Foreign Policy

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Iran Willing to Change Arak Reactor to Produce Less Plutonium it Can’t Reprocess Anyway

Sample medical isotope packaging on display at this week's National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran. Partial scree-grab from Mehr News.

Sample medical isotope packaging on display at this week’s National Nuclear Technology Day in Iran. Partial screen-grab from Mehr News.

While I was busy bashing David Petraeus yesterday over his tantrum warning us that dropping sanctions on Iran will result in more funding for terrorism, I missed an important Reuters article by Fredrik Dahl in which he noted this PressTV interview with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Salehi informs us that Iran is willing to make design changes to the Arak heavy water reactor that will result in it producing much less plutonium. The P5+1 group has been adamant that Iran not finish construction of Arak over fears that it would produce sufficient plutonium for a nuclear weapon, despite the fact that Iran has not built the sort of dedicated facility that would be required to recover the plutonium from spent fuel from the Arak reactor. Here is the relevant part of the PressTV article:

Iran has offered a scientific and logical proposal to clear up any ambiguities over the country’s Arak heavy-water reactor, a senior Iranian official says.

After the signing of the Geneva deal dubbed the Joint Plan of Action between Iran and six world powers, Tehran put forward a scientific plan to resolve the West’s alleged concerns over the Arak reactor, whose closure had been demanded by the Western states, said Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi on Wednesday.

In November 2013, Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, France, Russia, China and Britain – plus Germany sealed an interim deal in Geneva to set the stage for the full resolution of the dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program.

“In our plan, we explained that we would redesign the heart of the Arak reactor, so that its production of plutonium will decrease drastically. They (Iran’s negotiating partners) were surprised when they saw our scientific and logical reaction,” Salehi said.

The Arak reactor, which uses natural uranium to produce radio medicines, is planned to gradually replace the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical radioisotopes for cancer patients.

Dahl gives us a bit more perspective on the importance of this announcement:

Iran has made a proposal that would significantly lower plutonium production at a planned reactor, a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying, signalling flexibility on a key issue in talks to end the nuclear dispute with world powers.

The comment by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, was the latest sign that a compromise may be possible over the Arak research reactor, which the West fears could yield weapons-usable material. Iran denies any such aim.

The fate of the heavy-water plant, which has not yet been completed, is one of the central issues in negotiations between Iran and six major powers aimed at reaching a long-term deal on Tehran’s nuclear programme by an agreed July 20 deadline.

Significantly, the Russian negotiator says that agreement over changes to Arak may be near:

Russia’s chief negotiator suggested after the April 8-9 talks that progress had been achieved on Arak. “The possibility of a compromise on this issue has grown,” Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.

Dahl ties the proposed changes at Arak to a plan put forward last week from Princeton University. From Princeton’s press release: Continue reading

Petraeus Plans for The Day After

The title of Petraues' op-ed is clearly trying to play off this 1983 made for TV movie about Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear war.

The title of Petraues’ op-ed is clearly trying to play off this 1983 made for TV movie about Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear war.

On September 26, 2004, the Washington Post disgraced itself by giving David Petraeus space to write an op-ed in which he spouted pure bullshit on how well his vaunted “training” program was going in Iraq. Of course, that program failed multiple times with Petraeus never being called to account. Despite clear military regulations prohibiting political activity by members of the military, Petraeus’ op-ed was seen by some as providing an endorsement which gave a significant boost to George W. Bush’s re-election campaign at a time when public opinion on the war in Iraq was beginning to sour. Just short of ten years later (and after his career got Broadwelled, I mean, broadsided), Petraeus is back on the pages of the Neocon Daily today, warning us that the “US needs to plan for the day after an Iran deal“.

The reviews of Petraeus’ newest op-ed are now in, and it has been called “Provocative!”, “Apocalyptic!” and even “Gut-Wrenching!” Oh, wait. That’s how the 1983 made for TV movie The Day After is described on its DVD cover. My mistake. But clearly Petraeus is playing off that old title. The old movie deals with life in Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear war and Petraeus is now telling us we must prepare for life after preventing Iran getting the chance to wage nuclear war.

The central tenet of the op-ed is that Iran is “the leading state sponsor of terrorism”. Like most of what Petraeus does or says, that statement is just flat wrong. Even though the US (including the military when Petraeus was head of Central Command and the CIA when Petraeus led it) never admits it publicly, the rest of the world knows that Saudi Arabia is by far the largest state sponsor of terrorism. There are even Wikileaks cables confirming the role of Saudi money in supporting Sunni extremists. And note that the single most important organizer of state sponsored terrorism, Bandar bin Sultan, is now returning to his role after a brief interruption.

It appears that Petraeus stopped paying attention to world events when he resigned from the CIA in disgrace in November of 2012, because nowhere in his anti-Iran screed do we see any acknowledgement that in June of 2013, Hassan Rouhani was elected as Iran’s new president and has ushered in a new, more moderate outlook that is credited with providing the window for diplomatic progress toward an agreement on Iran’s nuclear technology.

Okay, so here is Petraeus (and co-author Vance Serchuk, who was Joe Lieberman’s foreign policy advisor after cutting his teeth at the American Enterprise Institute–you just can’t make this shit up!) framing the problem for us: Continue reading

[UPDATED] Russian GPS-Alternative Satellites Went ‘Illegal/Failure’: Solar Storm Damage or Cyberwar in Space?

GLONASS_monitoring_02APR2014-1407h_500pxw

[Update at end of article.Rayne 6:45 pm EST]

Between 1030 and 0400 UTC last night or early morning, most of Russia’s GLONASS satellites reported “illegal” or “failure” status. As of this post, they do not appear to be back online.

GLONASS is the equivalent of GPS, an alternative global navigation satellite system (GNSS) launched and operated by Russian Aerospace Defense Forces (RADF). Apart from GPS, it is the only other GNSS with global capability.

It’s possible that the outage is related to either a new M-class solar storm — the start of which was reported about 48 hours ago — or recent X-class solar flare on March 29 at approximately 1700 UTC. The latter event caused a short-term radio blackout about one hour after the flare erupted.

But there is conjecture that GLONASS’ outage is human in origin and possibly deliberate. The absence of any reported outage news regarding GPS and other active satellite systems suggests this is quite possible, given the unlikelihood that technology used in GLONASS differs dramatically from that used in other satellite systems.

At least one observer mentioned that a monitoring system tripped at 21:00 UTC — 00:00 GLONASS system time. The odds of a natural event like a solar storm tripping at exactly top of the hour are ridiculously slim, especially since radiation ejected from the new M-class storm may not reach its peak effect on earth for another 24-48 hours.

GLONASS_monitoring_02APR2014

It’s not clear whether the new GLONASS-M satellite launched March 24th may factor into this situation. There are no English language reports indicating the new satellite was anything but successful upon its release, making it unlikely its integration into the GLONASS network caused today’s outage.

If the outage is based in human activity, the problem may have been caused by:

— an accidental disabling here on earth, though RADF most likely has redundancies to prevent such a large outage;

— deliberate tampering here on earth, though with RADF as operator this seems quite unlikely; or

— deliberate tampering in space, either through scripts sent from earth, or technology installed with inherent flaws.

The last is most likely, and of either scripts sent from earth or the flawed technology scenarios, the former is more likely to cause a widespread outage.

However, if many or all the core operating systems on board the GLONASS satellites had been updated within the last four years – after the discovery of Stuxnet in the wild – it’s not impossible that both hardware and software were compromised with an infection. Nor is it impossible that the same infection was triggered into aggressive action from earth.

Which begs the question: are we in the middle of a cyberwar in space?

UPDATE — 6:45 PM EST—

Sources report the GLONASS satellite network was back online noon-ish Russian time (UTC+4); the outage lasted approximately 11 hours. Unnamed source(s) said the outage was due to the upload of bad ephemeris data, the information used by the satellites to locate other satellites in space. An alleged system-wide update with bad data suggests RADF has serious problems with change management, though.

There is speculation the M-class solar storm, summarized at 1452 UTC as an “X-ray Event exceeded M5,” may have impacted GLONASS. However early feedback about radiation ejected by an M-class storm indicated the effects would not reach earth for 24-48 hours after the storm’s eruption.

FO Claims Captured Iranian Border Guards Not in Pakistan; Iran Threatens Use of Special Forces for Rescue

Since word emerged on Sunday that Jeish Al-Adl executed one of the five Iranian border guards that had been abducted last month, there has been a very interesting series of developments between Iran and Pakistan. Iran has summoned Pakistan’s ambassador to lodge a formal complaint about the death and Pakistan’s apparent inability to find the terrorist group and release the hostages. Iran’s Foreign Minister also sent an open letter to the UN, appealing for help in controlling “state sponsored” groups that are responsible for this and other attacks on Iran. Pakistan, meanwhile, has announced today that they don’t believe the border guards are being held in Pakistan. Complicating matters even further, Iran now is claiming that it would be within their right to employ special forces in a raid on Pakistani territory to release the hostages and kill those responsible for the kidnapping.

The summoning of the ambassador seemed innocuous enough:

Iran’s Foreign Ministry has summoned Pakistan’s ambassador to Tehran over Iranian kidnapped guard’s death and expressed strong objections to Pakistan for lack of control of its borders.

Deputy Director General of the department of West Asian countries of Iran’s Foreign Ministry expressed Islamic Republic of Iran’s objection on Iranian border guards’ abduction and their transfer to Pakistan emphasizing on Iran’s demand for their release, health and also delivering the terrorists to Iran.

He continued “Pakistan should have proper control over its borders and prevent recurrence of such events unless two countries’ good relations would be affected.”

Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran, Noor Mohammad Jadmani, offered condolences for one of the Iranian abducted guard’s death in Pakistan and expressed regret for the terrorist incident.

“Pakistan is also worried about the growth of terrorist actions and extremism.” added he and that “Pakistan will not let such incidents be repeated again and affect the two countries’ relations.”

Likewise, the letter to the UN starts off as normal diplomacy, but it eventually gets to some fairly broad claims about attacks on Iran:

It is extremely regrettable that all available evidence indicate that these cowardly acts of terror targeting the Islamic Republic of Iran and its citizens have been perpetrated by State-sponsored extremist groups, with similar patterns of funding, coordination, support and direction.  The entire international community should be alarmed by the regional and extra-regional ramifications of sectarian tension and extremist violence, which are being systematically organized, sponsored and orchestrated in various parts of our region. In fact, learning from recent history, a sober assessment of the medium and long-term implications of this dangerous trend will show that the very sponsors of such hatred, who for ill-conceived interests have hastily resorted to such short-sighted tactics to remedy their strategic miscalculations and failures, stand to lose the most from the sectarian and extremist violence that they are spreading.

What a strange passage. In protesting attacks against themselves, it appears that the Iranians are making a not very veiled threat to carry out their own “sectarian and extremist violence” against those they perceive to be behind the attacks.

The Express Tribune provides a bit more perspective on Iran’s distrust of Saudi Arabia being behind this part of the letter: Continue reading

After US Adventure in Death Squad Training for Syria, Brennan Now Complains About al Qaeda Training There

Trying to prove once again that no level of hypocrisy is ever high enough for the US security theater industrial complex, today’s New York Times gives space for John Brennan to lament the use of Syria as a training ground for al Qaeda terrorists. Never mind that the US touted its efforts at developing death squads to send into Syria last fall, we must be outraged against this latest development:

Dozens of seasoned militant fighters, including some midlevel planners, have traveled to Syria from Pakistan in recent months in what American intelligence and counterterrorism officials fear is an effort to lay the foundation for future strikes against Europe and the United States.

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, told a House panel recently.

But wait a minute. Didn’t we spend all that time and money droning the shit out of the terrorists in Pakistan? Oh, yeah:

The extremists who concern Mr. Brennan are part of a group of Qaeda operatives in Pakistan that has been severely depleted in recent years by a decade of American drone strikes. But the fighters still bring a wide range of skills to the battlefield, such as bomb-building, small-arms tactics, logistics, religious indoctrination and planning, though they are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West.

That is just classic Brennan security theater. We are supposed to get our panties in a wad about a group that he spent years to render “severely depleted” and now they suddenly are going to move to Syria, where they will magically develop the ability to attack the West even though they “are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West”.

Okay, then. Recall that just back in September, the US was thumping its chest over its own efforts in training death squads for Syria. Except that Obama then had to doctor the record a bit on the timing and size of the first death squad we sent in when it coincided too closely with the chemical weapons attack in August. Oh, and we had to tell people that the guy eating his opponent’s heart really was from one of the moderate groups we were training.

The bottom line is that the US can use the region to train any group of terrorists it wants to use in service of its own goals, but nobody else is allowed to do exactly what we are doing.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains dire.  Reuters reports on a just released but not published report from the UN. And, of course, the US is wasting no time in spinning the findings of the report:

A U.N. report on how Syria’s neediest civilians are often not accessible to humanitarian relief workers makes it clear that the government of President Bashar al-Assad shoulders most of the blame, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

/snip/

“What the report shows is that the magnitude and frequency of violence committed by the Assad regime far outstrips that of the armed groups in Syria,” a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“The Syrian government’s massive and indiscriminate use of violence is the single most important factor driving the humanitarian crisis,” the official said. “The report is very clear on this and in pointing to the government’s failure to implement the resolution’s provisions.”

Information released to date doesn’t make either side look very good: Continue reading

Jeish Al-Adl Executes One of Five Iranian Border Guards Abducted Last Month

There is a major new development in the ongoing saga of incidents along the Iran-Pakistan border. Recall that a group of Sunni extremists, Jeish Al-Adl, captured five Iranian border guards in early February (after killing 14 in an attack last October). Iran had briefly claimed that the guards had been released earlier this month, but then quickly backed down on that claim. It seems that Iran has difficulty getting accurate information on the status of the guards, as they first denied and then finally confirmed that the highest ranking of the guards, Jamshid Danaeifar (his face is circled on a photo of the detained guards that is circulating on Twitter) has been executed:

Informed sources in Pakistan confirmed earlier reports that Jeish al-Adl terrorist group has executed one of the five Iranian border guards that it abducted along Iran-Pakistan border on February 6.

The sources told FNA in Islamabad on Monday that “Jeish al-Adl has martyred one of the kidnapped border guards”.

This is while the Iranian Interior Ministry earlier today rejected Jeish al-Adl’s claim.

“We don’t confirm this report; were it true, we would have been informed,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Hossein Ali Amiri said on Monday.He said that the five border guards are kept in Pakistan at present and are safe and sound.

Amiri made the remarks after Jeish al-Adl claimed on its tweeter page that it has killed Jamshid Danayeefar, one of the kidnapped border guards.

News of the execution came just as Iran had been expressing hope that the guards were about to be released. From an earlier report on Sunday by Fars News:

Efforts and consultations with the Pakistani officials still continue to secure the release of the five border guards abducted along Iran-Pakistan border on February 6, an Iranian official announced on Sunday.

“Talks with national and local Pakistani officials have been held at different levels and they have made some promises,” Governor-General of Iran’s Southeastern Sistan and Balouchestan province Ali Awsat Hashemi told FNA today.

He expressed the hope that the five young border guards would be released to return to their families soon.

Writing at the International Policy Digest, Sadaf Megan informs us that Jeish Al-Adl has stated that if their demands on the release of prisoners are not met, they will execute another prisoner in ten days:

In the statement following the announcement of his death, Jaish al-Adl demands that if 50 of their prisoners are not released by Iran then Jaish al-Adl will execute another hostage within 10 days.

The clock is ticking for the four remaining “pasdar(s)” or guards. In the meantime it seems unlikely that the Iranian government will be able to fulfill or want to meet the demands of Jaish Al-Adl. A regime that does not succumb to threats and ultimatums by the West is unlikely to make a deal with a terrorist group.

The article also has interesting background information on Jeish Al-Adl, providing perspective on the relationship with Jundallah:

Jaish al-Adl operates in the Sistan-Baluchistan region of Iran, and frequently utilizes the Iranian-Pakistani border to carry out attacks. Cross border operations have been practiced during the time of Abdolmalek Rigi’s Sunni Balochi group, Jundallah. After Iran executed Rigi in 2010, Jundallah dissolved and merged with Jaish al-Adl.

Stay tuned for further developments. With Pakistan still reeling from the Carlotta Gall article the Express Tribune wound up censoring entirely because of its revelations of ISI sheltering bin Laden, they risk displaying more evidence of collaboration with terrorists if they are unable to secure the release of the remaining border guards before the next one is executed.

Taking Kaplan’s Defense of Empire on Its Face

Robert Kaplan wrote a predictably horrible defense of empire that a number of people are giving the appropriate disdainful treatment.

Against my better judgement, I’d like to take a different approach and treat it as a useful piece (though not one I agree with or find palatable at all).

I think its useful, in part, against the background of the NSA disclosures. Key players in NSA discussions — people who travel some of the same circles as Kaplan, even — premise their treatment of the disclosures from an exclusively national perspective, completely ignoring that the NSA (and its GCHQ poodle) is different precisely because it depends on and serves as a key instrument of authority in an empire (or global hegemon, if the term empire gives you the willies). Approaching and assessing NSA’s behavior solely from a national perspective not only represses the obvious reasons why NSA’s dragnet of other countries’ citizens matters, but it also fails to assess our actions in the proper light, even from the standpoint of efficacy. NSA’s tasking choices reflect not our national interest, but rather the needs of the empire, which is why a relatively minor country like Venezuela gets prioritized along with Russia and China. That’s why we made Huawei such a high priority target: because it presents a unique threat to the functioning of our empire.

I would like to get to the point where we can discuss the NSA disclosures not just in terms of what they mean for Americans’ civil liberties as well of those who may not enjoy Fourth Amendment protection but nevertheless are citizens in a US order, but also whether the prioritization of complete dragnet and offensive spying and hacking serves the interests to which they’ve been put, that of the American global hegemon.

And here’s where I think Kaplan, in spite of his racism and paternalism and selective history, serves a useful role at this point in time. He claims, cherry picking from history, that only empires can provide order.

Throughout history, governance and relative safety have most often been provided by empires, Western or Eastern. Anarchy reigned in the interregnums.

And then he asks whether or not America can afford to sustain its own empire.

Nevertheless, the critique that imperialism constitutes bad American foreign policy has serious merit: the real problem with imperialism is not that it is evil, but rather that it is too expensive and therefore a problematic grand strategy for a country like the United States. Many an empire has collapsed because of the burden of conquest. It is one thing to acknowledge the positive attributes of Rome or Hapsburg Austria; it is quite another to justify every military intervention that is considered by elites in Washington.

Thus, the debate Americans should be having is the following: Is an imperial-like foreign policy sustainable?

[snip]

Once that caution is acknowledged, the debate gets really interesting. To repeat, the critique of imperialism as expensive and unsustainable is not easily dismissed.

Perhaps predictably Kaplan dodges his own question, never seriously answering it. Instead of answering the question that he admits might have answers he doesn’t much like, he instead spends a bunch of paragraphs, in all seriousness, arguing that Obama is pursuing a post-Imperial presidency.

Rather than Obama’s post-imperialism, in which the secretary of state appears like a lonely and wayward operator encumbered by an apathetic White House, I maintain that a tempered imperialism is now preferable.

No other power or constellation of powers is able to provide even a fraction of the global order provided by the United States.

And by dodging his own question by launching a partisan attack, Kaplan avoids a number of other questions. Not just whether the American empire is sustainable, but whether there’s something about the means of American empire that has proven ineffective (which is really a different way of asking the same question). Why did Iraq end up being such catastrophe? Why did we lose the Arab Spring, in all senses of the word? Why, even at a time when the US still acts as global hegemon, is instability rising?

There are some underlying reasons, like climate change, that the imperialists would like to distinguish from our oil-based power and the dollar exchange it rests on.

But even more, I think, the imperialists would like to ignore how neoliberalism has gutted the former source of our strength, our manufacturing, has led us to increased reliance on Intellectual Property, and has not offered the people in our realm of influence the stability Kaplan claims empire brings. People can’t eat, they can’t educate their children, they can’t retire because of the policies Kaplan and his buddies have pushed around the world. And the US solution to this is more trade pacts that just further instantiate IP as a core value, regardless of how little it serves those people who can’t eat.

The NSA is intimately a part of this, of course. The reason I find it so hysterical that NSA’s one defense against China is effectively the IP one — the NSA doesn’t steal IP and give it to “private” companies to use. But that’s just another way of saying that the empire we’ve rolled out has failed to protect even the increasingly ineffective core basis of our power, its IP.

I’ve said this before, but what is happening, increasingly, is that the US has to coerce power rather than win it through persuasion — persuasion that used to be (at least for our European allies) increased quality of life. It’s a lot more expensive to coerce power, both in terms of the military adventures or repression you must engage in, but also in terms of the dragnet you must throw across the world rather than the enhanced communication of an open Internet. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration, for all of Kaplan’s claimed post-Imperialism, seems to be doubling down on more coercive (or, in the case of trade agreements, counterproductive) means of retaining power.

And so Kaplan, who’s so sure that empire is a great thing, might be better considering not empire in the abstract (indeed, abstracted to the point of suppressing the many downsides of empire), but the empire we’ve got. He seems to implicitly admit he can’t rebut the claim that our empire is no longer sustainable, but since he can’t he changes the subject. Why is our empire unsustainable, Robert Kaplan? And for those who believe the US offers a good — or even a least-bad — order for the globe, what do you intend to do to return it to sustainability?

Dragnets and austerity aren’t going to do it, that’s for sure.

Update: Thanks to Wapiti for alerting me to my huge error of substituting Kagan (generic neocon name) for Kaplan’s actual last name. Sorry for the confusion.

With Over Half of Chemical Weapons-Related Stockpile Removed, Russia Says Syrian CW Potential Near Zero

Yesterday, in describing how Russia has played the US media regarding “threats” to the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear technology, I mentioned that continued progress on Syria’s removal of its chemical weapons-related materials was further evidence that Russia intends to cooperate on the Iranian and Syrian nonproliferation issues separately from disputes over the Crimea annexation. Today, with news out that removal of the CW-related materials from Syria has crossed the 50% level, Russia has praised that accomplishment while pointing out that Syria now has virtually no capability of using chemical arms. Oh, and if we need any further confirmation that Russia is ready for the recriminations over Crimea to end, Putin himself has now said that there is no further need for retaliation against US sanctions (although I’m guessing that Dana Rohrabacher is in mourning that he wasn’t included in the list of ten US figures sanctioned by Russia since he even played dress-up and “fought” against the Soviets in Afghanistan).

A press release put out by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons yesterday put the removal of materials from Syria at just under 50%:

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission has verified the delivery of another consignment of Priority 1 chemicals today to Latakia and their removal from the port on a cargo ship, raising the amount of Syrian chemicals that are now out of the country to nearly half of the total stockpile.

The confirmation came on the heels of an announcement late yesterday by the Joint Mission of two other consignments of chemicals that were delivered to Latakia and removed during the past week. A total of 11 consignments of chemicals have now been transported out of Syria for destruction outside the country. The updated cumulative figures are as follow:

Priority 1 chemicals removed:             34.8 %*
Priority 2 chemicals removed:             82.6 %
Total chemicals removed:                   49.3 %

/snip/

* Includes all sulfur mustard, the only unitary chemical warfare agent in Syria’s arsenal

But the UN has slightly different figures, putting the removal over 50%:

More than half of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal has been shipped out or destroyed within the country, the head of the international team overseeing the disarmament process said on Thursday.

Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint mission of the United Nations and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said 54 percent of the toxins had been removed or eliminated.

The process, which President Bashar al-Assad’s government agreed to after a chemical attack killed hundreds of people around Damascus last year, is months behind schedule but Kaag said the new momentum “would allow for timely completion”.

“The joint mission welcomes the momentum attained and encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to sustain the current pace,” Kaag said in a statement.

Russia welcomed this news and added that Syria now has almost no capability of carrying out an attack with chemical weapons:

The Syrian government has reduced its chemical weapons potential close to zero, state-run RIA news agency quoted an unnamed official at the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying on Friday.

“Chemical weapons production facilities, equipment for mixing (chemicals) and operating (the weapons), as well as the means of their delivery have been destroyed,” the official said, adding that the only gas that had been ready for use in weaponry had been completely removed from the country.

“At the moment, Damascus has de facto reduced its military chemical weapons potential to almost zero.”

Sadly, those who relish a restart of the Cold War are unlikely to stop now, so we are left to wonder what Putin will do in response if the US (especially Congressional meddlers) takes further steps claimed to be in response to the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s statement today that he sees no need for further retaliation can be viewed as reining back in the “threat” delivered by Ryobkov after the P5+1 negotiations ended Wednesday. Further action by the US, though, could end Russian cooperation in both the P5+1 process and the Syrian CW situation, seriously hurting current nonproliferation efforts.

It is my hope that Cold War fans will restrict their threats against Russia to the realm of what would happen should Putin try to grab more territory beyond Crimea.

Russia Expertly Plays US Press on P5+1 Talks

Screengrab from the PressTV story on Ryobkov's comments.

Screengrab from the PressTV story on Ryobkov’s comments.

On Tuesday, I noted that Alissa Rubin provided an outlet for an unidentified “senior American official” to put into the New York Times concerns that Russia might allow the disagreement over Crimea to affect their negotiating stance in the P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva on Tuesday and Wednesday. This was, of course, despite an encouraging statement by chief Russian negotiator Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov showing optimism about the negotiations that were about to begin.

Despite these concerns by the American official, it appears that the talks went well. Fredrik Dahl reports that Iran was happy with how the talks went:

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif characterized the latest round of negotiations as “very successful” in terms of clarifying the issues involved, the Iranian official news agency IRNA reported.

“In terms of understanding and clarification, Vienna-2 was among our very successful round of talks … extremely beneficial and constructive,” it quoted Zarif as saying.

But once the talks had finished, with the next round not scheduled to begin until April 7, Ryobkov played the US press expertly, and AP’s George Jahn was quick to take the bait:

U.S.-Russian tensions over Ukraine spilled over into nuclear talks with Iran Wednesday, with Moscow’s chief envoy at the negotiations warning that his country may take “retaliatory measures” that could hurt attempts to persuade Tehran to cut back on programs that could make atomic arms.

The statement, by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, appeared to be the most serious threat of reprisal by Moscow for Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Russia is key to attempts to coax Iran into significant long-term curbs of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from U.N. and other sanctions. Iran insists it does not want nuclear arms but is seeking a deal that will result in full sanctions relief.

The Russian threat, hours after the latest negotiating round ended, appeared to catch Washington off guard.

Perhaps the most significant evidence that Ryobkov was merely jerking Washington’s chain can be seen in how his tone remains entirely positive about the P5+1 talks in comments carried today by PressTV, even stating that the current timetable for reaching a final agreement appears to still be on track:

A Russian Foreign Ministry official says talks between Iran and six world powers over Tehran’s nuclear energy program have “progressed quite well.”

“We have progressed quite well, the atmosphere is very good, and the work is business-like and result-oriented,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a telephone interview with Russia’s Interfax news agency from the Austrian capital of Vienna on Thursday.

“But saying that we have the outlines of an agreement now would be encroaching upon the truth. There are none,” he added.

Referring to a late-July deadline that was set in November last year between Tehran and the six nations for a final nuclear agreement, Ryabkov said, “I don’t see any reasons to say that this deadline could be shifted and that this schedule is becoming unrealizable. There are no reasons for this so far.”

At least Jahn also reported that it appears that Iran is leaning toward a re-engineering of the Arak reactor so that it will produce less plutonium. This would lessen concerns about the reactor while still allowing it to move into use to replace the aging Tehran research reactor in producing medical isotopes.

At any rate, with several weeks to go before the next round of P5+1 talks, there is plenty of time for Ryobkov’s “warning” over sanctions in response to the Crimean situation to play itself out.  Considering that we have reports now that Syria has gotten almost to the 50% mark in removal of its chemical weapons-related materials, its seems likely that Russsia is still committed to its nonproliferation stance for chemical and nuclear weapons despite the disputes it has with the West on other issues.

US Pouts Over Potential Crimea Spillover While Russia Enters P5+1 Talks With Optimism

Alissa Rubin today has two separate articles in the New York Times that parrot US misgivings ahead of today’s round of talks between the P5+1 group of countries and Iran. In the article that went up first, Rubin offers anonymity to a “senior American official” to do some hand-wringing over how Russia’s move toward full annexation of Crimea could disrupt US-Russian relations to the point that the P5+1 negotiations could be thrown off track:

Tensions between the West and Russia over events in Ukraine have cast a shadow over the second round of talks set to begin on Tuesday in Vienna on a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran.

/snip/

A senior American official, speaking before the Iran talks and just before the secession vote in Crimea on Sunday that overwhelmingly approved reunification with Russia, indicated concern about possible consequences from the friction over Ukraine. Since western nations consider that vote illegal and have warned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia not to annex Crimea, the situation for the Iran talks would now seem more worrisome.

“I think that we all hope that the incredibly difficult situation in Ukraine will not create issues for this negotiation,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

“We hope that whatever happens in the days ahead, whatever actions we and the international community take, depending upon the decisions and the choices that Russia makes, that any actions that Russia subsequently takes will not put these negotiations at risk,” the official said.

Rubin allows this “official” to frame the situation as only dire while completely ignoring that significant and rapid progress was made on the negotiations for Syria to abandon its chemical weapon stockpile while the US and Russia were on completely opposite sides of the Syrian conflict. In the current case, while Russia is more closely aligned to Iran than the rest of the P5+1, their differences with the group on general issues of nuclear proliferation are much smaller than the differences between the US and Russia in the Syrian conflict. So why is Crimea a barrier to talks with Iran when being on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict wasn’t a barrier to an agreement on chemical weapon destruction?

Even when Rubin moves on to her article relating Iran’s interest in seeing the talks progress, she can’t resist opening with a repeat of the concerns of a spillover of Crimean tensions:

As talks on a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran resumed in Vienna on Tuesday, under the shadow of tensions between the West and Russia, Iran said the onus to ensure progress was on the world powers with which it is negotiating.

“Important and tough discussions ahead today,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter. “We have held our end of the bargain. Time for our counterparts to keep theirs.”

The article then goes on to repeat many of the same paragraphs from the original, including the senior American official quotes, although it does mention in passing that EU negotiator Catherine Ashton and Zarif held a brief meeting prior to the main negotiations opening this morning.

Contrast that with the reporting in the Iranian press. PressTV reports that Russia is in fact optimistic about the talks: Continue reading

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