The Middle East Journal - Volume 59, Number 2, Spring 2005

Iran's current rulers are clinging to power for dear life, for they anticipate that their opponents, if victorious, will do to them as they have done to theirs. The threat of regime change for the clerical rulers is thus existential, compelling them to seek the nuclear option regardless of Iran's national interest. We should also give up the wishful notion of differentiating liberal clerical leaders from conservative ones for at best they represent only different shades of the same color. The hopeful signs are that their support is limited to about 15-25% of the voting population, that they and their rule are resented by the majority, and that the younger generations —— including their very own children, reject the clerical ideology categorically. The Pahlavi monarchs may have tried to remove the clerical influence from Iran without success. One may observe that what the last King did not achieve in his life he may have accomplished in his death, for the clerical influence, which granted theologians political power in 1979, has by and large evaporated. What remains is a bankrupt theocracy secured on pillars of intimidation and corruption. A Persian expression considered to be eternally valid "this too will pass," applies to the current regime, for it too will go away. The concern should be that which is to replace it.

It is accurate to observe that the internal opposition to the theocracy is disorganized and devoid of charismatic leadership. It is also true that leaders are rarely brought in from abroad. If a genuine challenge to the clerical rule is to be mounted, the emergence of leaders from within is nearly always indispensable. Iranian exiles may not be in a position to emerge as effective leaders of a successful domestic opposition. Similarly, the countries that find the regime objectionable may not be in a position to topple it. They can join hands however to assist in the formation of a coherent opposition through the emergence of a desirable platform. Such a platform provides aspiring leaders lofty objectives for which to make their stands, and worthy enough to take their chances. In short, political enlightenment, widespread knowledge of good governance, sensible economic policies leading to prosperity, the rule of law to encourage human ingenuity on the one hand and protect liberty and property on the other, are all desirable principles. Yet they must be taught, understood, and molded into actionable policies that could be readily implemented by a new government. The knowledge of desirable goals perceived to be within reach, will lead to political demand for achieving them. Iranians could thus receive a steady stream of credible education on good governance coupled with genuine respect for, and acknowledgement of, their aspirations. Leaders will emerge in time as we assist in formulating the right ideas that inspire leaders to seek a free, representative government that nurtures the nation it serves. It is important to address Iranians in the language they truly grasp. One should not underestimate the power of national myth and the symbolism that resonates deep within every Iranian's soul. The story of the tyrant Zahhak, overthrown by Kaveh the blacksmith in the epic Book of Kings, may be more effective than well-crafted US policy statements.

Iran's security concerns are real and legitimate. National experience has undoubtedly colored Iranians' perception of other nations' intentions. One cannot dismiss lessons learned through bitter experiences. Iran, cognizant of historical realities encountered, has a serious security problem which it seeks to solve the best way it can. Iranians have reason to be wary of the nations that have harmed them in the past. But they are also adaptable, and if historical survival is an indicator, not devoid of talent for international relations. Furthermore, Iranians are sophisticated enough in their views to distinguish between certain nations who have been exploitive, and others who have disappointed them due to compulsion or manipulation. The United States despite Iran's clerics' pronouncements is not a target of national hate, but indeed the opposite. The United States is favored, although the feeling is coupled with the perception that it is young, strong, politically inexperienced and too willing to give in to manipulation. Iranians are disappointed at the US for the selection of its influential friends. It appears to Iranians that the United States' friends fall into two categories, one of which includes nations that appear consistently to be "more equal" than the rest! Iranians want to believe that the United States is fair, even-handed, and a force for good. They expect the United States to show them its good intentions by giving them the respect they deserve, without confusing them with their undesirable rulers or unruly neighbors. Seen from the Iranian historical perspective, neither alliance nor neutrality, nor engagement has saved Iran from the designs of its foes. If Iranians are to unlearn the lessons of their history, those responsible for teaching the lessons ought to rethink their ways. What is apparent to most Iranians but illusive to others is that weakness has and will threaten the nation's sovereignty, the country's territorial integrity, and ultimately Iran's national survival. We may dismiss the threat as insignificant or delusional. For the Iranians aware of their history the threat is real, clear, and obvious.

The United States should refrain from repeating the mistake of the British in 1951. Flush with hubris the British turned an oil royalty payment issue into a matter of national pride. Insensitivity to Iranian nationalism, instead of forcing Iranians to abandon their nuclear policy, runs the risk of turning it into a fiercely nationalist crash program to acquire nuclear weapons at any cost. If the nuclear program is to be slowed down or abandoned, its national support must be diluted first. Capitalizing on Iranian national sentiment against war, and the potential for confrontation if the government pursues nuclear weapons may prove effective. Iranian families still suffer from the losses and scars of the Iran-Iraq War and are not eager to seek another. The most effective argument against nuclear weapons, however, is the possibility that such weapons will make the already bankrupt clerical rule more permanent. If recent reports from Iran are to be believed, 80% to 90% of the population despises the regime, waiting for it to crash under the weight of its own corruption and mismanagement. Alerting the population that a theocracy armed with nuclear weapons may be more lasting, could remove the rulers' nationalistic trump card off the table.

Finally, we ought not to underestimate the insidious power of intimidation. The theocratic rulers preside over a pervasive system of control that decapitates and intimidates any potential opposition. The general wish of the vast army of disaffected, largely unemployed youth in Iran is to get out of the country. A recent immigrant, a former revolutionary turned taxi driver in Washington, DC summed up the sentiment concisely: "Marg bar maa ke gofteem marg bar Shah" —— Death to us who said death to the Shah!




American Human Intelligence and Anti-Iranian Rebels

Capt. Vivian Gembara, Esq. - 4/11/2005

"Humint" --- this military shorthand for "human intelligence" has entered the vernacular. It is on the tongues of every politician, agency head and military leader. It is the one thing that those on the left and the right agree has impaired the U.S.'s ability to combat terrorism. Caught off guard by the September 11th attacks, we have seen the errors of our ways --- too much focus on technology and too little focus on spies and other human sources. While Washington has seized on the issue with the zeal of the newly converted, rhapsodizing about the need to cultivate humint, there still seems to be no understanding of the urgency of the issue or the very essence of it. We are missing significant opportunities now in the war on terror and no amount of goodwill can undo the damage caused when you ignore one of the principles of human intelligence gathering- 'listen to your men and women in the field.'

Imagine for a minute being dropped from a helicopter into a place where you didn't know anyone, couldn't speak the language and had only a vague idea about the terrain. Add hostile natives armed to the teeth and you begin to understand the circumstances U.S Special Forces operate in daily. The military's finest, they also possess that most elusive and valuable of qualities --- near-perfect instincts. That U.S. officials chose to ignore one of their early suggestions in Iraq is evidence of their own shortsightedness as well as the nation's still uneasy relationship with the notion of humint. Test

In April 2003, the U.S. government rejected an offer that they may already regret. The tender came from non-Iraqi soldiers based in Iraq - all members of the NLA, a militant wing of the NCRI (National Council of the Resistance of Iran), a group intent on overthrowing Iran's current Islamic fundamentalist regime and replacing it with a democratic government. As exiles in Iraq, they aim to overthrow Iran's current Islamic fundamentalist regime and replace it with a democratic government. The NLA found a generous patron in Saddam Hussein. The former dictator helped fund their military and gave them key property throughout Iraq. In return, they protected the border against Iranian infiltration.

U.S. Special Forces were also first to encounter the NLA and to understand their value as potential human intelligence sources. From the start, it was clear this was no "mom and pop" army. Special Forces found the NLA waiting for them in neatly consolidated units. Hundreds of NLA tanks were positioned in the "surrender" posture described in U.S. leaflets. They offered to work alongside the U.S. to stabilize the country in exchange for support in their opposition to Iran's mullahs.

Classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997, the NLA bears the burden of an outdated and inaccurate label. Talk of working with this "terrorist organization" triggered alarm bells in diplomatic circles and resulted in U.S. officials summarily rejecting any talk of negotiation. Led by General Ray Odierno, 4th Infantry Division Commander, we were tasked with delivering the bad news. The NLA we encountered outside of Baqubah were just as the Special Forces described - fluent in English, Arabic and Farsi; familiar with the terrain and eager to work with us. Meetings that we anticipated would run several hours wound up lasting two days. Our prepared non-negotiable terms proved far more difficult to deliver when faced with the magnitude of our own lost opportunity.

The following day, 4th ID soldiers began disarming and delivering NLA soldiers to Camp Ashraf for interrogation. They remain there today. Until they can shed their terrorist label, the NLA will remain under the watchful eye of U.S. soldiers at Camp Ashraf.

U.S. officials' current reluctance to re-evaluate the NLA's status is in keeping with the missed opportunity of April 2003. At the time, the error of disbanding the Iraqi Army and security forces was clear as lawlessness led to rampant looting and destruction of Iraqi government facilities. Fully equipped with tanks, weaponry and battalions of trained soldiers, the NLA's offer answered a need that was vastly underestimated. Our immediate refusal was naïve. It would have been a far more useful to our troops, and our intelligence efforts, to work with the NLA. Under our direction, they could have secured buildings and provided us with another set of eyes and ears within the communities. Surely their feedback and willingness to help in this capacity far outweighs any information we could have hoped to reap from Camp Ashraf interrogations. Adding insult to injury however is the inconsistent and uneven handling of other militias in Iraq. Despite known ties to the Iranian regime, U.S. officials permitted the Badr Corps, a militant Shiite wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, to remain both intact and active.

While shortsighted policy decisions caused us to miss the opportunity then, the stakes are even higher now. The NLA is a potentially indispensable intelligence source on Iran. Our current challenges with Iraq have been attributed to a lack of credible intelligence. By comparison, Iran's known nuclear capabilities make intelligence much more crucial in the event of war. The recent admission by U.S. officials that they had employed UAV planes over Iran for several years only underscores the real threat that Iran poses. It was unwise not to take advantage of a valuable human resource as our soldiers battled daily in Iraq. It is merely reckless to continue to detain and alienate the NLA as we face a more mysterious and formidable threat in Iran. Though September 11th left us wearier of over reliance on technology and military might, the U.S. handing of the NLA, and other potential human intelligence resources, hardly suggests we are that much wiser.

Captain Vivian Gembara in JAG forces as an attorney for the U.S. military for 4 years, and was deployed in Iraq for 12 months beginning in April 2003. During that time, she participated in negotiations for the eventual capitulation of the NLA. She was a member of the 4th Infantry Division team that negotiated and drafted the capitulation agreement between the United States and the People’s Mujahedeen (MEK), an armed pro-Iranian opposition force. Cap. Gembara was awarded 7 medals, 2 bars and other honors. Prior to her military service, she received a J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree from William and Mary School of Law.




Notes for comments at Sandia Conference, April 5, 2005 - Lessons of history

Gerald Steinberg

The NPT and broader arms control regime experience is unique – it is the only broad international framework in which states have relinquished significant national sovereignty. With some important exceptions, the framework generally has succeeded in slowing or stopping proliferation in the decades that followed the NPT in 1970. 180+ signatories are an important accomplishment; and so we must be careful not to weaken this accomplishment by attempting to stretch the fabric beyond what it was designed for. The insistence on universality and on a general approach applicable to all situations provides a case in point.

Of course, the history of the past does not diminish the serious challenges, which cannot be ignored, but also must be understand – each in its own context. The 3 non-signatories Israel, India, and Pakistan (less) are pre-1970; they are not due to the failure of NPT, and are largely not related to fuel cycle. History indicates that there is little in the regime that could have been used to stop Israel and India, short of ending the threats and conflicts.

In the case of Israel, security and threat perceptions are central. In India, security, broadly defined, served as a vehicle for domestic political and prestige factors. And Pakistan cannot be considered in isolation, but rather as a response to India, particularly after the 1975 PNE. These cases, as well as others that I will discuss later, demonstrate that universality is a slogan or headline, but not a reality. There is no universality in other international treaties; instead, each country decides its sovereign interests and requirements. In reality, the world characterized by a high level of asymmetry – in size, economics, demography, natural resources, technology, goals (revisionist vs. status quo) etc. Different political systems, particularly the distinction between open democracies (in which accountability and public discussion of formal commitments makes direct violations difficult to hide) and closed systems, provide an additional core asymmetry. Thus, the "one-size fits all" vision of the NPT is unrealistic in some cases, and repeating "universality" will not change this situation.

In casting a wider net over the history of proliferation, one reaches the conclusion that the various cases are largely singular as well and hard to generalize. South Africa during Apartheid, and the post-Soviet republics that signed the NPT and closed out their nuclear weapons capabilities, were clearly a separate category. There are no other states like that.

Looking at Argentina and Brazil, they were not NPT states when the nuclear efforts were being pursued. And the end of the military regimes led to the dramatic changes in nuclear policies, and the end of weapons programs. These provide further evidence for emphasis on democracy, and even regime change, in non-proliferation. In some ways, this is also the model for Iraq, but has not yet affected policies in Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

In examining the history from the perspective of the "new nuclear states", the motivation of states to seek nuclear weapons, and the ability to impact these processes, has clearly varied. In its initial phase, the NPT dealt with most of the security dilemma situations, like Sweden and Germany and the rest of Europe; and this is also relevant to Japan and South Korea, if the North Korean case were resolved. But this will be difficult, and one "bad apple" is enough to spoil the region.

For most countries and region, the NPT's "Faustian bargain" was acceptable. Access to a civil nuclear program in exchange for avoiding military program, and minimal limits on sovereignty, was sufficient for these countries.

But this approach has shown to be lacking for third (or fourth) generation of proliferators – for Iraq, Iran, Libya, etc. The NPT system is not powerful enough and did not incorporate enough "political will" to overcome national sovereignty. The additional protocol is a step in the right direction, decreased sovereignty a bit, but not enough.

Post NPT proliferation is generally motivated by all three factors – security (including revisionist designs, in contrast to status quo goals); domestic political benefits (Iran now); and prestige/international political power. As in the case of Brazil during the 1970s, a common sense analysis shows that these countries are not motivated by energy requirements, fuel cycle assurances, etc. This is the rhetorical and normative framework that affects the debate, but is not the substance in the calculus of would be proliferators.

So what does this historical analysis provide us in dealing with Iran, N. Korea and others?

All agree that N. Korea is unique on the fringes of the international system; failure of the regime (not IAEA).

Iraq was stopped by intervention – 1981, 1991, UNSCR 687 UNSCOM, and again in 2004. Political will of individual actors, not international community.

Libya was stopped due to fear of regime change; meeting with Saif al- Islam Ghaddafi, showed did not want to follow Udi and Chusi. But Iranian leaders apparently do not see this threat as credible; history may show us that the threat needs to be made more visible. None of this has to do with nuclear fuel cycle, per se. The elements that drive these programs, and could lead to a chain of proliferation in the region and beyond (ala Lew Dunn and Hudson institute of the 1970s – my first job in nuclear arms control) and unravel the NPT, are multifaceted. The regime in Iran is seeking to advance its ideological and political goals, to gain prestige, and domestic support, etc. within the NPT system, in sharp contrast to India, Pakistan and Israel.

Lessons of history do not help us here. But we know that without a readiness to use sticks, as well as carrots, near proliferators inside the NPT will continue.

As civil nuclear power grows, with more materials and potential for access, MNA and other fuel cycle innovations can reduce the increased risk. But the risk will remain and history teaches us that there are no complete political fixes. We will have minimize and manage the proliferation threat, and use worst case analysis in order to be prepared to act when this fails – this is the best we can do.




  • American Human Intelligence and Anti-Iranian Rebels
  • Notes for comments at Sandia Conference, April 5, 2005 - Lessons of history

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