Tuesday 22 May 2012

Disinformation and Reality in the Persian Gulf

The Economist, in its May 19th issue, (Iran and nuclear weapons: stick now, carrot later) ran a useful summary of diplomatic efforts and options to get Iran to relinquish its nuclear research (weaponisation) programme. According to The Economist, Iran’s new willingness to negotiate is apparently due to the effect of economic sanctions as well as IAEA reporting:

Iran’s return to the table in an apparently more constructive mood marks a sharp change. The latest round of talks failed in January 2011, after Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, set preconditions that other countries found unacceptable. But since the end of 2011 pressure on the regime in Tehran has increased. The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), published a damning report detailing its concerns over the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme.

International sanctions have bitten hard—creating a “world of hurt” in President Barack Obama’s words. America now penalises any foreign financial institutions doing business with Iran’s central bank, the country’s main conduit for oil money, and the European Union has imposed an embargo on Iranian oil, due to come into full effect by July.

According to The Economist, based on IAEA and other sources, Iran may already have sufficient nuclear material for one nuclear bomb:

On all counts, Iran is now very close to the nuclear threshold. It already has about 6,000kg of 3.5% LEU, enough to produce about five bombs-worth of weapons-grade HEU. Using the four centrifuge cascades at the new Fordow enrichment site, near the holy city of Qom, and 15 additional cascades at the main Natanz site (each has between 164 and 174 centrifuges), it has recently tripled production of 19.75% LEU to about 13kg a month. It may now have a stockpile of 150kg—near to the 185kg needed to produce the 15-20kg of HEU required for a moderately sophisticated implosion device (although about twice that amount of 19.75% LEU would be needed for a first bomb because of initial wastage).

The IAEA’s November report also indicated that Iran had probably already tested a sophisticated detonation system for an explosive device suitable for use as a ballistic-missile warhead (albeit the tests are likely to have taken place before 2004, when the weaponisation side of the programme was pursued more energetically than it is today). Informed by the IAEA’s work and intelligence sources, estimates of Iran’s potential timeline to nuclear weapons—if the country were to quit the NPT and throw everything into its programme—vary between just a couple of months for a single crude device and more than two years for an arsenal of three or four nuclear-tipped, solid-fuelled ballistic missiles.

Unmentioned in this report is the military build-up which has been occurring in the Middle East and Persian Gulf over the past 6 months. This force increase is aimed both at Syria and Iran. In Syria, the force increase is meant to both discourage the Syrian conflict from spilling over to neighbouring regions, as well as to signal resolve towards the Syrian government. Recent press reports, however, indicate that Western public opinion is now being prepared to accept a force intervention in the name of protecting chemical weapons stockpiles and intervening against Al Qaeda. The Syrian conflict has already spilled over into Lebanon and Turkey, as well as involving more distant allies and proxies such as Libya and Iran. 

The Washington Post reported on May 19th (US, allies accelerating plans to secure chemical arsenal as Syrian crisis worsens) on plans to secure stocks of chemical weapons or intervene against Al Qaeda in Syria:

The planning, involving intelligence and military officials from at least seven countries, includes detailed arrangements for securing chemical arms with special operations troops in the event that parts of Syria are seized by militants, the officials said. Western and regional intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Islamic extremists could attempt to seize control of whole towns and districts if the country slides into full-scale civil war.

The same newspaper reported on May 17th that a United Nations expert panel had identified that Iran was shipping illicit weapons to Syria and Afghanistan (Diplomat: UN experts report Syria continues to be main destination of illicit Iranian weapons). Interestingly enough, this article never establishes exactly what the illicit weapons are, although it does hint at “rockets”.

An expert panel monitoring U.N. sanctions on Iran has reported that Syria continues to be the main destination of illicit Iranian weapons, a Security Council diplomat said Wednesday. The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the panel’s report has not been released, said it identified three new illegal shipments, two involving Syria which was also the previous destination of a majority of Iranian arms shipments.

These press reports come on the heels of earlier reports that some 12,000 special forces troops from the United States and other countries have deployed on a "military exercise" in Jordan. Agence France Presse reports that:

The United States and its allies have started in Jordan what was described as the largest military exercises in the Middle East in 10 years, focusing on "irregular warfare," top officers said on Tuesday.…Eager Lion 2012 "is the largest exercise held in the region in the past ten years," he said at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre in north Amman. More than 12,000 soldiers are taking part in the war games, representing 19 countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Australia.

In another set of reports, the press has been focussing on the build-up of forces around Iran in the Persian Gulf, and Israeli decision-making on whether or not to take military action.

On April 26th Aviation Week reported (UAE-based F22s a signal to Iran) that the US moved an F-22 wing to the Al Dafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

As tensions between Tehran, Washington and Tel Aviv continue to mount over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technologies, the U.S. has quietly begun a deployment of its premier stealthy fighter, the twin-engine F-22, to the United Arab Emirates. Multiple Lockheed Martin aircraft will operate out of Al Dhafra Air Base there, industry sources say. This is the same base from which U.S. U-2s and Global Hawk UAVs have been launched since shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Los Angeles Times reported on January 12th (US boosts its military presence in Persian Gulf) of the increase of US forces in the Gulf region. These forces include troop contingents stationed there after their withdrawal from Iraq, as well as naval forces which have been transferred independently:

The Pentagon has stationed nearly 15,000 troops in Kuwait, including a small contingent already there. The new deployments include two Army infantry brigades and a helicopter unit, a substantial increase in combat power after nearly a decade in which Kuwait chiefly served as a staging area for supplies and personnel heading to Iraq.

The Pentagon also has decided to keep two aircraft carriers and their strike groups in the region. This week, the American aircraft carrier Carl Vinson joined the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis in the Arabian Sea, giving commanders major naval and air assets in case Iran carries out its recent threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic choke point in the Persian Gulf through which one-fifth of the world's oil shipments passes.

Finally, Reuters published an article on May 17th (Iran attack decision nears, Israeli elite locks down) that the Israeli political leadership is in the final process of decision-making as to whether or not to attack Iran, and when:

As the deadline for a decision draws nearer, the public pronouncements of Israel's top officials and military have changed. After hawkish warnings about a possible strike earlier this year, their language of late has been more guarded and clues to their intentions more difficult to discern.

"The top of the government has gone into lockdown," one official said. "Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand."

This brief review of developments as described in “mainstream” media remind one of previous campaigns to prepare public opinion for war in the Persian Gulf. At this stage, it is difficult to understand whether the military build-up is there to be used, or as a negotiating tactic to force a diplomatic outcome. This is no doubt a deliberate tactic.

What remains to be seen, however, is how long this armed stability will last. It is difficult to imagine that Iran, for example, will risk a direct confrontation. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine Iran giving up a hypothetical nuclear weapons programme given the lessons of the military interventions of the past 12 years (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). The leopard, it is said, does not change its spots, and in this case there are several leopards hunting in the same neighbourhood.

© Philip Ammerman, 2012

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