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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

US-Israel Showdown?

The Israel lobby is mobilizing for what might turn into the most significant confrontation between the United States and Israel since, well, the Suez War of 1956, when President Eisenhower told Israel -- and its covert allies, the UK and France -- to halt the unprovoked assault on Egypt. Since then, US-Israel conflicts have been relatively small and tied to side issues, such as the fight over President Reagan's sale of AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s or President Bush's showdown with Israel in the early 1990s, when the United States threatened to withhold loan guarantees to Israel after a right-wing Israeli government stone-walled the peace process.

This time, if President Obama plays his cards right, he could bring down the extremist government of Bibi Netanyahu. But that depends on whether Obama displays the guts and gumption necessary for a full-frontal challenge to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies.

In a piece written for Mother Jones last year, I outlined the vulnerability of AIPAC et al. to a direct challenge from Obama, especially with the emergence of J Street, the "pro-Israeli, pro-peace" Jewish lobby.

A year ago, it seemed possible that Obama was headed in that direction. He'd nominated the even-handed George Mitchell as his Israel-Palestine special representative, to the discomfort of AIPAC. He'd installed a number of aides at the White House, including General Jones, Mara Rudman, and others who had sympathies with the Palestinians and with the Israeli pro-peace camp. Obama launched a major effort to rebuild US ties with the Muslim world, including his June speech in Cairo, that all but required a stronger US effort to force concessions from Israel. And he'd ordered a showdown with Israel over its illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, demanding outright that Israel stop building them.

Nearly all of that collapsed. Mitchell got nowhere. Netanyahu bluntly rejected the settlements demand, kept building them, and faced no consequences. And, worst of all, Obama utterly failed to put forward an American peace plan to restart the talks. What was needed then, and now, is for Obama to outline what a final settlement of the conflict will look like: a return to the 1967 borders (with some land swaps), the division of Jerusalem, the removal of Israeli encampments from the West Bank, a sovereign Palestinian state, a deal over the Palestinians' right to return to their land (including a Saudi- and Gulf-financed compensation package), and probably some sort of US security guarantees for Israel.

Obama didn't deliver. He never stated the end goal. Now, he has another chance. His new opportunity was handed to him last week when Netanyahu's government slapped visiting Vice President Biden in face by announcing, during a high-stakes, delicate trip, a plan to build 1,600 new Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. In the aftermath of that event, the entire Obama administration has been mobilized against Israel. The key question is not whether Obama and Co. will slam Israel rhetorically, as they've done, buy whether there will be concrete consequences for Israel and whether the Obama team will finally relaunch the all-but-dead peace process by declaring the president's own vision of the terms that Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states must agree to.

As the New York Times editorialized last week, following the Biden visit fiasco:

"We also hope that if progress lags, the administration will be ready to put forward its own proposals on the central issues of borders, refugees, security and the future of Jerusalem.

"Mr. Obama has another chance to move the peace process forward. This time he has to get it right."

Biden, of course, used the word "condemn" in reacting to Israel's defiant action, saying: "I condemn the decision." Then rhetorically at least, the US got even nastier. Hillary Clinton -- who, like Biden, prides herself as being militantly pro-Israel -- used the word "insult" in slamming Israel: "The announcement of the settlements on the very day that the vice president was there was insulting," said Clinton.With Obama's approval, she delivered a 45-minute tongue lashing to Netanhayu over the phone. And yesterday David Axelrod, the White House political adviser chimed in, saying: "What happened there was an affront. It was an insult."

Netanyahu, while faking an apology, insists -- as does his entire right-wing regime -- that it won't change policy or back down.

The lobby is mobilizing. AIPAC, in a defensive statement, called the whole thing a "distraction," and it added:

"AIPAC calls on the Administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State. ... The Administration should make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel."

Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a knee-jerk defender of everything Israel does, accused the US of a "gross overreaction" to the Israeli insult, adding:

"We are shocked and stunned at the Administration's tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem. We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States. One can only wonder how far the U.S. is prepared to go in distancing itself from Israel in order to placate the Palestinians in the hope they see it is in their interest to return to the negotiating table."

And a panoply of Israel's best friends in Congress are trying to preempt an Obama response to the Israeli insult that goes beyond rhetoric, too. Representive Shelley Berkley (D.-Nevada) called the Clinton-Axelrod statements part of an "irresponsible overreaction," and the ever-reliable John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, told Commentary that "the tone and substance we are seeing emerge as a pattern for this Administration are both disappointing and of great concern."

Various neocons are weighing in, too. Writing in the Washington Post, Elliott Abrams accused the Obama administration of "mishandling" relations with Israel, adding: "The Obama administration continues to drift away from traditional U.S. support for Israel." In the same vein, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, expressed alarm about a "tectonic drift" pushing the US and Israel apart, concluding:

"Israel and the United States have been drifting apart for some time, though that pace has accelerated during the Obama administration. The currents that have set Washington and Jerusalem on different courses are complex and cannot be boiled down to one failed mission (that of Vice President Biden) nor an indifferent president (Barack Obama). There is a generational shift underway, driving apart post-Zionist Israel and 21st-century America."

And Robert Satloff of the militantly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned the administration not to tilt away from Israel after the insult to Biden:

"It would be shortsighted for the administration to use this episode as an opportunity to reward the Palestinians. ... And it would be an analytical blunder for the administration to believe that this incident is an opportunity that could precipitate Netanyahu's political demise."

Underlying all this is not just the reaction to an insulting announcement during the visit of Vice President Biden. Instead, at a more fundamental level, the Obama administration is beginning to realize that Israeli intransigence -- and the Netanyahu government, in particular -- is a major obstacle to US policy in the region, from Iraq to Iran to the struggle against Al Qaeda. It still remains to be seen if the White House the courage to do anything about it. In 2009, it didn't. But this is 2010.

Tomorrow: the strategic underpinnings of Obama's unease with the Israelis.

Hopeful Signs in Iraq?

Facts are scarce, and spin is everywhere, in the aftermath of Iraq's election on Sunday.

I'll be updating this entry later today and tomorrow as preliminary results from the election are announced.

Some initial thoughts: voter turnout was 62 percent, according to initial reports from Iraq. That's down from about 75 percent in the 2005 election. In Baghdad, the key province with 70 seats in parliament at stake, turnout was the lowest in Iraq, at 53 percent. It isn't clear, yet, if that total includes any or all of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled Baghdad during the sectarian purge of 2005-2007, mostly Sunni voters who either fled to Syria and Jordan or to safer provinces in western Iraq. According to initial reports, again, election officials at polling places were ill-equipped to handle displaced voters, meaning that many internally displaced persons didn't get to vote. If the election is close, and perhaps even if it isn't, the disputes over the votes of refugees and displaced persons will be bitter and explosive.

It's far too early to say anything about the results, though there is speculation that Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law party and the secular, cross-sectarian bloc led by former Prime Minister Allawi each did well. There are 325 seats to be allocated, and it's possible that both Maliki and Allawi got something in the range of 90 to 100 seats each. If so, then the best possible outcome of the election -- given the fragmentation of the vote -- would be a coalition between Maliki and Allawi. That's unlikely, however, since both Maliki and Allawi would insist on the top job. More likely is a repeat of the current ruling alliance, with Maliki and the rather weakened Shiite religious bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, joining with the Kurds. But that grand alliance probably won't have much more than a bare majority, say, 170 to 180 seats, meaning that it will be a shaky government at best.

Of course, it will be many weeks, perhaps months, before the results are finally certified and the various blocs negotiate a deal to form a government. (Early results are expected this week, but official, certified results may not be in until April 1.)

It's also too early to evaluate the impact of the pre-election purge by Iran's friends in Iraq, including Ahmed Chalabi, who prevented hundreds of secular, nationalist, and anti-Iranian candidates from running for office. The clear intent of that effort was to force Maliki to adopt a fierce, anti-Baathist (and sectarian, anti-Sunni) stance, which partly succeeded, and to scare Shiite voters into stampeding into the arms of the Shiite religious bloc. Apparently, their effort failed, and if anything it spurred Sunni and pro-secular voters to go to the polls in greater numbers. But it remains to be seen if the pro-Iranian bloc, the INA, was routed, and if the secular parties, such as Allawi's and the party led by Interior Minister Bolani, another secular Shiite leader, did well in Iraq's Shiite heartland. In the provincial elections, in 2009, there were some major surprises, including a stunning victory by a secular, moderate ex-Baathist in Karbala, the very heart of Iraq's Shiite religious electorate.

The bottom line, of course, is that despite the hopeful straws in the wind, big chunks of Iraq are still unwilling to accept the results if it doesn't go their way. The battle line dividing Arabs and Kurds is still red hot, from the far northwest to Diyala province. The armed militias, including the Kurds' pesh merga, the Shiite-led Badr Brigade, Muqtada al-Sadr's ragtag force, and Iranian-backed Special Groups such as the League of the Righteous, are still capable of flexing their muscle. And among the Sunnis, the remnants of the Sons of Iraq, the ex-Awakening movement, are sullen and bitter, and it's not at all impossible that a new insurgency could develop (supported, no doubt, by Iraq's Arab neighbors), if enough Sunnis decide to resist the election results. While Iraqi politicians wheel and deal, expect them to rally forces on the street, too.

One good sign: the United States insists that its withdrawal, to 50,000 (from 96,000) by August, to be followed by a complete pullout by the end of 2011, is still on track.

Stay tuned.

Iraq's High Electoral Commission says that it won't announce even preliminary results until Wednesday or Thursday. They'd planned originally to make that announcement today, after counting 30 percent of the ballots. They didn't explain the delay.

Previously unreported, the same Iranian-linked commission, led by Chalabi, that purged 500 candidates in January purged another 55 candidates on election eve. Those candidates, of course, received votes on Sunday, since the ban on their candidacy's was made public too late to affect the ballots. Most of the candidates were members of Iyad Allawi's secular, cross-sectarian list. Says Allawi, according to the Washington Post:

"It will be a very violent reaction. A lot of violence will take place, and God knows how this will end. I will tell you there is already an existing feeling that there was widespread rigging and widespread intimidation."

A UN official in Iraq now says that preliminary results of the election will not be announced until Thursday. Apparently, those results will include just 30 percent of the vote totals.

Obama, Iran and Iraq

Just like love and marriage, Iran and Iraq go together. As much as the Obama administration might like to, there's no having an "Iraq policy" without having a closely related "Iran policy." As the song says, you can't have one without the other.

One of the biggest failures of the administration so far is its seeming inability to coordinate its regional approach to the set of problems revolving around Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. At a conference on Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress called this "strategic incoherence." It's a critical failure because stability in Iraq, now at grave risk because of electoral shenanigans by Iran's allies in Iraqi politics, is very much dependent on Iran's role in Iraq. For years now, I've been writing that Iran is using its power in Iraq as leverage in regard to U.S.-Iran relations; that is, if the United States and Iran move forward toward an understanding, implicit or explicit, Iran can use its influence to stabilize Iraq, while if the U.S.-Iran dialogue spins out of control toward a showdown, Iran can turn Iraq into a seething caldron of instability and violence.

Iraqi officials, across the political spectrum, do not want Iraq to be turned into a battlefield between Iran and the United States. Yesterday, on the sidelines of a conference on the Iraqi elections organized by the Jamestown Foundation, I interviewed a senior Iraqi government official who asked that I not mention his name. "The Iranians have ties with nearly all of the main factions in Iraq," he said, comparing Iran's pull on Iraq to the force of gravity. "The Iranians, because of their geopolitical position in the region, will have a strong role in Iraq. So the United States, and the international community, need to reach an understanding with Iran." Only a U.S.-Iran agreement, he suggested, can prevent Iraq from becoming a place where the U.S.-Iran tug of war is played out, and violently. Many other Iraqi officials have said the same thing, and some of them -- including those who have close ties to Iran -- have repeatedly offered to help mediate between Washington and Tehran. During my two visits to Iran, in 2008 and again last year, various Iranian officials have also pointed to Iraq as a place where the United States and Iran might seek an agreement.

Yesterday, at the Jamestown Conference, I asked Colin Kahl, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, about the importance of a U.S.-Iran accord for Iraq. But Kahl, who led Barack Obama's campaign advisory team for the Middle East, was dismissive. "It's debatable whether a U.S.-Iran agreement is possible," he said. "But I don't think it's necessary." Now, it's true that a deal between Washignton and Tehran is elusive, and it will be exceedingly difficult to accomplish. But without it, Iran has so much leverage in Iraq that it can make life extremely difficult as the Obama administration draws down U.S. forces between now and 2011. Kahl discounted the importance of Iran in Iraq, saying, "I dont think there's any probability of Iraq calling under Iranian hegemony," and adding that those who talk about Iran's power in Iraq underestimate the power of latent Iraqi nationalism to resist Iranian encroachment. But the point is that even though Iran may not be able to achieve hegemonic control in Iraq, it can use its muscle -- from covert support to violent militias to its widely acknowledged ties to many leading Iranian Shiite religious parties -- to make sure that Iraq remains unstable, violent, and prone to sectarian conflicts.

Speaking at the same conference, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Iraq -- who, to be sure, shares some of the blame for the Bush administration's criminally misguided attack on Iraq in 2003 -- declared that he agreed with my critique of Obama's failure to engage in vigorous regional diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors. "Iraq is a transition country," he said. "It's a transition country between Iran and the Arab world, and between Sunni and Shia. In order to make further progress in Iraq, a greater effort will be necessary at the regional level." It will be difficult, he said, but it will be especially critical during the tumultuous period after Iraq's March 7 election, when all of Iraq's factions will be competing to negotiate a governing coalition.

Besides politics, Iran can meddle in Iraq using armed gangs allied to it, including the so-called League of the Righteous, aka Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Earlier this week, the Washington Post carried a feature piece on the League, an Iranian-backed militia with close ties to the perpetrators of the anti-baathist purge that has roiled the electoral scene in Iraq. Ali al-Lami, a close aide to Ahmed Chalabi, has ties to the League, and it was the Chalabi-Lami de-Baathification commission that forced the purge of hundreds of secular and nationalist candidates from the ballot. Reports the Post:

"A failed effort by the United States to neutralize a powerful Shiite militant group in Iraq has left in place a dangerous force whose attacks on American troops threaten to complicate the U.S. drawdown, according to American and Iraqi officials. ...

"The U.S. military now has no more than a handful of Asaib Ahl al-Haq members in custody. American and Iraqi officials worry that violence could intensify after parliamentary elections on Sunday, particularly if Shiite candidates favored by Iran do poorly.

"'The implicit threat is that if Iran is unable to achieve its objectives one way, it has militia groups that it can use to turn up the violence,' said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War who has written extensively about Shiite militias. 'The stakes are very high for Iran in this election. It's not surprising if they're pursuing concurring actions.'"

A year ago, President Obama launched his famous outreach to Iran, beginning with his inaugural address, in which he extended his hand to Tehran. Following that, a series of key initiatives: his taped New Year's greeting to "the Islamic Republic of Iran," letters from Obama to Iran's Leader, Ayatolllah Ali Khamenei, and his well received Cairo speech on the eve of Iran's June 12 election. Despite the post-election crisis, Obama's diplomats held behind-the-scenes talks with Iranian officials leading up to the very important October 1 meeting in Geneva, where U.S. and Iranian diplomats met face to face for the first time in 30 years on the core issue of Washington-Tehran relations. And, at that meeting, it seemed like progress was made toward a partial resolution of the nuclear standoff, when Iran agreed to transfer the bulk of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods for peaceful purposes.

The October 1 accord has stalled, or unraveled, and an arbitrary deadline set by Obama for the end of 2009 has come and gone, so once again the United States has turned to pressure, sanctions, and confrontation. Yet no one believes that economic sanctions will either topple Iran's regime or cause it to halt its nuclear program, so the sanctions can only have the effect of pushing Iran into a corner. That, in turn, has many implications, but one of those implications will play out next door, in Iraq.

Violence on Eve of Iraq Vote

Iraqis go to the polls this Sunday, March 7, and it's not looking good.

A rumble of violence is spreading across Iraq, and while it's nothing like the generalized warfare that plagued the country three years ago, it's a worrying sign that a wrong turn after the elections could lead to an explosion -- especially if the vote is rigged, or if the politically disenfranchised outsiders, such as the many Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists, feel that the deck was stacked against them.

The best outcome after March 7 would, in effect, amount to a restoration of sorts, not of the Saddam Hussein-era hardliners, but of a coalition of Iraqis who are prepared to resist Iran and its myriad Iraqi agents, sympathizers, and allies while, at the same time, holding the United States to its deadline for withdrawing US forces by the end of 2011. There is at least a chance that the recent polarization of the electorate, sparked by the purge of candidates by an Iranian-backed commission headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the former darling of the noecons, might backfire. While there are signs that the polarization, designed to terrify Iraqi Shia over the spurious fear of a Saddamist comeback, might stampede many on-the-fence Shia to vote for sectarian Shiite candidates, it's also possible that the heavyhanded purge will bring a huge turnout of Sunni and secular candidates to the polls, simply to vote against the Shiite coalition and against Prime Minister Maliki. (Maliki, who's made half-hearted efforts over the past year to cloak himself in nationalist garb, strongly endorsed the purge. And, like the Shiite bloc, the INA, Maliki is waving the bloody shirt of Baathism to rally Shiite voters to his party, too.) A big turnout by Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists might upend Shiite dominance of Iraq by creating the basis for an anti-Iran coalition that could join with the Kurds and some renegade Shiite members of the INA after the election.

Putting together a governing coalition is likely to take four to six months after March 7, in a Wild West-like setting. (It's during this shaky period that US forces are supposed to drop from 96,000 to 50,000.)

Three huge bombs racked Diyala province, a mixed ethnic and sectarian province northeast of Baghdad along the border with Iran, on Wednesday, killing scores of people, and the province was placed under curfew. In Ramadi, the center of Sunni-dominated Anbar province in the west, tensions are high, and the deputy governor is warning that his constituents are restive. "If they feel their rights have been robbed, it might lead to sectarian violence," he warns. (The Anbar governor just returned from the United States, where he was fitted with an artificial limb after a recent bomb attack.) In crucial Nineweh province, a northern province that includes Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, Arab-Kurd tension is escalating along the so-called trigger line that separates the Kurds' expansionist border from Arab Iraq, and Masoud Barzani, the separatist Kurdish leader, has threatened to have his pesh merga paramilitary militia forces arrest the legitimately elected governor simply because he tried to visit a town in his own province that the Kurds consider part of "Kurdistan." Meanwhile, there have been a series of assassination attempts against candidates for parliament, especially aimed at members of the secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Allawi, banned secular leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the party of the Nineweh governor. I've spoken to candidates for office who have to travel in heavily armed convoys, who can't have public rallies, and who fear for their lives at every moment.

Chalabi, the portly liar and wheeler dealer who led the purge of anti-Iran candidates, makes no bones about campaigning as a sectarian Shia. This week, he told the Los Angeles Times that he is proud of his anti-Baathist McCarthyism, and he boasted about his despicable rabble-rousing: "On the issue of the Baath, I don't think anyone can match me." The paper described his blatant appeal to sectarianism in a speech to voters

"'I call for your support, for preventing the return of the Baathists,' he says, before adding a final, ominous-sounding pledge to his Shiite audience, one that leaves little doubt as to the tone of his campaign.

"'We support your sect and we will protect it,' he says, before being hustled back into his vehicle by his bodyguards for the journey home through the slum, now shrouded in darkness."

Allawi, the standard bearer for the secular nationalists, and his allies have been campaigning hard, and not just in Iraq. Both Allawi, a secular Shia, and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who used to be part of the Sunni religious bloc, have been traveling in neighboring Arab countries where millions of Iraqi voters have fled in the seven years since the US invasion. In Jordan and Syria alone, up to two million displaced Iraqis are eligible to vote, and many of them hail from the critical electoral cauldron of Baghdad province, which was ethnically cleansed by Iranian-backed Shiite death squads between 2004 and 2007. The votes of the two million Iraqi refugees, plus another two million internally displaced persons, might be critical in Sunday's vote -- if they're counted, and fairly.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Allawi warned that the thuggish Maliki is becoming a mini-Saddam himself, adding these strong words:

"We accept there will be a margin of irregularities in this situation. We are not going to accept a large portion of irregularities. That means a failure of democracy in Iraq. We will get out of the political process. If this happens, it will point Iraq towards a very violent and stormy future.

"If the political process is against the will of the people and filled with irregularities, I will stay away and I will call on others to boycott the process. If I am elected, I will resign from parliament."

Stay tuned.

Squeezing Iran

With Iraq threatening to unravel if this Sunday's election doesn't go well, and with the war in Afghanistan heating up rapidly (U.S. forces are planning a massive assault on Kandahar to begin in late spring), you'd think that the United States would avoid a confrontation over Iran. You'd be wrong.

World powers meet today in Geneva to discuss the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which last month issued a new report charging that Iran's military plans for nuclear research "seem to have continued beyond 2004" and accused Iran of "current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." It was, to be sure, a rather alarmist report, and the IAEA didn't provide any concrete information or details about Iran's alleged activity. Still, the U.S. is pushing hard for a new round of sanctions at the UN Security Council, and the IAEA meeting today is likely to accelerate that effort by leading directly to a new UNSC debate on Iran.

Secretary of State Clinton has declared that a new resolution at the UNSC will be introduced "in the next 30 to 60 days," giving Washington time to put pressure on Russia to support it and to persuade China to abstain, at least. There are five countries who belong to the current membership of the UNSC who aren't likely to vote yes on Iran sanctions: China, Brazil, Turkey, Lebanon, and Bosnia. Since the U.S needs nine "yes" votes for sanctions, those five aren't enough, although China (and Russia) might still veto sanctions that they consider too harsh. Leaving no stone unturned, Clinton will visit Brazil soon in part to make sure Brazil is on board.

Russia, increasingly unhappy with Tehran, is hinting openly that it will support some form of sanctions. Still, it's unlikely that Russia will support tough measures, and it's virtually certain that China would block anything stronger than a slap on the wrist. (Recently, however, China has signalled displeasure with Tehran's defiance, too, refusing to protest the recent IAEA report and going along with a toughly worded measure by a financial action task force that regulates trade with Iran.) As a possible sign of their displeasure, the Russians have apparently once again delayed the delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems that they're supposed to deliver, by contract, to Iran. The Russian announcement of yet another delay came one day after a visit to Moscow by Israel's prime minister, the Iran-obsessed Bibi Netanyahu.

According to Josh Rogin at The Cable, over at Foreign Policy, the U.S. intelligence community is about to issue a revised National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to "walk back" the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which said that Iran had halted its work on a bomb while continuing to enrich uranium. But the report says:

"The new estimate might not directly contradict [the 2007] judgment, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is seen to be working on the components of a device."

But it isn't at all clear what the United States thinks it can achieve. Can sanctions stop Iran from moving forward if it wants a bomb? Not likely. Most analysts don't believe that sanctions will work. Any sanctions that the UNSC might approve, even with Russian support and China's aquiescence, will be very mild. The Obama administration says that it will go ahead with unilateral or multilateral sanctions (with Europe) that presumably will be a lot tougher than the UN--approved ones. But they'll likely stop short of an embargo on Iran's import of refined petroleum products, such as gasoline. Still, there's a lot that tougher U.S.-EU sanctions might do, in terms of further boxing Iran in on investment and technology it needs across a wide range of industries: oil and gas production and refining, civil aviation, computers and IT, auto manufacturing, etc. All of that can hurt Iran's economy, but will it change Iran's policies? Anything's possible, but it's far more likely that Iran can work toward building a bomb, if that's what it wants to do.

Shut Up, Tom Ricks!

Imagine Madeleine Albright coming at you with an M-16, and you'll get the right image for the Center for a New American Security, a thinktank made up of right-wing and centrist Democrats who never met a surge they didn't love.

Thus it's no surprise that Tom Ricks, a former reporter and author who's taken up residence at CNAS, has fired the opening gambit in what is likely to be a direct challenge to President Obama by the military, by conservatives and neoconservatives, by surge-lovers and empire builders, and others, to keep US forces in Iraq.

Ricks penned an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Extending Our Stay in Iraq," as if the 98,000 troops there were business travelers asking the front desk for a late checkout. "Our stay"? He means, the US occupation of Iraq.

And Ricks pulls no punches. Obama should forget about his pledge to reduce US forces to 50,000 by August and to zero by the end of 2011. Instead, Ricks says, the troubling internal contradictions in Iraq -- including Iran's influence -- means that the United States should "keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come."

In recent weeks the US military has been hinting that it's thinking the same thing. A Post article yesterday entitled "U.S. plans for possible delay in Iraq withdrawal" said:

"The U.S. military has prepared contingency plans to delay the planned withdrawal of all combat forces in Iraq, citing the prospects for political instability and increased violence as Iraqis hold national elections next month."

Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, has dropped hints about sticking around, too. And Robert Gates, the Republican secretary of defense who just won't seem to go away, told a press briefing on Tuesday: "We would have to see a pretty considerable deterioration of the situation in Iraq and we don't see that, certainly, at this time." At this time.

True enough, as I've been writing for weeks now (and for years, in fact, before that) Iran has vast and growing influence in Iraq, and it's ever more likely that the Iraqi elections on March 7 will be rigged in favor of Iran's friends among the religious Shia, including Prime Minister Maliki. But the last thing that the United States needs to is stay in Iraq and turn that country into a battlefield with Iran for control of the Persian Gulf. Obama's best course is to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, even faster than the current timetable, if that can be done, and work hard on a diplomatic deal with Iran that would cover the nuclear file, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But when the surge-loving conservatives and the counterinsurgency cultists starting pressuring Obama on Afghanistan last summer, he caved. Even though Obama, so far, has said again and again that the Iraq withdrawal plan that he announced a year ago is written in stone, I don't have any confidence that he'll stick to it if, after the elections, the Iraqis try to settle post-electoral differences with guns and car bombs.

Interestingly, Marc Lynch -- a far more sensible analyst on Iraq than Ricks -- has come out in favor of keeping to the timetable. Like Ricks, Lynch also has a perch at CNAS. (Memo to Marc: Get out of there, quick!) In his Foreign Policy blog, Lynch writes:

"There's been a mini-boom of late in commentary urging Obama to delay his timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, or at least to "do more" -- the Kagans are shocked, shocked to discover that Iranians are influential in Iraq, Jackson Diehl just wants Obama to care more about Iraq (without any hint of what policies might follow). They should be ignored. The administration is handling Iraq calmly, maturely, and patiently, has demonstrated in word and deed its commitment to its drawdown policy, and has tried hard to thread a devilish needle of trying to shape events without triggering an extremely potent Iraqi backlash."

So at CNAS, the record is: Sane, Lynch. Insane, Ricks. Stay tuned.

Attack Iran?

More huffing and puffing about war with Iran, this time from Anne Applebaum of the hawkish Washington Post, but first some words of caution from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

At a news conference with Secretary of Defense Gates yesterday, Mullen once again reiterated his long-standing caution about a military attack on Iran, even as he laced it with concern about Iran's nuclear program and Iran's "hegemonic" goals in the area of the Persian Gulf. Said Mullen:

"I maintain my conviction that Iran remains on a path to achieve nuclear weaponization, and that even this very pursuit further destabilizes the region.

"But like us, it isn't just a nuclear-capable Iranian military our friends worry about -- it's an Iran with hegemonic ambitions and a desire to dominate its neighbors. This outcome drives many of the national security decisions our partners there are making, and I believe we must be mindful of that as we look to the future, post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan.

"Let me be clear: We owe the secretary and the president a range of options for this threat. We owe the American people our readiness. But as I've said many times, I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of itself, decisive."

Applebaum, not exactly an Iran expert, used her ink in the Post today to warn that President Obama had better start preparing for an Israeli strike on Iran. In fact, that was the title of her op-ed: "Prepare for war with Iran." In it, she suggests that "at some point" Israel's restraint vis-avis Iran could evaporate, partly because President Ahmadinejad "makes(s) the Israelis paranoid." An Israeli strike, she says, "would be followed by retaliation, some of which would be directed at us, our troops in Iraq, our ships at sea." And she adds:

"I do hope that this administration is ready, militarily and psychologically, not for a war of choice but for an unwanted war of necessity."

 That, of course, is exactly what Obama should not be doing. Instead, as I suspect they've done already -- indeed, even during the Bush administration, Admiral Mullen did this -- is make it clear to the Israelis that under no, repeat no, circumstances will an Israeli strike on Iran be tolerated by the United States. Bombing a would-be reactor in Syria, as Israel did three years ago, is one thing, but attacking Iran, a powerful regional actor and oil exporter with lots of muscle in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf, is another. The United States simply has to let Israel know that attacking Iran would be considered an act of unprovoked aggression by Washington, resulting in a suspension of military assistance and a vote to condemn Israel at the UN.

Iran, meanwhile, isn't helping things along by blustering about its intent to build another ten nuclear enrichment sites, including two inside mountain redoubts. Analysts argue back and forth about whether or not Iran is determined to become a military nuclear power. On this, I'm an agnostic, but it does appear foolhardy to assume the best about Iran's goals, especially given the ascent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran. It's another thing, of course, to panic, for two reasons: first, Iran does not appear to be that close to acquiring the bomb, and its research is running into important snags, at least some of which may involve covert technological sabotage by the US, Israel and the Europeans; and second, because even if Iran does manage to acquire a small number of bombs, it can be contained and deterred.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote the other day:

"Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, we're living with a nuclear North Korea (boxed in and contained by its neighbors). And we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and Communist China.

"The most significant recent development in Iran has been the displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a military organization that is now the center of power. Clinton confirmed this when she warned of an emerging 'military dictatorship' there. I'm not sure which is worse for the Iranian people: rule by nasty mullahs or by thuggish soldiers. But we know this: Military regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work."

Other thinkers, including relatively hawkish ones, are already thinking ahead about a strategy to contain a nuclear Iran. James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, no doves, have a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs entitled: "After Iran Gets the Bomb." Summarizing their argument in the Post, Lindsay and Takeyh say that a containment policy, backed up by a credible threat of US military action, could contain Iran even after it gets a bomb. In my view, they seem to regard the use of force against a nuclear Iran with less than the dread that such a scenario implies, but in any case their argument bolsters the case for rejecting military action against Iran, now. They say:

"It would take considerable American political skill and will to contain [Iran's] regional pretensions. Washington would need to be explicit about its red lines: no initiation of conventional warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material or technologies; no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. Washington would need to be just as explicit about the consequences of crossing those lines: potential U.S. military retaliation by any and all means necessary."

And they conclude:

"If Tehran remains determined to go nuclear and preventive attacks prove too risky or unworkable to carry out, the United States will need to formulate a strategy to contain Iran."

Ugly in Iraq

It's getting ugly in Iraq again, less than two weeks from the scheduled March 7 election. And the U.S. military is hinting that if conditions deteriorate, the United States might delay its planned drawdown of forces.

How ugly is it? Mass killings, beheadings, dumped bodies, rockets hitting the Green Zone. Here's the rundown from the New York Times' summary of events:

"A series of bombings, beheadings and shootings rippled through Iraq on Monday, leaving at least 23 people dead -- including 9 children -- and intensifying concern about a spike in violence with less than two weeks until national elections.

"Authorities detected no discernible pattern to the violence, with rockets exploding in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, car bombings aimed at government buildings, assassinations of security officers and government officials and the killings of two families in their homes in Baghdad.

"The slayings of the families was reminiscent of the attacks common during the height of the bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq a few years ago.

"In the largely Shiite town of Madaen, south of Baghdad, a gang of gunmen stormed a home of a family and killed all eight people there, including six children.

"'The criminals have beheaded some of the victims,' according to a brief statement from Baghdad Operations Command.

"In another Shiite district in Baghdad, a mother and her three children were gunned down in the middle of the night, according to government officials.

"Meanwhile, police found two bodies riddled with bullets dumped in the street of the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, according to Iraqi officials.

"The rocket attacks on the Green Zone wounded six people, according to Iraqi officials, but neither American nor Iraqi officials would provide details about where precisely they struck. An official at the American Embassy said there were no reports of Westerners injured.

"Two mortar rounds landed near a complex that had been used as Saddam Hussein's central security directorate in eastern Baghdad, near an American base, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

"In northern Baghdad, gunmen carried out a drive-by shooting of a convoy of officials working for the Ministry of Defense and killed two people. Separately, a police officer and a civilian were injured when gunmen open fired on their parked vehicles.

"West of Baghdad, in the city of Ramadi, a suicide car bomber targeting a police garrison killed three people and injured seven.

"Several Iraqi police and army checkpoints in the city of Mosul were attacked by gunmen, killing four officers, according to Iraqi officials."

Meanwhile, General Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, suggests that the withdrawal timetable proposed by President Obama might slip:

"The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Monday that the planned withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces by the end of August could be delayed if conditions worsen in the coming months as Iraqis choose a new government.

"Army Gen. Ray Odierno said his staff had drawn up contingency plans for a delayed withdrawal that he has shared with Pentagon leaders and other U.S. officials during a visit to Washington over the past week. He said he was prepared to make the changes 'if we run into problems.'"

The election is still underway, but the main Sunni party, the National Dialogue Front, has pulled out of the vote after its leader, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was banned from running for reelection by Ahmed Chalabi and the Iranian-backed clique that controls the vetting process. The NDF statement read, in part:

"The National Dialogue Front cannot continue in a political process run by a foreign agenda."

The NDF's partner, the broad-based Iraqiya coalition led by Iyad Allawi, the secular Shia who was prime minister in the first post-invasion government, is continuing to campaign. According to most reports from Iraq, secular voters and Sunnis are determined to vote for candidates who are closest to their views and who oppose Iran's interference. And so far, the violence hasn't led to anything resembling the all-out sectarian conflict that plagued Iraq three years ago.

"Operation Nude Dawn" in Iraq

The Department of Defense has given the war in Iraq a new name.

In the past, you'll remember, they've had problems with names. The original title for the war was Operation Iraqi Liberation, whose unfortunate acronym, OIL, was an either an embarrassment or an exercise in truth-telling.

Now, the Pentagon is calling the next phase of the war, the drawdown, "Operation New Dawn." If you say it fast, it sounds a lot like "Nude Dawn." Which is closer to what it is. It's set in stone, and long overdue, that the United States gets out of Iraq. I strongly support the pullout, and I believe, if anything, it ought to be accelerated.

But nude it is, because as we leave Iraq, we're leaving it exposed to Iran. As one Iraqi, a current member of the Iraqi parliament who's running in the March 7 election, said to me:

"The Iraqis are like a small bird who was born in a small cage. and whose father and grandfather lived in that cage. And the United States came into Iraq and broke that cage, and the small bird cannot fly. And it can easily be eaten by Iran."

His poignant imagery exaggerates Iraq's vulnerability. It's time for Iraq to stand on its own two feet and block Iran. We'll see, on March 7, if the secular parties, the nationalists, the current and former Baathists, the Shia middle class, Sunni tribal leaders, cross-sectarian parties, and all the rest can win enough votes to take the lead, make a deal with the Kurds, and bring in a few Shia religious types who are willing to join what would be an anti-Iran coalition.

The Chalabi Factor in Iraq

The passel of neoconservatives who pushed for war in Iraq in 2003 believed fervently that the war would change the face of the Middle East.

How right they were! The Middle East is changed forever, only not in the way the neocons had hoped. Rather than usher in an era of greater US influence in the region, the destruction of the government in Iraq in 2003 has allowed Iran to expand its political, economic, and military influence westward into the vacuum left by the elimination of Saddam Hussein. Belatedly -- slowly, slowly -- a few neocons here and there are starting to recognize that the vaunted democracy in Iraq is in grave danger of looking like the not-so-democratic "Islamic democracy" next door in Iran.

It's a process that's long been obvious to more objective observers of the Iraq war and its aftermath. And another thing that's obvious: Ahmed Chalabi, the darling of the neocons, the bosom buddy of Richard Perle, the favored Arab of the likes of Danielle Pletka and Michael Rubin, the comrade of Fouad Ajami, is Iran's best friend, ally and agent. It was, of course, Chalabi and his partner, Ali al-Lami, who together control Iraq's occupation-era "de-Baathification commission," who ran the Iranian-instigated purge of more than 500 candidates in the March 7 election. Earlier this week, I asked General Odierno about Chalabi and Lami, and he said point blank that the US has "direct intelligence" that Chalabi and Lami "clearly are influenced by Iran," and that they meet regularly with an nian official who "sits at the right-hand side of the Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani."

Yesterday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace, Ambassador Christopher Hill was asked whether he agrees with Odierno's assessment. "I am in 100 percent agreement with General Odierno," said Hill.

Yet even as a neocon here or there denounced Lami and his Iranian backers for the purging of hundreds of Iraqi nationalists on trumped-up charges of Baathism, they can't quite bring themselves to denounce Chalabi, their former darling, as well, and when they do, they don't even bother to engage in self-criticism about their former love affair with Chalabi.

Take for instance, the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Kim and Fred Kagan. When Odierno spoke, Kim Kagan was sitting right next to him, and to her credit she questioned Odierno hard on Iran's role in Iraq. But in the op-ed, co-written with her husband, Fred Kagan -- who is based at the American Enterprise Institute, which was Chalabi's home-away-from-home before the war and in its early phases -- the Kagans gloss over Chalabi's role. The note, in passing, that the rotund Iraqi wheeler-dealer is "a leading member of the Iranian-backed Shiite list," but they say no more on that subject. They go on to note with alarm Iran's growing influence in Iraq:

"Tehran seems to know what answers it wants regarding Iraq's future. Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked doggedly in 2009 to rebuild the coalition of the three major Iraqi Shiite parties that had run in 2005 as a bloc."

But after providing a fairly accurate run-down of Iran's machinations in Iraq, the Kagans want to blame not themselves, for the bungled, misguided war itself, but -- get this! -- President Obama! 

"Against this continuous Iranian campaign of engagement, intimidation and political machinations, the Obama administration has offered little more than moral support."

What they propose, apparently, is that the United States prepare to slow down, or reverse, its pledged withdrawal from Iran. Perhaps the Kagans haven't noticed that the sovereign Iraq is in control of what the US does now. Perhaps they haven't noticed that the United States can't easily switch gears and keep its forces in Iraq beyond the deadlines of August 2010, for the reduction to 50,000 troops, and the end of 2011, for the complete withdrawal. Perhaps they'd like to undo what's been done, but the fact remains that Iran's influence in Iraq is semi-permanent. If anyone is going to force Iran to back down in Iraq, it will be the Iraqis themselves, not only at the ballot box but, it appears, in what may require a new outburst of violence, too.

A more thoughtful analysis comes from Clifford May at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who -- in a piece for National Review -- cites yours truly for raising the right alarm over the Iranian-backed purge of candidates by Chalabi and Lami. He writes:

"Robert Dreyfuss is a journalist of the left with whom I seldom agree; he writes for The Nation, a publication of the far left that usually makes my eyes roll. But in his Nationblog, Dreyfuss correctly notes that as the campaign gets underway for Iraq's March 7 elections, close to 500 candidates have been banned for alleged ties to the Baath Party by the Justice and Accountability Council, 'an unelected panel headed by an Iran-linked terrorist, Ali al-Lami.' 

"Among those barred are 'the No. 2 and No. 3 candidates in the main opposition bloc, the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, which is led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi [a secular Shia]. Already, two members of Allawi's party have been assassinated while campaigning. . . . Allawi, who many observers say had a credible chance of winning enough votes to lead a governing coalition after the election, has suspended his campaign. . . . Many Sunni leaders are talking about a boycott.'"

May quotes me accurately -- but, nowhere in his piece does he mention the name "Chalabi." Like many of his fellow neocons, May doesn't seem to want to open the Pandora's box of the Chalabi question. But it's fundamental to the problem. More than anyone else, it was Chalabi who convinced the neocons that he and his Shiite religious friends would install an American-friendly democracy in Iraq, and they suggested that the US invasion of Iraq would create momentum that would topple the domino next door, in Iran. Unfortunately, Chalabi and his allies, including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party -- that would be the party of Prime Minister Maliki, who supports the purge -- were Iran's friends and allies, and in some cases, outright agents. Oops!

Here's the reality of Iraq in 2010: The damage is done. Seven years after the US invasion, Iran has the upper hand by virtue of its alliance with a network of Shiite religious politicians, from Chalabi and Lami to the Hakims to Muqtada al-Sadr to Maliki himself. Iran is multiply connected to the Kurds, as well. It has vast economic influence in Iraq. It's beyond absurd to suggest, as the Kagans do, that Obama is to blame for that. When he took office, he inherited a disaster in Iraq. The plan to drawdown US forces was pretty much already written in stone by the US-Iraq accord negotiated in 2008 by President Bush -- and Obama simply ratified it. (In fact, Obama slowed down his own Iraqi plan, in which during the campaign he called for a pullout of US forces much quicker than what he settled on.)

In his piece, Cliff May asks, in the headline, "Who's Losing Iraq?" In fact, it should have been: "Who Lost Iraq?"

If the neocons want to blame someone for the loss of Iraq, they ought to look in the mirror.

Of course, it isn't over. The Iraqis may surprise us all by voting on March 7 to kick out Maliki, the Shiite religious parties, and their friends, and elect a coalition of nationalists, ex-Baathists, secular Sunni and secular Shia, advocates of a strong central government, and other fierce Iraqi partisans who want Iran out. By the same token, many centrist Iraqis may realize -- even after the election -- that Iraq's economic future lies with the West, with its Arab neighbors, with Turkey, and with investment and technology from a wide range of US, European, Russian, and Chinese oil companies who can help Iraq boost its oil output from just over 2 million barrels a day to 10-12 million barrels by the end of the decade. But revolutionary Iran, embroiled its own domestic turmoil and stuck in a bitter dispute with the world over its nuclear program, sees Iraq as an important bargaining chip. It isn't going to give that up easily.

UPDATE Megan Ortagus, the spokesperson for the Institute for the Study of War, sent the following note after this post was written:

"Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan were both professors of history at West Point in 2003, and consequently not involved with the Bush Administration interactions with exiled Iraqi leaders and the restoration of civilian government in Iraq. Kim and Fred Kagan have never supported Ahmad Chalabi nor advocated for him to play any role in Iraqi politics.

"Kim and Fred Kagan entirely agree with the comments General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill have made this week about the role that Chalabi is playing and has been playing for some time--a role that is heavily influenced by Iran and specifically the Qods Force, and that has done significant damage to the cause of cross-sectarian political development in Iraq. In no way do they deny or minimize Chalabi's malign influence in Iraq."

In their op-ed, I wish they'd been that specific. Since 2003, the neoconservatives have generally aligned themselves with the Iran-influenced Shiites in Iraq, that is, the religious Shiites, and the folks at AEI -- including Rubin and Pletka, along with Michael Ledeen and Reuel Gerecht, who've since left AEI -- were generally enthusiastic since 2003 about radical de-Baathification. They relished Chalabi's role in continual purges of Iraqi nationalists and nonsectarian politicians for the past 7 years, and they were widely known to have supported the so-called "80 percent solution" for Iraq, so called because it was designed to include Shia and Kurds (80 percent of Iraq) and exclude Iraqi Sunnis. It's all on the record. So I wonder if the Kagans will extend their unhappiness about Chalabi to include the people who supported him.

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