Conflict update: April 20 2017


Details are still sketchy, but a gunman earlier this evening shot and killed a police officer on the Champs-Élysées in Paris before being shot and killed in turn by other police officers. There was a search for accomplices immediately after the shooting, but it seems at this point like the shooter was acting alone. French authorities are treating this as a terrorist attack, and ISIS has reportedly already claimed credit for the attack. The attacker used a pseudonym but he’s been identified as Karim Cheurfi, a 39 year old French national who has a previous conviction for shooting at police officers and was–obviously–known to authorities.

ISIS’s claim of responsibility was lightning fast, as these things go, which suggests they may have known of the attack before it happened–though it doesn’t necessarily suggest they had any role in planning it and, indeed, it doesn’t seem to have required much planning. It may also be that ISIS is aiming to use this attack to meddle with the French presidential election taking place this weekend, and if that’s the case then it’s pretty clear who they’d like to see win: reactionary nationalist/fascist Marine Le Pen. As the most anti-Islam voice in the race, Le Pen obviously stands to benefit from any last-minute voting decisions made out of fear stemming from this attack. And we know that ISIS likes it when Western countries elect right-wing, anti-Islam demagogues.

As it stood before the shooting, polling had Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron heading to the runoff, but conservative François Fillon had moved back into third place on his own. A switch of just a few points–hardly an impossibility given the number of voters who still say they’re undecided and/or not sure they’re going to vote–could put the “tough on crime”-style candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, in the runoff with Macron on the outside looking in. And in that case, with Le Pen running against the badly damaged and scandal-ridden Fillon in the second round, anything could happen.


This was going to be my first story before the Paris shooting happened. Iran’s Press TV has the list of candidates who have been permitted by the Guardian Council to stand in the country’s May 19 presidential election. They are:

  • Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani
  • Religious leader Ebrahim Raisi
  • Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf
  • Current First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri
  • Moderate politician Mostafa Hashemitaba
  • Conservative (?) politician Mostafa Mir-Salim


Notably not on that list, of course, is former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His former vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was also disqualified. He hasn’t had time to do any squawking about this yet, but I have my doubts he’s going to take it lying down. Although I have to give his surrogates credit for how brazenly they’re already trying to spin this result as something Ahmadinejad really wanted all alongContinue reading

Conflict (i.e., Syria) update: April 6 2017


Welp. I wrote a fair amount of stuff about the Khan Shaykhun incident this afternoon, some of which I’m going to leave in below even though it might not make complete sense anymore after this evening’s developments (I’ve tried to rewrite it but if anything seems incongruous then understand that it’s because I originally wrote it earlier in the day). If you’ve been in a sensory deprivation tank all evening, here’s what happened:

The United States carried out a missile attack in Syria on Thursday night in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack this week that killed more than 80 civilians, American officials said.

Dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at an air base in Syria, military officials said. They said the strike occurred at about 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time, that the target was the Shayrat airfield and that the strike had hit planes, fuel, spare parts and the runway.

According to one military official, 50 Tomahawks were launched from two Navy warships.

The actual missile count is unknown, at least one account I’ve seen puts the number around 70. MSNBC is saying 59. Marked in the map below is the town of Shayrat (via Google Maps), just east of the air base:


Shayrat is a fairly, though not critically, important air base for Bashar al-Assad, and it’s the one from which the airstrikes on Tuesday were launched. It’s also been used by Iranian/Iranian-aligned forces in the area, so that’s another potential wrinkle here. It’s too early for a damage assessment, but disabling this base will impact the Syrian air force’s ability to make strikes in the Homs/Hama area, though it will not be a massive hindrance to Assad’s air campaign against rebels/civilians/whomever. Really, depending on what the damage assessment says, this strike may really not have been much of anything.

If this is where it ends, then it’s a fairly contained response to Tuesday’s incident (the administration was reportedly considering much more substantial options). There haven’t even been any reports of casualties that I’ve seen, which if it holds up would be fairly remarkable though there are certainly a lot of targets on an air base that wouldn’t normally have many or any people nearby. The problem is that we have no idea if this is where it will actually end. Rex Tillerson spent much of the day talking about forming a coalition to remove Assad from power, which is obviously a much different mission. It’s quite possible that there were Russian personnel at Shayrat–US officials say they warned Russia before the attack, but who knows how much lead time they were given or if they were able to get their people (assuming they had people there) off the base before it was hit. If there are Russian casualties here then that’s a very different situation as well (if there aren’t, then Russia probably has very little recourse to respond to this).

Here’s something else to consider: a week ago Donald Trump and his administration were essentially saying that Assad wasn’t their problem, they didn’t like him but they could live with him, etc. Now we may be leading a new charge to oust him, all because of one airstrike that was horrifying but, let’s be honest, no more horrifying than most anything else that’s gone on in the Syrian civil war and not as deadly as the strike we made in Mosul on March 17. It’s very possible that Donald Trump completely flipped his Syria policy a full 180 degrees because he watched some disturbing video on television. Whatever you believe the merits of this strike to be, it has to be worrying that we’re now led by a man whose policies are subject to wildly inconsistent swings based on his immediate emotional response to events. What happens if Trump wakes up tomorrow and doesn’t feel like he got justice? What happens if Assad now says “hey, fuck you pal,” and launches another chemical strike? What happens if Trump’s newfound passion for Syrian babies, the same ones he’s tried twice to ban from coming to the United States, now begins to extend to all the ones being killed by Assad’s–and Russia’s–conventional weapons? Or the ones who are being starved to death–by Assad, by the rebels, and by ISIS? What happens if Assad threatens an American aircraft conducting an anti-ISIS operation? Some of these scenarios are admittedly unlikely, but in general can you be sure that a president this mercurial will be satisfied with this one strike?

Something that should additionally be concerning is that there is very little about the last half-century in American foreign policy that should reassure anybody that this country is capable of carrying out a single action, in a place in which we are already heavily engaged, without further escalating and expanding our activities. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya should all be cautionary tales right now.

It’s possible, of course, that this strike was negotiated in advance in some backroom between Washington and Moscow, a way to make Trump look good without doing much damage to Syrian and/or Russian interests. You may see speculation to that effect on your TV or social media this evening, tomorrow, or beyond (I have, anyway). Remember that this kind of talk is speculation.

Earlier this evening the UN Security Council debated a resolution over Tuesday’s incident, but a vote was cancelled after “heated” debate between the US and Russian delegations. During the debate the Russians reportedly “warned” the US against military action. The vote cancellation may have been the final straw in the Trump administration’s determination to act unilaterally tonight.

Finally, there are already questions about the legality of these strikes. Lawfare’s John Bellinger has an early look at this issue. There’s no UN resolution to give this attack the cover of international law and there’s been no Congressional authorization to use force against the Syrian government, so it seems like the Trump administration will be relying on some elastic interpretations of the president’s war powers and international law. Expect to hear the term “vital national security interest” a lot.

OK, below is the stuff I wrote earlier today along with the rest of today’s roundup. Feel free to read or not. That’s always true, of course, but I realize particularly tonight that everything else has kind of been washed out.

Continue reading

The IAEA moves the Iran deal forward

I’m going to leave you with one last thing before I hopefully go (mostly) quiet for the next couple of days, and it’s my latest for LobeLog, on the subject of David Albright. If you’re not deeply enmeshed in the Iran debate then you may not know who Albright is, but he runs an organization called the Institute for Science and International Security, or…well, unfortunately, ISIS (in fairness, they had the acronym first). Albright produces a lot of research about Iran’s nuclear program, analysis about the negotiations/deal, etc., and the thing is, he’s opposed to it. He consistently takes the dimmest possible view of everything Iran does and the most skeptical view of any part of the deal (even as most of the arms control community seems to have warmed up to the deal for the most part), he’s co-authored reports and op-eds calling for military strikes and heavier sanctions against Iran in lieu of the talks, and he routinely attacks, often in very petty, personal terms, individuals and groups that support the deal.

And, you know, OK. There are a lot of voices opposed to the deal. I disagree with them, and I think many of them are coming from a very scary part of the neoconservative right that desperately wants a war with Iran either as the next phase of or a do-over for the disaster that was their Iraq War. I don’t necessarily get that from Albright. In observing his work, and talking to people who are more familiar with him than I am, I get the sense that he’s not really political, he just really doesn’t like this deal because he’s kind of an idealist on the subject of ridding the world of WMD. I can understand that perspective. What bugs me about Albright is that he insists, repeatedly and to anyone in earshot, that he’s not opposed to this deal, he’s “neutral” and/or “objective” about it. Well, bullshit. Nary a positive word about the Iran talks have ever escaped this guy’s lips, as compared with plenty of negative words, up to and including the insults he levels at people whose opinions happen to differ from his.

Albright is treated with deference even by deal supporters, because he’s not seen as a knee-jerk opponent but rather as somebody doing honest analysis, and this bugs me. His analysis is frequently questioned because he keeps twisting into knots to make the case against the deal, yet very few people are prepared to suggest that he’s acting in bad faith when he claims to be doing objective work. After watching his “objectivity” in action at a conference last week, an episode that I recount in my piece, I decided that I would make myself one of those people: Continue reading

Looking at the NYT’s reporting on Iran, my newest at LobeLog

The bulk of The New York Times’s coverage of Iran and the nuclear talks is handled by their chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger, who usually collaborates with either one of their foreign affairs reporters or a science reporter named William Broad. On Tuesday they published a piece warning in breathless tones that a new IAEA report shows that Iran has failed to meet its obligations under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action. That’s huge, if true. The only problem is, well, it’s not true. A host of arms control and nuclear talks experts weighed in on the Sanger/Broad piece and pretty conclusively deemed it a lot of fuss about nothing at all (a great example is this piece by Jeffrey Lewis, which sadly didn’t get published in time for me to use it in my piece for LobeLog).

Sanger and Broad interviewed one expert on the Iran negotiations, Richard Nephew, who used to be the lead sanctions expert on the Obama administrations and now works at Columbia University and the Brookings Institution. Unfortunately, they butchered what he told them to extract one phrase that could fit the alarmist narrative of their piece and then discarded the rest, which is, let’s say, not best journalistic practices. My new piece for LobeLog looks at the fallout from their reporting and includes, in a rare feat of actual Journalism coming from me, the results of my own (email) interview with Nephew:

I contacted Nephew by email to ask if he felt misrepresented by Sanger and Broad, and whether he had been in contact with them since the article’s publication. “I did reach out,” he told me, “and Mr. Broad said that they had to do the normal journalistic practice of shortening and tightening to tell a story with brevity and so forth. He was surprised I felt misrepresented. I acknowledged that journalists do need to be able to tell a concise story, but I noted that I did feel misrepresented and asked that they update the piece with my quote in full, as well as with the broader content that I articulated to them. [I’ve received] no response thus far.”

Additionally, Nephew pointed out that when he spoke to Sanger and Broad of “sanctions relief,” it was in reference to Iran’s incentives to reduce its enriched uranium stockpile in order to meet the terms of a comprehensive agreement, not in the context of addressing the current excess uranium issue that was at the crux of the Times piece. That distinction seems to have been lost in Sanger and Broad’s reporting.

There’s much more at LobeLog, including a link to Nephew’s own technical debunking of the Sanger/Broad piece (seriously, their own interviewee has rebutted their reporting in print — this seems like it might be a little embarrassing for the NYT). I also go into some detail about the now well-established pattern of sloppy, alarmist, and downright biased reporting on Iran that has been coming from Sanger and his co-writers for several years now. It’s a long piece, but I wanted to muster as strong a case as possible without completely overtaxing the readers’ patience (which I hope I managed to do on both counts). Please read and share.

Your Spring Break Iran Update

So as the title says, it’s Spring Break this week. Not for me, but for my daughter, which effectively means it’s Spring Break for me, too, but not in the fun way. I’m kidding; we’re actually planning on doing a little family traveling this week, which will be fun. The upshot as far as you’re concerned is that this is probably all you’ll be getting from me this week, regardless of how things wind up going in Switzerland.

I feel a little bad for all the folks in Switzerland, actually. I’m sure Switzerland is lovely this time of year, or any time of year really, but the Iranian and P5+1 negotiators are presumably a little too busy to enjoy it. I’m sure US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would rather be doing keg stands on some beach in Cancun, you know?

That's what I'm talking about.

That’s what I’m talking about.

But he’s stuck in meetings to try to beat Tuesday’s firm deadline for hashing out a framework agree–

Oh goddammit.

The optimism that’s seemed to mark the talks over the past week has been, according to Reuters, replaced by as sense of “gloom” among the negotiators, as key issues were still up in the air with the deadline imminent. This is why I’m kind of happy to be leaving town this week; it’s probably going to be kind of a roller coaster. Anyway, the two major outstanding issues that everybody seems to be talking about are the limits that will be placed on Iran’s nuclear research and development in years 11-15 of the deal (15 years seems to be the overall length they’re discussing, with years 11-15 being a “phase” period where Iran will be allowed to slowly ramp its nuclear activity up so long as it’s keeping up its end of the deal) and the procedures by which UN Security Council sanctions on Iran will be lifted.

The second point of contention may be more problematic, as it’s actually a potential source of discord among the P5+1. Continue reading

Maybe you need a decoder ring

Michael Doran is one of Eventheliberal Brookings Institution’s Perpetual War Gang, so keep that in mind when reading the following:

OK, so, I’m not in the Bomb Bomb Iran fraternity, but speaking as a nominally thinking human being, it would seem to me that Iran publicly announcing its intention to build new nuclear plants is actually A Good Thing. If your concern is the proliferation of nuclear weapons, then, you know, they’re not gonna make weapons in the facilities that everybody knows about, right? It’s the facilities that a country doesn’t declare that are the problem, and that’s why a non-proliferation agenda requires a robust monitoring and verification system. Now, and again I’m not in the World War III Fan Club so I’m obviously not qualified to be addressing these important topics, the only way to get a robust monitoring and verification system really implemented in Iran is to negotiate a settlement with Tehran on the nuclear issue. And that’s why the nuclear talks that Michael Doran is constantly griping about are actually important. I realize that negotiating is an inconvenient roadblock on the Highway to Hell path to More War, but in my view it’s worth the sacrifice.

Yes, Dick Cheney’s former national security adviser, let’s try war with Iran; what could go wrong?

Everybody, meet John P. Hannah:

Hi, John!

John’s illustrious career in public service included a brief period in the Bush State Department as an aide to John Bolton in the Office of Arms Control and International Security (2001), followed by stints as Dick Cheney’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (2001-2005), his Assistant for National Security Affairs (2005-2009). Since leaving government he has been a senior fellow at the neocon Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a contributor at Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, and a senior fellow at the ultra neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The point I’m trying to make here is that if you run into John P. Hannah on a clear day, and he tells you that the sky is blue, you better look up just to be sure.

Fortunately, John’s record of advising people who have been flagrantly, hilariously-if-it-weren’t-for-the-body-count wrong about everything over the past 13 years and change hasn’t deprived us of his important voice on serious foreign policy matters. Foreign Policy just gave him a forum (if this is behind a paywall, I apologize; I can’t follow how FP’s paywall works and anyway I have a subscription) in which to opine that this whole “trying to be nice to Iran” stuff is bullshit, man, and it’s time to try something new and different: regime change!

It’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s try the title: Continue reading