U.S. supports Saudi-led assault on Yemen but won’t rescue trapped American citizens

Business Insider: The speed with which Yemen’s conflict escalated last week has taken many by surprise, with a Saudi-led Arab multinational force launching military operations after president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the country by boat on March 25th.

And it’s especially awkward for the Obama administration.

Washington has held up Yemen as a counter-terror model, most notably during President Barack Obama’s September 10, 2014 speech announcing military operations against ISIS.

The idea is that the US would provide intelligence and forms of kinetic assistance (drones, special operations raids, and so on) to partner governments without committing ground troops or asking for internally disruptive political reforms.

The Yemen blow-up puts the administration in an awkward position. Saying the increasingly violent and ungoverned country is no longer a counter-terror model is tantamount to admitting that the premises behind the US’s anti-ISIS strategy are deeply flawed. But saying it is still a model means copping to just how narrow the US’s objectives in the Middle East really are.

A remarkable moment of candor on this front came on March 26 as it became apparent that Yemen’s recognized president had fled the country. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and was asked if Yemen’s breakdown in any way diminishes its appeal as a counter-terrorism model.

Earnest conceded that Yemen’s situation is dire, and then said: “The measure of the US policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise.

“The goal of us policy towards Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of US policy in Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven than extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States, and that involves trying to build up the capacity of the government to help us in that fight.”

IBT reports: The exodus of foreign diplomats and citizens from war-torn Yemen has surged in recent days amid Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed Houthi militias, who have taken over much of the country. China, India, Pakistan and Somalia have sent ships and planes to evacuate their citizens trapped in Yemen. The United States moved its embassy staff out of Yemen after suspending embassy operations in the capital Sanaa last month, and remaining military personnel were airlifted out last week. But the U.S. government has yet to announce any evacuation plans for Americans in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s campaign — which was coordinated with help from the United States — has Yemen landlocked, with the airports and major seaports shut down. Yemeni-Americans said they received no warning of the Saudi attack, and now they are desperate for alternate escape routes.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a San Francisco native who is currently in Sanaa, said he never received a response from the State Department. “The U.S. coordinated with Saudi on logistics, so they must have been aware of what was coming,” he told Al Jazeera. “And yet we received no warning. If India and Somalia can find a way to evacuate their nationals, why can’t the U.S.?” [Continue reading…]

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Arab nations alarmed by prospect of U.S. nuclear deal with Iran

Ian Black writes: Arab governments are watching the endgame of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme with barely-concealed alarm, fearing that the US is bent on a rapprochement with Tehran, not so much at any price, but certainly at the expense of its long-standing Gulf allies.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, has made clear its unhappiness with the emerging deal. Still, unlike Israel, which flatly opposes any agreement, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more subtle approach. Adel Jubeir, its ambassador to the US, pledged to wait to see the outcome before criticising it. Jubair also conspicuously refused to rule out the kingdom seeking its own nuclear weapons — a pointed reminder to Barack Obama of the nuclear proliferation risks if his Iran strategy does not succeed.

The Saudis have hinted for years that they would turn to Pakistan if they felt threatened by a nuclear Iran. Last year they displayed their Chinese-made intermediate-range ballistic missiles — capable of reaching Tehran — at a parade attended by the general who controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It was, said the Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel, “ a very calculated signal”. [Continue reading…]

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Iran nuke talks to continue in new phase

The Associated Press reports: Wrapping up six days of marathon nuclear talks with mixed results, Iran and six world powers prepared Tuesday to issue a general statement agreeing to continue talks in a new phase aimed at reaching a final agreement to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions by the end of June, officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Officials had set a deadline of March 31 for a framework agreement, and later softened that wording to a framework understanding, between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

And after intense negotiations, obstacles remained on uranium enrichment, where stockpiles of enriched uranium should be stored, limits on Iran’s nuclear research and development and the timing and scope of sanctions relief among other issues.

The joint statement is to be accompanied by additional documents that outline more detailed understandings, allowing the sides to claim enough progress has been made thus far to merit a new round, the officials said. Iran has not yet signed off on the documents, one official said, meaning any understanding remains unclear.

The talks have already been extended twice as part of more than a decade of diplomatic attempts to curb Tehran’s nuclear advance. [Continue reading…]

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Dilip Hiro: Afghanistan’s China card

In June 2014, as he was preparing to send 300 U.S. military advisers back to Iraq, President Obama hailed the American counterterror campaign in Yemen — Special Operations advisers (and CIA operatives) on the ground, drones in the air — as a “model” for what he hoped to do against the Islamic State. In September, as Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post wrote, President Obama “cited his Yemen strategy as a template for confronting jihadist threats in other places, including Iraq and Syria.” He was still making reference to its “success” this January when discussing what had become Iraq War 3.0.

Last week, however, with al-Qaeda militants taking a nearby town, Washington withdrew its final 100 Special Operations advisers in Yemen from a southern air base where U.S. drones had been stationed and halted all military operations in the country. By then, the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, the capital, had been shuttered for a month. Meanwhile $500 million in U.S. weaponry had reportedly gone missing in that country and might be in the hands of almost anyone, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of the terror franchise. That group had only grown stronger under years of American drone strikes.

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now control the north of the country, including Sana’a, and recently seized its third largest city and headed south toward the port of Aden. Yemen seems at the edge of civil war and backers of the Islamic State may even have a foothold there. Strikes from U.S. drones based in Saudi Arabia, among other places, will undoubtedly continue, though assumedly with even less on-the-ground intelligence from Yemeni sources. In sum, as with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya, hopes in Washington that once were so high have been dashed. This is, by now, a commonplace experience:  the early moments of any U.S. military campaign seem so successful — and then, with the passage of time, the verdict comes in: another failure for the twenty-first-century American way of war.

Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro considers one of those failed efforts — in Afghanistan, where the planet’s former “sole superpower” now seems to be losing out not only to local Taliban militants, whose strength has been on the upswing, but to the power it may fear most: an economically rising China. In these years, from the Middle East to Africa, that country has had an uncanny ability to sweep up the imperial spoils, especially local energy resources, without sending a soldier into battle. Now, it seems, China may be in the process of doing just that in Afghanistan.

On this subject and the associated contest between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan, Hiro, whom Jeremy Scahill has called “the quintessential non-aligned journalist… the master chronicler of some of history’s most epic battles,” knows a thing or two. His monumental new book, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan, is the first definitive history of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. With a desperate Obama administration struggling over just how many U.S. military personnel to leave in Afghanistan for how endlessly and fruitlessly long, it makes sense to put Washington’s perspective aside for a moment and try to get a bead on what’s really happening in South Asia and Afghanistan through a different lens. Tom Engelhardt

The Great Game in Afghanistan (twenty-first-century update)
And the U.S. is losing out
By Dilip Hiro

Call it an irony, if you will, but as the Obama administration struggles to slow down or halt its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is performing a withdrawal operation of his own. He seems to be in the process of trying to sideline the country’s major patron of the last 13 years — and as happened in Iraq after the American invasion and occupation there, Chinese resource companies are again picking up the pieces.

[Read more…]

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Iran’s top negotiator says accord can be drafted

The New York Times reports: Iran’s chief diplomat said on Saturday that he had had productive discussions with his European counterparts and that Iranian negotiators were ready to begin drafting an initial agreement on a nuclear accord.

“I believe that France and Germany are serious about an agreement,” said Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. “We are ready to draft.”

Western diplomats said the atmosphere in the talks was workmanlike. But they also cautioned that gaps remained and that it was still unclear if they could be bridged.

Negotiators are trying to meet a Tuesday deadline for settling on the main parameters of an accord. Once that step is taken, a comprehensive agreement with detailed technical addendums is to be finished by the end of June.

With the deadline just days away, foreign ministers from other world powers began arriving here to join Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Zarif, who have been meeting since Thursday. The arrival of the French and German foreign ministers on Saturday was generally seen as an indication that the talks were approaching a pivotal moment. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration on the Middle East: The distance between statements and facts

The New York Times reports: Making sense of the Obama administration’s patchwork of policies “is a puzzle,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and former senior State Department official.

“But whether that puzzle reflects the lack of a coherent policy on the administration side or whether that puzzle simply reflects the complexity of the power struggles on the ground in the region — well, both are probably true,” she said.

The chaos gives regional rivals “more reasons to fight out that power struggle and more arenas to do it in,” Ms. Wittes said.

The lightning pace of events has fueled criticism that the Obama administration has no long-term strategy for the region. In picking proxies and allies of convenience, the argument goes, the administration risks making the chaos worse — perhaps strengthening terrorist groups’ hand, and deepening the chances of being drawn into fights Americans do not want.

One senior Obama administration official described the difficulty of trying to develop a coherent strategy during a period of extreme tumult.

“We’re trying to beat ISIL — and there are complications,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have a partner who is collapsing in Yemen and we’re trying to support that. And we’re trying to get a nuclear deal with Iran. Is this all part of some grand strategy? Unfortunately, the world gets a vote.”

The administration had until recently held up Yemen as a model of a successful counterterrorism campaign, only to see the American-backed government in Sana crumble and the efforts against Qaeda operatives in Yemen crippled indefinitely. Earlier this week, American Special Operations troops stationed there had to detonate their large equipment before evacuating Yemen and flying across the Red Sea to an American base in Djibouti — concerned that the war matériel would fall into the hands of the Houthi forces.

In Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, the administration talks as if it is supporting the orderly transitions to state building, but its actions are in fact helping to dismantle the central states, said Peter Harling, a researcher with the International Crisis Group, who with the journalist Sarah Birke recently wrote an essay analyzing the regional dynamic.

In each case, local players like the Islamic State or the Houthi movement have stepped into a power vacuum to stake their own claims, but none have the credibility or wherewithal to unify or govern.

But Washington, Mr. Harling said, insisted in each case on maintaining the fiction that its favored local player had a viable chance to rebuild an orderly state — whether moderate rebels in Syria, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad or the Hadi government in Yemen.

The Western powers “have to pretend the situation is not as bad as it is, so they don’t have to accept failure and take ownership of the situation,” Mr. Harling said. “In many years of working in the region, I have never seen such a distance between statements and fact.”

“Unfortunately, the world gets a vote,” said a senior Obama administration official who didn’t want to be named.

I can imagine those words coming from the lips of deputy national security adviser for strategic communication Ben Rhodes, and the the reason he wouldn’t want to be named would not be because of the proverbial sensitivity of the issues. It would simply be for the sake of saving himself embarrassment. And avoiding the risk of having such words quoted back to him in a Senate hearing while he seeks approval for some position in another administration.

When the question is whether this administration has a coherent strategy and the response is that unfortunately, the world gets a vote, the implication is that under the Obama administration’s unchallenged management, the problems of the Middle East could all be sorted out. The problems, so the argument goes, all come from those other pesky foreign powers.

That’s the kind of claim that can only be insinuated and must additionally be cloaked in anonymity, because if made explicitly and with attribution it would deservedly draw a derisory response.

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The dangers of the Arab intervention in Yemen

Kenneth M. Pollack writes: The news that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states along with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan have launched air strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen should give every American pause. Yes, the Houthis are Shi’a who receive some degree of backing from Iran, but this is a very dangerous escalation that is unlikely to improve the situation in Yemen and risks the stability of Saudi Arabia over the medium to long term. Moreover, the Iranian role has been greatly exaggerated in what is first and foremost a Yemeni civil war.

Even with U.S. assistance, the GCC and its coalition partners lack the capacity to break Houthi ground operations the way that American air power has been able to smash ISIS ground operations in Iraq and Syria. With enough American help, they could certainly inflict some harm on the Houthis, but they are unlikely to be able to materially shift the balance of power. If the airstrikes fail, as seems more likely than not, there is a real danger that these same states will decide to intervene on the ground—and that intervention will be largely composed of Saudi forces.

As I warned in a previous post on Yemen co-authored with the highly-regarded scholar of civil wars, Barbara Walter, a compelling body of scholarly research on civil wars has found that interventions into civil wars on behalf of the losing side rarely produce a rapid, negotiated settlement. Instead, they typically prolong the conflict, producing more death and devastation. Of greatest importance in this case, they also have a bad habit of overstressing the intervening state—especially when that state has limited capabilities and internal problems of its own. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. is providing air cover for ethnic cleansing in Iraq

Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent write: American warplanes have begun bombing the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Tikrit in order to bail out the embattled, stalled ground campaign launched by Baghdad and Tehran two weeks ago. This operation, billed as “revenge” for the Islamic State (IS) massacre of 1,700 Shiite soldiers at Camp Speicher last June, was launched without any consultation with Washington and was meant to be over by now, three weeks after much triumphalism by the Iraqi government about how swiftly the terrorist redoubt in Saddam Hussein’s hometown was going to be retaken.

U.S. officials have variously estimated that either 23,000 or 30,000 “pro-government” forces were marshaled for the job, of which only slender minority were actual Iraqi soldiers. The rest consisted of a consortium of Shiite militia groups operating under the banner of Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Population Mobilization Units (PMU), which was assembled in answer to a fatwah issued by Iraq’s revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in June 2014 following ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq. To give you a sense of the force disparity, the PMUs are said to command 120,000 fighters, whereas the Iraqi Army has only got 48,000 troops.

Against this impressive array of paramilitaries, a mere 400 to 1,000 IS fighters have managed to hold their ground in Tikrit, driving major combat operations to a halt. This is because the Islamic State is resorting to exactly the kinds of lethal insurgency tactics which al Qaeda in Iraq (its earlier incarnation) used against the more professional and better-equipped U.S. forces. BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio has ably documented the extent to which IS has relied upon improvised explosive devices, and just how sophisticated these have been. Even skilled explosive ordnance disposal teams — many guided by Iranian specialists — are being ripped apart by what one termed the “hidden enemy” in Tikrit. [Continue reading…]

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An Iran deal would begin a long process

Simond DeGalbert, a former French diplomat and former member of the French negotiating team in the P5+1 discussions with Iran, writes: A comprehensive Iran deal looks ever more likely today than it did recently, even if many issues remain to be solved. Western leaders have repeatedly stated their view that no deal would be preferable to a bad one—a point that’s yielded intense debate about what exactly would constitute a good deal versus a bad deal. Considering the highly technical nature of the issues at stake, it’s no surprise the devil will be in the details. It will be hard to assess the deal before every provision of the last annex to the comprehensive agreement is signed on, if it ever happens. But assuming we do, assessing the quality of the agreement should mostly be done in light of its objectives and of the agreement’s ability to fulfil them.

If a comprehensive deal is struck, it’s important to remember that the deal is just the beginning. As hard as the negotiations have been, the implementation and enforcement of the deal over the coming years will be an ongoing challenge—but it can be surmountable as long as the P5+1 set clear enforcement mechanisms.

To understand what a deal will mean in the years ahead, it’s important to understand how the negotiations unfolded. As a matter of fact, our expectations about what a comprehensive agreement could achieve have changed over time. Since 2002, concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program have mostly been fueled by the covert development of enrichment activities, but also by their obvious inconsistency with any identifiable civilian needs and the acquisition of nuclear militarization know-how. Hence the long-term objective, enshrined in United Nations Security Council resolutions, to establish the exclusively peaceful nature of the program, through a full suspension of enrichment in Iran.

It is the assumption that this prerequisite would prevent a negotiated breakthrough that led P5+1 to alter the terms of their negotiation with Iran in the 2013 Joint Plan of Action. From that point forward, an agreement was not to be based on an unambiguous Iranian strategic shift, but rather on the insurance that Tehran’s program would not be turned from its existing dual nature to an entirely military one. Such “constructive” ambiguity about Iran’s program and intentions could be achieved through agreed upon enrichment restrictions, the conversion of the heavy-water reactor of Arak and intrusive monitoring and verification. [Continue reading…]

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What George Washington would have said about Netanyahu

Mark Perry writes: Early in the afternoon of Monday, February 23–the day following the anniversary of George Washington’s birth—North Dakota Republican John Hoeven rose from his seat, walked to the podium of the U.S. Senate, and began to read George Washington’s “Farewell Address.” In his seminal good-bye to the nation, the first president condemned the rise of political parties because they “distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration,” and warned against “a passionate attachment of one Nation for another,” which “produces a variety of evils.”

What’s striking about the latest recitation of the Farewell Address—a tradition followed in the Senate since 1896—is how little has changed since Washington wrote it (helped by Madison and Hamilton). The ills and controversies that so beset the father of the nation are still on full display in early 2015, dogging the 44th man in succession, Barack Obama. President Washington was lamenting the inordinate influence and arrogance of a French diplomat he had come to detest, known as “Citizen Genet,” who had rallied cheering American supporters into backing the French war against the British and had played havoc with U.S. foreign policy. President Obama is now lamenting the inordinate influence of one Citizen Netanyahu, who according to some Obama administration officials is up to pretty much the same mischief. And very gingerly, Obama appears to trying to pry America away from its “passionate attachment” to Israel. [Continue reading…]

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Does the Obama administration have the only view worth having on the Middle East?

Reporting on the perception that “U.S. policies there are partly to blame for the spreading anarchy” in the Middle East, Michael Crowley writes:

Ultimately, senior Obama officials say, there are limits to what the U.S. can accomplish in the region. They argue that the chaos is fueled by ethnic and religious forces largely beyond America’s control.

And they warn against overreacting to the roller coaster of daily news headlines in an area that rarely knows calm.

“There’s a sense that the only view worth having on the Middle East is the long view,” said the State Department official. “We’ve painfully seen that good can turn to bad and bad can turn to good in an instant, which might be a sobriety worth holding on to at moments like this.”

The official offered a hopeful note, adding that a nuclear deal with Iran — which some reports say could come as soon as Sunday — could be a turning point for the region.

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

Let’s suppose that Obama seals the deal with Iran, it probably will be a legacy-setting accomplishment and true to form, like every other president facing the end of his second term, Obama is no doubt increasingly concerned about his legacy.

But if he thinks this accord is really going to be a game-changer, I’m not so sure he’s holding on to the “long view” — unless “long” is supposed to mean all the way until he leaves office. Or, to put it another way, unless inside the Obama administration what they mean when they talk about the long view is, all the way until this mess becomes someone else’s mess.

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White House still claims Yemen is a counter-terrorism success story

McClatchy: Yemen’s president is reportedly on the run amid rebel advances, but the White House insisted Wednesday that the country continues to be a model for its counter terrorism initiatives and that the U.S. continues to have extremists there “in the cross hairs.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he could not confirm the whereabouts of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – “I have my hands full confirming the whereabouts of one world leader,” – but said the country remains a template for thwarting terrorism.

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists. Because the United States continues to have the ability to place significant pressure on them.”

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Why Iran’s Supreme Leader wants a nuclear deal

Trita Parsi writes: There are few world leaders as powerful yet mysterious as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Most of what has been written about him in English only adds to the confusion surrounding the man (Akbar Ganji’s writings are a notable exception). The most common misinterpretation of him at the moment is that he is ideologically opposed to cutting a reasonable deal with the United States — the “Great Satan,” as America is known among some Iranian leaders — over his country’s nuclear program. But Khamenei wants a deal perhaps just as much as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely credited with being the more moderate force behind the current negotiations. Far from betraying the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei may view the negotiations as helping fulfill its ideals.

It’s clear that Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the United States and skeptical of both its intent and ability to come to terms with Iran. When President Barack Obama first extended a hand to the Iranians in his 2009 Persian New Year greeting, Khamenei immediately shot back. In a lengthy speech from his birth town of Mashhad, Khamenei went over the entire litany of American crimes against Iran — from support for the hated shah (overthrown by Khamenei’s predecessors in the revolution of 1979), to aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, to the downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, to years of sanctions. He cast doubt on the intentions of the United States, even under its new president. He went on to question Obama’s ability to shift America’s position on Iran. “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?” he asked.

Understanding the depth of this suspicion requires recalling that Khamenei has not merely read about the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations. As a close associate of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a former president of Iran, he was there. He lived through — as a participant, not an observer — every dark chapter he cites in his speeches, from the hostage crisis to the Axis of Evil speech. His skepticism of U.S. intentions, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the four decades of baggage he carries on his shoulders.

Yet, in the end, that’s all he is: a skeptic. He is not an ideological opponent who will undermine, or refuse to accept, any deal struck by Iran’s more moderate negotiators. [Continue reading…]

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Iran stalls U.N. probe into its atomic past

The Wall Street Journal reports: Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a United Nations probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past, say people close to the negotiations.

In response, these people say, the U.S. and its diplomatic partners are revising their demands on Iran to address these concerns before they agree to finalize a nuclear deal, which would repeal U.N. sanctions against the country.

“Progress has been very limited,” Yukiya Amano, who heads the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Wall Street Journal this week. “No more new issues” have been addressed. [Continue reading…]

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William Hartung: Your money at war everywhere

Fifteen to 20 years ago, a canny friend of mine assured me that I would know I was in a different world when the Europeans said no to Washington. I’ve been waiting all this time and last week it seemed as if the moment had finally arrived. Germany, France, and Italy all agreed to become “founding members” of a new Chinese-created development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Great Britain, in “a rare breach of the special relationship,” had already opted for membership the week before (and another key American ally deeply involved in the China trade, Australia, clearly will do so in the near future). As Andrew Higgins and David Sanger of the New York Times reported, the Obama administration views the new bank as a possible “rival to the World Bank and other institutions set up at the height of American power after World War II.”

“The announcement by Germany, Europe’s largest economy,” continued the Times, “came only six days after Secretary of State John Kerry asked his German counterpart, Frank Walter-Steinmeier, to resist the Chinese overtures until the Chinese agreed to a number of conditions about transparency and governing of the new entity. But Germany came to the same conclusion that Britain did: China is such a large export and investment market for it that it cannot afford to stay on the sidelines.”

All of this happened, in other words, despite strong opposition and powerful pressure from a Washington eager to contain China and regularly asserting its desire to “pivot” militarily to Asia to do so. 

Whatever world we now inhabit, it’s not the twentieth century anymore. Though no other power has risen to directly challenge Washington, the United States no longer qualifies as the planet’s “sole superpower,” “last superpower,” “global sheriff,” or any of the similarly self-congratulatory phrases that were the coin of the realm in the years after the Soviet Union dissolved.

Only one small problem, highlighted today by Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular William Hartung: the Department of Defense evidently doesn’t have a clue. As he makes clear, it’s still planning for a sole superpower world in a big way. And in the present atmosphere in Washington, it’s got real support for such planning. Take, for instance, Senator Tom Cotton — he of the “Senate 47″ — who just gave his maiden speech on the Senate floor calling for a policy of total U.S. “global military dominance” and bemoaning that “our military, suffering from years of neglect, has seen its relative strength decline to historic levels.”

It may be a new world in some places, but in others, as Hartung makes clear, it couldn’t be older. Tom Engelhardt

Military strategy? Who needs it?
The madness of funding the Pentagon to “cover the globe”
By William D. Hartung

President Obama and Senator John McCain, who have clashed on almost every conceivable issue, do agree on one thing: the Pentagon needs more money. Obama wants to raise the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2016 by $35 billion more than the caps that exist under current law allow.  McCain wants to see Obama his $35 billion and raise him $17 billion more. Last week, the House and Senate Budget Committees attempted to meet Obama’s demands by pressing to pour tens of billions of additional dollars into the uncapped supplemental war budget.

What will this new avalanche of cash be used for? A major ground war in Iraq? Bombing the Assad regime in Syria? A permanent troop presence in Afghanistan?  More likely, the bulk of the funds will be wielded simply to take pressure off the Pentagon’s base budget so it can continue to pay for staggeringly expensive projects like the F-35 combat aircraft and a new generation of ballistic missile submarines.  Whether the enthusiastic budgeteers in the end succeed in this particular maneuver to create a massive Pentagon slush fund, the effort represents a troubling development for anyone who thinks that Pentagon spending is already out of hand.

[Read more…]

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Saudi Arabia building up military near Yemen border

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict.

The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shi’ite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-supported President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The slide toward war in Yemen has made the country a crucial front in Saudi Arabia’s region-wide rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis.

The conflict risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shi’ite Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi.

The armor and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two U.S. government sources said. Two other U.S. officials said the build-up appeared to be defensive.

One U.S. government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen’s border as “significant” and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden. [Continue reading…]

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Israel spied on Iran nuclear talks with U.S.

When Israel is described as one of America’s closest allies, maybe more emphasis should be placed on the term close than ally — as in too close, which would be to call Israel, America’s most intrusive, troublesome ally.

And this would explain why, as U.S. officials say: “The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally.”

What the following report speaks to is a conviction among Israeli leaders and their supporters — many of whom are American citizens — that Israel has a right to use any means available not merely to influence but rather to control and if needs be, to sabotage U.S. foreign policy.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks.

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.

The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.

The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned.

The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.

Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer early this year saw a rapidly closing window to increase pressure on Mr. Obama before a key deadline at the end of March, Israeli officials said.

Using levers of political influence unique to Israel, Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer calculated that a lobbying campaign in Congress before an announcement was made would improve the chances of killing or reshaping any deal. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli officials talk with French to try to influence Iran nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: Fearing that the Obama administration may not take what they consider to be a tough enough stand in the next round of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran, senior Israeli officials held talks in Paris on Monday with senior members of the French government and will go to London on Tuesday in an attempt to influence the final terms of any agreement.

France and Britain are among the six world powers — along with the United States, Russia, China and Germany — that are negotiating with Iran on an accord that would require Tehran to submit to verifiable limitations on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of United Nations sanctions, as well as separate sets of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume later this week in Lausanne, Switzerland, with negotiators working against a self-imposed deadline of March 31 to reach a preliminary agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet on Thursday with the chief Iranian negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and some of the foreign ministers from other countries are expected to arrive subsequently.

The Israeli intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, said in a statement released Monday night that the talks with the French national security adviser, Jacques Audibert, and the French nuclear negotiating team were “serious and profound” and that the Israelis had laid out their reservations about the emerging deal.

Mr. Steinitz indicated, however, that the Israelis had no illusions that their flurry of international meetings would stop an accord. [Continue reading…]

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