Category Archives: america

Flavour of the Month: Iran

How can Iran be made to stop enriching uranium? How soon, if not already, before Iran starts using this uranium for a weapons program? Will Obama suport an Israeli strike on Iran? Or, perhaps the US will initiate military action itself? What are the effects of the current American and EU sanctions, will they cripple the regime? Will Russia, China, and India finally cooperate with the EU and US on sanctions? Will Iran block the Strait of Hormuz?

These are some of the questions that foreign policy makers, commentators, and journalists have been obsessing about the past fortnight.

India’s second largest supplier of oil is Iran; Iran is also a vital part of the western asian regional security architecture, especially with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. India thus has plenty at stake. However, characteristic of  our foreign policy thinking, India has failed to articulate a clear position on the Iranian situation. Rather, Pranab Mukherjee stated that India will not cooperate with the sanctions as it has pressing energy needs which it can not ignore.  India will make 45 percent of payment for Iranian oil in rupees, and thereby remain outside the realm of sanctions; part of the rupee payments will also be deposited in two private Iranian banks, escaping also the sanctions imposed on state-owned Iranian banks.

While India seems to have found a way around the sanctions at the moment, this mostly  amounts to buying time. If the sanctions extend to even private Iranian banks in June, as Obama promises, the rupee option will look increasingly bleak.

India will do well to take an actual position on the stand-off between Iran and the West, else it will be relegated to being a mere spectator in an area vital its strategic interests. Moreover, membership of the great-power club requires taking a policy stand on issues, not employing merely a series of reactive tactics, from one situation to the next.

If india wants to be taken seriously and guard its vital interests, it might consider the following.

first,  iran is not actually in violation of international law. The IAEA has stated in no unclear terms that there is no evidence of a weapons program, and that  Iran has not violated international law. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), member states are permitted to have nuclear weapons capability, and the legal red line according to the NPT’s ‘Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement’ is the diversion of nuclear material to a weapons program. However, multiple experts and official reports have confirmed over the years that no such program exists.

second, as R.Scott Kemp, a Princeton research scholar highlights, under international treaties aimed at preventing nuclear proliferation, if a state begins uranium enrichment, this comes with the obligation to be open to international inspections. iran currently has inspectors monitoring the Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilitates, and has been generally cooperative with IAEA inspections. If Iran ends uranium enrichment, it is no longer under obligation to be open to international inspection; this means that it could in fact have greater freedom in constituting a nuclear enrichment and weapons program in secret. accordingly, continuing to allow Iran to enrich uranium might be the best way to prevent iran from developing nuclear capability.

third, consider iran’s security environment, and it seems unlikely that iran will ever  completely give up its nuclear program. the US has orchestrated regime change in iran once before  ( the United States overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, supporting the Shah afterward) and US military bases surrond Iran ( see this map from informed content); Obama, at the recent State of the Union address stated: “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”  Israel has numerous nuclear heads and some speculate, and with good reason, that Israel was behind the recent murder of iranian scientists.  The difference in the international community’s response to North Korea and Libya has also reminded the Iranian leadership about the importance of a nuclear deterrence; the American occupation of Iraq an Afghanistan, while simultaneously wooing Pakistan, drives home a similar point. The nuclear capability option provides Iran with an essential insurance policy; moreover, in the event that fuel supply is disrupted by future military strikes, it makes sense for Iran to  stockpile more  enriched uranium than they need right now for their research reactor.  Even critics of the regime are aware of the threats Iran faces;  a 2010 University of Maryland survey noted that 55 per cent of Iranians support the pursuit of a nuclear program, and 38 per cent support the building of a nuclear bomb, that  even the worst critics of the regime support Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear programme, especially in light of the bellicose regional environment.

fourth,  the sanctions are not really aimed at the nuclear program, but regime change. to get the sanctions lifted, iran would have to release political prisoners, cease violent repression of protestors, take steps towards establishing an effective judiciary etc. While these might be laudable goals,they are clearly far beyond the ambit of the NPT. the threat of iran developing nuclear weapons capability is simply being used to re-order the Iranian state, with the false claim that it is violating international law. it is worth noting that conflict is fundamentally built into the logic that any foreign regime that is not similar to us in values and mind-set, should be replaced by a regime more friendly and capable of advancing our interests in the region.Given these provisions, the Iranian leadership could justifiably thinking that regardless of what action it takes with regard to its nuclear programs, the sanctions will remain – so why cooperate with the IAEA?

fifth, all this being said, there is a case to be made for re-defining national interests. national interests are not fixed; nor is the hierarchy of interests necessarily ordered in a particular manner. US-Iran relations thus do not have to be dictated by a zero sum logic.  The US and Iran in fact share common interests in Central Asia, in increasing regional trade and stability;  stability in  Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.

One option is that the IAEA and UNSC could  accept an Iranian civil nuclear program, on the condition that Iran grants inspectors full access. Or, as suggested by the 2010 deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil, but rejected by the US, Iran coud stop its enrichment in exchange for foreign supplies uranium fuel plates for its research reactor.

What is clear is that Iran is within its rights, and is unlikely to  give up its enrichment program. Military strikes will be de-stabilizing, catastrophic, an unjustified act of war that will attract retaliation. The conversation thus needs to shift from eliminating nuclear capability to improved monitoring.  India must play a more active role in shifting this conversation, else it risks becoming a spectator in its own back-yard.



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the lasting effects of intervention in iraq

Iraq had the best university system in the middle east until the 1990s.Iraqi universities went into decline in the 12 years following the Gulf War, and some hoped that the American invasion in 2003 would revive the universities, helping create space for open and critical dialogue. However, the opposite happened, notes Hugh Gusterson in this article, An education in occupation. 

Control over Iraq’s universities now lay in the hands of Andrew Erdmann, a 36-year-old American, well-connected in Republican Party patronage networks, who was senior adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Education. Erdmann spoke no Arabic and had no experience in university administration.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) did set aside $25 million to help revitalize Iraqi universities — but the money went to American universities to do curriculum development. For example, USAID gave the State University of New York at Stony Brook $4 million (half the amount Congress appropriated to restore the entire Iraqi university system) to develop a new archaeology curriculum on behalf of four Iraqi universities.

Those faculty fortunate enough to move abroad became part of the great middle-class exodus from Iraq under US occupation. It is estimated that 10 percent of Iraq’s population, and 30 percent of its professors, doctors, and engineers, left for neighboring countries between 2003 and 2007 — the largest Arab refugee displacement since the Palestinian flight from the holy lands decades earlier.

In just 20 years, then, the Iraqi university system went from being among the best in the Middle East to one of the worst. This extraordinary act of institutional destruction was largely accomplished by American leaders who told us that the US invasion of Iraq would bring modernity, development, and women’s rights. Instead, as political scientist Mark Duffield has observed, it has partly de-modernized that country.


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superman denounces american citizenship

While Robert Kagan, Drezner, and Walt and others continue  to debate about the decline of America, DC comics is pretty clear. Its new comic series Justice League International  sees  a nation-less, border-less world led by the UN ( and headed by British, Russian, and Chinese officials). Superman is clear which way the world is headed.

In April 2011, Superman — fretting that his close association with the United States had undercut his ability to defend anti-government demonstrators in Iran — went to the United Nations to renounce his American citizenship. “Truth, justice and the American way — it’s not enough anymore. The world’s too small. Too connected,” Superman tells the U.S. president’s national security adviser. “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy,” he adds. Superman may not be a fan of American exceptionalism, but he’s still inclined to go it alone.

read the rest here

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urination distraction

i wrote a piece for the sunday guardian on the controversy about us marines urinating on the taliban. see the piece here. here is a post on duckofminerva that continues in a similar vein.

In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war.  Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working.  No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war – but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military.  Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators.  But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.
Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible.  Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic.  But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare.  Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions.  Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.

Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational.  By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.

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re-defining national interest

a piece in foreign policy, All Silk Road Lead to Teheran by Neil Padukone about the gains that america could make by working with iran in enabling regional trade and security is essentially an argument for how ‘interests’ can be, and necessarily  so, re-defined. While it is in the American interest to prevent a nuclear Iran, it is also in its interest  to stabilize the middle-east.  The security dilemma that Iran and America are embedded  in can arguably only be escaped if interests are re-defined.

In contrast to the zero-sum logic that defines the current escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, the two countries share substantial interests in increasing regional trade and stability. Tehran hopes to stabilize Afghanistan and export its own natural gas and petroleum — 16 percent and 10 percent of the world’s total reserves, respectively — to the world. Indeed, its existing infrastructure — albeit in need of much improvement — is better suited to bring Turkmen natural gas to market than alternate plans to construct new pipelines across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, or all the way through the Caspian, Caucasus, and Turkey.

read rest here

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hypocrisy from the land of the free

an insightful piece by Jonathan Turley, 10 reasons the US is no longer the land of the free.  While the United States defends its intervention in the domestic affairs of other states in the name of liberty and human rights – human security over state security – it does quite the opposite at home. Turley highlights legal developments in the past decade which show that the US is no longer the land of the free.  Consider the issue of war crimes –  the Obama administration said in 2009 that it would not allow CIA employees to be investigated; this while other countries such as Iran, Chile, Syria, and China continue to be called out for their non-compliance with international law. ‘The real question is whether we are lying to ourselves when we call this country the land of the free’, writes Jonathan Turley. Read the article here

see also another piece by Turley on the same subject, The Hit List: The Public Applauds as President Obama Kills Two Citizens as a Presidential Prerogative. Turley is a professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

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video games, army recruitment, and urinating on the taliban

A video of four US marines urinating  on corpses in Afghanistan, allegedly members of the Taliban, caused much out-cry last week.  (see video, if you must )The marines were  apparently aware that they were on camera. The act has been described as “outrageous”, “sick”, “utterly deplorable” and “inhuman”; some have argued that it is a violation of human rights and the marines should be punished.  The marines have been questioned by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, though are not in custody.

The mass emotional mobilization effects of video footage notwithstanding, why are we so outraged by this act?

In 2005, for the first time since 1973, the American military met all if its recruitment goals.  The success, at least in part, can be attributed to the release of a new video game, America’s Army,  and two graphic novels, Bravo Zulu and Knowledge is Power aimed at America’s youth. Knowledge is Power depicts a staff sergeant surviving an explosion unharmed. His exclamation to the rookie soldier who saved him implies that this shows that it is wrong to be “worried about bein’ here.” The release of America’s Army was accompanied by the setting up of a 14,500 sq.-ft arcade or ‘Army Experience Center’ in a Philadelphia mall, filled with simulators and shooter video games.  According to a 2008 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”

Prospective recruits were sold the idea of joining the military by likening real life armed combat to a video game simulation. The strategy is particularly successful, intentionally so, with younger people, who are lured in by the video game imagery.  Colonel Casey Wardynski, who as director of the Army’s office of economic and manpower analysis came up with the idea of using America’s Army;  he argues that “It’s designed to give them an inside view on the very fundamentals of being a soldier, and it’s also designed to give them a sense of self-efficacy, that they can do it…  You don’t have to think what it would look like — you can see what it looks like.”

( see 2009 article in Christian Science Monitor; see also An article in The Washington Post from 2005)

But,  surely real life battlefields are surely different from the ones in America’s Army.

The video game imagery helps prevent thinking about the nature of the ‘enemy’ – that they are people, with desires, hopes, grievances, family, history –  a story. Rather, in the video game there is just the nameless, faceless, ‘bad guy’ representing evil, and the sole objective of the gamers  is to destroy the enemy; no gamer  would ever question the video game programmer about why the ‘bad’ guy deserves to be destroyed. The video game imagery also highlights the camaraderie between the good guys, the importance of sticking together and cooperating with one another. It encourages aggressiveness  and a trigger-happy mentality. It conveys a sense of  bravado and machoism derived from seeking and destroying the enemy. The use of video games is critical for the military – it enables them to recruit teenagers and young adults, psyche them up about waging war, de-personalizing their acts in the battle field, and removing questions ethical questions about the legitimacy of the war itself, the specific mission aims, or the means employed to achieve those aims.

The Wikileaks video which shows US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians in 2007 perhaps exemplifies  the video game mentality. When the lead helicopter opens fire, “Hahah, I hit’em” shouts one of the American crew; the other crew member responds, “ oh yeah, look at those dead bastards”. When one of the men on ground is wounded and starts crawling, a crew member is heard wishing for the man to reach for a gun so there would be pre-text to open fire – “ all you gotta do is pick up a weapon.” (remember the wikileaks video of american soldiers opening fire in iraq)

Why then is it so surprising that the marines urinated on the Taliban corpses? The idea of the army has been to sold to them as a video game, precisely to remove any nagging ethical or moral doubt these fighters might have when on the battle field. In America’s Armies or the popular Gears of War, it would surely would not be objectionable if the good guys urinated on the animated figure of the enemy.

To those who argue that the marines should be punished, it is worth considering whether  individual culpability or responsibility applies in such a situation. Can individuals be held personally responsible when their actions are an extension – even if an extreme one – of the manner in which they have been trained? They have been recruited, if not trained,   to think about the ‘enemy’ as nothing more than an object that should be destroyed; this facilitates the aggressiveness and one-track mentality that helps win wars.

It is also worth noting that last week was the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay, despite all Obama’s promises. As long as Guantanamo exists, the American soldier is part of a larger culture that permits or turns a blind eye to the illegal detention and inhumane treatment of suspected, but not proven, terrorists. Guantanamo violates international law every day that it continues to exist; what began as as emergency measure under Bush, has now become a permanent fixture of indefinite detention, abuse and torture under Obama How is it that we are outraged by the manner in which a corpse is treated, but say little about how the living are treated?

( see this piece from Slate – The Great Gitmo blackout)

Finally, consider the number of comments that accompany the you tube video, applauding the soldiers. Steven Clemons is right – ‘Whether many want to admit it or not, what those soldiers allegedly did represents “us” today — and that’s yet another part of the malignant manifestation of these current conflicts.’

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