NATO Policy on Cyber Defense: Have We Learned from the Past?

June 20, 2014

by Lindsay Kihnel 

Cyber warfare is a growing threat to many states, and even NATO – the most effective military alliance in the world – has not been able to protect itself from all cyber attacks, as seen in the cases of Estonia (2007) and Canada (2011). In June 2013, NATO held its first meeting dedicated to cyber defense, and its defense ministers agreed that they needed to have a fully operational policy in this area by the fall. NATO coordinates and advises its member states on cyber defense policy through bodies ranging from the North Atlantic Council (responsible for high-level political guidance and decision-making) to its Computer Incident Response Capability Technical Center (responsible for “technical and operational cyber security services”).

The current policy being implemented focuses on: integrating cyber defense considerations into NATO structures; prevention, resilience and defense of critical cyber assets; developing cyber defense capabilities; consolidating protection of NATO’s networks; developing minimum requirements for cyber defense of national networks critical to NATO’s core tasks; providing assistance to Allies; and reducing vulnerabilities of critical national structures. NATO also engages external actors to promote awareness and share best practices. An example of this is Locked Shields, an annual cyber defense exercise aimed at training IT specialists to detect and alleviate large-scale cyber attacks.

NATO cyber defense policy largely stems from previous attacks and the lessons learned in their aftermath. The first major incident that galvanized preparations in this area occurred in April 2007 when, following tensions with Russia over the removal of a Soviet war memorial, Estonian government networks were harassed by a denial of service attack from an anonymous source. Estonia, which was particularly vulnerable to this attack because of its highly developed electronic infrastructure, experienced an interruption to online government services and had to shut down its banking system. In response, NATO member states began to debate new directions for cyber security and the appropriate punishments for states found to have engaged in such attacks. Secondly, the January 2011 cyber attacks against Canada helped to mold current policy. The Canadian government reported a major cyber attack against its agencies, including Defense Research and Development Canada, leaving many government officials without internet access for almost two months. Following the attacks, Canada launched several public awareness campaigns, such as the booklet Canada’s Cyber Security Strategy, educating Canadians on cyber threats and how to combat them.

As cyber attacks continued to be employed, most recently during the Ukraine crisis, a pressing question is whether or not NATO’s Article 5 should be invoked in response. While Article 5 specifies that “armed attacks” trigger a response by all NATO members, cyber attacks are generally considered to be an unconventional form of warfare. Nonetheless, they should be designated as armed attacks because they can inflict as much damage as a conventional bomb in terms of lives lost and physical damage. As the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept states: “Cyber-attacks are becoming more frequent, more organised and more costly in the damage that they inflict on government administrations, businesses, economies, and potentially also transportation and supply networks and other critical infrastructure; they can reach a threshold that threatens national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security and stability…” While uncertainties hinder a clearer policy on this issue – particularly in determining the origins of attacks – cyber attacks constitute a growing threat that needs to be taken seriously if NATO is to fulfill its Article 5 pledge and maintain its credibility as an alliance, especially given its members’ increasing dependence on information technology. State and non-state actors thinking of launching cyber-attacks need to know that swift and unified measures will be taken against them in the form of a collective defense response. 

Lindsay Kihnel is an Intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence

Crisis in the Central African Republic: Why Restoring the Peace Isn’t Enough

June 12, 2014

by Nicholas Hager

Rwandan troops arrive in the Central African Republic as part of an African Union mission

The Central African Republic (CAR) has long been a victim of the aspirations of foreign powers and of its own citizens, so the fact that it is currently experiencing one of the worst internal conflicts in the world is not necessarily surprising. What is surprising, however, is that France and the EU have only deployed less than three thousand troops – in addition to 5,500 African Union troops – to pacify a crisis which has already killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. UN convoys and convoys of refugees are regularly attacked, and there is widespread agreement that, despite interim President Samba-Panza’s earnest efforts toward reconciliation, the central government is too weak to exert anything more than “minimal influence” because of its already weak “administrative structures.” UN Security Council Resolution 2149 is a much more robust step toward resolving the strife that plagues the country, and its almost 12,000 peacekeepers may be able to enforce a cessation of hostilities when the UN assumes command in September. Yet pacifying the country will not be enough. The success of the UN mission will depend on the less direct aspects of its mandate — efforts to facilitate disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation (DDR); bolster civil society; and provide justice to victims.

The international community, and the West in particular, have clear and tangible interests in ensuring the stability of the CAR and its neighbors. While some feel that these interests are simply neo-colonialism masquerading as humanitarianism, the reality is more complex. Countering al-Qaeda, accessing minerals, mitigating refugee flows to Europe, and addressing the less constructive aspects of China’s growing presence on the continent are of strategic interest, but the West and the broader international community also have a responsibility to protect. That is, they must protect populations from “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement”when states fail to do so within their borders.

This is certainly the case in the CAR, which is often mistakenly framed as a religious conflict. Former U.S. Ambassador Robin Sanders has emphasized the horror of the “two-way genocide” that has been occurring, as “Muslim[s] and Christians, impose horrendous revenge and ‘reverse revenge’ killing upon each other.” This sectarian cleavage is real and it is powerful, but it is also artificial. The struggle between deposed François Bozizé and (subsequently deposed) Michel Djotodiais rooted more in politics than religious differences,” though religion has been used to mobilize both sides in the conflict. John Nduna, of Action by Churches Together, therefore suggests that the conflict makes more sense to approach from a political and economic standpoint because when “citizens are not getting what they are supposed to…[it] makes it easy to polarize the country, using religion as an excuse.” In this context, the ultimate goal of the UN mission should be to create an inclusive state apparatus that gives voice to internal dissent and creates economic opportunity. 

It is essential to involve local religious leaders, from both sides, to continue to work together to foster inter-community solidarity and demonstrate that a return to the days when “Christians and Muslims [live] alongside each other in harmony” is possible. Archbishop of Bangui Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Cabinelayama have made admirable progress in this regard, securing “nearly $7.5 million to support…interreligious peacebuilding efforts and…to amplify peace messages and dispel rumors.” This cannot be the last of this kind of assistance, however, because even though the religious conflict is largely a case of astroturfing, there is an element of religious community reductivism in play that will need to be dispelled and replaced with a more positive ethos of national community before any meaningful reconciliation can occur. To a large extent, the current approach is a good one and it only requires human and material resources to expand into the rest of the country. Moreover, if done correctly, these efforts can, and should, be bolstered by concurrent programs aimed at institutionalization and democratization.

To begin, however, a ceasefire must be obtained. This will not be easy because of the importance many fighters, religious or not, place on seeking revenge, but the UN force will have to do two seemingly contradictory things: One, they must pacify the situation — through their presence alone, if possible, and through force if necessary — and, two, they must lay the groundwork for peace negotiations by providing both sides with a guarantee of security from the other. Ideally, it would be as simple as issuing an ultimatum for both sides to surrender their arms and demobilize, with the understanding that negotiations will be held and that the peacekeepers will prevent any attempt to renege on the ceasefire. What is more likely is that, because the self-professed pro-Christian Anti-Balaka currently has the upper hand in the conflict, the peacekeepers will have to engage them to some degree before they (and the Seleka) acknowledge they are in, what William Zartmann called, “a mutually hurting stalemate… – a situation in which neither side can win, yet continuing the conflict will be very harmful to each.” This “ripe moment” must be engineered very carefully in order to avoid further claims of bias — such charges have already been levied against the current French and erstwhile Chadian interventions — and to ensure that both parties view a ceasefire as viable.

Once a ceasefire is obtained, the first step will be to establish an inclusive transitional government. CAR President Catherine Samba-Panza has acknowledged that the populace wants an “inclusive political dialogue” and pledged that the government will be “reshuffled to be more…representative,” but this is easier said than done. Unfortunately, as Nanjala Nyabola observes, the conflict is a mélange of internal and external political interests, and it may be difficult to exclude actors like Chad and Rwanda — both of which exert indirect influence over events in the CAR — just as it may be impossible to encourage all factions of the Seleka and Anti-Balaka fighters to work within the system. Nyabola suggests that understanding and addressing local concerns is the pathway to success, and this inclusion-exclusion process will be the first major hurdle that a peace process will need to clear.

Secondly, any political change must be accompanied by economic and social change. While it will be important to develop the CAR’s civil society, the immediate focus should be on cultural rehabilitation, starting with DDR. Because of the real and economic devastation that occurs after a war, the immediate aftermath will see many young men unemployed, homeless, and perhaps still angry over how the conflict was settled. If they are unable to obtain life’s necessities legitimately, they may turn to crime or even war. Offering training programs to teach former combatants a trade or to impart technical skills could prove invaluable in this regard, as could the provision of investment aid for local industries, like timber or mining, to ensure that an influx of new workers can be supported. And, with the staggering number of child soldiers reported to be involved in the conflict, it will also be important to incentivize them to return to school. Another major challenge is the present food crisis. Putting former combatants to work in agriculture would give them a sense of purpose and a shared goal with a tangible reward to work toward, helping resolving a massive social concern in the process.

And finally, there is the issue of justice. The apparent entrenchment of vendetta killing in the CAR conflict all but guarantees that no peace will be possible without some measure of retributive justice and, indeed, Resolution 2149 seems to mandate this as it calls for “all perpetrators of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights…be held accountable…under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).” UN peacekeepers will need to approach this delicately and may need to be creative in establishing alternative justice mechanisms such as local, hybrid tribunals that consist of officials, politicians, and citizen representatives from both sides. There may also be a place for a truth and reconciliation commission. This may look something like the one established in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, in that it could provide amnesty for participation, or it may be more like the one in Rwanda which sought to disabuse its citizens of the false beliefs that led to the conflict. Regardless of the precise form, however, such an approach would be capable of providing victims a chance to ensure that their story is told, which is psychologically important for the social healing process. 

Nicholas Hager is an Intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: U.S. Army Africa

The West vs. Boko Haram: The Challenge of Cooperation

June 9, 2014

by Stephanie Linares

Education in Nigeria

The recent kidnapping of nearly 300 female students from a school in Chibok, Nigeria, as well as a spate of bombings, have brought international attention to the terrorist organization Boko Haram. While spurring major leaps in international cooperation in an attempt to aid Nigeria and furious condemnation from the international community, offers of assistance have come in the form of consultants and reconnaissance capabilities rather than rescue operations and military support. This raises the question of what role can be expected from Western powerhouses in regard to elusive, more scattered terrorist groups that lack clear organizational structures and chains of command.

As even major terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda become more decentralized, the larger picture of what Western nations will be up against in the future becomes increasingly clear and daunting. Insurgent activity in Nigeria will not stay in Nigeria and its government has repeatedly failed to take measures against insurgent movements that have already spread to neighboring countries such as Cameroon, where reports of clerics in mosques recruiting members are increasing. Additionally, with Boko Haram’s desire to join forces with larger insurgent forces in Niger, Mali and the Middle East, shifts in regional conflicts, WMD proliferation and intelligence collection demands will all affect global security.

Founded in 2002, Boko Haram (translated from Hausa, means “Western education is sin”) – a terrorist organization based in northeastern Nigeria, north Cameroon and Niger – has targeted elements of “Westernization” and long sought to establish a sharia state free of secular influences. Since 2010, Boko Haram has become known for targeting schools, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of students. It has also targeted churches, mosques, as well as government officials and Muslim clerics who have openly criticized the group. The group was only recently designated as a terrorist organization in November of 2013 by the U.S. State Department. Despite a growing body count over the years, Boko Haram has been largely perceived as an internal Nigerian problem by both the international community as well as neighboring African nations. However, its suspected links to jihadist organizations outside Nigeria, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and an increasing spate of deadly attacks in Nigeria have attracted significant attention.

Boko Haram’s actions have sparked a large boost in international cooperation, with the U.S., Britain, France, Canada and Israel offering aid, particularly in the form of deploying subject matter experts and surveillance equipment. The U.S. has provided Nigeria with surveillance aircraft (including a predator drone) and an advisory task force, including experts in hostage negotiations and recovery. Most recently, 80 Air Force personnel were sent to neighboring Chad for a drone reconnaissance mission and sixteen military personnel from U.S. Africa Command were sent to advise Nigerian officials. Also offering to send in advisory teams were Britain (British Foreign Minister William Hague offered to embed British advisors with the Nigerian military), Canada, Israel and France. France, itself a growing target of Islamist militants due to its military actions against Islamist rebels in Mali, held a summit in Paris on May 17 that was attended by the leaders of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, as well as British Foreign Minister William Hague and U.S. officials. China – which recently had one of its engineering companies in the northern Cameroonian town of Waza attacked by Boko Haram, resulting in the abduction of ten Chinese nationals – offered to help with satellite imagery and intelligence gathering.

Despite international offers to help so far, the political limits of targeting smaller, loosely-knit terrorist groups is already becoming evident. Secretary of State John Kerry stated publically during a dinner at the State Department that the U.S. was virtually alone in helping Nigeria locate and recover the missing students. Complicating U.S. aid efforts is the Leahy Amendment, a 1997 legal provision that prohibits the U.S. from providing training or equipment to foreign troops or units that have committed serious human-rights violations. The Nigerian military is a known offender in this regard, which has limited U.S. counterterrorism assistance to the Nigerian government over the years.

While U.S. military personnel are advising and supporting the Nigerian government, there is no active consideration from the U.S. or any helping nations for sending armed forces on rescue operations. While even members of Congress have started to urge the Obama administration to send more military assets to Nigeria to combat Boko Haram, most advocates are keen to avoid suggesting direct action. As acknowledged by Texas Republican Mike Conaway, chairman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, the pursuit of justice against such organizations is “easier said than done.” However, California Republican Ed Royce, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the administration to seek a waiver of the Leahy amendment if it is an obstacle to helping Nigeria. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, however, maintained that the American public would not support direct military action in Nigeria.

Much like conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and South Sudan, humanitarian interests are clashing against harsh realities and concerns about the long-term responsibilities of direct foreign intervention, particularly as the U.S. and its allies withdraw from Afghanistan. Public opinion, particularly in the United States, will not likely favor sending more troops abroad in the near future. Nor would sending armed troops guarantee a successful resolution to the Boko Haram problem. Realistically, there will be limits to what Western armed forces can accomplish, even if the Nigerian government were to ask for such support and openly cooperate. While armed intervention similar to French operations in Mali may weaken Boko Haram, risks of feeding Islamist claims of Western imperialism and the challenge of “hearts and minds” campaigns with local populations come at too high a price for any international ally of Nigeria at this time.

However, other options were highlighted at the Paris summit in May, which focused on strengthening cooperation among regional and neighboring African states; establishing partnerships with the EU and the U.S.; respecting human rights; and protecting communities threatened by groups such as Boko Haram. If Nigeria and neighboring nations build their own analysis and response capabilities to enhance security in the region while coordinating with the West, they will have a chance to secure the region and support affected populaces. More broadly, the international community can look to providing socioeconomic development programs in the regions concerned, with an emphasis on gender equality – particularly, the right to education and efforts to combat radicalization.

Stephanie Linares is an Intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: The Gates Foundation

As Syria Sinks to the Back Pages, What is Europe Doing Now?

June 4, 2014

by Jeremy Weiss

Syrian Civil War

With the eruption of the Ukrainian crisis, the focus of Europe and the world has drifted from the Middle East to dangerous instability in Europe’s backyard. Since the collapse of the Geneva II peace talks in February and the Russian Duma’s approval of the use of Russian forces in Crimea on March 1, there have been no diplomatic initiatives and little discussion aimed at ending the conflict in Syria.

Most recently, France and nearly sixty additional countries brought a motion in the United Nations asking the Security Council to empower the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria. The measure fell to vetoes from Russia and China. Russian UN representative Vitaly Churkin expressed his country’s fear that approval would enable Western military intervention in Syria – a view likely formulated with memories of the 2011 NATO operation in Libya in mind. China claimed the resolution would endanger any potential return to the Geneva talks. The UN’s Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson of Sweden, warned that continued inaction on Syria undermines UN credibility, while France’s Gerard Arnaud, who submitted the resolution, minced no words: “There is a moment when you realize you are powerless in front of barbarians and their supporters.” Days before this anticipated diplomatic rebuff, the UN also suffered a setback when its Syria envoy, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned, prompting other diplomats involved in the Geneva process to fret that a solution to the Syrian war seems increasingly unlikely.

If the UN is in danger of losing stature and appearing powerless in the face of this instability, EU member states are faring no better on their own. On April 14, a meeting of EU foreign ministers offered no proposals for reinvigorating the peace process, resulting only in vague appeals for “a political solution” and a statement reading: “The EU urges those with influence on the Syrian regime to put pressure on it to engage much more constructively in the talks.” A May 7 meeting between representatives of the EU and Japan likewise resulted only in renewed appeals for a resumption of the Geneva talks and “planning for genuine political transition.”

While some news is positive – in April, Europe was buoyed with the release of French and Spanish journalists who had been held hostage in Syria – the EU now finds itself forced to cope with spillover effects that are reaching across the Mediterranean.  Concerns about migration between Europe and Syria, persist, and EU states have yet to deal with them in an effective or concerted manner. With 2.75 million refugees having fled Syria, many have begun appearing at Europe’s borders. The BBC reports that 6,000 have entered Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country, and one ill-equipped to cope with a tide of beleaguered migrants seeking entry from across the Turkish frontier. While one Bulgarian campaigner for better treatment of refugees believes Sofia may be preparing for up to 25,000 Syrian refugees to arrive, other developments suggest otherwise. The same BBC report details the increase in funds Bulgaria has provided its border police to help seal transit routes to refugees, while more brutal methods have been employed to dissuade Syrians from seeking entry to Bulgaria.

At sea, Syrian refugees face even greater hurdles. Hundreds died during 2013 attempting to cross to Italy from Libya, where up to half a million Syrians may await the chance to make the risky voyage themselves. Italy has launched a maritime rescue operation to collect migrants from their unseaworthy craft and deliver them to Italian shores, where they can initiate asylum proceedings. Its leaders bemoan the lack of support from other EU states – only Slovenia has provided additional vessels – while anti-immigration forces in Italy condemn “Operation Mare Nostrum” entirely, arguing that Italy cannot afford an influx of asylum-seekers.

They are not alone in their disapproval of sheltering Syrian refugees in Europe. The European Commission’s Home Affairs Minister, Cecilia Malmstrom, has criticized member states for doing little to help asylum seekers. Malmstrom laments that “pathetically few” EU states have demonstrated willingness to accept resettled Syrian refugees. According to her, fourteen members have declined, citing high unemployment in the wake of the euro crisis. In response, Malmstrom remarked: “I would have hoped for stronger political leadership in all countries to stand up against those forces.”

European governments are also troubled by travel between Europe and Syria in the opposite direction. European Muslims fighting in Syria have recently garnered attention as their numbers continue to grow. The number of European combatants in Syria doubled during 2013, with government officials from France and the UK estimating the number of their nationals fighting alongside Syrian rebels at 700 and 500, respectively. This rise in the number of European jihadis is confirmed by research from the Washington Institute, which tracked the increase from a maximum estimate of 590 in April 2013, to 1,937 by the end of the year. The report estimates that Europeans comprised 18% of foreign fighters in Syria in December 2013, with significant numbers having arrived from across Western Europe. While European governments wish to deprive combatants of recruits, they also fear that returning Syrian fighters may perpetrate attacks against the West following radicalization during the conflict. Lending credence to these fears, a suspect arrested in Marseille on May 30 in connection with the recent triple murder at the Brussels Jewish Museum is believed to have spent the past year fighting with a jihadist group in Syria.

Denmark has reacted to this threat by launching programs designed to stem radicalization among its Muslim population. Other European governments hope to penalize those journeying to Syria and prevent their return. A British parliamentary report warns that the number of British Muslims among Syrian rebel groups has reached “alarming levels” and recommends that the government revoke the passports of those who have fought in Syria. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has recommended that his country impose similar penalties on its citizens fighting in Syria, and forbid the departure of minors from the country without parental consent, noting the risk that radicalized youths seek travel to Syria against the will of their elders.

Returning to Ambassador Arnaud’s concerns, is Europe really powerless in the face of “barbarians?” The Syrian conflict has underscored the continued inability of the UN to pressure combatants backed by a permanent member of the UNSC. Europe, which had been able to foster close cooperation with the United States in mustering a rapid response to the Libyan civil war, has not been able to repeat this success in Syria, owing to Damascus’ close relations with Russia. Indeed, some analysts believe that future peace talks will only occur once the Assad regime regains ascendency. Unable to project diplomatic or military power in the region against a Russian client state, observers could easily conclude that Europe is indeed powerless against Assad and his allies.

More disappointing, however, is Europe’s failure to deal with problems directly under its control. The EU is not aiding Bulgaria as it struggles to cope with a swelling number of refugees. Nor are other EU states assisting Italy’s attempts to save lives at sea. While European leaders must remain sensitive to voters who do not wish to shelter additional refugees and asylum claimants in their countries, the seeming inability to collaborate in the face of problems that have already been thrust upon fellow EU states is, as Cecilia Malmstrom lamented, very disappointing for anyone who wishes to see the EU live up to its promises of mutual support to member states. Allowing hundreds of refugees to drown in the Mediterranean undermines Europe’s humanitarian image. In addition, the European ideal has failed to dissuade potentially thousands of European Muslims from taking up arms in Syria; a failure that now threatens the security of Europe. European governments also failed to take corrective action against this problem until after the Syrian civil war entered its fourth year. Although Ukraine has dominated headlines recently, European leaders should not lose sight of the Syrian crisis and the weaknesses in European power and integration it continues to expose. Not only do they raise questions about the strength of European foreign policy, but they also fuel skepticism regarding Europe’s potential to craft effective domestic burden-sharing arrangements.  

Jeremy Weiss is a guest contributor to Streit Talk. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston University. Photo credit: Freedom House

The West and Iran: Tempering Overreactions

May 14, 2014

by Nicholas Hager

Iran talks Vienna

Iran seems to have Western observers and policymakers befuddled. A steadfast, but potentially erstwhile, antagonist of the West, it is currently in the midst of fulfilling its obligations under a deal it signed with the P5+1 to forestall its putative nuclear weapons program, most recently halting its high-level uranium enrichment and even proposing a redesign for the controversial Arak heavy-water facility. On the other hand, it has exacerbated tensions with the West by appointing Hamid Aboutalebi – a member of the student group that stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979 – as its envoy to the UN, which has elicited denunciations in official and private U.S. circles.

While some may be quick to assert that such incongruent actions somehow prove that Iran is merely out to toy with the West – or, at least, that we should be skeptical of anything it does – it actually illustrates the need for both sides to remain patient while refraining from provocative actions and statements, regardless of how well they play with their domestic bases. This is true of other recent diplomatic setbacks between Iran and the West, including Iran’s decision to send warships on a dry run near U.S. territorial waters and its unveiling of an alleged copy of a U.S. stealth drone it captured in 2011, but the UN envoy example is particularly illustrative because it reveals the potential for misinterpretation on both sides. This cautions us to be more thoughtful in our decision-making, lest an innocent gesture turn into a gaffe, and from there into an incident.

While the U.S. has conveyed to Iran and the UN the reasons why it will reject Aboutalebi’s visa application, there is little reason to believe that his selection for the role came as a result of his involvement in “the events of 1979, [events] which clearly matter profoundly to the American people.” In Iran, he is described as a “moderate [who] is opposed by Iran’s hard-liners,” and another Iranian analyst emphasized that Aboutalebi is actually “more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others in his country. Moreover, his involvement in the 1979 hostage crisis has been established to be minimal as Abbas Abdi, one of the original hostage takers, has confirmed that “Aboutalebi was not in Tehran during the initial invasion” and had “no relation to the decision-making team.” Aboutalebi himself has said that he served as no more than a translator.

The disconnect is clear: the U.S. believes Aboutalebi is tainted by his involvement in the hostage crisis and that his appointment is meant as awillfully…contemptuous jab at Washington. On the other hand, the Iranian government holds the position that Aboutalebi is a capable, effective, respected, and reformist diplomat who would exemplify President Rouhani’s equally reformist approach. Regardless of Iran’s intentions, however, it should have anticipated the resistance it would face from the U.S. or, at the very least, should be more willing to compromise on its choice. It may seem an arbitrary objection on the U.S.’ part, but Iran must realize that it is touching a very real nerve with its selection and would do well to take this into account if it is truly interested in efficient, congenial diplomacy. Even if Aboutalebi were to be accepted by the U.S., such controversy undermines his effectiveness and, as a former State Department official argues, makes him “toxic” because “[his] very presence…will open wounds that still fester [after] thirty-five years…Who will listen to him…when his past [invokes] so much hostility?”

On the other side of the equation, U.S. officials and citizens should understand that Aboutalebi only “poses a threat only to the blood pressure level of certain politicians” and that “many of the hostage takers…are [now] staunch reformists who…regret the direction Iran has taken.” Instead of assuming that these individuals are forever tainted and allowing hardliners to continue to occupy the headlines with unhelpful vituperation, we should recognize that this approach makes us appear as irrational and hostile as we perceive Iran’s hardline rhetoric to be. This makes a final deal, and even a working relationship, all the more difficult to achieve.

That said, the relationship has seen tremendous progress in the last year and, even within the last few months, there have been indications that Iran is genuinely interested in foregoing its erstwhile hostility and meeting its international obligations. In addition to halting its high-level uranium enrichment, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced in late April that Iran would “dilute half of [its stockpile] of 20-percent enriched uranium and oxidize the other half” in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations and the Geneva accord. On top of that, the fact that Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi has proposed a redesign of the Arak heavy-water facility – one that would diminish its production to roughly “one-fifth of the plutonium [it was] initially planned” to produce – is promising because this wasa major bone of contentionbetween the sides as recently as the last round of negotiations in Vienna.

There are still concerns, however, about Iran’s progress toward fulfilling its obligations. The “harder problems of how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate…what to do about…the Fordow enrichment plant…[and] Natanz” all still remain. And the establishment of a facility that converts low-enriched uranium gas into an oxide powder that cannot be highly-enriched – one important aspect of the interim agreement – has been delayed. But analysts believe that “[t]he delay is not long enough to raise a red flag” and that the reason for it is likely to be technical because it “is hard to believe that Iran would not meet…[the] commitment it has made…in good faith.”

While these issues need to be addressed, they need not be accompanied by counterproductive overreactions. This means that Iran should not conclude that the West is set against it because the U.S. rejects, for its own reasons, what Iran believes to be a perfectly capable diplomat. This also means that the West should not see pushback by Iran, over its ideal number of centrifuges for example, as evidence that it is racing to the bomb. Even a few years ago, these negotiations would have seemed chimerical, so the ham-fisted imputations of malice and half-baked assertions that disagreement on details implies general disagreement must be effectively tempered before they are allowed scuttle this nuclear deal and the rare opportunity it presents.

Nicholas Hager is an Intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: European External Action Service

Flashpoint and Sinkhole? The Security Cost of a Western Overreaction in Ukraine

March 14, 2014

by Nicholas Hager

Globe

Recent events in Ukraine have elevated its domestic politics to global proportions. Russia’s has a longstanding stake in the country, but both the U.S. and the EU have a vested interest in Ukrainian peace, sovereignty, and allegiance as well. This is why they have both pledged sizeable financial packages to stabilize Ukraine’s flagging economy and ease its transition into a Eurocentric state. Russia, seeing Ukraine as a part of its own sphere of influence, is loath to permit what it views as a wayward province from freeing itself from the Russian orbit and has taken rather extensive measures to ensure that this does not happen, or at least not without difficulty. Thus, strategic calculations dictate that the resolution of the situation in Ukraine is of prime importance. Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, has asserted that “the U.S. must be ready to pour its efforts into Ukraine, even at the cost of policies and priorities elsewhere,” but this would be a dangerous overreaction that overlooks the larger strategic landscape facing the U.S. and the West as a whole. 

One situation which is in danger of being overlooked is the longstanding Syrian civil war. Tepid Western support for the rebels and Russia’s robust support of Assad’s regime have allowed the conflict in Syria devolve into a brutal civil war and the resulting instability has opened the country to occupation by regional extremists of all stripes. With the failure of diplomacy, it is up to the West to compel the Assad regime to halt its indiscriminate attacks on the Syrian populace and negotiate an end to the hostilities. But Ukraine has exacerbated an already growing divide between the U.S. and Russia, and there are those in the regime who believethat any conflict in the world which distracts…Americans…eases pressure on Syria.” That is, while Western nations are occupied with emergencies like Ukraine, the Assad regime is less inclined to fulfill its international obligations, and it is likely to exploit this blind-spot to step up its ruthless campaign against the Syrian people. The regime’s forces already feel comfortable employing unjust tactics such as the use of barrel bombs and starvation, so a distracted West threatens to permit these, and other, horrors, to go virtually unchecked – with all the negative implications for regional and global security that would entail.

There is also the potential for a narrow focus on Ukraine to affect U.S. global security efforts more generally. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is a landmark, comprehensive strategy aimed at helping the U.S. expand its engagement with that region through various economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives. However, there is speculation that deep cuts in military spending could  jeopardize the U.S.’ ability to follow through. There is a multiplicity of complicated, moving parts involved in this program, and it will require careful management and balance to ensure that this strategy is properly executed. In recent years, the U.S. has overseen an insecure Japan, an increasingly pugnacious (and nuclear) North Korea, and has had to strike a delicate balance between allaying Chinese fears and protecting its own regional allies. The odds of success for the administration’s pivot are long enough, and shifting its focus from this key region now will only make them longer. Failure to maintain a meaningful presence in the Asia-Pacific could abandon the fate of the region to a China looking to bolster its military and expand its territory.

With these and other consequences in mind, there remain a few options for the West to make a strong show in Ukraine while retaining the bulk of its capacities in other respects. Russia must come to understand that the West will not stand by while it violates the sovereignty of its neighbors. This lesson was not learned in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia under a similar pretext, so it is imperative that it is hammered home this time because, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has noted, there are numerous ethnic enclaves in Eastern Europe and if Russia is allowed to set a precedent here, there is no calculating the future potential for aggression and instability that might result. In light of this, the U.S. and the EU should supplement their material assistance to Ukraine with punitive measures aimed at Russia. There is already talk of sanctions, but these are likely to be slow in effect and there is worry that they may not be as effective as hoped. Because of this possibility, Russia needs to be pressured on all fronts, and this can be done effectively by deploying NATO forces to what remains of free Ukraine, with its permission, to deter further incursions.

NATO should also renew efforts to offer Georgia NATO membership to augment the pressure Russia already feels from NATO expansion. This could be multiplied further by threatening to place missile defenses in Georgia, or even intensifying current efforts to do so elsewhere in Europe. It would also be helpful to supplement the official Track 1 diplomacy between Russia and the West with Track 2 (and Track 1.5) diplomatic efforts aimed at helping Russia and especially its president, Vladimir Putin, discover a way to de-escalate that allows it to save face. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that a policy focused purely on admonition “may backfire” because it “[dares] Putin to dig in.” So, to help facilitate peace, the West must be willing to negotiate in private. But these negotiations should be imbued with a clear demonstration of the consequences of disregarding them. This would be more effective at ending the crisis quickly than simply relying on sanctions or toothless diplomacy alone.

Ukraine is an important strategic concern for both the U.S. and the West as a whole, but its response must be carefully calibrated. Foreign policy goals do not exist within a vacuum and preferencing one objective over another will have consequences that must be considered. Allowing Ukraine to consume the focus and resources of the West’s foremost decision-makers would be problematic because conflicts and security challenges elsewhere will persist, and perhaps proliferate, in the absence of a watchful West. 

Nicholas Hager is an Intern at the Streit Council. Photo credit: ‘smil

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