Prominent Iraqi Shia politician Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday voiced his intention to form a national majority government without foreign interference.
“Neither Eastern nor Western, a national majority government,” al-Sadr posted on Twitter following a meeting with political actors rejecting the outcome of recent parliamentary polls that the Shia cleric’s Sairoon Alliance dominated.
Al-Sadr’s party won the Oct. 10 elections with 73 seats in the 329-member parliament, followed by the Taqaddum (progress) bloc of parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi with 37 seats.
On Tuesday, the Coordination Committee of the Iraqi Resistance, an umbrella organization of prominent Shia political parties excluding al-Sadr’s movement, said in a statement that it categorically rejected the elections’ final results.
In the elections, pro-Iranian factions, which also form part of the committee, saw their seats decline from 47 in the 2018 elections to around 20.
Many Shia factions objected to the results, demanding a nationwide manual recount.
Following protests in the country, authorities began a limited manual recount on Oct. 27 of more than 2,000 ballot boxes subject to complaints by political parties in the provinces of Nineveh, Babylon, and Baghdad.
“This is a new world,” President Joe Biden declared, when justifying his pullout from Afghanistan and explaining his administration’s war on global terrorism in an August 31 speech. It will go “well beyond Afghanistan,” he alerted the world, focusing on “the threats of 2021 and tomorrow.”
The president will not have to look too far. Bordering Afghanistan, now again under Taliban rule, is Pakistan, one of America’s oddest “allies.” Governed by a shaky coalition of ineffective politicians and trained military leaders trying desperately to contain the challenge of domestic terrorism, Pakistan may be the best definition yet of a highly combustible threat that, if left unchecked, might lead to the nightmare of nightmares: jihadis taking control of a nuclear weapons arsenal of something in the neighborhood of 200 warheads.
Ever since May 1998, when Pakistan first began testing nuclear weapons, claiming its national security demanded it, American presidents have been haunted by the fear that Pakistan’s stockpile of nukes would fall into the wrong hands. That fear now includes the possibility that jihadis in Pakistan, freshly inspired by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, might try to seize power at home.
Trying, of course, is not the same as succeeding. If history is a reliable guide, Pakistan’s professional military would almost certainly respond, and in time probably succeed; but only after the floodgates of a new round of domestic warfare between the government and extremist gangs has been opened, leaving Pakistan again shaken by political and economic uncertainty. And when Pakistan is shaken, so too is India, its less than neighborly rival and nuclear competitor.
Pakistani jihadis come in many different shapes and sizes, but no matter: The possibility of a nuclear-armed terrorist regime in Pakistan has now grown from a fear into a strategic challenge that no American president can afford to ignore.
The nation that has both nuclear weapons and a dangerous mix of terrorists was — and remains — Pakistan.
No problem, really, Pakistan’s political and military leaders have quickly assured a succession of anxious presidents. Whether it be Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehreek-e-Labaik, al-Qaida, or the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura — these terrorist organizations have always been under our constant surveillance, checked and rechecked. We keep a close eye on everything, even the Islamic madrassas, where more than 2 million students are more likely studying sharia law than economics or history. We know who these terrorists are and what they’re doing, and we’re ready to take immediate action.
These official assurances have fallen largely on deaf ears at the White House, principally because one president after another has learned from American intelligence that these same Pakistani leaders have often been working surreptitiously with the terrorists to achieve common goals. One such goal was the recent defeat of the Kabul regime, which had been supported by the U.S. for 20 years. During this time, the victorious Taliban secretly received political and military support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Shortly after 9/11, for example, the terrorist mastermind, Osama bin Laden, escaped U.S. capture, in part because sympathetic of ISI colleagues. Bin Laden fled to the one place where his security could be assured — Pakistan. In 2011, when the U.S. finally caught up with bin Laden and killed him, Obama chose not to inform Pakistani leaders of the super-secret operation, even though the target was down the street from a Pakistani military academy, fearful that once again bin Laden would be tipped off and escape.
The U.S. has learned over the years not to trust Pakistan, realizing that a lie here and there might be part of the diplomatic game but that this level of continuing deception was beyond acceptable bounds. That Pakistan was also known to have helped North Korea and Iran develop their nuclear programs has only deepened the distrust.
Indeed, since the shock of 9/11, Pakistan has come to represent such an exasperating problem that the U.S. has reportedly developed a secret plan to arbitrarily seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if a terrorist group in Pakistan seemed on the edge of capturing some or all of its nuclear warheads. When repeatedly questioned about the plan, U.S. officials have strung together an artful, if unpersuasive, collection of “no comments.”
Even though U.S. economic and military aid has continued to flow into Pakistan — reaching $4.5 billion in fiscal 2010, though on other occasions capriciously cut — America’s concerns about Pakistan’s stability and reliability have only worsened. Since the debacle in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s barely disguised role in it, serious questions have been raised about America’s embarrassing predisposition to look the other way whenever Pakistan has been caught with its hand in a terrorist’s cookie jar. How long can America look the other way?
The anguishing problem for the Biden administration is now coming into sharper focus: Even if the president decided to challenge Pakistan’s dangerous flirtation with domestic and regional terrorism, what specific policies could he adopt that would satisfy America’s obvious desire to disengage from Afghan-like civil wars without at the same time getting itself involved in another nation’s domestic struggles with terrorists? Disengagement has become the name of the game in Washington.
One approach, already widely discussed, is that the U.S. can contain the spread of terrorism in South Asia by relying on its “over-the-horizon” capabilities. Though almost every senior official, including Biden, has embraced this approach, it’s doubtful they really believe it’s a viable substitute for “boots on the ground.”
Another possibility would be the Central Intelligence Agency striking a new under-the-table deal with the ISI that would set new goals and guidelines for both services to cooperate more aggressively in the war against domestic and regional terrorism. Unfortunately, prospects for such expanded cooperation, though rhetorically appealing, are actually quite slim. Veterans of both services shake their heads, reluctantly admitting it is unrealistic, given the degree of distrust on both sides.
But even if Biden, despite knowing better, decided to continue to look the other way, hoping against hope that Pakistan would be able to contain the terrorists and keep them from acquiring nuclear warheads, he will find that Prime Minister Imran Khan is not a ready and eager ally, if he ever was one. Lately he’s been painting the Biden administration as damaged goods after its hurried exit from Afghanistan. And he has been rearranging Pakistan’s regional relationships by strengthening his ties with China and extending a welcoming hand to Russia. Also Khan may soon discover that his pro-Taliban policy runs the risk of backfiring and inspiring Pakistani terrorists to turn against him. To whom would he then turn for help?
Khan, who won his mandate in 2018, surely knows by now that he runs a decidedly unhappy country, beset by major economic and political problems, waves of societal corruption and the no-nonsense challenge coming from domestic terrorists eager to impose a severe Islamic code of conduct on the Pakistani people. Sixty-four percent of the population are under the age of 30 and more desirous of iPhones and apps than of religious zealotry.
Pakistan is a looming problem with no satisfactory solutions. For Biden, no matter what policies he pursues, it remains a recurring nightmare, the stuff of a paperback thriller: a scary mix of terrorists who may one day be able to seize power and, with it, control over the nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads — all of this happening in a shaky, strategically-located country that was once an ally.
Since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, geostrategic relationships on the Asian subcontinent have been undergoing important changes. Pakistan has tilted its future towards a closer relationship with China, while its principal adversary, India, has tightened its ties to the United States, both of them sharing an already deep distrust of China. In this increasingly uneasy atmosphere, the U.S. remains concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile falling into terrorist hands. If this seemed to be happening, the U.S. would feel the need to intervene militarily to stop it. Pakistan would likely turn to China for help, setting the stage for the U.S. and China, because of Pakistan’s nukes, to head towards a direct and possibly deadly confrontation which neither superpower wants or needs.
The intelligence chief’s comments were made at an award ceremony for 12 Mossad agents that received certificates of excellence.
The Mossad will thwart any attempts by Tehran to possess nuclear weapons, the chief of Israel’s intelligence agency David Barnea pledged on Thursday night as talks Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal appeared to falter.
“Iran will not have nuclear weapons – not in the coming years, not ever. This is my personal commitment: This is the Mossad’s commitment,” Barnea said at an award ceremony for 12 Mossad agents.
“Our eyes are open, we are alert, and together with our colleagues in the defense establishment, we will do whatever it takes to keep that threat away from the State of Israel and to thwart it in every way,” Barnea said.Earlier on Thursday, the Jewish Chroniclereported that the Mossad was responsible for destroying the centrifuge hall at the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility in April and did so by secretly recruiting a team of Iranian nuclear scientists.
“Iran strives for regional hegemony, operates the same terrorists that we’re tackling every day worldwide, and continuously threatens the stability of the Middle East,” Barnea explained.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stressed that Iran is conducting ”nuclear blackmail” as a negotiation tactic. (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)
The 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) restricted the purity to which Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67%, far below the roughly 90% that is weapons-grade, or the 20% Iran reached before the deal. Iran is now enriching to various levels, the highest being around 60%.
In November, the Institute for Science and International Security reported that Iran has enough enriched uranium hexafluoride enriched to nearly 20%, and 60% enriched uranium to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in as little as three weeks. In just two months more, Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to produce a second weapon.The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday that Iran has started producing enriched uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordow plant.
“It’s clear that there is no need for 60% purified uranium for civilian purposes, there is no need for three sites with thousands of centrifuges active unless there is the intention to develop nuclear weapons,” Barnea spoke.
He spoke after the six world powers and Tehran had held four days of indirect talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iran deal. It was signed between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The Trump administration exited the deal in 2018, but US President Joe Biden wants to return to the deal. The EU has brokered indirect talks between the two parties, with little success to date.
Israel has opposed the deal with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, asking US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to put an end to the talks.
Barnea also sharply criticized the deal as “terrible” and “barely tolerable.”
Among the issues stymying the talks is Iran’s insistence on immediate sanction removal.
Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani said Iran had delivered two drafts to the Europeans, one on sanctions removal and the other on nuclear limitations.
“We want all sanctions to be lifted at once,” Bagheri told reporters in Vienna, outlining a position unlikely to be warmly welcomed by the West, which has sought some kind of sequence under which Iran would return to the pact’s nuclear limits.
A nuclear arms race isn’t new, per se, but it does help refocus our attention on dangers that have long been with us.
This week, the U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report on China’s military power. As usual, the report covers a comprehensive range of technological, tactical, and strategic assessments of Beijing’s goals and capabilities. But it comes at a time when tensions are rising – and even more frighteningly, nuclear weapons are emerging from the background to be a prime issue in the strategic competition between the two powers.
There is both more and less here than some of the breathless commentary might suggest. China has long been a slightly odd outlieramong nuclear weapons states: Despite its near-superpower status, its arsenal has remained closer in size to those of middle powers like France, Britain, or India than to the United States’ or Russia’s. Until recently, China also seemed content with a much less diversified set of delivery systems, relying heavily on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and a very limited fleet of missile submarines, compared to the full-fledged “triads” of bombers, submarines, and ICBMs fielded by Moscow and Washington.
That seems to have changed. Last fall, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force showed off a new variant of their H-6 bomber carrying what seems to be an air-launched ballistic missile, a type of weapon that makes the most sense with a nuclear warhead. The PLA Navy has been developing new submarine-launched missiles and building more submarines to carry them. Nor has the land-based leg of the triad been left out: China has been building new silo fields for ICBMs and recently tested a hypersonic boost-glide missile with a fractional orbital bombardment capability. Of course, new delivery systems do not mean much if they do not have warheads, and on that front, the new DoD report suggests that the PLA will increase its deployed warhead numbers from roughly 350 to perhaps a thousand by 2030.
But these developments are not happening in a vacuum. Even the mooted increase in Chinese warhead numbers will still not bring it to parity with the United States, which fields nearly 4,000 (though per the terms of the New START arms-limitation treaty, less than half of those are available for immediate use). Meanwhile, the United States has been significantly modernizing its own nuclear delivery systems, including stealth strike fighters and bombers, new ballistic missile submarines and new ICBMs. The U.S. has also pulled out of several key arms control treaties in recent years, though it is worth noting that those treaties were originally signed between the U.S. and USSR, and China was never party to them. And finally, the United States has been actively developing missile defenses, which in theory could undercut the logic of nuclear deterrence.
And yet, for all these technological developments, the underlying logic of nuclear threat remains much the same as it has been. A new nuclear arms race isn’t new, per se, but it does help refocus our attention on dangers that have long been with us.
Take, for example, the hypersonic missile test that garnered so much attention. Certainly, the ability to dodge missile defenses and attack from angles not covered by early-warning radars offers some advantages in certain apocalyptic scenarios – but the underlying reality is that China has long since had the ability to deliver high-yield nuclear weapons to targets in the continental United States; the U.S. has the ability to do the same to China, and there is virtually nothing that either can do to prevent it. Non-silo-based missiles – whether mounted on submarines or ground vehicles – are incredibly difficultto destroy en masse before they can be launched, and once the missiles are flying, interception is nearly impossible. The U.S. missile defense system, for all the billions lavished on it, has not been reliable in real-world testing and can be easily overwhelmed by sheer numbers (or by relatively cheap and simple decoy warheads).
As experts in the field have observed, the purpose of China’s sudden nuclear acceleration might well not be to win, or even to fight, a nuclear war. The point is to establish and maintain a credible deterrent – a front-of-mind presence in adversarial decision-making circles, if you will – in order to open the space for more aggressive moves at the conventional or unconventional non-nuclear level. (Russia’s recent push for highly unconventional systems like the Poseidon super-torpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile are harder to explain on these lines, since Moscow already has a massive and deeply survivable nuclear arsenal.)
To be clear, none of this is good news. Regardless of how much policy attention is paid to them, the very existence of nuclear weapons creates an inherent possibility of nuclear war, through accident, misunderstanding, miscalculation, or – most likely – a combination of all three. Adding new systems, especially those with seemingly game-changing capabilities, changes the balance of deterrence, which is already a fragile thing, held as it is between untrusting and frequently uncomprehending adversaries. It is not at all clear what tactical advantage is worth that level of risk.Authors
Jacob Parakilas is an author, consultant, and analyst working on U.S. foreign policy and international security.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Rights groups say Israel failed to investigate shootings that killed more than 200 Palestinians and wounded thousands at violent protests along the Gaza frontier in 2018 and 2019. That would potentially strengthen the case for the International Criminal Court to intervene. The Israeli military rejected the findings, saying the “mass riots” organized by Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers were aimed at providing cover for attacks. The military said alleged abuses were investigated. B’Tselem said that out of 143 cases referred to military prosecutors, one soldier was convicted and given a month of community service. The military says at least two soldiers have been convicted and other cases are still being investigated.
MOSCOW — Russia’s top diplomat warned NATO against redeploying U.S. atomic weapons to Eastern Europe if Germany refuses to keep hosting them, saying Wednesday that such a move would be irresponsible and provocative.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was responding to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s comment this month that the alliance would need to consider relocating nuclear weapons east if the new German government changes the country’s policy on nuclear sharing.
Lavrov described Stoltenberg’s statement as “absolutely irresponsible” and “outrageous.”
“It’s not just fanning confrontation. It’s an attempt to provoke a hot conflict,” the minister said, speaking to members of the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
Tensions escalated last month amid Ukrainian and Western concerns about a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that raised fears that Moscow could invade its neighbor.
The longtime leader of Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, said in a Tuesday interview that his country would be willing to host Russian nuclear weapons if NATO redeployed U.S. atomic bombs from Germany to Eastern Europe.
Lavrov described Lukashenko’s offer as a “serious warning prompted by the reckless Western policy.”
Iran has begun the process of enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges at its Fordo plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday, in what would be a further violation of the multilateral nuclear accord that world powers are rushing to salvage.
The announcement from the IAEA came three days after negotiators from Iran and the US reconvened in Vienna for indirect talks aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action after a five-month recess prompted by the election of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi.
Iran has been escalating in its violations of the deal — which bars any enrichment at Fordo — since former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and began imposing significant sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Until now, Iran had been enriching uranium at Fordo, but mainly with less-advanced IR-1 machines, the report said, adding that Western negotiators fear that Tehran is seeking to create facts on the ground as talks in Vienna restart.
Iran has another 94 IR-6 machines installed at Fordo, though it has not yet began operating them, the IAEA said.
According to an IAEA report seen by Reuters, the nuclear watchdog plans to expand its inspections at Fordo — which Iran has dug into a mountain, ostensibly to protect from an incoming attack — as a result of the steps taken by Iran.
“The Agency has decided and Iran has agreed to increase the frequency of verification activities at FFEP and will continue consultations with Iran on practical arrangements to facilitate implementation of these activities,” the report stated.Advertisement
On the second day of restarted talks in Vienna this week, European negotiators said they will assess the “seriousness” of the Iranian position over the next few days to decide whether to continue with recently resumed talks about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.
Without wanting to set “an artificial deadline,” one of the unnamed European diplomats at the talks said, “we don’t have the luxury to spend time on niceties.”
“If they don’t show that they are serious about this work, then we’ll have a problem,” diplomats from the E3 nations of Britain, France and Germany said. “The next 48 hours will be very important.”
In this round of talks, “we have 70 percent to 80% of the work done, but some of the most difficult issues are what remains,” the diplomats said.
The diplomats said that the issue of Iran’s centrifuges remains an unresolved issue.
Iran struck a hard line after the first day of talks on Tuesday, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated, in direct contradiction of comments made Monday by EU chief negotiator Enrique Mora.Advertisement
Speaking to Iranian state television, Ali Bagheri, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, referred to everything discussed thus far as merely a “draft.” It remained unclear whether that represented an opening gambit by Iran’s new president or signaled serious trouble for those hoping to restore the deal.
Iran maintains its atomic program is peaceful. However, US intelligence agencies and international inspectors say Iran had an organized nuclear weapons program up until 2003. Nonproliferation experts fear any brinkmanship could push Tehran toward even more extreme measures to try to force the West to lift sanctions.
Making matters more difficult, United Nations nuclear inspectors remain unable to fully monitor Iran’s program after Tehran limited their access. A trip to Iran last week by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, failed to make any progress on that issue.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on a Tuesday visit to Paris urged French President Emmanuel Macron to strengthen sanctions against Iran and said “a credible military threat must be exercised.”