Just note that as Europe has come once again under pressure as Spain and Italy resume teetering and their debt yields start rising again - the rhetoric regarding Syria and Iran has hit fever pitch as well...
For the life of me, I can't figure out what the Obama administration is thinking about Iran. And I can't tell if the administration is more confused than I am. Let me explain.
The first part of the puzzle was a column by the Washington Post's David Ignatius last week, which reported that "President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claims that his nation 'will never pursue nuclear weapons.'" Ignatius' story was obviously based on testimony from administration insiders, and the leaks were probably intended to send the message that diplomacy was working and that military force wasn't needed. In a similar vein, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC Newson April 3 that "it's our very strong belief, as President Obama conveyed to the Israelis, that it is not in anyone's interest for them to take unilateral action. It is in everyone's interest for us to seriously pursue at this time the diplomatic path" (my emphasis).
So far, so good. But then came Sunday's New York Times story supposedly laying out the P5+1 negotiating position. Like the Ignatius story, it was based on leaks (that is, on conversations with unnamed "senior U.S. officials"). It reported that the U.S. and its allies will insist that Iran shut down and eventually dismantle its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, as part of supposed deal intended to keep Iran as far away from a bomb as possible. The story quotes an unnamed official saying that the "urgent priority" is to get Iran to give up its supply of 20 percent enriched uranium, because it could be further enriched to weapons grade (>90 percent) relatively quickly. But they also quote NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor saying "Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions."
But here's why I'm confused. I can see why the P5 +1 would like Iran to agree to these demands, just as I'd like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to each write me billion dollar checks. But I don'texpect either of them to do this, yet the U.S and its allies seem to think this deal-breaking demand is a reasonable opening bid. In fact, their position sounds like a complete non-starter to me, and seems more likely to derail negotiations than advance them.
Remember: Iran has invested millions to build a protected underground enrichment facility, which is what any sensible government might do it it were constantly being threatened with a preventive strike. It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for them to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it. Have you seen much evidence that the highly nationalistic Iranians would accept this sort of humiliation? Moreover, if Iran's main goal is not to have a nuclear weapon, but rather to have the capacity to get one quickly if it ever needed it, then it is unlikely to accede to our demands about its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in the absence of some very big inducements.
The Times' story quotes a U.S. official saying "We have no idea how the Iranians will react... We probably won't know after the first meeting." In fact, the initial response from Tehran was both prompt and predictable. Guess what? They rejected it.
So here's why I'm puzzled. If you're the Obama administration, the last thing you want is a war. Certainly not before November, and maybe not ever. (It's bad enough that sanctions on Iran are adding about 25 cents to the price of gallon of gas.) But if that's the case, then the obvious course of action is to get the diplomatic track rolling and make a genuine effort to see if an acceptable deal can be had. So why start with an opening demand that Iran was virtually certain to reject? All that does is confirm Iranian suspicions that the United States and its allies aren't really interested in a negotiated settlement and give war hawks another reason to demand the use of force. If the U.S. and its allies soften their position on Fordow, however, the GOP will accuse Obama of appeasement and the war hawks at home and abroad will clamor that time is running out and that force is the only option.
It is possible, I suppose, that there's something more subtle going on here. Maybe the real P5+1 position will be a bit more reasonable, and these news stories will be forgotten. Maybe Iran's leaders are feeling the heat, and will be more forthcoming than I suspect. Maybe there's a tacit U.S.-Israeli deal reflected here, where they've agree not to launch a war and we've agreed to put forward a very tough line that leaves options open for the future. Maybe the demand to close Fordow is just a bargaining chip, and we will in fact get a deal on the 20 percent enriched uranium.
A lot of maybes. But from where I sit today, our approach looks like a good way to sabotage the negotiations before they start. What good does that do anyone?
The Syrian military attacked the town of Rastan near Homs with artillery barrages, killing 52, and did the same thing to Tal Rifaat near Aleppo, killing 45 there. They shelled homes in Latamna near Hama, killing 36 (Latamna was allegedly the site of a massacre by the troops last week).
The Los Angeles Times alleges that the Syrians killed at the Kilis camp in Turkey on the Syrian border were watching a nearby firefight between revolutionaries and Baathist troops when bullets cut them down. Six others were wounded.
The Lebanese and the Turkish governments both issued strong protests to Damascus over the cross-border incidents.
The Lebanese prime minister, Najib Miqati, said “We condemn the act of opening fire from the Syrian side on the Lebanese media team, mainly as this team was operating within Lebanese territory.”
Miqati is allied with Hizbullah, a strong supporter of the Syrian regime, but when Syrian gunfire is killing Lebanese on Lebanese soil, even he is forced to speak out. Lebanon is welcoming increasing numbers of Syrian refugees, which could also drag Lebanon into the conflict. Aljazeera English has video:
Turkey is seeking Chinese know-how in building nuclear reactors for power generation. But likely Erdogan also pushed China to take a harder line against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Turkey and China are also both interested in mediating the Iran crisis, over its civilian nuclear enrichment program.
““Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter’s ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain.” (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, “Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)”
Worryingly, the civil war is now spreading over regional borders, leading to deaths outside Syria.
Doyle McManus at the LAT argues that the Syria crisis is getting to be so big and troublesome that the Obama Administration may well ultimately decide that it must intervene, as happened under Clinton in the Balkans.
Syria has defied pullout deadline, say France, Britain
Syria has defied a Tuesday deadline for a troop withdrawal under the six-point peace plan brokered by the UN and Arab League, French and British officials said. The French foreign ministry called Syria's agreement to the deal a "flagrant" lie.
Syrian government forces withdrew from some cities ahead of Tuesday’s deadline - but had moved on to new targets, UN Arab League and UN Envoy Kofi Annan said in what appeared to be an admission of failure. Assad's guns still had cities “within firing range”, he said.
According to a UN Security Council plan, all Syrian troops and heavy weapons should have been withdrawn from urban areas in order to have a ceasefire in place within 48 hours.
"The days before 10 April should have been an opportunity for the Government of Syria to send a powerful political signal of peace, with action on all aspects of the six-point (peace) plan," he said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallemalso said Monday that the army had “begun withdrawing forces from some cities” and called for the simultaneous deployment of international monitors.
Despite evidence that the Syrian regime was not complying – 31 people were killed on Tuesday according to rights groups - Annan said it was still too early to write the plan off completely.
“The plan is still on the table and is a plan we are all fighting to implement,” he told reporters in Hatay, Turkey, after touring a nearby camp of Syrians who fled to the area.Syrian ‘preconditions’
But many continue to doubt Assad’s willingness to end the violence. Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights told AFP that no military retreat had been reported. Other activists told AFP that targets in the northern city of Aleppo and in Homs had been bombed.
Annan, visiting a Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey, also complained that Syria had introduced new truce conditions over the weekend, including seeking written assurances that armed groups are prepared to stop all violence and that that these groups should disarm immediately.
“I again appeal to the Syrian government and the Syrian parties to cease violence in accordance (with) the plan,” he told reporters. “I believe there should be no preconditions for stopping violence.”
An ‘unacceptable lie’
Meanwhile, Syria insisted that it is complying with the peace plan that it had accepted on April 2.
Visiting Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem claimed the regime was complying with the truce deal and that Syria had “already withdrawn forces and army units from several Syrian provinces.”
But such statements were not cutting much ice elsewhere. In France, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero called Moallem’s claim “a new expression of this flagrant and unacceptable lie.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Syria of exploiting the deadline “as a cover for intensified military efforts to crush the opposition.”
Even Moscow, which has shown itself to be a firm ally to Damascus, was critical. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Syria's efforts to implement the plan could have been more active and resolute.” Turkish tensions
But the tension was building up on an entirely different diplomatic front.
The day after the Syrian army shelled Turkish territory, injuring six people at a Syrian refugee camp, the country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was a “clear violation” of common borders. “We will take all necessary measures,” he said, accusing Syrian soldiers of pitilessly “shooting people in the back who were running away from them,” according to the Anatolia press agency. Syria hit back, accusing Turkey of undermining Kofi Annan’s peace plan by deliberately supporting the rebels. "Turkey hosts Syrian armed groups, has built training camps for them, lets them illegally cross into Syria and smuggle arms (to Syria) across its territory," Mouallem said at the Moscow press conference. Erdogan has not specified what he means by “all necessary measures” – although the Turkish press has published a certain number of “crisis scenarios”, including the creation of a buffer zone along the Syrian border. On Monday Turkish daily Millyet said that the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey had reached 50,000, of which 25,000 are in camps along the border, and that Ankara was considering creating “humanitarian corridors” protected by the Turkish army.