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Lessons on Iran policy from the British hostages crisis/ Scandal at the UN

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Update from AIJAC

April 5, 2007
Number 04/07 #01

The 15 British sailors seized by Iranian revolutionary guards and then paraded in Teheran have now been freed. This Update looks at some of the lessons that should be drawn from this incident.

First up Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, who says that one lesson that we can draw is that the sanctions on Iran are starting to bite and this incident was in one sense a reaction to the pressure. Zakaria also recommends that sanctions and other pressure, accompanied by leaving the Iranians a face-saving way out, is likely to work on their nuclear and other problematic policies, such as support for terrorism. For this full argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a detailed report on the increasing power of the Iranian group everyone agrees was at the centre of this whole hostage crisis, the Revolutionary Guards. According to some experts, the Guards are now the most prominent actors in Iran, in terms of internal economic and political influence, as well as a dominant role in much of foreign policy. For this profile of an increasingly pro-active Iranian political player, CLICK HERE.

Finally, there has been a new scandal at the scandal-plagued UN Human Rights Council. After Hillel Neuer of the NGO UN Watch castigated the Council for neglecting all other human rights problems in favour of devoting all its deliberations to condemning Israel, the president of the Council, Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico, not only refused to thank him for his testimony, but threatened to strike from the record any further similar comments. Further, as the New York Sun discusses in the editorial below, de Alba has never  previously complained even when speakers said the most outrageous, conspiratorial, or racist things. For the Sun's take on the whole affair, CLICK HERE.


Why the Iran Sanctions Are Working

By Fareed Zakaria

Newsweek, April 9, 2007

Last fall, the Bush administration was debating how to handle the Iranian nuclear threat. It was the now well-trodden tussle between hard-liners and pragmatists.  The hard-liners argued that there was no conceivable way to stop Iran's bid for regional hegemony, including its nuclear aspirations, without using military force: the Europeans would never agree to sanctions.  The Russians and the Chinese would side with Tehran for commercial reasons.  For them, Iran in 2006 was Germany in 1936.  We had to bomb it to avert a third world war.  The pragmatists countered by proposing a strategy of containment and diplomacy that, working with the rest of the world, would ratchet up the pressure on Iran.  Constrained by Iraq, the hard-liners lost the debate.  Over the past two months, events have made clear that the containment strategy is working – to a point.

Iran's abduction of 15 British sailors must be seen in the context of its growing isolation.  This has been a tough few months for Tehran.  In late March the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution aimed at stopping Iran's nuclear program, tightening sanctions on the regime.  Not only did Russia and China vote for it, but so did South Africa and Indonesia, despite intense lobbying by Iran.  The sanctions are targeted not at the general population but specifically at the regime.  The financial measures, aggressively pursued by the Bush administration, have hit where it hurts–at the Tehran ruling elite's bank accounts.  In Iraq, U.S. forces apprehended five Iranians in December.  And last week Russia temporarily suspended shipments of nuclear fuel to Iran.

Faced with these rising pressures, Tehran appears to be trying to demonstrate that it, too, can push back incrementally.  Calibrated measures from the West will be met by calibrated measures from Iran.  This incident may not have been centrally planned, but instead seized upon by Tehran's hard-liners.  The British military personnel were captured by a unit of the Revolutionary Guards (which is allied with the hard-liners).  It is possible that the episode is part of an internal Iranian struggle over the direction of its foreign policy.  Vali Nasr, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that "in the past, when the regime has been ready to negotiate with the world, conservative elements within have often created facts on the ground that raise tensions and make such negotiations difficult.  President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies are trying to defeat the moderates.  This current crisis reinforces their position that the West is irredeemably hostile to Iran."

Whatever the internal politics, Iran appears to have miscalculated. Its actions will only confirm to many key countries that it is a reckless and untrustworthy state.  Tehran's release of letters and a video of the British sailors making obviously coerced concessions has backfired, strengthening British resolve and European unity.  A close aide to Tony Blair who asked to remain anonymous, as is customary at 10 Downing Street, expressed complete satisfaction with the growing support from other European countries.  "We couldn't have asked for more," he said.

Senior Iranian officials, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they believed that this matter could be resolved as a similar incident was in 2004.  (Then, it did appear that a British ship might have moved into Iranian, or disputed, waters, and London apologized, gaining the release of its sailors.)  The Blair aide also recalled that 2004 incident and told me, "We're not trying to make life difficult for the Iranian government on this.  There is a way out with dignity for both sides.  But we will not make any deals [on Iraq, or the nuclear program]."  Both sides seem to understand that Britain would not formally apologize, but London could use some language that would allow Iran to climb down from its perch and release the sailors.

This episode is, in some ways, a metaphor for the broader relationship between Iran and the world. Namely, that pressure works, as long as you can help Tehran chart a way out. Iran is a prickly, nationalistic country with legitimate interests in the Middle East.  It makes perfect sense to contain and curtail its efforts to go nuclear, destabilize Iraq and foment trouble in Lebanon and Palestine.  But the United States should also think creatively about a way for Iran to get out of the box it is in. Sticks can work only if there are also carrots on the table. 

Iran is not some brilliant and all-powerful behemoth, destined to dominate the Middle East.  It is a significant regional power, rich with oil resources but burdened by a failing economy and an unpopular and divided leadership.  As long as the United States can work with other countries to contain Iran's worst ambitions but yet accede to its legitimate ones, the situation is manageable through diplomacy and not force.

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Elite Revolutionary Guard Broadens Its Influence in Iran

Unit That Captured Britons Has Sway In Politics, Economy

By Robin Wright

Washington Post, Sunday, April 1, 2007; Page A21

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite unit at the heart of the latest Middle East crisis, has greater power today than at any point since the revolution's early days to export Islamic militancy and challenge the West's presence in the region, say U.S. officials and Iran experts.

Its naval forces abducted 15 British sailors and marines nine days ago. Its special forces unit is operating deep in Iraq, providing militias with deadly roadside explosives used against American troops, U.S. officials say. It supplied missiles used by Hezbollah last summer in the longest war Arabs ever fought with Israel. And it now plays the largest role in Iran's ambitious military industries, including attempted acquisition of nuclear weapons and surface-to-surface missiles, according to an upcoming book by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.   

But almost three decades after the 1979 revolution, the Revolutionary Guard has also become a leading political and economic force in Iran. One of its veterans, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became Iran's president in 2005. The force and a network of current and former commanders have also moved into Iran's oil and gas business, won bids on major government construction contracts, and even gained lucrative franchises such as Mercedes-Benz dealerships, the sources say.

"The Revolutionary Guards are quickly emerging as the most prominent actor in Iran," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They're playing an increasingly active role on the domestic political scene, have enormous economic assets and interests, are a key player in the nuclear program, and are essentially running Iranian activities in Iraq and Lebanon."

The Guard's high profile is one of the reasons that the assets of its top officials were frozen, because of ties to sensitive nuclear and missile programs, under two U.N. resolutions passed on March 24 and Dec. 23. Among the officials cited were the Guard's top commander, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, and deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Morteza Rezaie, as well as the heads of the Guard's ground forces, navy, Quds Force and Basij (Mobilization of the Oppressed) volunteers.

The widening presence of its Quds Force in Iraq is the reason U.S. troops launched two raids in December and January on Iran's operating bases, detaining seven men in Baghdad and Irbil. Five are still held, although Iranian officials expected them to be released on the Iranian new year, March 21.

Although neither Tehran nor London has linked the events, the 15 Britons were captured two days after Tehran expected the five in Iraq to be freed and the day before the U.N. vote freezing the assets of seven top Revolutionary Guard commanders.

In his first public comments on the matter, Ahmadinejad said yesterday that the Guard had demonstrated "skill and bravery" in detaining the Britons.

Ahmadinejad, who was a midlevel officer, mirrors the evolution of the Guard, formed to protect the revolutionaries and prevent a military coup. The Guard is separate from Iran's conventional military -- and less than one-third the size, according to Cordesman. Iran's regular army, navy and air force total more than 400,000 troops. The Guard numbers about 125,000. But its numbers belie its power.

The Guard gained stature during Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, when it fought some of the toughest battles, provided human minesweepers and took huge casualties. That generation has now come of leadership age, said Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, the author of "Warriors of Islam," a book about the Guard.

"They fought as young men, and now they're middle-aged. They have gone from the battlefield to mayoralties, governates and management of ministries," Katzman said. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf was a senior Guard commander.

The Guard is now a less effective conventional fighting force than it was during the Iran-Iraq war, Cordesman said. But it controls the deadliest arms, including adapted Scud missiles with ranges up to 1,200 miles, along with a chemical and biological weapons program and missile production. The Revolutionary Guard remains "the center of Iran's hard-line security forces," he said.

The most secretive Guard unit is the Quds Force, which conducts operations beyond Iran's borders using proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Cordesman says in the book. It has several directorates -- for Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Jordan; Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula; North Africa; and Europe and North America, Cordesman writes. It has operatives in many embassies abroad, he says, and runs Iran's training camps for unconventional warfare.

In January, Cordesman says, Iran's Supreme National Security Council gave the Quds Force control of Iran's operations in Iraq and expanded it from 5,000 to 15,000 troops. After its men were captured in Iraq, the force has lowered its visibility and changed its style of operations, U.S. officials say.

The Quds Force is led by Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and reports directly to the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many senior Revolutionary Guard officers have close family ties to top members of the clergy, according to a study of the Guard by Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Guard's ties and the widening corruption in Iran have increasingly led its commanders, companies and connections to bid on and win government contracts, including for recent oil and gas projects, for which they are not qualified, U.S. officials say. The result, they add, is that key projects are either poorly done or farmed out to other contractors, for a commission.


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Editorial: 'I Will Not Express Thanks'

The New York Sun, March 30, 2007

Every once in a while there comes a diplomatic moment to remember, and New Yorkers who want to share one can go up on youtube.com and watch the representative in Geneva of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, in a March 23 speech before the 4th session of the Human Rights Council. In the adjacent columns, we print the full text of his remarks, lamenting the loss of the dream of Eleanor Roosevelt and other architects of the human rights movement within the United Nations system. Mr. Neuer offers the substance. But it's worth watching the full clip (it's only a few minutes long) to catch the scandalous behavior of the president of the council, as he — for what may be the only time in its history — refuses to thank a speaker for his intervention and declares he will ban Mr. Neuer, or any other critic of the commission, if he says anything similar again.

To provide the full context, UN Watch has put together a compendium of clippings (at youtube.com/watch?v=BMEw0lZ3k_Y) called "Admissible and Inadmissible at the U.N. Human Rights Council." It shows actual film clips of the president of the Human Rights Council, Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico, thanking various diplomats for their testimony. He thanks a speaker for Zimbabwe talking about the ignorance of a delegate who has criticized human rights under President Mugabe. He thanks the delegate from Cuba for insulting a human rights expert who exposed abuses of the communist regime. When the permanent observer of Palestine asserts that the one that has a "monopoly on human rights violations" is Israel, which, he adds, is the darling of not only the ambassadors of America and Canada but also of the human rights commissioner, Louise Arbour, the observer is thanked by Mr. de Alba. On the clip one can see Mr. de Alba thanking the delegation of Sudan for a statement saying that reports of violence against women in Darfur have been "exaggerated."

Then one can watch and hear an envoy from Nigeria assert that "stoning under Sharia law for unnatural sexual acts … should not be equated with extrajudicial killings …" Or watch an envoy of Iran defend the Holocaust denial conference. Or watch a defense of the Hezbollah terrorist organization. Or speaker after speaker liken Israel to the Nazis, only to get thanked by Mr. de Alba or whoever is presiding. Then one can watch Mr. de Alba lean back demonstrably in his chair and fold his arms across his chest and adopt a disapproving visage as Mr. Neuer of UN Watch begins his recent testimony. He notes that 60 years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, René Cassin, and others gathered on the banks of Lake Geneva to reaffirm the principle of human dignity and created the Commission on Human Rights. He asks what has become of "this noble dream" and offers a devastating answer with a reprise of all the human rights abuses on which the council has been silent.

"Why has this council chosen silence?" Mr. Neuer asks. "Because Israel could not be blamed." He ticks off the actions against Israel, the only ones the council takes. When Mr. Neuer is done, Mr. de Alba says, "for the first time in this session, I will not express thanks for that statement. ... I will not tolerate any similar statements in the council." And he threatens to strike any similar statements from UN Watch from the record of the proceedings. We had to tip our hat to Mr. Neuer, who has, on occasion, written for these pages. Newspapermen have to have strong stomachs, but it's nothing compared to what he needs to sit through these sessions. He presents with memorable force and dignity. The compendium of clips runs only seven minutes or so and is winging its way around the World Wide Web. It's worth watching, a reminder of the wisdom of the decision of America's former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, and his colleagues in the Bush administration to stand down from participating in this charade.