Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Time Magazine Cites Yours Truly on China Iran Analysis...

...I think

In a May 26 article What Did China Get for Backing Iran Sanctions?, Time Magazine's Tony Karon, presumably obeying the commandment "thou shalt not name the competing publication or its fruits in thine own journalism", refers to the opinion of "analyst Peter Lee" without referring either to Asia Times or my article there entitled China plays lap-dog in sanctions ploy.

But I do assume he's referring to me because Karon's article provides a concise summary of my argument that China joined the Iran sanctions regime at the opportune moment so that the Obama administration might find it necessary to dilute national as well as UN sanctions in order to sustain a global united front on Iran measures.

Karon goes a step further to state:

Chinese analysts also claim that, in the course of a protracted series of negotiations with Washington, their government also won undertakings from Washington to exempt Chinese companies from any U.S. unilateral sanctions that punish third-country business partners with the Islamic Republic.

Maybe he got that from somewhere else. I didn't go that far.

In the Asia Times piece I opined that the details of the US-China UN resolution negotiations as leaked were intended to communicate China's belief that a shared understanding was reached concerning the overall scope of sanctions, including U.S. national measures.

However I didn't say that this point had been explicitly made by somebody on the Chinese side.

What I said was:

The source lays out the principles underlying China's agreement to the sanctions process, with the apparent intention that these painstakingly-negotiated conditions should be binding on the US as well as China.

These should be understood as a signal that China is asserting that the US must observe these principles not only for the drafting of the UN sanctions but in the execution of American national sanctions.

In any case, I still think my argument is sound, and I appreciate the recognition. Thanks!

Monday, May 24, 2010

China Plays a Skillful Hand on Iran Sanctions

China has welcomed the inference that it abhors further sanctions on Iran.

Therefore, China's willingness not only to join the UN sanctions team, but also to acquiesce in the rushed release of the draft sanctions resolution in order to squelch the Iran-Turkey-Brazil nuclear fuel swap agreement--a diplomatic advance that, in the minds of the three parties, at least, provided ample justification for postponing the sanctions discussions at the UN Security Council--is cause for some puzzled head-scratching.

I tackle the problem in an Asia Times article with the rather saucy title, China plays lapdog in sanctions ploy.

Actually the article is a rather sober piece of seeking-truth-from-facts Kremlinology based on a painstaking parsing of several important articles in the semi-official Chinese local and English language press.

I conclude that China decided that the main risk to its orderly dealings with Iran was runaway U.S. national sanctions targeting the Chinese banking system; and the best way to defuse that threat was to support UN sanctions and thereby make it politically costly for the Obama administration to go far beyond the UN sanctions and gore China's economic ox.

China's support for UN sanctions was, therefore, foreordained.

The ITB announcement was awkward for Beijing's public diplomacy, but convenient for its dealings with the United States: threatened with the ITB deal, sanctions resolution negotiations over the last days assumed something of a fire-sale atmosphere, with Russia and China getting the best of it.

I conclude with the observation that China's strategy may well be understood, if not greatly appreciated, by Iran as the best way to muddle through the current mess.

I also conjecture that the Obama administration may even be grateful for China's participation, since the need to moderate US sanctions in order to keep China on board prevents the whole anti-Iran effort from degenerating into a scorched-earth fiasco.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Sinking of the Cheonan and the Mystery of Buoy 3

If the Cheonan sinking turns out to be South Korea's Kennedy assassination, maybe Buoy 3 will be the conspiracy theorists' grassy knoll.

Asia Focus has an article up by a citizen journalist, Tanaka Sakai, entitled, Who Sank the South Korean Warship Cheonan? A New Stage in the US-Korean War and US-China Relations.

Tanaka notes a lot of mysterious salvage activity at Buoy 3, a third location near Baengnyeong Island (the bow and stern of the Cheonan sunk at the Buoy 1 and Buoy 2 locations, 6.8 km apart and 1.8 km and 6.4 km, respectively from Buoy 3).

Warrant Officer Han Joo-ho perished after a dive at Buoy 3. His memorial service was held at Buoy 3, and Tanaka speculates that he died in a mission to rescue the crew of an American submarine after a friendly-fire Mexican standoff.

It is difficult to tell where investigative reporting ends and the desire to avoid empowering the conservative ROK government with a 9/11-type narrative begins.

In any case, there seems to be enough ambiguity to keep the Cheonan pot boiling for a long, long time.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

China Defends Its Approval of Iran UN Sanctions Draft

...And then does some walkback

My last word, at least for the time being, on China and the Iran UN sanctions resolution process, is in an article at Asia Times entitled, China plays lapdog in sanctions ploy.

I link to the article in a blog post that also summarizes its conclusions: China Plays Skillful Hand on Iran Sanctions.

CH 5/24/10

Rolling updates:

I'm dumping updates at the top in roughly chronological order with local timestamps.

19 May 2010 20.00 BST From the Guardian, another sign that the resolution draft was rushed in an atmosphere of incipient panic:

Various annexes of the draft resolution relating to travel bans and asset freezes for individuals, groups and banks have yet to be agreed.

The article, reporting that the NPT conference is nearing deadlock, goes far to confirm my pet theory that Iran sanctions are being pushed in order to obtain Israel's participation in NPT Revcon.

The Asahi Shimbun, May 19 (posted on English language website on 5/20) weighs in with an editorial calling for the Brazil/Turkey deal to be pursued--with demands for more LEU and an enrichment freeze.

Continuing the enrichment program, meanwhile, will inevitably cause the stockpile to grow again. Any guarantee of peaceful use requires that all the uranium be routed outside of Iranian territory, while halting the enrichment work. Terms toward that end must be hammered out through diplomatic channels.

Both Brazil and Turkey are currently nonpermanent members of the Security Council. We hope that permanent council members and Germany, which have principally handled the negotiations with Iran to date, will bolster their cooperation with Brazil and Turkey in a serious push to win over Tehran.

Japan is increasingly used by the U.S. for wet work it doesn't want to be associated with officially. Also, Amano, a Japanese bureaucrat, is head of the IAEA. Maybe we're looking at a contingency plan: if the ITB swap deal gains too much traction (as appears to be happening; President Obama made a call to Erdogan to express what I think was rather insincere appreciation for the Turkey/Brazil initiative), unimpeachable third parties try to sink it by demanding new and difficult-to-fulfill concessions from Iran.

May 19,2010 New York Times reports that Russia is making positive noises about the ITB swap deal and giving Secretary Clinton a fine headache in the bargain. Details on the negotiations reveal that the final agreement on the draft was only reached in the last few days as the swap deal was imminent. The US certainly wasn't in its strongest negotiating position as the U.S. was desperate for a draft, any draft, so it could regain the initiative on sanctions.

If politics is like making sausage, this is the part when the dead rats are shoveled into the meatgrinder.

An official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity under ministry rules, said Mr. Lavrov placed a call to Mrs. Clinton after learning of her announcement on Tuesday night. The official said Russia views Tehran’s proposal to enrich uranium in Turkey as very similar to a deal brokered in October by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but acknowledged that Washington is skeptical.

“Our position is, give them another chance,” the Russian official said. “We should take into account this demonstration of readiness by Iran.”

The agreement came months later than the administration had hoped, and after a hectic week of diplomacy, capped by a last-minute phone call by Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Lavrov, to confirm whether Moscow was on board, a senior American official said.

The United States believed that it was close to a deal last week, said the official, who did not want to be identified by name while discussing internal negotiations. But it could not resolve the final points with Russia over conventional, nonnuclear arms sales to Iran, and with China over its energy investments there.

12:16 19/05/2010 Back in Brazil, President Lula declines to comment on the apparent switch of Russia and China to the sanctions track after they had expressed support for the swap agreement. Per Agencia Brasil via Babelfish:

When answering the journalists on the change of position of Russia and China on the sanctions - the two countries had given support to the agreement and later they had been of the North American side - Lula limited himself to say it that “they are great friends (são grandes amigos)”.

As a sign of its dissatisfaction with the continued sanctions process despite the announcement of the fuel swap agreement, Brazil's ambassador did not attend the UNSC's closed-door discussions on the resolution draft on Tuesday.

20:01 18.05.10 As for China's line of "we kept Iran informed", a passage from Reuters via Haaretz implies this is not the case:

On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki expressed surprise when asked about the draft sanctions resolution.

When asked by a Reuters reporter what Iran's reaction would be to the resolution, Mottaki said in English: "Are you sure?"

After an assurance that major powers had agreed the draft, Mottaki said: "Don't take it serious". He then walked away.

Mottaki was attending a meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe of foreign ministers from the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

02:20 19/05/2010 The English-language text from Novosti makes it clear that Lavrov's qualms referenced below relate to part but not all of the anticipated national sanctions--possibly relating to America's love for the Proliferation Security Initiative which, if ever completely implemented would permit foreign flag vessels to stopped and searched on the high seas:

...unilateral sanctions would include measures "of an extraterritorial nature, beyond the agreed decisions of the international community and contradicting the principle of the rule of the international law, enshrined in the UN Charter."

No excuse for China to disregard the national sanctions threat here.

Per a lengthy article in Xinhua, as of 2010年05月19日 17:36:51 the theme is 以压促和: Using pressure to promote peace i.e. The pressure of the sanctions process is presented as a legitimate means to promote efforts by Iran to restore international trust.

The piece takes another step toward incorporating the ITB deal into the UN sanctions process (and getting China out from behind the eightball) by reporting that Brazil and Turkey are opposed to a sanctions process that ignores their agreement with Iran and their no votes would be an embarrassment to the United States. Article quotes German wonk as saying the choice is up to Iran. If it uses the excuse of the circulation of the sanctions draft to drop the swap, it will have lost an opportunity (thereby implying that executing the agreement will affect the sanctions process). America will not be pleased, but maybe China will find some wiggle room by saying the swap has to be taken into account at least tactically in order to respect the feelings (and win the votes) of Brazil and Turkey.

2010年05月19日 21:29:44 Xinhua reports on a conversation between Lavrov and Clinton, with the Russians emphasizing that unilateral sanctions beyond UN sanctions would exceed the framework of the resolution agreed upon unanimously by international society and would go against the principle in the UN Constitution concerning the primacy of international law".


Standing up for the UN and international law is a political non-starter in the USA, so this argument would presumably do little more than provide political cover to Russia and China.

According to IRNA: Tehran, May 19 Iran chides the P5+1 for the sanctions draft, implicitly acknowledging China's involvement but not calling it out by name

Global Times interviews a previous Chinese ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming, who says "Iran certainly will be unhappy" but claims that since all the other members of the P5+1 were calling for sanctions, China had to respond accordingly. He says that Iran should appreciate China's efforts from the "complexity" of the draft.

Bottom line: China protects its key interests and gives Iran the assurance that it absolutely will not agree to the use of force to resolve the Iran issue. Message: Iran will certainly indicate displeasure but the overall Iran/China relationship will not be affected.

Awkward question of squelching the ITB agreement not directly addressed
but indirectly acknowledged by observation that it looks like UNSC non-permanent members Turkey and Brazil won't agree to sanctions.

Judging from the comments, Chinese netizens--at least the subset that gets to comment on articles in Global Times--are, for the most part, not happy.

It's no use. There are too many people in the party with a tilt toward the United States.

So you want to lead the life of a whore and have a ceremonial arch erected to commemorate your chastity! Don't think the Chinese people don't see and understand what's going on!

Any country that befriends China will end up the loser.

We've lost a friend and gained an enemy.

When you drop stones on somebody who's fallen in a well, you're worse than a pig or a dog.

Once Iran is sanctioned, America will start to classify China as a currency-manipulating country. When the bird is shot, the fine bow is put away; when the rabbit is caught, the hunting dog goes into the cooking pot. Wake up, comrades!


In a slightly more representative sample, Global Times' on-line poll asked "Do you think Iran will retaliate for China's support of sanctions", 4000 respondents--72%--said yes.

In the same issue, one Tang Zhichao, Deputy Director of the Asia and Africa Institute of the Academy of Contemporary International Relations 中国现代国际关系研究院亚非所副所长 hopefully opines that President Obama isn't really serious about sanctions.

Original post:

Global Times Chinese Edition ran a lengthy Xinhua article defending China's decision to approve the draft resolution on Iran sanctions "as revealed by a knowledgeable party at the Chinese Embassy to the UN".

From the title onward, there is no ambiguity about China's position: "China agrees to draft resolution to sanction Iran".

While leading with the defensive statement, "Although the draft was circulated, the door to diplomatic efforts is still open", the Xinhua article offers no pushback to the U.S. position on sanctions or the timing of the resolution; it simply endorses the draft, stating "We have no objection (literally, "we hold no divergent opinion") to this UNSC draft resolution"我们对这安理会散发决议草案不持异议。, and confirming that it will be voted on within three weeks,

The document also hopefully referenced a "strategic partnership" between Russia and China and asserted that China had kept in touch in a timely manner with all parties and enjoyed universal approbation.

The article's position is questionable in light of Turkey's assertion that sanctions were no longer necessary because of the agreement that Lula and Erdogan had visited Tehran to conclude.

Brazil also not pleased, as the Washington Post tells us:

But Brazilian and Turkish officials were outraged at Clinton's announcement just one day after they had secured a pledge from Iran to ship some of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the Brazilian ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the U.S. move, saying that Brazil "will not engage on any draft resolution" and that there "is still room for negotiations."

It appears that China got in deep in negotiations with the United States, had already abandoned its position opposing sanctions--in fact had already agreed to the draft--and was caught flatfooted by the Iran/Turkey/Brazil agreement and by Washington's dash to pre-empt the news of the deal with the accelerated sanctions push.

The United States rushed out an announcement of the resolution agreement faster than Russia (and one would imagine Beijing) wanted it, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The agreement on a draft U.N. resolution was reached within the last several days. Senior administration officials said its unveiling was timed as a direct response to the Turkish-Brazilian pact, in which Tehran renewed an offer to swap much of its nuclear fuel outside its borders for enrichment.


Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin told reporters that Russia would have preferred to wait a day or two after the Brazil-Iranian deal, but the U.S. wanted to put it on the table right away.

Western officials feared that the deal reached in Tehran could throw up new hurdles to the already-delayed sanctions regime.

In testimony before Congress, Secretary Clinton provided the money quote, explicitly linking the draft resolution (and China) to the repudiation of Iran's diplomatic initiatives:

"This announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide."

I have a feeling that the United States has no regrets about humiliating China with the rushed announcement, perhaps as revenge for China's embarrassing the U.S. at the Copenhagen climate conference or as a conscious effort to undercut China's pretensions to leadership in the developing world and as Iran's protector.

If so, Secretary Clinton's action will be long remembered in Beijing.

But, if the U.S. hurry to circulate the draft is understandable, China's apparent haste in endorsing the action so publicly and categorically is rather inexplicable.

It is surprising that China, which cares so much for its prestige and public image--its bella figura, as the Italians call it--allow itself to appear to such a disadvantage.

Tehran's English-language media reported on the circulation of the sanctions draft--but not China's role.

Certainly, Tehran will be interested to hear why China could not--or did not--keep the draft from circulating for a few days and give the Iran/Turkey/Brazil deal a chance to accummulate some public-relations momentum.

Beyond the issue of the TRR fuel deal, virtually every article in the US media emphasizes that watered-down UNSC sanctions are needed simply to enable harsher national and EU sanctions.

One wonders if Tehran will appreciate China's celebration of its negotiating heroics at the UNSC--which were probably more to China's benefit than Iran's--or regard Beijing's sign-off on the sanctions draft resolution as a prelude to Western sanctions and a betrayal.

Perhaps developments in the next few days will yield some answers.

In any case, it will take some effort and explaining if China is to regain the catbird seat on Iran--a position that I thought it was comfortably occupying as recently as last week.

If only for the sake of appearances, some post-facto Chinese hedging is apparently called for.

Two hours after the first Xinhua article appeared, judging by the timestamp, Li Baozhong, China's ambassador to the UN, attempted to rescue the situation by offering fulsome praise for the Turkish/Brazilian initiative and expressing deep concern for the wellbeing of the Iranian people:

We attach great importance to, and welcome the agreement signed by Brazil and Turkey with Iran on the supply of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. This is a positive step taken in the proper direction. We hope the various parties will grasp this opportunity, find a suitable method of resolution, and prevent the intensification of contradictions...On the question of Iran sanctions, we talk on the basis of principles: sanctions cannot affect energy supply, cannot affect routine trade and economic relations, and cannot affect the normal lives of the Iranian people..."



By midday Beijing time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Chinese-language website was carrying a statement that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had spoken with the foreign ministers of Brazil and Turkey to express China's appreciation for their mediation--while reaffirming China's continued support for the "two track" process.

People's Daily ran a report in English on Yang's calls.

Interestingly, as of midday May 19 in Beijing, the MOFA website carried no news or statement about the circulation of the draft or the Chinese role. As far as I could tell, People's Daily English and Chinese editions didn't either.

By the time the Xinhua article made it into English in truncated form, it had a new title: Draft sanctions resolution on Iran does not mean end of diplomatic efforts: diplomatic source and did not explicitly mention China's approval of the contents of the draft resolution.

Returning to the original Xinhua article, one question is why the Chinese official media charged into print and went a long way toward publicly locking in China's support for UN sanctions at a time when it might have been more politic to keep silent and see how the chips fell.

Perhaps it contains in large part the standard diplomatic jibber-jabber prepared some time ago to set out China's position on sanctions, but looks rather unpersuasive when viewed in the context of quashing the Iran/Brazil/Turkey initiative.

The article took considerable pains to assert it got a good deal "over 20 rounds of two-party discussions" between the US and Chinese representatives, and also make public the "red lines' that will keep sanctions within limits.

But the upside of the situation for China is difficult to see.

The article identified four major points and provided explanations/justifications for each.

Point 1:

China acts on principle. It is opposed to nuclear proliferation and the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran.

"At the same time" China affirmed the dual track strategy and "the discussion of the draft of the six nations concerning sanctions should not affect the peace and stability or influence the recovery of the international economy.


Point 2:

China's important interests are maintained. China's important interests the matters of Iran's energy, trade, and financial sectors. China believes that normal economics and trade should not be punished because of the Iran question nor should those countries that maintain normal, legal economic relations with Iran be punished...Through negotiations, this point was satisfied, doing a relatively good job of upholding China's...important interests.


Point 3:

Maintaining China's image as a responsible great power...China has repeatedly emphasized although the six nations are discussing sanctions in New York, diplomatic efforts should becompletely unaffected. The door to diplomatic efforts has not been closed...China's consistently positive and constructive attitude has gained the favorable comment of the concerned nations.


Point 4:

China has energetically tended to good relations with the various parties...During the course of discussions we have maintained good communications with the various parties, including Iran. We have reported relevant circumstances to the concerned party Iran in a timely manner. We have encouraged and supported Iran's expansion of cooperation with international society. The most recent conclusion of an agreement of Brazil and Turkey with Iran for the swap of nuclear fuel was also the result of China supporting diplomatic efforts and creating the space and time for diplomatic efforts. This also includes obtaining precious time for the Brazilian and Turkish leaders to go to iran to engage in diplomatic efforts and achieve a positive result. Therefore, the representatives of both Brazil and Turkey have in various venues and through different channels expressed thanks to China. At the same time, Iran has also indicated that this is also the result of the work done by China's leadership on the Iran side, actively urging and promoting discussions.


Furthermore, it was stressed that China would ensure that non-permanent members of the UNSC would have enough time to study the draft resolution after it was circulated; a vote in about three weeks.

"Thanks to the joint efforts of China and Russia", the draft also includes references to "do not approve of use of force or threat of force", maintain international economic rights and responsibilities" and reflects the "dual track" approach of having sanctions content while also supporting and encouraging diplomatic efforts".



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

China Weighs in on the Iran/Turkey/Brazil Agreement


If the U.S. can't sabotage the ITB agreement, it will do its best to ignore it.

According to the Guardian.

A new set of United Nations sanctions are almost certain to be imposed on Iran next month, after Russia and China today agreed to support punitive action against Tehran's military and financial institutions, according to a security council source.

The Russian and Chinese move came as a surprise to the US and Britain, who had been braced for several more weeks of negotiation. Moscow and Beijing have over the last few months been either lukewarm or downright opposed to the idea of sanctions. The Obama administration has been working for months try to bring China and Russia round.

A draft security council resolution was agreed early today by the five permanent members of the security council – the US, Britain, China, Russia and France. The resolution is to be sent to the other 10 members of the council later today.


I would speculate that the United States was very anxious to get this draft circulated in order to counteract the news of the ITB agreement. So maybe some hurried caving in to Chinese reservations provoked the "surprise".

China, for its part, has frequently expressed its support for the "two-track" process, so I suppose it would be awkward for Beijing to hold up the drafting process if the draft reflected most of its stated concerns.

However, China knows perfectly well that watering down the UN sanctions doesn't solve the problem.

The United States has gone out of its way to telegraph its position that harsher national and EU sanctions are a certainty once an enabling UN resolution is out of the way, as the Washington Post tells us:

Diplomats said that some of the proposed language in the current resolution was added with the full knowledge that it would be removed by the Russians and Chinese -- but then could be revived in the European resolution. The individual country sanctions would come after the European Union has acted and would be led by the United States, Britain, France, Germany and other like-minded nations, diplomats said.

So, the United States strategy could be rephrased as "meaningless sanctions through the UN to enable meaningful national sanctions (without any meaningful Chinese input) down the road."

By spurning the ITB deal, the United States has committed itself to the sanctions route.

Given America's enthusiasm for playing geopolitical chicken with China on this issue, I think Beijing will probably blink, keep its head down, and perhaps even vote for UN sanctions despite the consequences.

Beijing might be thinking that national sanctions would simply drive Iran further into the PRC camp. However, given the Pandora's box element of runaway national sanctions, I doubt China's leaders welcome the unpredictable risk and confrontation they involve (a caution that it might be wise for the Obama administration to emulate).

It is more likely that China will encourage diplomacy over the next few weeks, console Turkey and Brazil (who are undoubtedly insulted at the United States' dismissive treatment of their initiative), and try to sort out the geopolitical wreckage to its advantage if and when sanctions do come down.

Original post below:

They like it.

In addition to having the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman speak positively of the agreement at the regular press conference, the MOFA drew special attention to it by extracting remarks Foreign Minister Yang Jiezhi made at to Chinese and Tunisian reporters (the president of Tunisia is visiting Beijing) and posting it as a separate statement on its Chinese language page.

Yang stated China had noted reports concerning the agreement negotiated between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil and "welcomed and appreciated" the diplomatic efforts of the involved parties.

In Chinese, the phrase is, "欢迎和赞赏".

欢迎--the well-known "huanying" or "welcome"--is pretty much meaningless diplomatic puffery.

赞赏 on the other hand, is quite a positive term. It means "appreciate and admire" and is just one degree short of "endorse".

Since China wasn't a party to the agreement, they wouldn't have been likely to use the term "endorse" in any case.

There was no mention of the process-related reservations and suspicions that all the other permanent Security Council members including Russia chose to voice.

The dominant theme for Yang's statement was the success of diplomacy, which, in this context, is an implied criticism of excessive reliance on sanctions.

He concluded his statement with the remark


"The Chinese side is willing to work together with the concerned parties to play a constructive role in the diplomatic resolution of the Iran issue."

All in all, a strong Chinese statement of support and a sign that China is calling for more attention to the diplomacy side of dual track as the US labors to shift the focus back to the sanctions track.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lost inTranslation

The United States Responds to the Turkey/Brazil/Iran Deal with Dismay, Denial, Deafness, Willful Misunderstanding, and the Occasional Malapropism

The deal for to provide fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, brokered by Turkey and Brazil, has been signed.

The deal threatens to derail the push for Iran sanctions, which is apparently the be-all and end-all of America's strategy.

No question what Turkey--a non-permanent member of the Security Council this year--thinks:

"This agreement should be regarded positively and there is no need for sanctions now that we [Turkey and Brazil] have made guarantees and the low-enriched uranium will remain in Turkey," [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu] said.

The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler tells us that the deal will provide excuses for more Chinese mushiness on sanctions:

More important, the deal gives China -- a veto-holding member of the Security Council long reluctant to support new sanctions -- an excuse to delay or water down any new resolution.

Now the United States has to find a way to kill the deal.

More from Glenn Kessler:

The best hope for U.S. officials is Iranian intransigence. The Iranians could haggle over the details and implementation of the agreement until it collapses, much in the way it first agreed to a swap deal with the United States and its allies before backing away.

Iran now must present a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna explaining the details of the transaction, which U.S. officials privately hope will begin the process of unraveling it.

Stay classy, fellas.

The first line of opposition has already been drawn: It's a trap! The crafty Iranians have continued to enrich uranium since the deal was originally floated. So sending 1200 kg of LEU overseas leaves too much inside Iran and does not eliminate the dreaded bomb breakout scenario.

Second line of opposition is that Iran is continuing to enrich LEU to 20%.

As CNN spun the agreement on its its homepage: Iran to resume uranium enrichment, linking through to a story entitled Iran to resume uranium enrichment despite Turkey deal.

This does not appear to be quality reporting.

The original version of the article, which grew wings and circulated all the way to China (it was apparently also the basis for a report in the Chinese language media), implied that Iran had bookended announcement of the Turkey deal with an intentionally defiant statement that it would be enriching more LEU.

However, when CNN updated the story (including a passel of disparaging comments on the deal from the UK, France, and Israel) it transpired that what the Iran foreign ministry spokesman had really said was this:

"We are not planning on stopping our legal right to enrich uranium," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told CNN by telephone.

That's different. Iran's centrifuges might well be spinning, but sticking a thumb in the West's eye doesn't seem to have been Mehmanparast's intention.

As stated in the text of the agreement, Iran wanted to make clear that, by acceding to the TRR swap, it was not surrendering its right to enrich uranium to under 20%--the basic premise of its engagement with the IAEA and NPT regime, and a right that even the United States is, in principle, willing to acknowledge.

So, even as Iran attempts to present its most accommodating demeanour, it looks like some problematic reporting and, to be fair, a less-than-stellar use of the English language by Mehmanparast, combine to make the regime look intransigent and, indeed, willfully provocative.

Funny 'bout that.

China, which I suspect is rather gleeful about the deal, hasn't weighed in with any official comment or endorsement as of this writing.

A glitch in Xinhua's editing gives an idea of China's current effort to stay above the fray and keep up with the latest spin:

TEHRAN, May 17 (Xinhua) -- An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday his country will continue enriching uranium to 20 percent itself, despite a swap deal signed just hours ago in which Iran has agreed to ship some most of its low enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 20 percent uranium needed for its Tehran reactor. [emph. added]

To console Xinhua with the knowledge that the decline of copyediting and authorial standards is not just a Chinese problem, Glenn Kessler wrote:

Brazil and Turkey, which were represented by their presidents in the talks, invested significant diplomatic cache in the negotiations.


One invests diplomatic capital to obtain an agreement. One garners diplomatic cachet from concluding an agreement. Cache, a collection of resources securely stored against a rainy day but by definition not yielding an investment return, resides, for the purposes of this sentence, in that dread limbo where Francophone ignorance, mispronunciation, and misapprehension reign and Spellcheck cannot go.

This deal represents bad news for the Obama administration.

Insisting on sanctions as a precondition for further Iran-related movement provided welcome domestic political cover for the administration.

If the UNSC sanctions drive sputters, then the U.S. either have to abandon the signature multi-lateralism of the Obama administration to pursue destabilizing and probably futile unilateral sanctions, or risk the wrath of the pro-Israel/security hardline/knee-jerk Republican bloc with inconclusive, moderate noodling on the issue.

And I don't even need to trot out my personal hobby horse--the theory that Iran sanctions was a precondition for Israel's entry into the non-proliferation regime and the success of the Obama administration's NPT Revcon-centric global security strategy--to observe that moderation by the U.S. would embarrass it in front of its European allies.

China Matters' favorite arms control wonk, Jeffrey Lewis, also went on record with his dismay with the announced deal:

The downside of not insisting is that the deal — which does nothing to constrain Iran’s program — creates a false sense that the problem is Iran’s break-out capability. In the Reuters story, Western officials claimed “Iran was trying to give the impression that it was the fuel deal which was at the center of problems with the West, rather than its nuclear ambitions as a whole.” Yeah, no kidding. As regular readers know, I have long argued that the problem is not Iran’s enrichment at Natanz, not even to 20 percent. The problem is Iran’s history of clandestine enrichment. Iran wants to change the narrative to focus on the West’s objections to its arguably legitimate activities. Why we keep helping them do that is beyond me.

My personal feeling is that the precondition to stopping Iran's clandestine enrichment is a) engagement and b) dealing with the Israel problem c) building a genuine security consensus both inside and outside of Iran on the issue.

If the U.S. had treated the TRR swap as a trust-building transaction instead of an opportunity to demand the incapacitation of part of Iran's nuclear program, and if the Israel double standard didn't exist, Turkey probably wouldn't have been so eager to defy the United States and broker the deal.

But whatever.

With this convergence of enlightened expert opinion, political necessity, and geopolitical calculation, the Obama administration might be quite ruthless in trying to derail the deal.

In addition to griping about the additional LEU in Iran, the U.S. could insist on an enrichment freeze. Or France--whose job is to actually fabricate the plates--could state that it couldn't bring itself to cooperate unless all the LEU went to Turkey.

The West can certainly scupper the deal--at the cost of humiliating and angering Brazil and Turkey. But can it garner Chinese support for sanctions--and acquiescence to whatever skullduggery it comes up to rescue them?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Did the Israel/Obama Deal Go Down?

In light of Secretary Clinton's determined effort to forestall a Iran nuclear deal brokered by Turkey (see below), I think it's pretty clear that Iran is desperate for a deal and the United States is equally desperate to block one.

I think the only thing that could have persuaded Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan to turn away from negotiations (negotiations that, in my opinion, would have a very good chance of yielding an agreement) was an assurance by the United States that the NPT Review Conference would see a dramatic announcement by Israel that it's ready to engage with the Obama non-proliferation regime: maybe not joining the NPT outright, but maybe signing the CTBT and/or going along with the fissile material freeze initiative.

This kind of concession, even if symbolic, would probably be enough to spike the guns of Egypt and the Non-Aligned Movement at the NPT Revcon and justify Turkey's move to the sidelines.

Israel's price for this concession would be continuation of the Iran confrontation through sanctions until Iran is denuclearized and "trust" is restored i.e. never.

In the meantime, the stress of stepped up sanctions would keep Iran in a state of internal political disarray that Israel would find quite gratifying.

This would, I believe, represent a 180 from what the Obama administration hoped to accomplish in 2009: a rapprochement with Iran that would compel Israel's entry into the non-proliferation regime.

Instead, the U.S. has retreated from a win-win to a zero-sum arrangement.

Washington doesn't get reduced tensions in the Middle East and a more productive relationship with Iran; it gets a perpetuation of the current debilitating arrangement with Israel enjoying U.S. patronage and Iran back in the doghouse.

Let's see what happens.

The Nepalese Maoists Find Out...

Maybe a Revolution Is a Dinner Party After All

The Nepalese Maoists are inching closer to their goal of winning state power.

The United Communist Party Nepal--Maoist controls something like 65 to 75% of the countryside.

I haven't been able to find a map showing the territory controlled by or under the military shadow of the UCPN-M.

Maybe a map that would be a gigantic red blob except for the ethnicly Indian Terai districts bordering India and the capital region is just too depressing.

It's one thing to establish a Maoist government in remote, impoverished, and underpopulated districts where government control, services, and security are non-existent.

Going into the populous Khatmandu Valley and cracking the urban insurrectionary nut while surrounded by suspicious, relatively prosperous city dwellers and the openly hostile Nepalese Army is another matter entirely.

For the time being, it appears that the Maoists have decided to maneuver themselves into the central government as an intermediate as opposed to final stage in their political struggle.

As a result, they have supplemented their usual street muscle with a round of dinner parties seeking to split their enemies and enlist domestic and international allies.

They are getting some love from the United States, the EU, and China. The Western powers don't particularly like the Maoists, but see little upside in continuing the existence of the current government, an ineffectual rump organization supported largely by India.

India appears to be on the outside looking in, while China has managed to boost its profile inside Nepal by canny political maneuvering with local and foreign actors.

I cover the current situation in an Asia Times article entitled China and the West step into Nepal crisis.

U.S. Shuts Down Turkey's Iran Initiative

The U.S. is apparently dead serious about shutting off Iran's avenues of negotiation.

Case in point: putting the kibosh on Turkey's initiative to midwife the LEU for fuel plates swap for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Courtesy of Hurriyet/AFP, the tick-tock is reproduced below.

I would think it would be difficult for the United States to justify discouraging Erdogan for going to Iran for more jaw-jaw.

What's the worst that could happen? A deal?

I'm interested in what nature of arguments and inducements were deployed to get Turkey's Prime Minister Erodgan to backtrack.

I expect that Secretary Clinton's position was that positive movement on the Turkish initiative would undercut the magnificent NPT Revcon now going on in New York.

The conference is supposed to reach its climax in a couple weeks with a nuclear-lions-lie-down-with-nuclear-lambs dogpile combined with a condemnation of Iran, hopefully with Israel doing more than just peeping at the keyhole.

Maybe Erdogan thought better of going up against President Obama's cherished global security strategy and promised to soft-pedal his initiative.

If this is the case, the U.S. will probably have to redouble its efforts for a successful NPT review.

After all, Turkey, in addition to being the author of the TRR swap idea and a neighbor of Iran, claims leadership of the Turkic Islamic bloc and a share in the business of ordering affairs in the Muslim world.

Also, it's a non-permanent member of the Security Council this year and a negative Turkish vote on sanctions--accompanied by some pointed questions on why Prime Minister Erdogan was urged to abandon a peace-making initiative that showed considerable promise--are embarrassments that the Obama administration might be keen to avoid.

May 13

Turkey is still considering whether its prime minister should go to Iran for joint talks with Brazil's president over Tehran's nuclear program, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Thursday.

Ankara's decision will depend on the outcome of contacts with Iranian and Western officials, including a planned telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Davutoğlu said on the Habertürk television channel.

"The matter is not to just hold a three-way meeting. We want to get results if such a meeting is to be held," he said.

May 14

Tehran is not cooperating with the rest of the world on its nuclear program and is merely seeking to delay international sanctions, the U.S. secretary of state told Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call is widely seen as an effort to fend off a Turkish-Brazilian call for more negotiations on Iran’s controversial energy program.

May 14

Turkey's prime minister said Friday he was unlikely to go to Iran for joint talks with Brazil's president because of Iran's failure to try to resolve the row over its nuclear program.

The United States, meanwhile, has warned Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's upcoming visit to Tehran may be Iran's last chance to engage the world over its nuclear program before new U.N. sanctions are imposed.

Turkey had expected Iran to confirm a commitment to a proposed deal to hand over its low-enriched uranium in return for processed fuel for research reactor, with Turkey as a possible venue for the swap, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters.

"It seems that a trip to Iran on Monday is no longer possible for me as Iran has not taken that step on the issue," he said. "If necessary my foreign minister may go, or I may go later," he added. Erdoğan said Turkey had "asked for a statement of determination" from Iran. "Together with Brazil, we wanted to make a contribution to the process," he said.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Pyongyang Pushes Back on Cheonan Sinking Story

Several people have pointed out that the Foal Eagle exercise officially ended March 18, well before the Cheonan sinking on March 26.

Not so.

According to the U.S.F.K. spokesman as reported by the Korea Times:

A U.S. Navy group of four ships― three warships and one salvage vessel ― have joined South Korea's rescue and recovery operations for its sunken frigate, the Cheonan.


Kim Yong-kyu, spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK), provided information on the U.S. Navy's participation in operation.

The spokesman said its participation was made at the request of South Korean authorities.

The four U.S. ships belong to the U.S. 7th Fleet, based just south of Tokyo.

"They were participating in Key Resolve/Foal Eagle Exercise, a joint Korea-U.S. military drill which will continue until the end of April," the spokesman added.
Navy Times, also not known as a Nork mouthpiece, reported the incident thusly:

The Japan-based cruiser Shiloh, destroyers Curtis Wilbur and Lassen and the salvage ship Salvor — carrying a team from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 — were ordered to help with the search after the South Korean government asked the U.S. for help, a Pentagon official told Navy Times.


The U.S. ships were already at sea when the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan sank on Friday as part of the international exercise Foal Eagle, the official said. The cause of the sinking is still not clear.

The "official" is a Pentagon official who was talking to Navy Times but "asked not to be identified because of the delicacy of the situation involving North and South Korea".

Maybe some reporting glitches here, but Foal Eagle was still going on with the participation of three Aegis-class destroyers. The Navy Times article does confirm that the U.S. ships were not at their base in Japan and, with the phrase "already at sea", welcomes the reader to draw the inference that the ships were not in the area when the Cheonan sunk. It will be interesting if the report on the sinking describes the location of friendlies at the time of the incident. (CH, 5/9/09)

Asia Times published an article, Pyongyang sees US role in Cheonan sinking, by Kim Myong Chol, identified as "often called an "unofficial" spokesman of Kim Jong-il and North Korea."

He asserts that North Korea had nothing to do with the March 26 sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan off the west coast of the Korean peninsula and on the South Korean side of the NLL (Northern Limit Line), the de facto and frequently disputed maritime border between the two antagonists.

Kim makes the interesting point that the Cheonan was engaged in an annual joint US/ROK military exercise known as Foal Eagle 2010 and several Aegis destroyers were in the area. Presumably all this high-tech military hardware would be able to detect the presence of a North Korean intruder.

He also raises the possibility of the Cheonan being done in by friendly fire.

It's reported that the Cheonan's sister ship, the Sokcho, was also in the area and marked the incident by firing wildly toward North Korean territory at a flock of birds on its radar instead of steaming to the Cheonan's rescue.

So shaky fire discipline by the Cheonan's own team during a complicated multi-vessel exercise near hostile territory looks like a potential hazard/explanation.

With this context, conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this paragraph from the Korea Times on May 7:

The multinational investigation team is also closely looking into the possibility that a North Korean submarine fired a German-made torpedo used both by South Korean and American navies in an attempt to dodge its responsibility.

The report of the team is supposed to be out around May 20.

H/T to DJ for the tip.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Sweet, Sweet Side of Nuclear Weapons

As I write about the NPT Review Conference and nuclear disarmament, this image deserves--nay demands--its own post.

Readers may click on the picture to enjoy its full-sized magnificence.

It's been making the rounds of the Internet with varying attributions.

Fortunately, its provenance is documented in the on-line archives of Time Magazine from November 18, 1946:

In Washington last week, at the Army War College's sumptuous officers' club, two admirals and their wives gave a little party to commemorate the dissolution of Joint Army-Navy Task Force No. i, which staged Operation Crossroads at Bikini. An East St. Louis group of bakers sent a cake, made out of tiny angel-food puffs, in the shape of an atomic explosion. Vice Admiral W.H.P. ("Spike") Blandy, Crossroads commander, and Mrs. Blandy were photographed gaily cutting the cake, while Rear Admiral F. J. Lowry stood happily by .

The picture made the Washington Post's society page.
It also made a lot of people indignant and unhappy...the Rev. Mr. Davies [pastor of a Unitarian church in Washington--ed.] thundered: "An utterly loathsome picture. If I spoke as I feel I would call it obscene.... How would it seem in Hiroshima or Nagasaki to know that Americans make cakes of angel-food puffs in the image of that terrible diabolical thing". . . .

Time concluded mordantly: These were probably the harshest words ever spoken of a dessert.

Operation Crossroads, by the way, represented the first two nuclear tests conducted after World War II, Able and Baker. It was something of a cock-up--and not just for the residents of Bikini Atoll, who saw their home atoll largely obliterated and totally irradiated, and its name applied to risque swimwear.

Wikipedia has a superb article on the Crossroads tests.

The U.S. Navy was apparently quite anxious not to concede any ground to its despised rivals in the Air Force, even though it seemed that strategic doctrine had permanently shifted away from big ships lobbing big shells to big planes dropping really big bombs.

The first Crossroads test was therefore run by the Navy as an experiment--and hopefully a demonstration--of the ability of a surface fleet to survive in a nuclear attack zone and continue to operate.

It was understood from the beginning that humans would not do well, but it was considered important to learn if carbon based life forms would be able to survive, at least for a while, and do their duty.

Patriotic livestock volunteered to stand in for human sailors during the tests.

Ships not in the immediate blast area survived, to the Navy's gratification.

However, the takeaway, especially after the spectacular and spectacularly dirty underwater detonation of the Baker test, was that the Navy's role in nuclear warfare would not involve blithely replacing the dead and dying with a fresh crew and continuing with its military business.

The ships were hopelessly irradiated and could not be made safe even after many dreary months of decontamination. Unless the sailors were to be outfitted in lead suits, the ships were unusable.

Fortunately for the U.S. Navy, submarine-based nuclear-tipped missiles emerged to guarantee the relevance--and budget--of the salty service into the 21st century.

The four photos of the Crossroads tests are from the Wikipedia article cited above. The goats were exposed during the Able (airburst) test. The second and third photos show stages in the Baker (underwater) test. The test flotilla is clearly visible in both pictures and gives an idea of the size of the blast. The final photo shows Navy crews during their unsuccessful attempts to decontaminate the Prinz Eugen, one of the ships in the flotilla.

Israel's Weapons of Mass Disruption

...and 2001: A Disarmament Odyssey

I have an article up at Asia Times entitled China in the catbird seat on Iran.

It looks at the state of play at the NPT Review Conference and opines that Beijing has done a pretty good job at positioning itself as the intermediary between the West and Iran.

I was lucky enough to interview a U.S. arms control expert and gain a valuable perspective on an important angle: Russia's expectations for the NPT process--getting on the right side (with the United States and India) of the isolate-China equation--and Beijing's steps to frustrate them.

In Moscow's mind, I think the recipe for success looked like this:

  • Partner with the United States on the new START treaty and give President Obama's policy that successful multi-lateral sheen;
  • Work with the U.S. to solve the Iran problem within the framework of the NPT, either through a definitive sanctions regime or rapprochement;
  • Make common cause with the United States and India to gang up on China as the modernizing, weaponizing, destabilizing wild card on the Eurasian continent.

To date, the Iran problem hasn't been solved and the Obama administration, instead of fussing over China's new generation of nuclear attack submarines, has to get China's help with the non-aligned movement to make sure the NPT conference doesn't collapse into a Copenhagen-scale clusterfugue.

And the reason the Iran problem hasn't been solved is Israel, and resentment in the Muslim and developing world over the U.S. grotesque double standard of bullyragging NPT member Iran while non-NPT-member Israel with its nuclear arsenal gets a free pass.

For the time being, at least, the efforts of the U.S. and Russia are concentrated on armtwisting, cajoling, and public relations handjobberai to gut the Egypt-led initiative to demand negotiations for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, and force the focus back to creating the appearance of a united front on Iran.

The cornerstone of President Obama's non-proliferation-based consensual, multi-lateral global security regime is universal adherence to the NPT. For this system to work, Israel, India, and Pakistan have to participate.

Since May of last year, President Obama has issued several calls for Israel to join the NPT, thereby stripping Iran of the diplomatic defense of harping on its NPT membership and, perhaps, making it possible for moderate elements inside Iran to advocate a more conciliatory nuclear policy.

Joining the NPT shouldn't be too hard for Israel. The Bush deal with India--endorsed by the IAEA under ElBaradei and welcomed by the West--demonstrated that American allies with rogue nuclear programs are eligible for special consideration.

It doesn't look like Israel has too much downside in admitting it has a nuclear arsenal and joining the NPT subject to the same sweet setup that the U.S. and other declared nuclear weapons powers enjoy: a national security exclusion that keeps the IAEA out of all of their nuclear weapons facilities.

This is an accommodation that Israel has been, to date, unwilling to provide. In fact, Israel has told the United States to get stuffed on multiple occasions.

It's possible that Israel is only waiting for the strategically and psychologically opportune moment to announce its willingness to join the NPT and give President Obama a much-needed political gift.

However, I wonder if Israel has a lot of interest in giving President Obama this gift, whose primary utility would be to boost U.S. cred with the Muslim world--and provide Iran with some political cover internally to justify concessions on its program.

Israel has a vested interest in the current cats-and-dogs dynamic of U.S.+ Israel vs. everybody else in the Middle East. It is viscerally opposed to U.S. rapprochement with Iran and gains little from a ratcheting down of nuclear tensions that would allow Tehran to assume the role of a rational, independent, and useful interlocutor with Washington.

From this perspective, Israel's nuclear arsenal is useful primarily as an irritant hindering the resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis, serving--as I put it in the title--as weapons of mass disruption.

China Hand has a weakness for conspiracy theories, especially when regarding the dismal history of the Tehran Research Reactor fuel plate project, which started out as a confidence-building initiative and somehow morphed into an exercise in confidence-destruction and geopolitical paranoia.

I would not be surprised if France--which has pretensions to clout in the Levant and has hopes to replace America as Israel's strategic and utterly uncritical BFF--had a tete a tete with Israel and exploited its role as the fabricator of the fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor to insist on getting all the LEU first to incapacitate Iran's nuclear program, stretch out the delivery schedule to improbable lengths, and encourage suspicions of its sincerity to ultimately deliver the fuel plates, thereby helping pooch the deal.

If Israel ostentatiously declines to participate in the NPT regime and the current situation holds, the big loser would be Russia, which made a reckless jump to the U.S. side of the fence on the Iran issue, not only futzing on completion of the Bushehr nuclear power station and joining the sanctions chorus, but also holding up delivery of a anti-aircraft defense system that Iran, apparently, is rather keen to install.

The big winners are Israel, which retains its position as America's indispensable and embattled ally in the Middle East--and China, which gets to occupy the Iran's superpower patron slot previously occupied by Moscow.

Now, moving on to bones, bombs, and monkeys:

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is, to my mind, the apogee of his creative achievement.

It is also a movie about disarmament.

President Obama will perhaps be depressed or inspired to learn that, in the opinion of Kubrick and screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, true disarmament will be a process of finite but not brief duration--maybe 200,000 years.

In 2001's prologue, a pack of put-upon vegetarian apes learns, with the help of an alien monolith, to slaughter competitors and four-legged food opportunities with hand-held weapons.

The prologue ends with the savviest and most bloodthirsty ape, Moonwatcher, flinging his bone club triumphantly into the sky.

As it soars upward, the sky grows dark and--in what has been described as the "longest jumpcut in the history of cinema"--the bone morphs into a spacecraft orbiting Earth many millenia later (the picture at the top of the post).

As one should expect, given Kubrick's obsessive attention to artistic and narrative coherence, the cut is not just a cute, clever transition.

The elongated satellite recapitulates both the shape and function of the bone club: it's an orbiting nuclear weapon.

As Kubrick and Clarke envisaged the narrative (preserved in Clarke's novelization), Bowman--after his accelerated evolution into the godlike Starchild--would return to Earth and, as his first order of business, telekinetically detonate all the space weapons and usher the planet into a post-nuclear nirvana.

However, Kubrick--despite the exemplary forebearance of MGM, which gave him complete artistic control and was permanently barred from the set for its pains--ran out of time and money after three years.

So there is no spectacular explosion, perhaps with those Saturn rings that are so popular these days and, for that matter, no aliens--whose credible depiction was much desired by Kubrick and Clarke but abandoned as unattainable.

Instead, the film stands as a classic of hypnotic, seductive, open-ended ambiguity--much like the disarmament process itself.