Conflict update: March 17 2017

SYRIA

First the new story: that Israeli missile alert that sounded in the Jordan valley yesterday evening wasn’t caused by any rockets coming from Gaza. Instead, it was caused by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, fired at a squadron of Israeli planes that were returning from a bombing run in Syrian airspace. The Israeli planes reportedly struck a convoy of weapons intended for Hezbollah. None of the Syrian missiles hit the Israeli planes, but at least one was apparently intercepted by an Israeli Arrow missile defense, uh, missile (there has to be a better way to describe that).

The big story remains the bombing of a mosque in the Syrian town of al-Jinah during evening prayers yesterday. The Pentagon has acknowledged that this was an American airstrike, but insists that it did not strike the mosque, but a nearby building where a high-level al-Qaeda meeting was being held. That’s their story, but it doesn’t seem to be holding up very well:

According to the US military, it launched strikes on a large building just 50 feet from a small mosque in the village of al-Jinah. Al-Qaeda regularly used this building to hold high-level meetings, the Pentagon said. And after watching the site for some time, the US military bombed the building around 7 p.m. local time Thursday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Friday. The strikes included a 500-pound bomb and at least six AGM-114 Hellfire missiles fired from drones, a US defense official told BuzzFeed News.

The US military said it purposely avoided the small mosque. But some on the ground suggested the building hit was a new, larger mosque, where as many as 300 worshippers had gathered for evening prayer. Local residents put the death toll as high as 62 and said others could be buried alive in the wreckage. Some videos that appeared online showed rescue workers pulling children out of the rubble.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike, but believe that dozens of core al Qaeda terrorists were killed,” Davis said in a statement afterwards.

Davis said the military was “not aware of any credible allegation” of civilian casualties despite the emerging accounts from Syrian watch groups. But US officials said they were still investigating the allegations. The US military also has yet to determine how many were killed and whether any were high-value al-Qaeda operatives.

“Not aware of any credible allegation”? Really?

The Pentagon released this photo that it says proves it didn’t strike a mosque:

It says the mosque, which it identifies as the small building on the left, is clearly intact, which, fair enough. But here’s the thing: locals are saying that was the old mosque. The new mosque was the two-building compound on the right, one building of which has been blown to smithereens in that photo. How can you be sure the locals aren’t lying? Well, you can’t, but one point in their favor is that the Pentagon itself says, according to one of its drones, nobody came out of the small building for at least 30 minutes after the strike. If the small building were still the mosque, full of people at evening prayer, you would think maybe one or two of them might have come outside to see what happened after the building next door was fucking blown up. But maybe that’s just me.

In other Syria news, YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters that the Raqqa operation will begin next month. Say, remember when Donald Trump got real Mad on account of people announced the Mosul offensive before it began? His face got even oranger and he blubbered something about the element of surprise, like we’re fighting the Napoleonic Wars or some shit. I wonder if he’ll be mad about this.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: January 10 2017

The Ritz-Carlton Moscow

It’s possible I’ll be able to formulate some thoughts about this as soon as I’m done laughing about it, but for now let me just say one thing. While I have absolutely no problem believing that the Russian government has dirt, possibly serious dirt, on our president-elect, the story that Buzzfeed ran this evening (no link, this is a fucking family blog goddammit) is just too hysterical, and too unsubstantiated, to give much credence without a lot of supporting evidence. That said, I think the folks at Lawfare, who are not given to hair-on-fire conspiracies, have the right idea in that these allegations are not proven (and given that probably shouldn’t have been reported), but they are serious and should be taken seriously.

Iraq

The UN says that more than 135,000 people have fled Mosul since the Iraqi offensive to retake the city began in October, and hundreds/thousands of others have had to be evacuated to hospitals because they’ve been wounded in the fighting. Still, Iraqi forces continue to make steady progress toward liberating the eastern side of the city.

On the downside, whatever deal the Turkish and Iraqi governments appeared to have been circling over the presence of Turkish troops in Bashiqa doesn’t seem to have taken, because there was Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi today, saying that Iraqi-Turkish relations can’t “move forward” until Turkey withdraws its soldiers from Iraqi territory, and Turkey still doesn’t seem inclined to take that step.

Syria

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Most Americans oppose scrapping the Iran nuclear deal

Here’s something interesting. Earlier today, the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (PPC) released the findings of a poll showing that almost two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and attempting to renegotiate its terms. Overall, 63.7% of respondents prefer to “continue with the deal as long as Iran complies with the terms,” while only 34.4% would rather “withdraw from the current deal and seek to negotiate a new deal.”

President-elect (ffffuuuuuu) Trump, of course, campaigned heavily on the idea that the JCPOA was a bad deal—“the worst deal ever negotiated,” in his words—that should be renegotiated at a minimum, if not scrapped altogether. If the poll is right, then most Americans disagree with his assessment, though (as you might expect) the partisan split in the poll was high—58.1% of Republicans support renegotiating the deal, while 85.6% of Democrats and 58.6% of independents want to leave it in place. The primary driver of the “keep it in place” side seems to be a pretty firm–and I would argue correct–feeling that Iran would be unwilling to negotiate a new deal or renegotiate the JCPOA’s terms if the US were to walk away from the deal as it exists now. Nearly 70% of respondents believed it “unlikely” that Iran would be amenable to new talks, including substantial majorities among people of all three party affiliations. Interestingly, a little under 58% of respondents think it’s likely that the other nations that were party to the deal would agree to abandon it if the US did, which I think is seriously misguided but maybe that’s just me.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will be susceptible to public opinion on this issue, particular when his top foreign policy adviser, National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn, is stridently anti-Iran. Still, as Jim Lobe notes, Trump’s FP team isn’t uniformly anti-JCPOA:

Although generally quite hawkish toward Iran, top appointments to his administration so far have been divided on the JCPOA. Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.), is strongly opposed to it, while his nominee for secretary of state, Gen. James Mattis (ret.), believes the deal is flawed but worth sustaining. A U.S. withdrawal or reimposition of sanctions, he warned last spring, would prove largely ineffective or even counter-productive because the other parties in the P5+1 (Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) were highly unlikely to go along.

Congress is another consideration here, of course; there are enough hawks in both houses to support at least some piecemeal challenges to the JCPOA–they may not vote to back out of the deal, but they could, for example, vote to block any more economic aid or business deals going to Iran, or to reimpose former nuclear-related sanctions under some alternate justification, and it’s hard to know how Trump would respond to something like that. These poll results suggest that Congress should also tread carefully here.

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Happy JCPOAnniversary

It’s been one year since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which limits Iran’s nuclear program in return for international sanctions relief, was signed in Vienna. I have had a much higher than usual slate of paid writing to do this week, some of which is actually very relevant to the JCPOA’s anniversary, but I just haven’t had time to write some kind of retrospective for you fine folks. Lucky for us, literally everybody else seem to have been able to write something like that. So I figured maybe I could get away with just aggregating a few of those for you. Forgive me.

The upshot is that, a year in, the nuclear deal is doing what it was supposed to do: limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Here’s Shemuel Meir, a former analyst with the Israeli Defense Forces:

The final report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which allowed the deal to come into force on January 16, 2016, established that Iran did not divert nuclear material to secret sites. The quarterly IAEA reports published since the deal was signed confirm that Iran has met all the conditions. This is good news that does not make headlines — unlike the critical IAEA reports that made the front pages of Israeli newspapers in years past. The attempt to claim that “this is the same Iran,” which does not cooperate with the international community on the nuclear issue, doesn’t hold water.

But there are problems on pretty much all sides, as Barbara Slavin describes:

In the U.S. Congress, Republicans and some Democrats have sought to impose new sanctions on Iran to deprive Iranians of benefits they were promised in return for accepting stringent curbs on their nuclear program. This includes efforts in the House of Representatives to pass legislation to block a proposed multi-year, multi-billion dollar sale of civilian airliners by Boeing to replace Iran’s dangerous, antiquated planes.

Continuing U.S. sanctions on most other American business interaction with Iran – especially Iran’s exclusion from any contact with the U.S. financial system – have added to foreign reluctance to re-engage the Iranian market even though foreign trade with and investment in Iran is no longer prohibited.

Iran’s own systemic weaknesses are also at fault; David Lipton, a top American working for the International Monetary Fund who recently visited Iran, compared the challenges of reforming the Iranian economy to those faced by Eastern European countries after the end of Soviet control.

Although Iran has pulled out of recession since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed and its GDP is expected to grow by 4 percent this year, unemployment remains in double digits. In a recent poll, a majority of Iranians said they still supported the nuclear agreement but doubted that the United States would fulfill its obligations. Two thirds of Iranians said they believe that the U.S. is trying to discourage foreign companies from investing in Iran, something U.S. officials strenuously deny.

One concern is that there are reports about Iran continuing to illicitly acquire, or attempt to acquire, materials that could be used either in a nuclear weapons program, which as far as everybody knows it doesn’t have, or in its ballistic missile program, which it admittedly does have. But while we don’t exactly want Iran to have a ballistic missile program, or to acquire materials for that program, and in fact there are still sanctions in place against Iran over its missile program, there’s nothing in the nuclear deal specifically that really bars them from doing so. So if we take the most narrow view of the nuclear accord, which is probably the fairest way of evaluating it, the deal is doing what it was supposed to do.

For now, anyway. Iran’s economy is struggling, and whatever benefit Iran has seen from the nuclear deal has been counteracted by factors like low oil prices, regional instability, internal corruption, etc. It’s hard for people to see the economic benefit of a policy if the “benefit” is basically “well, things could have been a lot worse than they are.” And Iran hasn’t seen anywhere near the full benefit of the deal, in part because the United States has, in ways both deliberate and inadvertent, made sure of it:

US sanctions are inhibiting the development of European trade with Iran. Meanwhile the US Congress is making it impossible for Iran to access its overseas oil revenues worth tens of billions of dollars.

Iranian foreign currency deposits total at least $50 billion. Iranians were hoping for the rapid retrieval of these funds to boost a domestic economy that underwent four years of enforced austerity as a result of US and EU nuclear-related sanctions.

They have been disappointed. Most of these deposits are in countries that depend on the dollar as a medium of exchange for their local currency. Their holdings of major foreign currencies other than the dollar, e.g. the euro or yen, are too small for banks in these countries to be able to convert Iranian local currency deposits into those currencies without passing through the dollar.

The Obama administration proposed to solve this problem by an executive decision that would permit conversion of Iranian deposits via the dollar. Iranian money would be in dollar form for a fleeting instant on its way to a euro incarnation, for example.

Word of the administration’s intention leaked to Congress. Opponents of the deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed in Vienna last July) raised a hue and cry.

The administration’s resolve failed. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew declared on 11 April that the US would keep its part of the bargain of providing sanctions relief to Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program – but that the Obama administration would not allow even limited access to the US financial system.

This failure, together with a failure to devise some form of immunity from fines for European banks, threatens the deal.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other, very serious and very non-US related reasons why Iran is struggling. But Washington isn’t helping. And, of course, anti-Iran forces in DC are agitating to do still more to put the screws to the Iranians (they’re working on it right now, in fact), and they are hoping to get some help from the next president, no matter if it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. If Iran really starts to believe that it accrues no benefit from abiding by the deal, or that America has already broken its end of the bargain, the whole thing could come apart.

Also, while I haven’t seen much chatter about this lately, I think there’s a good chance that deal opponents in Congress might still try to pull a fast one by blocking the funding that the International Atomic Energy Agency needs to properly monitor Iran’s compliance. They can create a self-fulfilling reason to oppose the deal.

Robert Einhorn talks about the technical challenges that are still to come:

So, from the standpoint of Iran implementing and complying with its nuclear commitments, the JCPOA has operated well for its first year. But challenges to the smooth operation and even the longevity of the deal are already apparent.

A real threat to the JCPOA is that Iran will blame the slow recovery of its economy on U.S. failure to conscientiously fulfill its sanctions relief commitments and, using that as a pretext, will curtail or even end its own implementation of the deal. Iranians are understandably frustrated that the benefits of sanctions relief have not materialized as quickly as expected. But international banks and businesses have been reluctant to engage Iran not because they have been discouraged by the United States but because they have their own business-related reasons to be cautious, including the inadequate regulatory standards of Iran’s financial system, low oil prices in an oil-dependent economy, and fear of running afoul of remaining U.S. sanctions. In an effort to ensure that Iran will reap the economic rewards it deserves, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to inform foreign governments, banks, and businesses of what sanctions relief measures entitle them to do, but Iranian officials continue to complain that it is not doing enough.

As you know, Iranians are already blaming their sluggish economy on US perfidy (and while hardliners are cynically exaggerating the extent to which the U.S. is responsible for Iran’s economic woes, they do have a few legitimate complaints), and that’s caused Iranian President and deal architect Hassan Rouhani to start taking a much harder line in his public statements about the deal. Iranian officials are talking about American actions like blocking the Boeing sale as potential violations of the deal.

The optimism that attended the signing of the JCPOA a year ago is largely gone today. There’s no more talk of making a wider diplomatic opening with Iran–even the attempt would probably hurt Clinton’s campaign here and Rouhani’s reelection campaign there. But as Suzanne Maloney writes, the deal can’t really succeed unless it becomes a stepping stone to a better US-Iran relationship, and on that front pretty much everybody is failing:

But in the United States, in Iran, and across the Middle East, the agreement has always been viewed through a much broader lens—as a waystation toward Iranian-American rapprochement, as an instrument for addressing the vicious cycle of sectarian violence that threatens to consume the region, as a boost to the greater cause of moderation and democratization in Iran.

And so the failure of the deal to catalyze greater cooperation from Iran on a range of other priorities—Syria, Yemen, Iraq, to name a few—or to jumpstart improvements in Iran’s domestic dynamics cannot be disregarded simply because it was not its original intent. The “new normal” of regularized diplomatic contact between Washington and Tehran is a net positive, but it has not paid any obvious dividends yet. If it is to do so, the United States will need a serious strategy toward Tehran that transcends the JCPOA, building on the efficacy of the hard-won multilateral collaboration on the nuclear issue. The Obama administration invested considerable political capital in setting the deal in motion and implementing its terms; its successor will have to approach Iran in a more comprehensive fashion.

Iranians, too, must begin to pivot the focus of their efforts away from endless litigation of the nuclear deal and toward a more constructive approach to addressing the deep challenges facing their country today. The persistence of crisis has always provided a convenient rationalization for the Islamic Republic’s failures and inadequacies, but the urgency has now abated. In the wake of the nuclear deal, Iran’s leaders have continued to divert responsibility away from their own disastrous policies and back toward Washington, with some citing inadequate sanctions relief as an excuse for slow economic growth and the absence of political reforms or social liberalization. This is plainly spurious, as I explained in a recent blog post, and Iranians should channel their frustrations with the sluggish pace of their peace dividend into the kind of meaningful reforms that are long overdue.

TIP JAR

Iran: getting from a “deal” to THE deal

Well, the big news while I was traveling was obviously the announcement of a framework agreement, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” between Iran and the P5+1 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Moreover, for a negotiation that looked to be puttering toward some kind of incredibly vague, hastily cobbled together statement of principles thrown together at the last possible minute in order to claim some progress, this agreement was actually surprisingly comprehensive and detailed. To their credit, negotiators worked almost non-stop last week, blowing through their March 31 deadline and refusing to leave Lausanne until the job was done.

Now, let me get the Debbie Downer stuff out of the way. The first thing to note about this agreement is that, despite all the talk of a “deal,” this isn’t the deal. It’s an agreement on the framework of the deal, the technical details of which will now be filled out through further negotiation and is supposed to be completed by July 1. Some of those technical details could still prove challenging, like the timing of sanctions relief, which seems to still be unclear. The Iranian position has been that sanctions should be lifted as soon as the deal is signed, their argument being that if Iran’s obligations kick into effect at that point, surely the P5+1’s obligations should as well. The P5+1 position has been that sanctions should only be gradually lifted as Iran demonstrates its compliance with the agreement’s terms (not just taking initial action to come into compliance, but demonstrating an ongoing adherence to the terms), which also makes sense from the standpoint of enticing Iranian compliance. The framework agreement is vague on this point, maybe deliberately so, but the compromise seems to be forming around the idea that sanctions will be lifted more suddenly than the P5+1 had wanted, but only after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken the steps needed to meet the deal’s terms, so not as quickly as Iran had wanted. This could still be a big sticking point, particularly as Iran’s relationship with the IAEA tends to wax and wane (and right now, it’s clearly waning).

Also unclear is the mechanism by which sanctions might be reimposed if Iran is caught violating a deal. The State Department fact sheet about the agreement says that US and EU sanctions will “snap back” into place in that case, but who’s to say whether the US and EU will see eye-to-eye about taking that step? US sanctions alone are enough to hurt Iran, particularly secondary banking sanctions, but it’s been the international solidarity of the sanctions regime that’s made it so effective thus far. More importantly, what about the UN sanctions? The fact sheet says simply that in the case of an Iranian violation “all previous UN sanctions could be re-imposed,” which, sure, in theory, but are UNSC veto-holders Russia and China going to go along with that? The other four members of the P5+1 may want some assurances in that respect in the language of a final deal, but Russia in particular could still balk at that. Continue reading