Appeasement in Geneva?
by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (December 2013)
with Jonathan Schanzer and Shoshana Bryen
EU Foreign Relations Commissioner Ashton and Iranian Delegation in Geneva on November 24, 2013
The topsy turvey developments in the Middle East made for high drama on the international and regional stage in the waning months of 2013.
Desperate to stave off swooning domestic poll approval ratings caused by the unraveling the Affordable Care Act, the Obama Administration was hopeful that an Interim agreement via the P5+1 in Geneva might bolster public opinion of its conduct of foreign affairs. On November 10, 2013, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius upended discussions in Geneva calling the interim deal by the P5+1 with a Iranian delegation a “fool’s game.” That was followed by a state visit from French President Francois Hollande and Foreign Minister Fabius to Jerusalem where they were received warmly by Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Hollande spoke before the Knesset saying in effect he had the Jewish nation’s concerns at heart in the P5+1 deliberations with Iran in Geneva. While at the same time suggesting that Israel should make gestures to accommodate the Palestinian Authority (PA) on construction in the disputed territories on the West Bank and possibly sharing its capital, Jerusalem. Some members of the Knesset and Netanyahu's coalition cabinet were none too pleased about the latter. Israelis were also none too pleased with visiting Secretary of State Kerry who in the midst of Geneva deliberations warned Israel about the possible outbreak of violence in the form of a Third Intifada during a combined Palestinian and Israeli TV interview. Discussions towards a possible final status agreement between the PA and Israel have been facilitated by Kerry. They appear to be faltering, giving rise to the possibility that the PA might choose to declare statehood via the UN should the parties fail to reach a final status agreement. Earlier in November 2013, a forensic report by Swiss scientists of the effects of the late PA leader Yassir Arafat found traces of polonium. His widow Suha raised murky questions about his possible poisoning as a cause of his death in 2004 at the age of 75.
After the November 10th session recessed in Geneva, the P5+1 EU and Foreign Minister Representatives reconvened following the French state visit to Israel. In the early hours of Sunday, November 24th, a deal was announced in Geneva. An agreement that Secretary Kerry and French Foreign Minister Fabius gave a thumbs up to along with the Foreign Ministers of the UK, Russia, China, plus Germany. The announced P5+1 deal was subject to more frequent inspections of Iran’s nuclear program, while allegedly freezing enrichment for six months at the 3.0 percent level using 10,000 centrifuges and dilution of half of existing stocks of 20 percent enriched fissile materials with the balance converted to an easily reconverted oxide. It also placed a hold on commissioning of a second track of plutonium production for possible bomb making via the Arak heavy water reactor in Iran. David Albright of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security calculations that, notwithstanding these arrangements, there would not be a significant denial of time for Iran to achieve “nuclear breakout." He commented in a Reuters report:
Once this is done, the breakout time - how long it would take Iran to produce sufficient highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for one atomic bomb - would lengthen from at least 1-1.6 months to at least 1.9-2.2 months if the Iranians used all their installed centrifuges, Albright said in an e-mail.
"This may seem a small increase. But with the IAEA daily checking the camera film at Nathans and Frodo, this increase in breakout times would be significant," he said, referring to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
American David Kay, former UN chief weapons inspector, drew attention in an NPR interview to the daunting task facing the small contingent of 250 of the Vienna based nuclear watchdog agency inspection staff overseeing the monitoring of the P5+1 agreement of just the known sites.
In exchange for maintaining the core of current US and EU sanctions, the P5+1 agreement would provide a modest $1.5 billion of relief for petrochemical, gold trading and aircraft parts. The Administration’s hope was that the deal struck by the P5+1 Foreign Ministers including Secretary of State John Kerry would block nuclear breakout by Iran enabling achievement of a longer term permanent deal during the six month hiatus.
Virtually upon announcement by Secretary of State Kerry in the early morning of November 24th, the P5+1 interim pact with Iran came under withering criticism from Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu as “a historic mistake.” He said it gave the Islamic Regime a “deal of the century” to continue its enrichment of fissile material to achieve nuclear breakout. Israel, Netanyahu said, would closely monitor violations of the interim agreement with Iran. Further, he contends that Israel is not bound by the agreement and that it will seek to its own security needs. He immediately dispatched his national security adviser to Washington to confer with Administration national security advisers seeking to pursue dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program in any permanent agreement. Leading Democratic Senators, Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, proclaimed their disappointment in the P5+1 agreement and pushed for adoption of stronger sanctions to be considered in early December 2013. This despite White House pleas that doing so could jeopardize further negotiations with Iran.
Experts at the Washington, DC – based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Messrs. Mark Dubowitz, executive director and Senior Fellow Orde Kittrie criticized the pact in a Wall Street Journal op ed calling it a “bad agreement likely to get worse.” They drew attention to the absence of provisions addressing critical development of nuclear warheads, triggers and ballistic missiles. They calculated the estimated amount of sanctions relief in excess of $20 billion, boosting Iran’s hard currency reserves by more than $100 billion. President Rouhani was pleased by the agreement that enabled Iran to continue enrichment at the 3.0 percent level. Further, the Islamic Regime announced that $8 billion in previously frozen assets had been released after the P5+1 interim agreement was signed in Geneva raising questions about Administration’s relief estimates.
As FDD President Cliff May notes in this November 25, 2013 Wall Street Journal video interview the interim P5+1 agreement neither measures up to the standards set existing UN resolution calling for Iran to stop enrichment. Moreover, he concludes that the interim agreement eerily looks like the pattern set in a series of agreements by both the Clinton and Bush Administrations with North Korea that were breached. Sen. John McCain in a Fox News report echoed this concern when he said:
I am concerned this agreement could be a dangerous step that degrades our pressure on the Iranian regime without demonstrable actions on Iran's part to end its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability -- a situation that would be reminiscent of our experience over two decades with North Korea.
Watch the WSJ interview with FDD President May:
There was also the matter of the Administration’s back channel discussions with Iran that began several years ago allegedly hidden from allies France and Israel. However, Israel subsequent to these reports revealed that it knew of these discussions through its own means while maintaining cover in talks with the Administration.
Within days of the P5+1 interim agreement, Iran accused the Administration of ‘lying’ about the terms posted on both White House and State Department websites. The Washington Free Beacon reported:
Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham told the Iranian press on [November 26, 2013] . . . that the White House has “modified” key details of the deal and released their own version of the agreement in the fact sheet.
Iran’s right to enrich uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon, is fully recognized under the draft released by Tehran.
“This comprehensive solution would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein,” the agreement reads, according to a copy released to Iranian state-run media.
The White House admitted in response that “technical terms” for the interim pact have not been finalized.
These developments in Geneva led to reports of the formation of an unprecedented alliance of convenience in the Middle East region between Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Israel. A prospect that excited billionaire Royal Prince and international investor, Prince Alaweed bin Talal, in a Wall Street Journal interview. There were even rumored Israeli visits to Saudi Arabia to check out logistics and refueling facilities for a possible unilateral air assault. That prospect and its consequences on Israel were the subject of an important article by former Israeli Military Intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, who was the lead pilot on the 1981 raid that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Yadlin, director of the National Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University had conducted simulations of such an attack and had calculated that Israel could defend itself against effects of retaliations by Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Meanwhile in Egypt there were developments that sharpened the void left by the absence of US involvement, displeased in the wake of the ouster of former President Morsi and his prosecution along with leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. They were accused by the interim government in Cairo of inciting violence. Secretary of State Kerry, as a gesture of conciliation towards the interim government, backed by Army Chief Gen. Al-Sisi, suggested in comments that Morsi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood may have “stolen” the Egyptian revolution. Gen. Al-Sisi and the interim Egyptian government received the Russian Foreign and Defense Ministers who offered $2 billion in helicopters and air defense systems, amidst speculation about who was going to pay for them. At present, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates have provided $14 billion in credits for the interim Egyptian government grappling with trying to reignite investment for a struggling economy and to feed its people. Then in an abrupt move in late November 2013, the Egyptian Foreign Minister declared the Turkish Ambassador persona non grata reducing the status of diplomatic relations between the two former allies. That move was in reaction to continuing criticism of the ouster of former President Morsi by Turkey’s Islamist Premier Erdogan an acknowledged supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Syria.
With more than 115,000 dead in the 33 month civil war in Syria, the efforts at cleaning up and destroying the Assad regime’s chemical weapons by inspection teams from the Hague Based Office for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons may have hit an impasse. The problem concerns which country would take charge of ultimate disposal. Norway has offered to assist in the effort to destroy the chemical weapons. More than 1,400 deaths and casualties in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013 caused by chemical agents like Sarin gas released by rockets and artillery shells had originally prompted President Obama to issue US military attack warnings. That was stifled by Russian intervention with UN backing and Assad regime acquiescence to destroy the WMD stockpiles. This came amidst developments in northeastern Syria where Kurdish militia forces appear to have ousted al Qaeda affiliates, the al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) from its homeland. Meanwhile, in other combat areas in Syria Islamist militias have merged to contend with al Qaeda affiliates. All while facing Assad regime troops, supported by Iranian Qods Force and Hezbollah forces that appear to be gaining control of critical lines of communication. Those continuing battles have spawned the flight of Sunni and Christian refugees to nearby Lebanon. An alleged twin bombing by Al Qaeda operatives near the Iranian Embassy in South Beirut controlled by Hezbollah was seen as retaliation for Iranian Qods Force and Hezbollah units fighting alongside Assad military inside Syria. On November 25, 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced the possible start of long-sought peace discussions between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime would take place in Geneva on January 22, 2014. He characterized it in his statement as "a mission of hope" to end the civil war and agree to a transitional government "with full executive powers." However, the Syrian opposition immediately suggested that two key provisions, release of prisoner and removal of the Assad government, had not been met.
Against this background, we held one of our periodic 1330amWEBY Middle East Round Tables with panelists, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Shoshana Bryen of The Jewish Policy Center, both based in Washington, DC.
Mike Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates and we are having today our international round table discussion about the Middle East. I have with me in the studio, Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog "The Iconoclast." He is online at www.newenglishreview.org. Jerry, welcome.
Jerry Gordon: Glad to be here Mike.
Bates: And joining us by telephone from Washington D.C. is Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State. He is online at www.defenddemocracy.org. Jonathan, welcome.
Jonathan Schanzer: Thanks so much.
Bates: And also from Washington D.C., Shoshana Bryen. She is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center, online at www.jewishpolicycenter.org. Shoshana, welcome.
Shoshana Bryen: Thank you.
Bates: Let's open this with the P5-plus-1 talks that recently recessed. The P5 of course being the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. That would be the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France and the Plus-1 refers to Germany. They recently recessed after almost having a deal and yet it was France that put a temporary hold on it. What is the story there Jonathan?
Schanzer: It was quite a drama. We had been hearing rumors about the contours of a possible deal. The Israelis were not happy. Friends of Israel were not happy. Those who were opposed to Iranian proliferation were not happy. It appeared that there was going to be a deal cut in which Iran was going to be able to continue to enrich uranium. It was going to be able to continue to build its heavy water reactor, its plutonium reactor at Arak. And in exchange the West was really not going to get much at all, other than promises of a cessation of enrichment at a certain level. And so as the chorus began to get louder and louder from proponents of Iran saying that this was the deal of the century, we watched France swoop in. It was a rather remarkable thing, but the French temporarily stopped the deal. They basically said that they did not see the West getting enough from Iran. They warned that it would be the kind of deal that could come back to bite us. And so France’s foreign minister put a halt to it. And now, all of the sudden, the French who have been deeply ambivalent about Israel and the United States in the past were basically the only adults in the room. They prevented a deal that would have certainly led to continued proliferation on the part of Iran.
Bates: Why would the other five countries go along with this? I'm kind of surprised that France is the one that said no. What did the other five countries think was going to really result from this?
Schanzer: Look, I think these Western countries just simply wanted to get a deal done. There appears to be some groupthink right now among the top leaders of these Western countries. They all think that just the idea of getting to a place where you can start to talk to Iran and where there could be warming of relations with Iran would effectively empower Hassan Rouhani, the new President of Iran, who is widely hailed as a moderate. They believe that just getting on his good side might empower him and perhaps even enable him to sway some of the more radical powers in Iran. I think this is a house of cards. I think this logic makes very little sense. I think at the end of the day Rouhani will be outgunned by the Supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. I think he'll be outgunned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Praetorian Guard of Iran. These are the radical actors who have long dominated Iranian politics. Rouhani does not stand a chance. And yet what we see now from the West is everyone investing in this one individual who has won over the West with Tweets and phone calls expressing moderation.
Bryen: I would point out that the French were also operating more than a little bit out of pique. It is true that France has always taken a fairly hard line on the Islamic Regime – they gave asylum to the Ayatollah Khomeini and he repaid them by conducting an assassination campaign against the Ayatollah’s enemies on French soil. Its also true that they didn't like the deal and that Hollande had some conditions that were not met in the first round. But it also needs to be said that the French are very irritated with the United States. President Obama got Hollande to agree that France would support U.S. military action in Syria and then we left him hanging out there when we backed off. The French are very angry about spying in Europe. They do spy themselves by the way, so its a little bit disingenuous, but they were angry about the spying in Europe. They're still a little bit angry that we were not faster on Libya and more helpful on Mali so some of this represents the French understanding that they could tweak the United States.
Bates: So France may not have had the global best interest at heart. It was just an opportunity to stick the thumb in the eye of the United States?
Bryen: I think it's both. Sometimes your national security interests align with your pique and I think you can't discount one or the other.
Schanzer: You know, I would actually push back a little bit. I think the French would certainly like the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership in the world. You know, a lot of people have pointed out that the French recently signed a one billion dollar arms deal with the Saudis and that perhaps it was the Saudis that were exhorting the French to get in there and stop a bad deal. Of course, the Saudis have been in absolute fear that Iran will get that nuclear weapon given the Shiite-Sunni divide. One also has to just look at the track record of the French; they haven't been wonderful about everything in foreign policy. They are serious about counter proliferation. And I think at the end of the day they saw this as a bad deal that would probably upend international security. We heard some reports of how the French were concerned that it would almost certainly prompt a bombing on the part of the Israelis and they wanted to get a better deal that would be able to put the Israeli populous at rest. That is what we are thinking probably happened more than anything else.
Bates: Shoshana let me ask a follow-up to what Jonathan just said about the Israeli population being at risk. Without question, an Iranian nuclear weapon poses a threat to the entire planet but the nation that is at greatest risk from that is Israel so why isn't Israel involved in these talks?
Bryen: Because Israel is not in the P5-plus-1. There is a great hesitation on the part of the United States to make Israel that important. The United States has said to the Israelis over and over again, “We'll look out for you. We'll take your interests into account. We'll front for you. We've got your back.” The Israelis no longer believe that but there is no room for them at the table and the Iranians wouldn't sit with them in any event. By the way, everything that is said of Israel and to Israel is also said to and about Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis aren’t buying it at the moment either.
Gordon: Shoshana, we mentioned the current President of Iran, Mr. Rouhani. His track record as a nuclear negotiator on behalf of Iran is not terribly good and he has gone on record of gloating about the fact that he deceived the West back in 2003 to 2005 when he was the nuclear negotiator for Iran. Was that something in the back of the minds of the French?
Bryen: It is in the back of everyone's mind. Rouhani was the negotiator who wrote later in his memoirs that he was there talking while the Iranians were at home building. He is someone who understands very well that talk is valuable to the West and can serve as a front for the Iranians to continue doing what they want to do. The West is aware of that. The Israelis are very aware of that. I think there is simply as Jonathan suggested a little bit of “group think” going on here. People who believe that maybe you can get past it, get over it, have a different outcome the second time.
Bates: Shoshana, Iran is pretty adamant that they believe they have the right to enrich uranium and it looked like most of the P5-plus-1 nations were going to allow that. Is there any way though to allow enrichment of uranium without them ultimately getting closer and obtaining eventually a nuclear weapon?
Bryen: There is no internationally accepted “right to enrich uranium.” Despite what Zarif is saying after the signing of the deal – that the P5+1 has accepted Iran’s assertion of a “right,” it no more exists than the “right of return” exists. Yet that Palestinians claim the latter and the Iranians claim the former. Countries do have a right to civilian nuclear power, but there are many ways to get it. The enrichment cycle is not necessary for a country to have civilian nuclear power. But you’re asking the question, “Can you keep the level of Iranian enrichment low enough so that they cannot do a dash to a bomb when they're ready?” Possibly, under certain circumstances, it is theoretically manageable, but it's highly unlikely because you get involved in a situation where you need inspections and you have to trust people not to be hiding their facilities and not to be doing things behind the curtain. The Iranians do everything behind the curtain. So if you're asking a technical question, “Can you keep enrichment low and therefore reduce the likelihood of a rush to a bomb?” the answer is yes. However, if you are asking the political question, “How do you ensure that the Iranians don't cheat when Iranian history is that they DO cheat?” then the answer is no, you can't do that with any degree of surity.
Gordon: Jon, your colleague Mark Dubowitz along with Senator Mark Kirk were slammed this past weekend by the New York Times for their position regarding stronger sanctions. What is going on in our nation’s capitol?
Schanzer: What Mark did is this: Last weekend, as this deal was being put together, he came out and put together a back-of-the-envelope assessment of exactly how much we'd be giving away to Iran in terms of sanctions relief. Everybody just kept talking about how it was either going to be a “good deal” or it was going to be a “bad deal.” But nobody really knew how to quantify that. And so based on what we at least understood at the time, there was going to be a three billion dollar cash delivery to Iran. There was going to be an easing of gold sanctions. Based on what we saw Iran do with Turkey, that came to about a billion dollars a month, perhaps more. Over the six month time period we are talking about six billion dollans. On top of that we took a look at the petrochemical sector, which was also one of the areas where there were going to be sanctions relief. We estimated that that would be another nine billion dollars of a windfall for Iran. If you add that up and it turns out that it's close to twenty billion dollars. Mark floated that number in a policy brief and that was immediately challenged by the White House and by proponents of Iran. Meanwhile, the Israelis actually said that it was a lowball number. The Israelis estimated that we were talking probably more in line of about forty billion dollars. Just to give you a sense of what our numbers would mean, that would allow for a full twenty-five percent jump in all of Iran’s hard currency reserves. It would provide enough to be able to hoard cash for a time if they decide to make a dash for a bomb so that they would be able to survive sanctions. That is one thing to consider. And then in terms of the available cash -- cash that they can immediately access -- it would be a full jump of about 100 percent by our estimates. The figures would be double that for the Israelis. And so there has been a battle that's been taking place on exactly what those numbers look like. We think we are probably right in the sweet spot. It's actually in between the Administration, which said that it was about six to nine billion dollars, according to some estimates and then the Israelis saying forty billion. Either way, from our prospective it's a bad deal. You are not asking the Iranians to stop the enrichment. You are not asking them to halt on construction at Arak. In the meantime, you are giving them enough cash to run for the bomb. If they want to make that dash they can, and that's why we thought this was probably not a good deal if he goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear. It just did not look like it had the right components.
Bates: Jonathan, that's all looking forward. There was an article in the news within the last couple of weeks that Barack Obama had secretly eased sanctions on Iran months ago. Is there any truth to that?
Schanzer: We've heard these stories. We've heard about meetings that took place between Iranian officials and Valerie Jarrett from the White House. I don't know how much we can trust on these rumors. Some of it appears to have been leaked from the Israelis. You know, I have not seen anything that has persuaded me that this is fact. Again, though, I think what we need to underscore that there is not a lot of trust in the administration. I think it's important to just take a step back and look at the foreign policies of this Administration over the last several months or even several years. This is a government that failed to swoop in during the Green Revolution in 2009 and ensure the toppling of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We did not give the support to the Iranian people back then when we should have. We stood by and allowed Hosni Mubarak to fall when he was an ally of the United States. We did nothing to precipitate the downfall of Bashir al-Assad. In fact, when we began to threaten military intervention we actually failed to come through. In other words, this is an Administration that has not done well on the foreign policy front. I can tell you that when the Israelis look on -- in fact, when the Saudis look on, the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis, all of these long time allies of the United States -- they don't see an Administration that they can trust. I believe that's the source of a lot of these rumors that are starting to come out. There is just not any confidence in this Administration.
Bates: Jonathan, there was an article in the Sunday edition of The Times of Israel that said that the Saudis were going to give permission to the Israelis to use their airspace to attack Iranian nuclear facilities and that they would give them other logistical and tactical support. Any truth to that?
Schanzer: We don't know. We know that the Saudis and the Israelis have been talking for quite some time, and as American leadership in the Middle East has weakened and receded, the Saudis have come to realize that the Israelis are probably their best bet to ensuring that their interests are upheld. We've seen this very strange coalition of countries that have all come together. You're looking at the French now on the side of Israel along with the Saudis, and the Kuwaitis. I would joke Micronesia is a long time ally of Israel or maybe Canada. But, in other words, what you have is a very strange cobbling together of countries that appear to be opposed to the Iranian nuclear threat and are against appeasement. More broadly this gets to an issue that I have written about for Commentary Magazine. It is no longer the Obama doctrine. I'm not sure we ever knew what that was, but the Obama doctrine has become what I would call the “Bizzaro Doctrine,” riffing off of the Seinfeld episode that famously talked about things being topsy turvey. What you have right now is traditional allies of the United States like Israel, Saudi Arabia, maybe to a lesser extent Turkey, and others that are furious with the United States. They feel as if they've been left out to dry. On the other hand you've got countries like Iran and Syria who seemed somewhat comfortable with the way that things are going in American foreign policy. We are at a point now where the rules have ceased to apply as we know them, and I think it puts us on very dangerous ground.
Gordon: Shoshana, retired Israeli Major General Amos Yadlin published an article concerning the ability of Israel to survive if it launched an attack on Iran. What is the significance of General Yadlin's report regarding the ability of Israel to survive retaliation if it launches an attack?
Bryen: Amos Yadlin was the lead pilot on the Osirak Reactor raid in Iraq in 1981 and has been the leading voice to say that Israel has capabilities that it can exercise even in Iran. The question for Israel would be: At what price? What is it you are going to take out in order to protect your people and what consequence will there be for that? Yadlin’s article was really about the manageability of the consequences. He went through various scenarios for possible Iranian retaliation against Israel, including the possibility that Iran wouldn't retaliate at all, depending on what it is that Israel hits, the circumstances of the hit, and where they perceive the United States to be. Whether the U.S. was an active partner or a tacit partner or whether Israel did it in opposition to U.S. - which is a distinct possibility. There are other things that people normally calculate as possible retaliation such as a Hezbollah missile attack against Israel. Hezbollah has thousands of missiles in Lebanon and it is a proxy for the Iranians. Would it or wouldn't it? Yadlin thinks that whatever the Hezbollah could do is manageable. Iranian missiles themselves are not accurate enough to destroy the state of Israel so any scenario that he covers he believes that the consequences are manageable, which is a way of saying don't talk yourself out of this. There are a great many people who would like Israel to talk itself out of protecting itself by attacking Iranian nuclear capabilities. Yadlin would say don't do that.
Bates: Shoshana, the consequences might be manageable. What about the attack itself? These nuclear facilities are very deep underground. They would require bunker busters that to my understanding the Israelis have to get from the United States. Do they have enough bunker busting capability to knock out a sufficient percentage of the nuclear weapons program to make it worth their while or will they just have to go back in a couple of months and do it again?
Bryen: That is the assumption that Israel will take airplanes and use that Saudi corridor to do it. It’s not clear necessarily that that's the way it will be done. First of all, Israel has bunker buster bombs. It has the ones it built itself; it does not – to my knowledge – have U.S. bunker busters. But I would point out that the war against Iran has already started. It started with cyber warfare. It started with the untimely deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists. It started with things blowing up in inconvenient places. There are people who believe there are agents inside Iran now who are able to attack certain facilities. So if you are looking for an Osirak-type strike, if you are looking for the airplane that flies across Saudi Arabia and drops a single bomb or a series of bombs, be aware that it may not happen that way. There are many other options for setting back the program and “setting back” is the right term. Israel (and the U.S. for that matter) won’t “destroy” it. The best you can do is take out crucial pieces and set it back for a period of time.
Bates: But does that then cause the Iranian people to rally behind their government?
Bryen: I think it's difficult to imagine the Iranian people rallying behind a government that is as cruel to them as this government is – more than 200 people have been executed in the first 100 days of the so-called “moderate” Rouhani’s term. There is no freedom of speech, religion or conscience. The Iranian people do not like their government. They are unlikely to rush to its defense. It seems to me that you could imagine the Iranians saying, “O.K., this is our moment to rise up.” Particularly if Israel (or the U.S.) strikes, for example, the headquarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or the Basiji police – hated and despised institutions in Iran. There are people who would see weakness in the Iranian government and want to take their shot. Again, don't talk yourself out of it by assuming the worst possible things will happen as a result. The best possible things may happen. I would point out that the Israelis calculated on Osirak that Iraq’s nuclear program would be set back 18 months to two years. In fact however, the Iraqis never restarted their nuclear program. The French refused to replace the reactor.
Bates: Shoshana, thank you so much.
Gordon: Jon, why did Secretary Kerry warn Israel about a Third Intifada during a joint Palestinian/Israeli TV interview?
Schanzer: Well, Jerry, I don't know if anybody really knows the answer to that. What we hear right now is that the U.S. Government is pressuring the Israelis to make significant concessions. I think those are concessions that the government of Israel doesn't want to make. The Palestinians are clamoring for them and it appears that the two sides had reached some sort of a deadlock and a bit of frustration. It appeared that the Secretary of State came out and threatened the Israelis that if they did not yield to some of these concessions there would potentially be a Third Intifada on their hands. This I found to be absolutely unacceptable for a Secretary of State to basically give his permission to the Palestinians to launch an Intifada if and when these talks break down. Very few people have confidence in these talks in the first place. Many people expect them to break down. I didn't think that the talks would go this far and I'm encouraged to see them go as far as they go. But the idea that an Intifada, a violent uprising, would be warranted if the Israelis do not yield on things that they believe are in their national interests, I found to be deeply disturbing.
Bryen: This is not the first time that Secretary Kerry has made that sort of comment. When he was with Shimon Peres last summer he said, "People in Israel aren't waking up every day and wondering if tomorrow there will be peace because there is a sense of security and a sense of accomplishment and a sense of prosperity in Israel." To me, that sounds like the Secretary believes that Israel would be more inclined to make concessions, more inclined to “make peace” so to speak if it was poor and if it was threatened. Because it is not poor or threatened, he suggests, it doesn't feel the need to do these things. I think what he was really doing was warning them. “I can make you poor and I can make you threatened.” He didn't only suggest a Third Intifada. He also suggested isolation from Europe, Israel's largest trading partner. I think it was a threat at a much more fundamental level.
Bates: Shoshana, I know what is meant by the Third Intifada but I think that leaves people with an improper perception of what's really going on because there are uprisings every day. There have been recent reports of several attacks by Palestinians on Israeli civilians including the shooting of a young girl and IDF soldiers. There was a fatal stabbing of an IDF soldier on a bus that was apparently orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority. A Third Intifada or just day to day, every day activities from these people? Israel is constantly under attack is it not?
Bryen: Yes. Israel is constantly under attack. However, the kind of large scale bus bombings and demonstrations that resulted in massively lethal violence have not been seen in Israel since the Israelis put down the Second Intifada in 2004 and 2005; since they built the Security Fence. It's much harder for the Palestinians on a day-to-day basis to organize large demonstrations or large-scale violence. However, you do have small scale violence committed every day. I don't like the phrase “small scale,” because it's not small scale to the victims and their families. However, the kinds of large-scale violence that you saw in 2002 and 2003 and the beginning of 2004 are very difficult to put together and that is a big plus for the Israelis. They have solved a lot of the problems having to do with keeping violent people out of Israel and keeping the means for violence, the bomb-making equipment and those sorts of things, out of Israel proper.
Gordon: Jon, Suha Arafat, the widow of the late Yasser Arafat is in the news with a report about traces of polonium of all things found on his affects. What is the story with that?
Schanzer: Well, they made it seem like it was a big deal that Al Jazeera broke some sort of major story. But the fact is that we had already gotten a preview of this story. Last year there was a report by Clayton Swisher who is an American citizen. He works for Al Jazeera and he had come up with this story, that there was a possible polonium poisoning. This is, of course, the highly toxic derivative of uranium. I believe just a small tiny piece that is ingested could result in death. And so we heard about it last year. The fingers started to point. Of course the Palestinians blamed the Israelis. Other Palestinians blamed their leadership, the people who had been holed up with Yasser Arafat at his Muqata Presidential Compound before he died back in 2004. We began to hear about the potential for some palace intrigue. at which point it was Suha Arafat, the widow of Yasser Arafat, who came out and called for a full investigation and to have samples taken from the remains of Yasser Arafat. They did that. There were some Swiss Scientists, Russian Scientists, I think French Scientists and they exhumed Arafat, they took samples and then for months we didn't hear a thing. Now they've come out and said that they do believe that again, there are traces of polonium. However, because of the chain of custody of Yasser Arafat's body after his death in Paris when he died in that hospital, nobody knows when that polonium might have been introduced. Because of the half-life of polonium, it continues to erode over time and becomes extremely difficult to determine how much was there in the first place or whether that was in fact what killed Arafat. What they've done is they've basically just kicked up a lot of dirt. They have the Palestinians pointing fingers at Israel, potentially trying to spark that Third Intifada. This would, of course, be Al Jazeera trying to stoke this. I have been arguing that there may also be another motive here -- that if someone was to poison Yasser Arafat, they had to have been close to him. They had to have been able to put that polonium in his food or in his drink, which means that they had to have been right at his elbow, right at his side. There are only a select number of people from the inner sanctum of the Palestinian leadership who would have been in a position to do that. So what the Al Jazeera report has done is raise questions about whether there was a traitor in the midst of the Palestinian leadership who would have gone out and assassinated the George Washington of the Palestinians. You could imagine how that is playing out on the Palestinian street. Not only are they potentially angry at Israel and blaming Israel, but I think in the back of everyone's mind they are wondering who did it. Someone who had something to gain from it and why would they have done it? It has really cast a shadow over the Palestinian leadership. And as I have documented on numerous occasions, this is not a leadership that has a lot of credibility already on the Palestinian street. I would say that this polonium episode has actually cast an even darker cloud.
Bates: Jonathan, you mentioned about the chain of custody of the body. Isn't it equally plausible that he died of natural causes and the Palestinians themselves contaminated him with Polonium so that one day in the future they could bring it up and go, oh, he was poisoned? It must have been the Israelis.
Schanzer: Well that's right. Arafat was 75 years old. He had survived a plane crash. He had lived a hard life of being chased and was nearly assassinated several times. And certainly in the last month of his life, when he was holed up in that Muqata Compound, that presidential compound that was without heat, with holes in the wall, and he was apparently eating cans of tuna fish every night. This was not the picture of health. So it's quite natural or plausible that he died of natural causes. By the way, we had also heard rumors over the years that it might have been AIDS or some other kind of illness. At the end of the day, the autopsy was kept secret by the French when he died in Paris and so there's been a lot of intrigue surrounding this, but I think you're right. I think it's quite plausible that he did die of natural causes. And the way that the scientists put forth their findings, they said we cannot say for certain whether polonium was involved. It could have been planted on his clothes. It could have been doctored in any way in an attempt to create the kind of intrigue that we are seeing right now.
Bates: Jonathan is the author of the new book that just recently came out, State of Failure, Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State. Briefly, what can you tell us about it?
Schanzer: The book just came out on October 29th, so it's new. But the inquiry itself is basically about the way that the Palestinians have governed themselves. It has always described by the Palestinians that Israeli policies have inhibited their ability to create a state. What I have done with this book is to take a look at what the policies have been in the United States, which, in my view, have become increasingly friendly to Palestinian statehood. I think we're probably, for better or for worse, on the verge of the fruition of a Palestinian state. But then the question I think immediately after that becomes, have they earned it? Are they prepared for it? Will the state be one that succeeds or will it be one that fails? For that I look at the beginning of the Palestinian nationalist movement, the PLO, which became the Palestinian Authority and how it evolved over these past twenty years. What I have seen is a systematic and constant abuse of power, nepotism, corruption, waste, and misspending. The Palestinian Authority, whether it was under Yasser Arafat or whether it was under Mahmoud Abbas, has a horrible track record of governance. What I found is that all along the way, those who were making peace -- whether it was Dennis Roth or Aaron David Miller or Elliott Abrams or even Palestinian negotiators -- they continued to focus on what they would call the transaction of making the deal rather than the transformation of a Palestinian state. This is important, at least in my view, because I think the Israelis did it the other way and they probably did it the right way. In other words, Ben-Gurion made sure that the pre-State institutions of Israel, the Yeshuv, as it was called, were fully functional, that they were transparent, that they were devoid of that kind of corruption. So when the Israelis were prepared to flip the switch, they could do so in a way that was successful. And so this was the lesson that I think the Palestinians did not learn. Now, here we are again with the Kerry initiative rounding third. Perhaps if that fails then the Palestinians will certainly try their hand again to declare a state unilaterally. These are all things of concern to me in light of this track record, and in light of our inability here in Washington to help guide the Palestinians to better govern themselves.
Bates: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced the pullback of an authorized construction site in one of the disputed territories. Does that reflect an internal dispute within the Israeli cabinet or are they speaking with one voice?
Schanzer: No, I think there is a dispute. I think there are those who don't believe that a deal is coming and that they shouldn't be dictated to by the Palestinians or by the United States, for that matter. Netanyahu, himself, has decided that we can't continue to anger the United States. The United States is key to the survival of the State of Israel, and so we have seen some significant differences of opinion within the Israeli government. I think certainly among the Israeli population, as well. One of the real problems here is that I think that our policy in the United States has been to couple the problem of Iran with this question of a two state solution. Netanyahu, in large part, feels constrained in terms of what he can do on the peace front because of what he still would like to request of the United States, namely assistance in the event that an intervention is necessary.
Gordon: Shoshana, the Russians have appeared in Egypt bearing gifts, offers of weapons that the U.S. perhaps could have supplied if they wanted to. At the same time there is a trial going on of former President Morsi. Is there a position that the U.S. has about his prosecution and if there is are there two positions perhaps?
Bryen: You nailed it, Jerry. There are two positions. National Security Adviser Susan Rice is very insistent that the United States' position acknowledge the Morsi election, the coup and the trial. And to stress the need for the Egyptians to have an open justice system, possibly acknowledge that the military’s handling of the Morsi problem didn’t go very well. Then there is the Kerry position. The Kerry position is to try to maximize U.S. influence to the extent that we can with the interim Government on the grounds that it is now the government. When Kerry went to Cairo a couple of weeks ago, Susan Rice was really demanding that he raise the name of Mohammed Morsi in public and raise it in private; Kerry did not do that. In fact he did the opposite. In public he said Egypt was on the path to democracy and apparently in his private meetings he said the same thing. Kerry is trying very hard to retain some U.S. influence in Egypt and he's finding it difficult. The Russians a have discovered a crevice through which they can try to slip back into Egypt and restore their influence, which has been gone for more than forty years. The Russians are now offering to sell helicopters and air defense systems to Egypt. It will be a first since the Yom Kippur War and the Egyptians have said yes. Now whether they actually do the deal, this is something else. For the moment, however, you have the Russians trying to capitalize on the lack of U.S. influence in Cairo.
Schanzer: I would just add this: that when you talk to Egyptians right now, I think they were in shock, first of all, that the U.S. cut off the aid. It wasn’t done in a way that was timed with whatever happened with the coup or “coup-volution’ back in July. I think there a good amount of shock that it happened. When you talk to Egyptians now, based on the conversation that I just had last night with someone who has been spending some time on the ground there, they’re making this out to be a possible win. They’re glad that Morsi is gone and to a certain extent they may even be glad that America is gone -- not completely gone -- but that the all-encompassing power that America exercised is diminished. And so the way they look at this is that they've never really had a completely free system that didn't have influence from the outside. They see this now as an opportunity to work with multiple members of the international community who would be willing to sell them arms and provide aid. The way that I push back on this is to say: we need to be realistic. Now there are perhaps multiple actors involved in arm sales with Egypt. Instead of having a lot of influence from the United States, what they now have is a lot of influence from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates. Those three countries have provided fourteen billion dollars in this year alone to help prop up the regime in Egypt. If they don't think that they are going to be beholden to those regional powers, they have another thing coming.
Gordon: Shoshana, Syria has now turned into a virtual bloodbath between Al Qaeda affiliates and the Assad regime with its allies, the Qods force and Hezbollah. There is a bright spot in the Northeast in what is the Kurdish homeland. What has gone on there and what is the contrast between other areas of combat in Syria?
Bryen: It's an interesting window into the rest of the Syrian war. The Kurds themselves say that their successes on the battlefield in Northeastern Syria are because they are an indigenous force fighting in their own villages for their own security. This is essential for a guerilla group – the population, as Mao said, is the sea in which the guerillas swim. So in Kurdistan, in Northeastern Syria in the Kurdish region, they are fighting for their own territory and to protect their own people. The Kurds will tell you this is in opposition to the foreign fighters who have entered Syria who are not really fighting to liberate Syria. They are not fighting to govern Syria; they are not Syrian. Those are people who are looking to liberate territory to impose their own particular brand of Islam on the local people and the people don't necessarily like it. The Kurds certainly don't like it. While you have the Kurds doing their thing and being very successful, for the moment at least, you also have infighting now among various rebel groups. Specifically, Free Syrian Army members do not want the Al Qaeda or other Islamist militias to have the upper hand. But the fighting among those groups allows Assad to make progress in his war to get rid of all of them. So the Kurds are a window into the rest of the picture of Syria. The more territory they hold for themselves it seems to me the more fighting there will be between other rebel groups in other parts of Syria and this provides a pathway for Assad.
Bates: Shoshana, is the United States doing anything with Syria right now?
Bryen: No. Assad is our partner in getting rid of chemical weapons. That's it.
Bates: O.K. Very good. Well we are out of time not out of questions though we will do this again. These are always very interesting and informative discussions these Middle East round table discussions that we have. With Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and it's blog "the Iconoclast," with Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Shoshana Bryen, Director of the Jewish Policy Center. This is Mike Bates for 1330 WEBY.
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