Iran Election Guide

Donate to EAWV

Or, click to learn more


Entries in Mike Mullen (5)


Scott Lucas in The Guardian: Obama Administration's Battle over Iran and Israel

iran-flag8Since I wrote this for The Guardian, there have been further developments, notably Israel's stepped-up campaign to bump Washington into a hard-line Iran-first policy. The efforts have been more political than military, notably Tel Aviv's threat that it will not enter meaningful negotiations over Palestine unless the US commits to further pressure upon Tehran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck back yesterday, telling Israel to back off on the threat. That indicates that the Obama line of engagement is still prevailing within the Administration, as does the silence of Petraeus and Mullen over the last two weeks.

Forgive the somewhat dramatic headline, which led to a lot of irrelevant comments. The issue is not whether the US backs an Israeli airstrike but whether it suspends the gradual but clear move towards discussions with Iran.

To bomb, or not to bomb, Iran

Just over a month ago, President Barack Obama broke a 30-year embargo on US relations with Iran: he offered goodwill not only to "Iranians" but to the country's government. Speaking on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, he said:

"I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbours and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace."

It's no surprise that this message, given a generation of tension between Washington and Tehran, has been challenged in the US. What's more interesting is that the greatest threat to Obama's engagement comes not from media sceptics from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal or the foundations now packed with refugees from the Bush administration or even the Middle Eastern institutes putting a priority on Israeli security. No, Obama's most daunting opponents are within his own administration.

Less than two weeks after the Nowruz address, General David Petraeus, the head of the US military command overseeing Iran and the Persian Gulf, offered a far different portrayal of Iran to a Senate committee:
Iranian activities and policies constitute the major state-based threat to regional stability. … Iran is assessed by many to be continuing its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, which would destabilise the region and likely spur a regional arms race.

The next day Petraeus's boss, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, visited the offices of the Wall Street Journal, which has taken a consistent editorial line against dialogue with the Iranian government. Far from supporting his president, Mullen told the newspaper: "I think we've got a problem now. ... I think the Iranians are on a path to building nuclear weapons." Not even past enemies were as menacing: "Even in the darkest days of the cold war we talked to the Soviets. … [But now] we don't have a lot of time."

What's going on here? There are clear political goals behind Obama's approach of dialogue rather than confrontation. The hope is that Iran will not challenge the US approach to Middle Easten issues, in particular Israel-Palestine and Israel-Syria talks, through its connections with Hamas and Hezbollah. An easing of political tensions in turn may remove the motive for Tehran to reverse its suspension of research and development for a nuclear weapons – as opposed to civilian nuclear energy – programme.

Yet there are also military benefits from a US-Iran rapprochement. As Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke has made clear, a partnership with Tehran could ease the American burden in Afghanistan, especially as the troop surge is being implemented. Better relations could assist with the political transition in Iraq as the US draws down its overt military presence. Eventually, an Iranian renunciation of nuclear weapons would finally remove a significant strategic question mark in the region.

In part, the calculation of Petraeus and Mullen is that Iran cannot be trusted in these areas. For years, US commanders in Iraq have alleged that Iran has been backing the insurgency, and Petraeus has also claimed that Tehran has supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. In his testimony to the Senate committee, the general expanded this into a grand nefarious Iranian scheme:
Iran employs surrogates and violent proxies to weaken competitor states, perpetuate conflict with Israel, gain regional influence and obstruct the Middle East peace process. Iran also uses some of these groups to train and equip militants in direct conflict with US forces. Syria, Iran's key ally, facilitates the Iranian regime's reach into the Levant and the Arab world by serving as the key link in an Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance and allows extremists (albeit in smaller numbers than in the past) to operate in Damascus and to facilitate travel into Iraq.

Still, in their public opposition to Obama's Iran policy, the military commanders are playing one card before all others: Israel.

Petraeus's threat to the congressmen was far from subtle: "The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take pre-emptive military action to derail or delay it." Mullen told the Wall Street Journal: "There is a leadership in Israel that is not going to tolerate" a nuclear Iran. This was a "life or death" matter in which "the operative word is 'existential'".

Are they bluffing? If so, it's a bluff that has been coordinated with Tel Aviv. Last summer, Israel asked for but did not get George Bush's support for an airstrike on Iran. It took only six weeks for the Israelis to revive the topic with the new Obama administration: the commander of the Israeli armed forces, General Gabi Ashkenazi, visited Washington with the message "that an Israeli military strike was a 'serious' option".

While Ashkenazi was told by Obama's political advisers to put his fighter planes away, the story of Israeli military plans continues to be circulated. Only last weekend, Sheera Frenkel of The Times was fed the story: "The Israeli military is preparing itself to launch a massive aerial assault on Iran's nuclear facilities within days of being given the go-ahead by its new government."

High-level Obama officials are fighting back. Aware that a frontal assault on the popular Petraeus would be politically dangerous, they have tried to curb the "Israel will strike" campaign. Vice-president Joe Biden told CNN that new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "would be ill-advised to do that". Perhaps more importantly, secretary of defence Robert Gates said last week that an Israeli attack would have "dangerous consequences". Reading that signal, Israeli President Shimon Peres backed away from earlier tough talk and assured: "All the talk about a possible attack by Israel on Iran is not true. The solution in Iran is not military."

So, for this moment, Petraeus and Mullen appear to have been checked. However, they and their military allies, such as General Raymond Odierno in Iraq, have been persistent in challenging Obama over strategy from Kabul to Baghdad to Jerusalem. It is their manoeuvring, rather than Tehran's jailing of an Iranian-American journalist like Roxana Saberi or even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speeches at UN conferences, that is Barack Obama's greatest foe.

Pakistan: Who's in Charge? (Clue from Washington: General Kiyani)

kiyaniQuestion of the Day: Who is the most important "reliable" leader in Pakistan?

No, it's not --- at least if you're a key official in the Obama Administration --- President Asif Ali Zardari. The correct answer is General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani (pictured).

How do I know this? Because I read David Ignatius in The Washington Post.

Ignatius is a sharp, smart journalist who writes well. He's also best considered, with his access to highly-placed Government sources and his re-presentation of their thoughts, as the media auxiliary of the State Department and the Pentagon.

When Ignatius snuck this into the conclusion of his 10 April opinion piece, "A Short Fuse in Pakistan", it was more than a throw-away comment:
If there's a positive sign in all this [political] chaos, it's that the Pakistani army isn't intervening to clean up the mess. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, has been telling the feuding politicians to get their act together. But he seems to understand that the route to stability isn't through another army coup, but by making this unruly democracy work before it's too late.

Six days later, Ignatius extended his comment with this revelation about the Long March, "A month ago, Pakistan came close to a political breakdown that could have triggered a military coup." He explained with this account of events:
The lawyers' movement began its march on March 12, pledging to occupy Islamabad until the government restored [Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar] Chaudhry to his post. Zardari sent a police force known as the Rangers into the streets of Lahore, apparently hoping to intimidate [opposition political leader Nawaz] Sharif and the marchers. But Sharif evaded the police and joined the protesters as they headed north toward Islamabad.

Kiyani then faced the moment of decision. According to U.S. and Pakistani sources, Zardari asked the army chief to stop the march and protect Islamabad. Kiyani refused, after discussing the dilemma with his friend Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, Kiyani called Sharif and told him to return home to Lahore, according to one source. And he called the leader of the lawyers' movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, and told him to halt in the city of Gujranwala and wait for a government announcement.

Although Ignatius was careful to give credit to Zardari and Sharif as well as Kiyani and although he made clear that US officials were "hoping that the three could form a united front against the Taliban insurgency in the western frontier areas", he closed with this first-amongst-equals assessment:
On the political scorecard, Zardari came out a loser and Sharif and [Prime Minister Yousuf Raza] Gillani as winners. But the decisive actor was Kiyani, who managed to defuse the crisis without bringing the army into the streets.

And who is behind this analysis? That's not so difficult to discover: in both opinion pieces, Ignatius refers to the "visit to Islamabad by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke [Obama's envoy to Afghanistan-Pakistan] and Admiral Mike Mullen [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]" two weeks ago. As their spokesperson, he gives their impression of the weakness and division in the Pakistan political leadership:
Anne Patterson, the highly regarded U.S. ambassador, had assembled some of the nation's political elite to welcome the visiting Americans. During a question-and-answer session, a shouting match erupted between a prominent backer of President Asif Ali Zardari and a supporter of dissident Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

On some major security and intelligence issues, [Zardari] claimed no knowledge or sought to shift blame to others, and the overall impression was of an accidental president who still has an uncertain grasp on power.

This is far from the first time that Ignatius has been the conduit for Washington's view of the "right" Pakistani Government. The day of Barack Obama's election, he wrote:
What's different on the Pakistani side isn't just the secret cooperation with America. There was lots of that under the previous president, Pervez Musharraf. What's new is that Zardari and Kiyani are working openly to build popular support for their operations against the Muslim militants....And Kiyani seems determined to stop [former President Pervez] Musharraf's practice of using the [Pakistani intelligence service] ISI to maintain contact with the Afghan warlords.

What has changed in the last five months is that Zardari is no longer reliable, both in his domestic political manoeuvres and his apparent willingness to make concessions to the "militants" in northwest Pakistan. So Washington cannot expect him to implement the proper programme, again put forth by Ignatius, to curb the insurgency:
America should channel its aid through the tribal chiefs, known as maliks, rather than the corrupt Pakistani government. It should help train the Frontier Corps, a rough-hewn tribal constabulary, rather than rely on Pakistani army troops who are seen as outsiders. To curb the militant Islamic madrassas, the United States should help improve the abysmal public schools in the region.

But that, of course, raises the dilemma lurking in Ignatius's recent columns. Like it or not, the unreliable Zardari is still the legal head of state in Pakistan. Toppling him with a military coup --- even if Kiyani wanted to make the move --- would give a most un-democratic appearance to Washington's campaign in the region, as well as raising memories of the Bush Administration's ultimately ill-fated co-operation with General/President Musharraf.

So Ignatius --- speaking for Holbrooke, Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama --- has to be clear that Washington helped prevent a coup last month. At the same time, the question is still hanging: what if Zardari continues to be ineffective and uncooperative?

What if, to repeat but slightly adjust Ignatius's words, Washington concludes, "this unruly democracy [can't] work before it's too late"? The least bad option, as perceived by US policymakers, may be that it's time for General Kiani to take over the top spot --- in public rather than behind the scenes --- in the Pakistani Government.

The Engagement is Official: US, Iran in Nuclear Talks

Related Post: A Beginners' Guide to Engagement with Iran

us-iran-flags2The  initial news last night was that Undersecretary of State William Burns was in London in  "5+1" talks with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China on Iran's nuclear programme. Then came the revelation. Iran will soon be there as well: Washington is dropping its policy of no direct discussions with Tehran. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the brief announcement, "There's nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon." You can choose the political spin on this from different newspapers. For both The New York Times and The Washington Post, "U.S. to Join Iran Talks Over Nuclear Program". For The Daily Telegraph, desperate to prove Tehran is giving way, "Iran Offered New Nuclear Talks". So let's leave it to a State Department official to make the concise summary, "It was kind of silly that we had to walk out of the room" whenever Iranians were nearby.

While Iranian media have highlighted the US change in position, there has been no official Iranian reaction to the news. However, the 5+1 meeting and Clinton's statement follow contact between US and the Iran at The Hague conference on Afghanistan. Ensuing signals indicated that Iran was happy to take up engagement: last week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran will shake an "honest hand".

This American decision confirms a significant break from the Bush Administration's attempt to isolate Iran. First, Bush officials broke off direct contact with Tehran in May 2003, rejecting an Iranian letter which offered detailed talks. A double game followed: Washington would push for more economic sanctions against Iran while European countries persisted in negotations. When those negotiations were close to a breakthrough, the US Government would pull back from any agreement, and the finger-wagging --- from both the US and Iran --- would resume.

Perhaps more importantly, the offer of direct talks may put Obama's military commanders in their place. Last week both Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, pointedly warned that Israel would be attacking an operating Iranian nuclear facility. Vice President Joe Biden finally stepped in publicly, telling CNN that Israel "would be ill-advised" to carry out an airstrike.

The Obama Administration has also made this move despite (possibly because of) reports that President Ahmadinejad will today announce that the nuclear plant at Bushehr is now active. And it has done so despite yesterday's news that Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, detained in Iran since January, has been charged with espionage.

This is the clearest signal that Obama, in contrast to his predecessor, has decided that it is better to live with an Iran with a nuclear programme rather than to pursue confrontation. Doing so, Washington hopes to reap the benefit of Iranian assistance --- or non-interference --- with American initiatives from Afghanistan to the Middle East.

Mr Obama's War: Pakistan Pushes Back at US Envoy Holbrooke

pakistan-flag4Lost amidst the attention to President Obama's trip in Europe, another US tourist, a Mr Richard Holbrooke, wound up in Islamabad yesterday.

US envoy Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, didn't even catch the attention of The Washington Post. Which might be a good thing, because Pakistani officials did not follow the Obama script for a united War against Al Qa'eda/Taliban terror:

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the press after the meeting with Holbrooke, “We did talk about drones, and let me be very frank: there is a gap between us.” He continued, with diplomacy barely concealing Pakistan's decision to push back at the Americans:
The terms of engagement are very clear. We will engage with mutual trust and mutual respect, and that is the bottom line. We can only work together if we respect each other and trust each other. There is no other way and nothing else will work.

Holbrooke and Mullen got an even sharper rebuke from the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI), Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who refused to meet separately with the Americans. Pasha did attend a discussion between Holbrooke, Mullen, and the head of the Pakistan military, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani.

Of course, you can try out the ritual line that Pakistani officials are putting out a tough line for the sake of domestic opinion while privately being nice to their visitors. Yesterday's sparring, however, pointed to a real division between Islamabad and Washington.

The Obama Administration has been telling the Zardari Government not only that it has to accept the American military strategy but that it has to clean out those elements supporting the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents. That warning has been specially directed at the ISI. On Tuesday, US officials piled on more pressure, letting The New York Times know that Washington was considering an expansion of drone attacks across northwest Pakistan.

It is unsurprising that the ISI's General Pasha would show personal resistance with his snub of Holbrooke and Mullen. More intriguing is the Foreign Ministry's forthright challenge to the drone strategy. And even more interesting, if curious, is the behaviour of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari is persisting with his unsubtle public-relations mission to prove the wisdom of Zardari. He was the subject of a lengthy Sunday profile in The New York Times by James Traub which, unfortunately for the President, didn't provide the boost he wanted:
The Pakistani people have grown weary of his artful dodging. Zardari’s poll numbers are dreadful. More important, he has given little sustained attention to the country’s overwhelming problems — including, of course, the Islamist extremism that, for the Obama administration, has made Pakistan quite possibly the most important, and worrisome, country in the world. Zardari has bought himself more time, but for Pakistan itself, the clock is ticking louder and louder.

Today's more successful effort by Zardari is in The Independent of London, which gives him the space in a question-and-answer session to put his claim for political legitimacy:
Our military and intelligence agencies are behaving responsibly and respecting the sovereignty and legitimacy of the elected government.  That is an enormous and positive change that bodes well for the future. We have been elected for five years and there is no point in giving a final verdict on our performance within a few months or even a year of our taking office.

On the issue of the US military strategy, Zardari is playing a double game. After his meeting with Holbrooke, his office issued the statement, "Pakistan is fighting a battle for its own survival....The president said the government would not succumb to any pressure by militants." In the interview with The Independent, however, the President also tried to put limits on the drone attacks:
We would much prefer that the US share its intelligence and give us the weapons, drones and missiles that will allow us to take care of this problem on our own. President Obama has denied any such intentions to extend the use of drone attacks to Balochistan. These drone attacks are counter productive.

As the tourist Mr. Richard Holbrooke takes his Rough Guide to India today, he may be reflecting on his rather unwelcome stay in Pakistan. Forget for the moment the issue of an American "exit strategy" from its military efforts. Washington doesn't even have a clear "entry strategy" on how it is going to shape the Islamabad Government to its plans.

Iran: No Giving Up the Nuclear Program. No Way.

iran-flag6Even as General David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen defy the Obama engagement strategy and try out the latest scare line --- Israel is most definitely going to take out an Iranian nuclear facility --- here's a little tip-off from Agence France Presse that Tehran will not be giving up its atomic-energy programme:
Former Iranian prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is running for the presidency in the June election, said he will push ahead with the country's controversial nuclear drive if elected.

"Having nuclear technology for peaceful purposes without being a threat to the world is our strategic objective," Mousavi said in a speech to his election campaign managers on Tuesday.

"I do not think any government will dare to take a step back in this regard, since people will question the decision. Given the long-term interest, we are obliged not to back down on this or other similar issues."

The statement is even more significant because Mousavi is considered the "reformist" candidate in the election.

Put bluntly, the nuclear-energy issue is one of sovereignty for anyone running for high office in Iran. That is a given, beyond the speculation and exaggeration of an Iranian move towards the Bomb, and any American strategy should begin from that recognition.