Clearing Customs, Redux

EurasiaNet just picked up the story I flagged yesterday about a Russian shipment bound for Iran’s Bushehr reactor being held up by Azerbaijan customs. Apparently I’m not alone in believing that the incident has more to do with behind the scenes intrigue than with the lack of proper shipping documents. And while the possibility of American involvement in the seizure is advanced, the article points out that the Russians, too, might have an interest in keeping one foot on the brake while the other hits the gas when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, after keeping a low profile […]

Iran Press Digest

For whatever it’s worth, Iranian press coverage today is dominated by the mysterious “comprehensive package of proposals” for resolving the uranium enrichment standoff that was delivered to a visitng Russian security delegation (according to ISNA, Swiss FM Micheline Calmy-Rey gives it two thumbs up), and a 60 Minutes interview in which Israeli Air Force commander Eliezer Shteki discussed Israel’s military contingency plans for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Clearing Customs

Something fishy is going on at the Iran-Azerbaijan border. Last week I noticed a mention in the Russian press that a Russian shipment bound for the Bushehr reactor in Iran was held up three weeks ago by Azerbaijan customs officers because it supposedly lacked the proper paperwork. Now Iran is demanding the cargo be released, but Azerbaijan is still dragging its heels over concerns that the material, described as “heat-isolating equipment,” might be in violation of the U.N. sanctions against Iran. A spokeswoman for the Russian state-run export company claimed the delay would not effect the reactor’s launch date. But […]

Talking Tough With Iran

On Friday I mentioned that the Bush-Petraeus approach was about to go regional, and when you step back and take a look at the past few weeks, there are a lot of indications that we’re already seeing that shift into high gear. In addition to Petraeus’ promotion to CENTCOM commander, we’ve also seen a significant ratcheting up of the rhetoric towards Iran, beginning with the Petraeus-Crocker hearings, continuing on to Robert Gates’ statements of concern, and culminating with JCS Adm. Mullen’s pointed warnings about contingency planning and available military strike capacity. In some ways, the Syria-N. Korea briefing can also […]

When talking about peace in the Middle East, the first parties that come to mind are Israelis and Palestinians. Lately, however, Syria has broken into the headlines, with conflicting news about peace and war. The talk, which alternates between ominous and promising, reflects the script of a very public performance with a very specific intended audience and a very clear desired outcome. In this case, the talk of peace and warnings of war is aimed at neither peace nor war. Its purpose is to solidify the status quo, at least for now. A couple of weeks ago, many believed war […]

Iran NIE Revisited

Another interesting sidenote from the Syria intel briefing was this mention of last December’s NIE on Iran’s nuclear program: When we published our NIE, we had not planned to make unclassified key judgments available to the public; therefore we wrote our estimate for a very sophisticated audience believing or understanding that they understood that in the program, it’s basically three large pieces: There is pursuit of fissile material; there is a delivery system – ballistic missiles or some other; and then there is weapons design. The only thing that the Iranians halted that we had awareness of was design of […]

Russian Ambassador on Nabucco

To follow up on Judah’s post on Nabucco, the recent (rather amusing) comments of the Russian ambassador on the Nabucco project show that Russia is also trying to use the Iran threat to undermine U.S. and EU support for the project. Thanks to John Rosenthal for sending along this story from the EU Observer: EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – Moscow has questioned the viability of the EU-backed Nabucco energy corridor, a pipeline designed to lessen the bloc’s dependency on Russia. “I know few things about political geography. The only way to fill the Nabucco pipeline is to rely on Iranian gas,” […]

Virtual Nabucco

More problems for the Nabucco pipeline project, which if it never actually ends up delivering gas might have a future as a soap opera. This time the sticking point has to do with Turkish transit fees, which the EU and Azerbaijan wants to set at market rates, and which Turkey wants to negotiate at a “privileged ownership” rate. Hey, why not? Meanwhile, as John Rosenthal pointed out in a WPR piece not so long ago, the Nabucco pipeline really makes the most sense if it brings Iranian gas online. John saw that as a potential wedge Tehran could drive between […]

The Costs of Containing Iran

I flag these two stories to illustrate the difficulties involved in a containment strategy for Iran based on sanctions and isolation, in the absence of any real international sense of urgency or outrage over their nuclear program. The result is often a curious ambivalence where countries pay lip service, on the one hand, to the ostracization demanded by the U.S., while at the same time quietly carrying out their day to day business with Tehran. In this case it’s Turkey, which has too many points of overlap to seriously consider shunning its neighbor (among them security concerns about Kurdish guerillas […]

Compromise Plan for Iran Standoff

A report in today’s Independent has now conferred the semi-official status of “backchannel negotiation” to Thomas Pickering’s proposal, published last month in the NY Review of Books, for resolving the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The plan (which was co-authored by William Luers and Jim Walsh, and resulted from five years worth of discussions between Pickering & co. and their Iranian counterparts) called for, among other things, a multi-national uranium enrichment facility placed under IAEA supervision but located within Iran. The plan has the merit of fully satisfying no one, while providing everyone with an opportunity to save face. […]

Iran’s Iraq Strategy Mirrors Our Own

Yesterday’s post about recent U.S. and Iranian restraint opening the door to possible engagement might have been premature to the extent that it downplayed the rhetoric now coming out of Washington about Iran’s involvement with Iraqi militias. In particular, the events in Basra are now being used to demonstrate the amount of material and training Iran has supplied to the Sadrist militia, both “special” (ie. rogue) factions and those loyal to Moqtada. Future conflicts will certainly bring to light the operational links that Iran has established with other Shiite militias as well, including those that are integrated into Iraq’s national […]

U.S. and Iran Lower the Heat

M K Bhadrakumar offers a thought-provoking read of the state of play in U.S.-Iranian relations. Based on a series of restrained responses on both sides to events that at other times might have provoked more hostile reactions, he suggests that Washington might be preparing the waters for some sort of engagement. Unlike many American commentators, Bhadrakamur seemed to think that the Petraeus/Crocker hearings “. . .turned out to be a low-key affair that was deliberately, almost ostentatiously, mild in rhetoric against Iran.” The announcement that Tehran planned to install 3,000 centrifuges at Natatnz? Barely a shrug. On the Iranian side, […]

Iran and Iraq

Since the Senate Foreign Relations committee seems to be giving Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker a pretty tough time regarding Iran’s influence in Iraq and how reasonable it is to believe we can eliminate it, now might be a good time to point out that former Iraqi Prime Minister and head of PM Noori Miliki’s Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jafari, was in Tehran on Sunday, where he met with Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani: Jafari. . .highlighted the Islamic Republic of Iran’s role in solving his country’s problems and said, “Iran seeks to establish peace, security and stability in the region.” Maybe the […]

The Candidates on Iran

According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran will very likely be in the spotlight during today’s Congressional testimony by Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. Since all three remaining presidential candidates will also be in attendance, that means the hearings are sure to highlight their differences not only on Iraq policy going forward, but also on Iran policy. This Foreign Policy in Focus backgrounder gives a pretty good rundown of where they stand. The editorial slant is definitely towards engagement with Tehran, but it’s important to remember that insofar as we’re already engaged with Iran on Iraq security (the Iranian Foreign […]

Iran and Basra

Here’s another take on last week’s Basra fighting, this time from Asia Times Online’s M K Bhadrakumar, who intelligently identifies the overlapping templates of what was at stake in the fighting: Iraq’s future as a unitary state; the parameters of acceptable federalism, if any; attitude towards the US; control of oil wealth; overvaulting political ambitions. . . In other words, not just a sectarian battle, but a complex matrix of conflict. That notwithstanding, Bhadramakur ultimately paints Maliki’s offensive as a U.S.-backed power move to secure Basra’s oil wealth. Take away the edge of glee Bhadrakumar betrays at the setback it […]

Iran and the Grand Bargain

Eric Umansky’s CJR article (via The Interpreter) on the failure by the American press to cover Iran’s 2003 backchannel overtures, and the Bush administration’s refusal out of hand to consider them, has re-opened the question of whether a “Grand Bargain” with Iran is possible, what it would look and how we might get there from here. It’s admittedly a long row to hoe, but this Congressional hearing from last November on “Negotiating with the Iranians: Missed Opportunities and Path Forward” (Subcommittee forOversight on National Security and Foreign Affairs) is a good place to start. To begin with, I think it’s […]