Clinton's Defense Umbrella Idea for the Mid-East Resurfaces

Secretary of State Clinton in Bangkok resurrected an idea that she originally proposed back during the primaries last year. Then a candidate for President, Mrs. Clinton argued that United States would deal with a nuclear Iran -- by arming its neighbors and extending a "umbrella of deterrence" over the region. In an April 2008 debate, then Senator Clinton said that the United States "should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region."

Recently a number of foreign policy analysts have suggested that Secretary Clinton was a forgotten player in the Obama Administration - some going as far that she had been sidelined completely - but the resurfacing of the defense umbrella idea is the clearest evidence yet that Secretary Clinton is winning policy battles within the Administration.

From the New York Times:

"We will still hold the door open (for talks with Iran) but we also have made it clear that we'll take actions, as I've said time and time again, crippling action, working to upgrade the defense of our partners in the region," she said in a program taped for Thai television during a visit to Bangkok.

"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment ... that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon."

Last week Clinton said Iran's intentions were unclear following June's election there and that Washington's offer of talks with Tehran over its nuclear program was not open-ended.

The former Bush administration refused to engage Iran directly until it had met certain preconditions, including suspending uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons.

But President Barack Obama, who took over in January, says that approach failed and Clinton has also said it was a mistake.

Despite the policy shift, Iran has not responded to Obama's overtures and those from other countries seeking to persuade Tehran to give up sensitive nuclear work the West believes is aimed at building a bomb and Iran says is to generate power.

Diplomats suspect Iran is buying time by stalling over getting into any substantive talks.

As James Hoagland noted US defense guarantees would enable "Arab states to forgo developing their own nuclear arsenals, just as the U.S.-Japan bilateral security treaty is intended to keep Japan nuclear-free." Deterrence works. It is a proven concept.

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Newt Gingrich Urges 'Sabotage' of Iran

In an interview with Qatar's Al Jazeera network scheduled for release on Friday, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and possible GOP contender for the Presidency, calls for the United States to "sabotage" Iran's oil and gas infrastructure as part of a broad-based effort to bring down the Iranian regime.

In an interview with Al Jazeera's Avi Lewis for the Fault Lines programme, Republican Newt Gingrich said targeting Iran's refinery would spark an economic crisis that would destabilise the government in Tehran.

He said the US should "use covert operations ... to create a gasoline-led crisis to try and replace the regime".

"I think we have a vested interest, the world has a vested interest, in a responsible Iranian government, just as we have a vested interest in a responsible North Korean government," he said.

While Barack Obama, the US president, has attempted diplomatic engagement with Iran following years of icy relations, some of his administration's critics have been calling for destabilisation instead.

But Gingrich qualified that such a tactic to destabilise would only be "one piece out of many".

"I think that the Reagan strategy in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s is the right strategy: we use economic, diplomatic, psychological pressures to try to change the regime."

Despite being oil-rich, Iran is dependent on gasoline imports to meet about 40% of its domestic consumption. Iran lacks sufficient refining capacity to meet its domestic gasoline needs, forcing Tehran to import large volumes of the motor fuel which it then sells at heavily subsidized prices domestically.

Though the United States is not currently sabotaging Iran's oil and gas industry, late last month the House Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote a measure prohibiting the US Export-Import Bank from helping companies that export gasoline to Iran or support its production inside Iran. The Swiss firm Vitol, the Swiss/Dutch firm Trafigura, France's Total, the Swiss firm Glencore, and British Petroleum, as well as the Indian firm Reliance are the main suppliers of gasoline to Iran.

The measure was sponsored by GOP Congressman Mark Kirk of Illinois as an amendment attached to the annual spending bill to cover the expenses of the US State Department and other US foreign operations. I suspect what Newt Gingrich means by 'sabotage' is more than just cutting off trade financing to foreign companies that do business with Iran.

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Mixed Signals on Iran

Speaking on ABC's This Week, Vice President Joe Biden had this exchange with George Stephanopoulos concerning possible Israeli military action aimed at taking out the Iranian nuclear program.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he's prepared to make matters into his own hands.

Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.

What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.

If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can't dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.

BIDEN: I'm not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what's in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what's in our interests.

No one disputes the sovereign rights of Israel to act in its own interests. However the Vice President missed an opportunity to unequivocally warn that there would be consequences. As the New York Times notes the Vice President's remarks went "beyond at least the spirit of any public utterances by President Barack Obama, who has said that diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program should be given to the end of the year." And given the Vice President's penchant for sometimes imprecise language, it was not immediately clear was whether Mr. Biden was sending an officially sanctioned message. More likely, he simply failed to convey the serious geo-political repercussions an Israeli attack on Iran is likely to bring. Alternatively, Vice President Biden may have been trying to send a message to Tehran, engage and be serious about it or watch out.

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John Bolton: There's Never a Bad Time to Attack Iran

Another week, another John Bolton op-ed in a major newspaper, this time in the Washington Post, arguing for an Israeli attack on Iran.

With Iran's hard-line mullahs and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unmistakably back in control, Israel's decision of whether to use military force against Tehran's nuclear weapons program is more urgent than ever.

Iran's nuclear threat was never in doubt during its presidential campaign, but the post-election resistance raised the possibility of some sort of regime change. That prospect seems lost for the near future or for at least as long as it will take Iran to finalize a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable. Israel is undoubtedly ratcheting forward its decision-making process.

That logic only exists in the minds of a demented few who fail to weigh the consequences of what such an attack would bring. While Iran is unlikely to respond in kind, it does have asymetrical options available. These might endanger the flow of oil out of the Gulf and place American strategic interests across the region in jeopardy. Former Ambassador Bolton seems to believe that one well placed bomb will bring the regime in Tehran down. That's unlikey.

Whether or not Iran is pursuing an actual nuclear weapon or a credible nuclear deterrent without actually possessing a nuclear weaopn remains unclear. Nonetheless reliable estimates suggest that the Iranians are still years from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, a military strike is not an efficient or reliable way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  "Far from setting back Iran's nuclear programme, a military attack might create the political conditions in which Iran could accelerate its nuclear weapons programme," nuclear weapons physicist Dr. Frank Barnaby concluded in a March 2007 Oxford Research Group (pdf) report entitled, "Would Air Strikes Work?"

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The Enrichment Question

The Financial Times has an article out tonight entitled US may cede to Iran's nuclear ambition which is a bit misleading. The real question is whether the US will accede and recognize Iran's right to self-enrichment of uranium.

US officials are considering whether to accept Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment, which has been outlawed by the United Nations and remains at the heart of fears that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability.

As part of a policy review commissioned by President Barack Obama, diplomats are discussing whether the US will eventually have to accept Iran's insistence on carrying out the process, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons- grade material.

"There's a fundamental impasse between the western demand for no enrichment and the Iranian dem­and to continue enrichment," says Mark Fitzpat­rick, a former state depart­- ­­ment expert now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "There's no obvious compromise bet­ween those two positions."

The US has insisted that Iran stop enrichment, although Mr Fitzpatrick notes that international offers put to Tehran during George W. Bush's second term as president left the door open to the possible resumption of enrichment.

"There is a growing recognition in [Washington] that the zero [enrichment] solution, though still favoured, simply is unfeasible," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "The US may still have zero as its opening position, while recognising it may not be where things stand at the end of a potential agreement."

In order to fuel a nuclear reactor, it is necessary to produce low-enriched uranium. At the same time, however, highly-enriched uranium can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Thus the goal of the US has been to prevent Iran undertaking the uranium-enrichment process and has attempted to forge a broad international coalition demanding that Iran only import enriched uranium. However, Iran has insisted that it has right to enrich its own uranium.

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