealing out death, the drones terrify. Forensic psychologist Peter Schaapveld found that drones inflicted widespread posttraumatic stress syndrome in Yemeni villagers exposed to them. Kat Craig of the British organization Reprieve, who accompanied Schaapveld, says the terror of the drones “amounts to psychological torture and collective punishment.”

But do they work? They have certainly killed leading figures in al Qaeda, the Haqqani Group, and the Taliban, but it is an open question whether this makes a difference in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, a number of analysts argue that the drones end up acting as recruiting sergeants by attacking societies where honor and revenge are powerful currents.

In his book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s war on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” anthropologist Akbar Ahmed argues that the drone war’s major victims are not ideologically committed terrorists, but tribal people. And further, that when a drone sows death and injury among these people, their response is to seek retribution and a remedy for dishonor.

For people living on the margins of the modern world, honor and revenge are anything but atavistic throwbacks to a previous era. They are cultural rules that help moderate inter-community violence in the absence of centralized authority and a way to short circuit feuds and war.

Kinship systems can function similarly, and, in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the drone war ends up creating a broader base for groups like the Taliban. The major target of drones in those countries is the Pashtun tribe which make up a plurality of Afghanistan and a majority in Pakistan’s tribal areas. From the outside, Pashtun clans are a factious lot until they encounter an outsider. Then the tribe’s segmentary lineage system kicks in and fulfills the old Pashtun adage: “Me against my brother; my brother and me against our cousins; my brother, me andour cousins against everyone else.”

Occupying someone else’s lands is dangerous and expensive, hence the siren lure of drones as a risk-free and cheap way to intimidate the locals and get them to hand over their land or resources. Will the next targets be indigenous people resisting the exploitation of their lands by oil and gas companies, soybean growers, or logging interests?

The fight against “terrorism” may be the rationale for using drones, but the targets are more likely to be Baluchs in northwest Pakistan, Uyghurs in Western China, Berbers in North Africa, and insurgents in Nigeria. Some 14 countries in Latin America are purchasing drones or setting up their own programs, but with the exception of Brazil, those countries have established no guidelines for how they will be used.

The explosion of drone weapons, and the secrecy that shields their use was the spur behind the Global Drone Summit in Washington, titled “Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance” and organized by Codepink, the Institute for Policy Study, The Nation Magazine, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild. The Nov. 16 meeting drew anti-drone activists from around the world to map out plans to challenge the secrecy and the spread of drones.

Zeus gave Pandora a box, and her husband, Epimetheus, the key, instructing them not to open it. But Pandora could not resist exploring what was inside, and thus released fear, envy, hate, disease and war on the world. The box of armed drones, but its furies are not yet fully deployed. There is still time to close it and ban a weapon of war aimed primarily at the powerless and the peripheral.

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Iran: Rumors Of War

Iran: Rumors of War

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 5, 2013

Is Israel really planning to attack Iran, or are declarations about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike at Teheran’s nuclear program simply bombast? Does President Obama’s “we have your back” comment about Israel mean the U.S. will join an assault? What happens if the attack doesn’t accomplish its goals, an outcome predicted by virtually every military analyst? In that case, might the Israelis, facing a long, drawn out war, resort to the unthinkable: nuclear weapons?

Such questions almost seem bizarre at a time when Iran and negotiators from the P5+1—the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany—appear to be making progress at resolving the dispute over Teheran’s nuclear program. And yet the very fact that a negotiated settlement seems possible may be the trigger for yet another war in the Middle East.

A dangerous new alliance is forming in the region, joining Israel with Saudi Arabia and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, thus merging the almost bottomless wealth of the Arab oil kings with the powerful and sophisticated Israeli army. Divided by religion and history, this confederacy of strange bedfellows is united by its implacable hostility to Iran. Reducing tensions is an anathema to those who want to isolate Teheran and dream of war as a midwife for regime change in Iran.

How serious this drive toward war is depends on how you interpret several closely related events over the past three months.

First was the announcement of the new alliance that also includes the military government in Egypt. That was followed by the news that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were stocking up on $10.8 billion worth of U.S. missiles and bunker busters. Then, in mid-October, Israel held war games that included air-to-air refueling of warplanes, essential to any long-range bombing attack. And lastly, the magazine Der Spiegel revealed that Israel is arming its German-supplied, Dolphin-class submarines with nuclear tipped cruise missiles.

Saber rattling? Maybe. Certainly a substantial part of the Israeli military and intelligence community is opposed to a war, although less so if it included the U.S. as an ally.

Opponents of a strike on Iran include Uzi Arad, former director of the National Security Council and a Mossad leader; Gabi Ashkenazi, former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff; Ami Ayalon and Yuval Diskin, former heads of Shin Bet; Uzi Even, a former senior scientist in Israel’s nuclear program; Ephraim Halevy, former Mossad head; Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and Shaul Mofaz, former IDF chiefs of staff; Simon Peres, Israeli president; Uri Sagi, former chief of military intelligence; and Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, who bluntly calls the proposal to attack Iran “The stupidest thing I ever heard.”

Mossad is Israel’s external intelligence agency, much like the American CIA. Shin Bet is responsible for internal security, as with the FBI and the Home Security Department.

However, an Israeli attack on Iran does have support in the U.S. Congress, and from many former officials in the Bush administration. Ex-Vice-President Dick Cheney says war is “inevitable.”

But U.S. hawks have few supporters among the American military. Former defense secretary Robert Gates says “such an attack would make a nuclear armed Iran inevitable” and “prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world.” Former Joint Chief of Staff vice-chair Gen. James Cartwright told Congress that the U.S. would have to occupy Iran if it wanted to end the country’s nuclear program, a task virtually everyone agrees would be impossible.

In interviews last fall, reporter and author Mark Perry found that U.S. intelligence had pretty much worked out the various options the Israelis might use in an attack. None of them were likely to derail Iran’s nuclear program for more than a year or two.

Israel simply doesn’t have the wherewithal for a war with Iran. It might be able to knock out three or four nuclear sites—the betting is those would include the heavy water plant at Arak, enrichment centers at Fordow and Natanz, and the Isfahan uranium-conversion plant—but much of Iran’s nuclear industry is widely dispersed. And Israel’s bunker busters are not be up to job of destroying deeply placed and strongly reinforced sites.

Israel would not be able to sustain a long-term bombing campaign because it doesn’t have enough planes, or the right kind.  Most of its air force is American made F-15 fighters and F-16 fighter-bombers, aircraft that are too fragile to maintain a long bombing campaign and too small to carry really heavy ordinance.

Of course, Israel could also use its medium and long-range Jericho II and Jericho III missiles, plus submarine-fired cruise missiles, but those weapons are expensive and in limited supply. They all, however, can carry nuclear warheads.

But as one U.S. Central Command officer told Perry, “They’ll [the Israelis] have one shot, one time. That’s one time out and one time back. And that’s it.” Central Command, or Centcom, controls U.S. military forces in the Middle East.

A number of U.S. military officers think the Israelis already know they can’t take out the Iranians, but once the bullets start flying Israel calculates that the U.S. will join in. “All this stuff about ‘red lines’ and deadlines is just Israel’s way of trying to get us to say that when they start shooting, we’ll start shooting,” retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman told Perry. Inman specialized in intelligence during his 30 years in the Navy.

There is current legislation before the Congress urging exactly that, and Obama did say that the U.S. had “Israel’s back.” But does that mean U.S. forces would get directly involved? If it was up to the American military, the answer would be “no.” Lt. Gen. Robert Gard told Perry that, while the U.S. military is committed to Israel, that commitment is not a blank check. U.S. support is “so they can defend themselves. Not so they can start World War III.”

Polls indicate that, while most Americans have a favorable view of Israel and unfavorable one of Iran, they are opposed to joining an Israeli assault on Iran.

That might change if the Iranians tried to shut down the strategic Straits of Hormuz through which most Middle East oil passes, but Iran knows that would draw in the U.S., and for all its own bombast, Teheran has never demonstrated a penchant for committing suicide. On top of which, Iran needs those straits for its own oil exports. According to most U.S. military analysts, even if the U.S. did join in it would only put off an Iranian bomb by about five years.

What happens if Israel attacks—maybe with some small contributions by the Saudi and UAE air forces—and Iran digs in like it did after Iraq invaded it in 1980? That war dragged on for eight long years.

Iran could probably not stop an initial assault, because the Israelis can pretty easily overwhelm Iranian anti-aircraft, and their air force would make short work of any Iranian fighters foolish enough to contest them.

But Teheran would figure a way to strike back, maybe with long range missile attacks on Israeli population centers or key energy facilities in the Gulf. Israel could hit Iranian cities as well, but its planes are not configured for that kind of mission. In any case, bombing has never made a country surrender, as the allied and axis powers found out in World War II, and the Vietnamese and Laotians demonstrated to the U.S.

The best the Israelis could get is a stalemate and the hope that the international community would intervene. But there is no guarantee that Iran would accept a ceasefire after being bloodied, nor that there would be unanimity in the UN Security Council to act. NATO might try to get involved, but that alliance is deeply wounded by the Afghanistan experience, and the European public is sharply divided about a war with Iran.

A long war would eventually wear down Israel’s economy, not to mention its armed forces and civilian population. If that scenario developed, might Israel be tempted to use its ultimate weapon? Most people recoil from even the thought of nuclear weapons, but militaries consider them simply another arrow in the quiver. India and Pakistan have come to the edge of using them on at least one occasion.

It is even possible that Israel—lacking the proper bunker busting weapons—might decide to use small, low-yield nuclear weapons in an initial assault, but that seems unlikely. The line drawn in August 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has held for more than 60 years. But if Israel concluded that it was enmeshed in a forever war that could threaten the viability of the state, might it be tempted to cross that line?

Condemnation would be virtually universal, but it would not be the first time that Israel’s siege mentality led it to ignore what the rest of the world thought.

A war with Iran would be catastrophic. Adding nuclear weapons to it would put the final nail into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Within a decade dozens of countries will have nuclear weapons. It is a scary world to contemplate.

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Torpedoing The Iran Nuclear Talks

Torpedoing the Iran Nuclear Talks

Dispatches From the Edge

Oct. 27, 2013

As the U.S. and its allies prepare for another round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, powerful and wealthy opponents—from the halls of Congress to Middle East capitals—are maneuvering to torpedo them. At stake is the real possibility of a war with consequences infinitely greater than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

When the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany—the so-called “P5+1—sit down with Iran’s negotiators in Geneva on Nov. 7, those talks will be shadowed by an alliance of hawkish U.S. Congress members, an influential Israeli lobby, and a new regional alliance that upends traditional foes and friends in the Middle East.

The fact that the first round of talks on Oct.15 was hailed by Iran and the P5+1 as “positive” has energized opponents of the negotiations, who are moving to block any attempts at softening international sanctions against Teheran, while at the same time pressing for a military solution to the conflict.

Current international sanctions have halved the amount of oil Iran sells on the international market, blocked Teheran from international banking, and deeply damaged the Iranian economy. The worsening economic conditions are the backdrop for the recent election of pragmatist Hassan Rowhani as president of Iran. Hassan’s subsequent efforts to move away from the confrontational politics of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears a signal that Iran wants to peacefully resolve a crisis that has heightened tensions in the region and led to everything from the assassination of Iranian scientists to the world’s first cyber war.

The central issue is whether Iran is constructing a nuclear weapon in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a charge Teheran denies. Iran is a NPT signatory and UN inspectors regularly monitor the country’s civilian power plants and nuclear facilities. Enhanced fuel is required for civilian power plants and medical research, but it is also          an essential ingredient in a nuclear weapon. Iran enhances some of its fuel to 20 percent. Bomb fuel must be 90 percent pure.

While no one claims Iran has a nuclear weapon, Teheran’s has been less than candid about all its activities and critics charge that Iran is preparing to build one. But the Iranians say that secrecy is necessary—four of their nuclear scientists were assassinated by Israeli agents, and their nuclear industry was severely damaged by a joint Israeli-US cyber attack.

The upcoming negotiations will try to find common ground, but there are actors in this drama whose agenda have less to do with nuclear weapons than the shifting balance of power in the Middle East. The coalition opposed to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis is a combination of traditional hawks and strange bedfellows.

On the U.S. side are the usual suspects.

There are the neo-conservatives who pressed so hard to invade Iraq, including former UN ambassador John Bolton, who recently called for Israel to attack Iran, former Pentagon analyst Matthew Kroenig, Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, and historian Niall Ferguson.

They are joined by congressional hawks ranging from the traditional “we never saw a war we didn’t like” types—Republican Senator Lindsay Graham who plans to introduce a resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iran—to Democrats, like liberal Ron Wyden, co-sponsor of a bill that would urge the U.S. to aid Israel militarily if Tel Aviv attacked Teheran.

A similar cast of characters helped sink a 2010 Brazilian-Turkish peace initiative that would have sent Teheran’s enhanced fuel to a third country.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is lobbying Congress in an effort to constrain the Obama administration’s negotiating options, and encouraging the Senate to pass a bill that would essentially prevent Iran from selling any of its oil. Many in the Congress have adopted the Israeli government’s demand that Iran dismantle much of its nuclear industry and agree to end all enhancement activities, two things Teheran will almost certainly refuse to do.

While enhancement is not specifically mentioned in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Article IV of the document guarantees the right “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy,” which treaty signers have long interpreted as the right to produce fuel for civilian nuclear power

The Israeli government and its American supporters demand an end to enhancement, a demand that would throw a monkey wrench into the negotiations. So far the Obama administration has remained silent on the issue, although back in 2009 then Senator, and now Secretary of State, John Kerry told the Financial Times that demanding Iran end enhancement was “ridiculous.”

U.S. opponents of any deal that is not an abject surrender by Teheran are the same old, same old, but not so in the Middle East, where a newly formed alliance is mobilizing to derail the nuclear talks: the Gulf monarchies, Egypt, and Israel.

The linchpin of this new alliance is Saudi Arabia and Israel, and their target is any rapprochement between Washington and Teheran. According to UPI, “secret meetings between Israeli and Arab intelligence chiefs” and other “senior officials” have been held in Jordan for several years. Their aim, according to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, is to destabilize the so-called “Shiite crescent,” the “strategic arc that extends from Teheran, to Damascus to Beirut.” The Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, currently under siege by Sunni extremists, is also in the cross hairs.

The new alliance cut its diplomatic teeth on the recent military coup in Egypt. According to investigative reporter Robert Perry, “While Saudi Arabia assured the coup regime a steady flow of money and oil, the Israelis went to work through their lobby in Washington to insure that President Barack Obama and Congress would not declare the coup a coup and thus trigger a cutoff of U.S. military aid.”

The Saudis are also stepping up their support for anti-government insurgents in Syria and fomenting sectarian trouble in Lebanon. If the alliance is successful it will cement a military-backed authoritarian regime in Egypt, set Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq aflame with sectarian warfare, and sabotage any agreement between the U.S. and Iran.

While the alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel initially seems an odd one, in fact both countries have similar strategic goals. Both support the overthrow of the Assad regime, both want to weaken Shiite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon, both want to see the minority Iraqi Sunnis back in charge, and both view Iran as a threat.

The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council—the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and new members Jordan and Morocco—fear domestic unrest, and see the Arab Spring as a direct threat to their monarchal governments. While all these countries have militaries, they are mainly for quelling internal dissent. The last time the Saudis took the field, they got beat up by the rag-tag Houthi in northern Yemen.

The Gulf Cooperation Council may field inept armies, but they have lots of cash. And if it comes to muscle, who better to provide it than the Israelis, the most powerful and competent army in the region? While the U.S. seems to backing away from using force against Iran, the Netanyahu government has sharply escalated its anti-Iran rhetoric. Israel recently began a series of war games built around long distance bombing raids, the kind that would be required to attack Iran.

The Iranians appear to want a settlement, but not one that looks like capitulation. The Obama administration’s positive comments following the last round of talks suggest that Washington would like a way out as well. Key to this is ratcheting down some of the sanctions, but Congressional hawks are trying to poison the well by increasing sanctions and resisting any efforts to ease them.

A study late last year found that unless Washington and its allies ease sanctions, Iran is not likely to curb any of its nuclear programs. And this spring a bi-partisan panel of former U.S. officials and experts argued that sanctions are increasingly counterproductive.

Countering the anti-Iran alliance will not be easy, but Washington’s reluctance to start another war in the Middle East reflects anti-war sentiment at home. The hawks may want a war, but they will find little support for it among Americans. A CBS/New York Times poll found that Americans overwhelmingly support negotiations, are not eager for war, and are evenly split about coming to Tel Aviv’s aid in the advent of an Israeli attack.

AIPAC is influential, but it hardly represents all American Jews, who tend to support Israel, but not if it means a war with Iran. While AIPAC was trumpeting Netanyahu’s characterization of Rowhani as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing,” the liberal Jewish lobby J Street hailed him as a “potentially hopeful sign,” and opposes a military attack on Iran.

The new Middle East alliance has alienated Turkey, which still plays a pivotal, if somewhat diminished, role in the region. If the U.S. were to reach out to Russia, and try to pull Turkey into the process, that tripartite grouping would constitute a counterbalance to the monarchies and Israel, and move the region away from the growing power of the sectarian groups and the looming danger of yet another war.

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Letter From Sofia: Old Tanks and Modern Mayhem

Letter From Sofia: Old Tanks & Modern Mayhem

Dispatches From The edge

Oct. 15, 2013

Sofia, Bulgaria

The military museum in this sprawling capitol city consists of a tiny building and a huge outdoor display of weapons that look as if they had been wheeled in fresh from the battlefields and parked, higgledy piggledy: mountain howitzers that shelled Turks in 1912 rub hubs with Cold War era Russian artillery.  MIGs, dusty and weather beaten, crowd a sinister looking Luna-M “Frog” tactical nuclear missile.  Two old enemies, a sleek German Mark IV Panzer and its dumpy, but more lethal adversary, a Russian T-34, squat shoulder to shoulder.

Poor Bulgaria. The Russians won’t be back, but once again the Germans are headed their way, only this time armed with nothing more than a change of currency and the policies of austerity that go along with it. The devastation those will inflict, however, is likely to be considerable.

Bulgaria is preparing to jettison its own, the lev, and adopt the Euro, the currency of the European Union (EU), although the country has dragged its heels about actually making the switch. With good reason. Currency control is a practical and commonsense way for countries to deal with interest rates, debt, and inflation, as well as to stimulate economic activity. The U.S. Federal Reserve constantly manipulates the dollar to accomplish these goals.

But the Euro is controlled by the European Central Bank based in Frankfort, Germany. Because Germany has the biggest economy in the EU, and is at the center of a “core” of wealthy nations that also use the Euro—France, Austria, and the Netherlands—Berlin largely calls the shots. That has translated into a tight-fisted control of the money supply, an aversion to economic stimulation, and years of enforced austerity for countries trying to recover from the 2007 economic crisis sparked by the U.S..

The result, according to Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, is that in addition to Mercedes and BMWs, Germany “exports bankruptcy and unemployment.”

Hardest hit by these policies are the “distressed six”: Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus, where draconian austerity policies have created soaring unemployment, devastating social services cutbacks, and widespread misery.

Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron—Britain retains its own currency, but has been an enthusiastic supporter of Germany, and has applied austerity to its own economy—the strategy has been an unmitigated disaster.

While supporters of this “slash and cut” approach to reviving the European economy claim their policies are a success—German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble says the world should “rejoice” at recent economic figures, and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne crows that critics of the strategy have been proven wrong—figures show a very different picture.

The overall EU jobless rate is 12 percent, although that figure is misleading because it varies so much by country, region, and cohort. Unemployment is 12 percent in Italy, 13.8 percent in Ireland, 16.5 percent in Portugal, 26.3 percent in Spain, and 27.9 percent in Greece. And even these figures make the jobless rate look sunnier than it is. Unemployment among Greek youth is 60 percent, and areas of southern Spain post numbers in excess of 70 percent. Indeed, an entire generation of young people across the continent is being cut out of the economic pie.

“It is true that unemployment figures have improved in recent times, but it is equally true that unemployment is at such a high level that any marginal improvement is irrelevant,” an Madrid-based economist for Exane BNP Paribas told the Financial Times. “Many people are no longer actively looking for jobs and long term unemployment already affects more than 50 percent of the total unemployed population.”

Figures also show that EU growth rates are essentially dead in the water, which means that it will be years before there is any real fall in the jobless rate. EU gross domestic product is 3 percent below pre-crisis levels and those figures go sharply south for the distressed six: down 7.5 percent for Spain, 7.6 percent for Portugal, 8.4 percent for Ireland, 8.8 percent for Italy, and 23.4 percent for Greece.

It is true that growth in Britain is up 2.2 percent, but that figure is over three years and remains 3.3 percent below pre-crisis levels. Moreover, the Office of Budget Responsibility projected back in 2010 that the economy would expand by 8.2 percent by 2013. Economists Oscar Jorda and Alan Taylor of the University of California at Davis estimate that austerity probably knocked about 3 percent off of the British growth rate.

The EU is turning into a house divided. A wealthy core that keep their economies on an even keel and unemployment rates relatively low—Austria and Germany have the lowest jobless rates in the EU at 5.2 and 5.3 percent, respectively—while the south and the periphery turn into low wage, high unemployment labor reservoirs. If “core” workers grumble at stagnant wages and reduced benefits, there are always Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and Portuguese willing to take their places.

What the distressed countries really need is a serious stimulus program to jump-start their economies by putting people back to work. But that is not something they are likely to get, especially given the outcome of the recent German elections, where Merkel’s Christian Democrats and her allies in the Bavarian Christian Social Union retained power. Merkel told a rally in Berlin, “Our European course will not change,”

and the Greek newspaper Ta Nea glumly called it a victory for the “Queen of austerity.”

In reality, the German election was less a vote for more austerity than a reflection of domestic concerns about stability. And, in any case, Merkel’s opponents actually won the election. Merkel and her allies control 311 seats in the Parliament, but the Greens, Social Democratic Party and Left Party won 329 seats. While the Greens and Social Democrats have acquiesced to some austerity policies, they are not as hard line as Merkel. If the Greens and the SDP could overcome their hostility to the Left Party—which took 64 seats, one more than the Greens—the center-left could form a government that could potentially alter the economic chemistry of the EU.

In the meantime, Bulgaria awaits its fate with an odd combination of clear sightedness and illusion.

Surveys show that most people think the Euro will cut their living standards and have a negative impact on the economy. Bulgaria is already in difficult straits, partly because when it joined the EU it lost its biggest customer, Russia, partly because it is small, and partly because it still suffers from a post-communist hangover. It is the poorest country in the EU.

Like many former communist bloc countries, when Bulgaria broke loose from the domination of Soviet Union in 1990, it went on a privatization tear that ended up largely gutting its industrial and agricultural base. It is now trying to claw back by reviving agriculture and building up the tourist industry.

But tourism is volatile, and Bulgaria appears to have over expanded, much as Spain did. The Black Sea coast south of Burgas is lined with high rises and gated communities, but many of them are dark when the sun goes down. There is a distinct feel of a real estate bubble.

The illusion is that Bulgarians support EU membership because they think it means the Union will bail them out of any future trouble, as it did Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. In fact, the Union did not bail out any of those countries; it rescued failed banks and financial institutions that had recklessly gambled away their assets on real estate speculations. These “loans” also required huge cutbacks in social services and massive layoffs of public workers.

When the bubble popped, it was taxpayers in those countries who ended up picking up the bill, including those incurred by “core” French, German, Dutch, Austrian and British banks.

In the coming war over “stimulus vs austerity” Bulgaria is unlikely to play a pivotal role, though conquerors have underestimated her in the past. The question is, will the country resign itself to second tier status in the EU, or will Bulgarians join with increasing numbers of Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese who are saying “enough”?

A good start toward turning things around would be to take up a call by Greece’s Syriza Party for a European debt summit similar to the 1953 London Debt Agreement, That pact allowed Germany to recover from World War II by cutting its debt by 50 percent and spreading payments out over 30 years.

The Mark IVs Panzers are museum pieces. These days the power to wreak destruction doesn’t depend on commanding armored divisions. All one needs to overrun Europe now are currency control, banks and obsequious politicians.

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The Kurds: Opportunity and Peril

The Kurds: Opportunity & Peril

Dispatches From The Edge

August 27, 2013

For almost a century, the Kurds—one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without its own state—have been deceived and double-crossed, their language and culture suppressed, their villages burned and bombed, and their people scattered. But because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and Turkish politics, they have been suddenly transformed from pawn to major player in a pivotal part of the Middle East.

The Kurds—who speak a language distantly related to Farsi, the dominant language of Iran—straddle the borders of north eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and western Iran, and constitute a local majority in parts of eastern and southern Turkey. At between 25 to 30 million strong, they have long yearned to establish their own state. Now, with their traditional foes weakened by invasion, civil war, and political discord, the Kurds are suddenly in the catbird’s seat.

But in the Middle East that can be a very tricky place to dwell.

The Kurds’ current ascent began when the U.S. established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. When the Americans invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds saw their opportunity: they seized three oil rich northern provinces, set up a parliament, established a capital at Erbil, and mobilized their formidable militia, the Peshmerga.  Over the past decade, the Kurdish region has gone from one of the poorest regions in Iraq to one of the most affluent, fueled in the main by energy sales to Turkey and Iran.

It is an astounding turn of fate.

Twenty-nine years ago the Turkish government was burning Kurdish villages and scattering refugees throughout the region. Some 45,000 people—mostly Kurds— lost their lives in that long-running conflict. Today, Turkey is negotiating with its traditional nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and trying to cut a peace deal that would deliver Kurdish support to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to amend Turkey’s constitution and give him another decade in power.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Today, the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki may be outraged by the Kurds’ seizure of oil assets, but the Baghdad regime is so preoccupied by a sectarian-led bombing campaign against Shiite communities that it is in no position to do more than protest. Last November, the Maliki government backed away from a potential showdown with the Peshmerga in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu.

Fifty years ago the Syrian government stripped citizenship rights from 20 percent of its Kurdish minority—Kurds make up about 10 percent of that country’s population—creating between 300,000 to 500,000 stateless people. Today, Syria’s Kurdish regions are largely independent because the Damascus regime, locked in a life and death struggle with foreign and domestic insurgents, has abandoned the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Only in Iran are Kurds in much the same situation they were a decade ago, but with the Teheran government’s energy focused on its worsening economic situation and avoiding a confrontation with the U.S. over its nuclear program, that, too, could change.

In short, are the Kurds’ stars finally coming into alignment?

Maybe and maybe not. If the invasion, politics, and civil war have created opportunities for the Kurds, they are fragile, relying on the transitory needs or current disarray of their traditional foes, the central governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Turkey is a case in point.

Endogen needs the votes of Kurdish parliamentarians to put a new constitution up for a referendum in time for the 2014 elections. Ending the conflict with the Kurds could also boost Turkey’s application for European Union membership and burnish Ankara’s regional leadership credentials. The latter have been tarnished by a number of Erdogan missteps, including his unpopular support for the Syrian insurgents and his increasingly authoritarian internal policies.

Most Kurds would like to end the fighting as well, but that will require concessions by the Endogen government on the issues of parliamentary representation and the right educate Kurds in their own language.

But Endogen has balked at these two demands, and the Kurds are growing impatient. PKK leader Cemil Bayik recently warned that “September 1 is the deadline” for a deal and a failure to reach an agreement by then “will be understood that the aim [of the Turkish government] is not a solution.” Given the long history of animosity, it would not take much to unravel peace talks between the two parties.

Syria’s Kurds have threaded a hazardous path between their desire for autonomy—some would like full independence—and not taking sides in the current civil war. Indeed, the fighting going on in northern and eastern Syria is not between the insurgents and the Assad government, but Kurds represented by the Kurdish Democratic Union and the combined forces of the extremist al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Most of Syria’s oil reserves are in the Kurdish region and control of them would provide a financial base for whatever side emerges victorious.

The Assad regime may have abandoned the north, but Damascus recently has made headway against the insurgency, gains greatly aided by infighting among its opponents. So far the war is a stalemate, but it might not stay that way forever. Even Syrians opposed to the Assad government are tired of the fighting, and most have no love for the sectarian groups that have increasingly taken over the war against the Damascus regime. In short, the current autonomy of Syria’s Kurds may be a fleeting thing.

Of course, it is possible that the Syrian Kurds might cut a deal with Assad: help drive the insurgents out of the area—maybe in alliance with the Iraqi Kurds—in exchange for greater autonomy. That would enrage both the Turks and the Maliki government, but it is not clear either could do much about it.

Erdogen’s support for the Syrian insurgents is widely unpopular in Turkey, and any direct intervention by the Turks to block autonomy for Syria’s Kurds would put Ankara in the middle of a civil war. With an election looming next year, that is not a move Erdogan wants to make. As for Iraq, thanks to the U.S.’s dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army, Baghdad doesn’t have the capabilities to take on the Peshmerga at this point.

What will finally emerge is hard to predict, except that a return to the past seems unlikely. Iraq’s Kurds can only be dislodged by a major invasion from Turkey in cooperation with the Baghdad government. Given that Kurdish oil and gas are increasingly important to the Turkish economy, and that any invasion would be costly, why would Ankara do that?

And cooperation between Baghdad and Ankara has been soured by Turkey’s willingness to ignore Baghdad’s protests over its exploitation of Kurdish-controlled (but Iraqi owned) oil and Turkish support for the Sunni extremists trying to overthrow Assad. Those same extremists are massacring Shite supporters of the Maliki government in Basra, Baghdad and Karbala.

Turkey’s Kurds—between 20 and 25 million, the largest Kurdish concentration in the world—are on a knife’s edge. There is little doubt that the average Turkish Kurd wants the long-running conflict to end, as do the Turks as well. But Endogen is dragging his feet on the key peace issues, and the PKK may decide it is time to pick up the gun again and return to the old Kurdish adage: trust only the mountains.

The solution to all this is not all that difficult.

For Turkey, granting Kurdish language rights and cultural autonomy, and reducing the minimum percentage of votes to serve in the Turkish parliament from its current 10 percent, would probably do the job.

For Syria, the formula for peace would be much the same, with the added move of restoring citizenship to almost half a million now stateless Kurds. But that is only likely to happen after a ceasefire and a political settlement of the civil war.

The Iraqi government will have to bite the bullet, recognize that an autonomous Kurdish area is a reality, and work out a deal to share oil and gas revenue.

As long as Iran is faced with an attack by the U.S. and/or Israel, that country’s Kurds will be out in the cold. The U.S. and its allies should keep in mind that sanctions and threats of war make a peaceful resolution of long-standing grievances by Iran’s minorities, which also include Azeris, Baluchs, and Arabs, impossible. If the U.S. is truly concerned about minorities in Iran it should find a way to negotiate with the Teheran government over Teheran’s nuclear program.

But the Iranian government, too, would do well to seriously engage with its Kurdish population. Autonomy for the Kurds is out of the bag and not about to go back in, regardless of what the final outcome in Syria and Turkey are. Sooner or later, Iran will have to confront the same issue that governments in Damascus, Ankara and Baghdad now face: recognition and autonomy, or war and instability.

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