Monday, December 21, 2009

Clock is ticking for Iran and Turkey!


How fast are we racing to hit the Iranian wall? Is there any hope of avoiding it? Can a wounded and militarily and economically weak America be willing to strike Iran? Does it even have leverage to impose the “crippling sanctions” that it has been promising for months now?

While America has monumental invasion forces in two different Muslim countries, can it take on another one? Wasn’t President Barack Obama the “one” who was going to withdraw military forces from these foreign countries and start to rebuild America? Was he really making the case for a war against Iran while he was making a speech in Oslo?

How about Turkey? Does the Turkish administration put all the alternative policies in a “deep strategic” box, ready to bring them out in the coming weeks and months under various scenarios? The Kurdish opening has thus far showed how poorly the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is prepared for such a huge challenge domestically. Could the Iranian episode, and Turkey’s dealings with Iran, be another vulnerable point in foreign-policy affairs that the AKP did not pay enough attention to or prepare itself for enough?

For months, we have heard about the “democratic opening” and cheered for it, without even knowing or being able to hear exactly what AKP proposes in this “package.” Cynics about this rapprochement in Turkey, sounded, well, too cynical as they relentlessly pointed out the tactical mistakes and plain offhandedness of the AKP. Nowadays, it looks like they were right from the beginning in light of the latest episodes on the streets and in the Parliament.

Before laying out the conversations I had about the Iran question with three experts, Reva Bhalla, Ian Lesser and Steven A. Cook, I would like to emphasize that the outlook about Iran is fast changing for the worse in the U.S. capital, as well as in the international arena. Officials of the countries that are involved with the Iranian nuclear impasse, directly or indirectly, have been attention-grabbingly quiet about the nearing deadline and crises for some time. But this quietness is being abandoning for sharper statements from both sides as reports leak about Iranian nuclear-weapons programs or the country’s test-firing of long-range missiles.

I asked these questions over the phone first to Reva Bhalla, director of geopolitical analysis at Stratfor, a private geopolitical intelligence company headquartered in Austin, Texas. Bhalla first reminded me of the recent history of the talks with the Iranian administration and President Obama’s promise for “crippling” sanctions if nothing comes out of the talks. Obama has already laid out several deadlines for the Iranians in the past. According to some news that I hear in Washington, D.C., the latest deadline, set for the end of the year, by which to show progress with Iran on diplomatic-engagement issues or move to the next step, might already be extended to the middle of January.

Bhalla also pointed out that Israel, for the last few months, has been extremely careful in its statements about the whole episode related to Iran, not wanting to seem like a spoiler for the engagement process. After all those months of silence, Israel is now waiting to see decisive actions, primarily from the U.S. and the international community, against what they see as an existential threat. Though Israel never considered that the sanctions would bring any results, it would still like do its part by giving enough time to play the diplomatic options. After December, however, Israel will press Obama for meaningful action.

At the same time, we see that the talk about heavy sanctions is gearing up in Washington, amid the House of Representatives having already passed a bill that would sanction foreign companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran or help the country with its own domestic refining capacity. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act would do so “by depriving those companies of access to the U.S. market,” Rep. Howard Berman’s office said in a statement.

The latest $536 million fine that smacked Credit Suisse Group for violating U.S. law by doing business with Iran, Bhalla said, has the potential to be spread to other foreign energy firms, insurers, shippers and banks that continue to participate in Iran’s gasoline trade.

There is also another interesting event unfolding relating to Dubai’s financial desperation and how and why this crisis could play a crucial part in crippling sanctions against Iran. Abu Dhabi’s growing clout in Dubai presents an attractive geopolitical opportunity to the United States in its struggle against Iran, Bhalla argued. Abu Dhabi often works in league with Saudi Arabia on foreign-policy matters, while the often independent-minded Dubai instead favors Iran – in part because of its contrarian political outlook, but mostly because of the large amounts of cash Dubai can make serving as a transshipment point for Iran’s trade with the world. Many states do not allow trade with Iran, so Dubai serves as a middleman. Roughly three-quarters of Iran’s imports pass through Dubai’s ports.

Indeed, even Swiss firms such as Vitol have set up energy facilities in the United Arab Emirates that are used nearly exclusively for Iranian trade. Dubai, which has its own income sources (primarily in financial services, tourism and real estate) enjoys wide-ranging autonomy, particularly in foreign and economic affairs, and doesn’t want the political strings that come from tapping into the federal coffers from Abu Dhabi. But now that Dubai finds itself in desperate straits, it is in need of Abu Dhabi’s financial help and will undoubtedly be forced to allow Abu Dhabi more control over its activities. As Bhalla points out, getting tighter control over Dubai’s financing, ports and customs systems, for instance, would gut Dubai’s ability to set up an independent economic system, while also granting Abu Dhabi de-facto control over Dubai-Iranian trade.

I also tracked down Ian Lesser while he was in Lisbon this week and had another lengthy conversation on the same topic. A well-known Turkey and transatlantic expert in Washington, D.C., who works as a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the capital, Lesser argued that Turkey will not only face pressure from the U.S. and European countries in the near future, but also from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which are traditionally adversaries of Iran, when the Iranian sanctions are discussed more intensely, whether in the U.N. Security Council or other venues.

Next: Ian Lesser: “Turks’ dilemma” - Steven A. Cook: “There is a greater chance for Israel to strike militarily now, compared to six months ago.”

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