Category Archives: Matthew M. Reed

Your Move, Zeidan.

(For background, see my February 3 article for Foreign Policy, “Federalism and Libya’s Oil“.)

The big news out of Libya this morning is that Ibrahim Jadran–the renegade federalist and mastermind behind the country’s 8-month old oil crisis–has found a buyer. A North Korean tanker was reported to have entered the Gulf of Sidra on March 4. Jadran’s men control three terminals in the Gulf: Es-Sider, Ras Lanuf and Zuietina, with a combined export capacity of 600,000 b/d. The tanker approached Es-Sider earlier this week but docked this morning. It is highly unusual for North Korean tankers to enter the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. The deal certainly proves Jadran is desperate to sell oil; no reputable company will do business with him.

A spokesman for the group told Reuters, “We started exporting oil. This is our first shipment.” Now it’s up to the besieged and broken government in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, to act fast and make sure that ship never reaches its destination. Zeidan may be distracted by yet another no-confidence vote scheduled for tomorrow. He’s overcome previous attempts to remove him from office but dissatisfaction with him as at an all-time high. However risky, Jadran has given Zeidan the perfect opportunity to show the kind of leadership Libyans so desperately need right now.

Zeidan should start with the following:

1) Mobilize Libya’s modest navy. By world standards, Libya’s navy is nothing special. But on two previous occasions, forces loyal to the central government have mobilized small fleets carrying men with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Warning shots were good enough to turn away tankers last August and again in January. In those cases, the tankers were driven away while empty. Now, however, with the tanker loaded and presumably trying to exit the Gulf of Sidra soon, it may be wiser to keep the tanker bottled up near the port.

2) Zeidan needs to work the phones starting with Egypt. This is absolutely essential. The North Korean tanker entered through the Suez Canal and it will take the same route back. Zeidan could demand that the ship be denied access because it is carrying a stolen cargo. The Egyptians might even be convinced to let the ship enter and then have it redirected to a port before it can exit the 120-mile waterway.

Libyan-Egyptian relations have seen a rough patch lately due to border insecurity and the targeting of Egyptian citizens within Libya. But, by every indication, Zeidan’s relationship with Egyptian authorities is still in good shape. Egypt saw it’s first post-Morsi government quit early this month. That shouldn’t prevent Zeidan from appealing to decision-makers, like Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, or managers at the Suez Canal Authority who are ready to deny illicit shipments.

One NOC official told Reuters that the 250,000 barrel tanker is owned by a Saudi company, presumably a privately-owned one. If so, Zeidan can call on Riyadh to intervene, withdrawing whatever insurance the ship has or preventing any payment for Suez tolls.

3) Contact European allies and the U.S. to intercept the vessel if all else fails and direct it to a friendly port, perhaps in Europe. Libya’s navy is simply not equipped to pursue this North Korean tanker. If it escapes the Gulf of Sidra, a more sophisticated force will have to intervene. For all of Zeidan’s failures, he is well-respected by his international peers; he just met with foreign ministers from the EU, U.S. and Gulf Arab states in Rome on March 6 for the Friends of Libya conference. All have proclaimed their willingness to help however they can. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, has repeatedly warned separatist groups not to sell oil outside of official channels. She had this to say on Twitter when news of Jadran’s heist broke today:

Safira Deborah Tweet 3-8-2014

safiradeborah tweet 2

The loading of a tanker in Libya’s east is a game-changer. But Jadran hasn’t won yet. In fact, this could backfire badly, hurting his brand even more. No one knows where the ship will go after loading oil. But if it’s destined for North Korea, Jadran will have to face the fact that he’s doing business with a regime that is in many ways reminiscent of Qaddafi’s brutal, arbitrary rule. Jadran’s revolutionary credentials may be compromised as a result.

What’s more, Jadran has not once hinted at what he’ll spend the money on if he’s successful in selling oil for tens of millions of dollars. Roads? Highways? Hospitals? Schools? We just don’t know. What we do know is Jadran’s men haven’t been paid in six months or more. It’s not too cynical to assume that paying his small army with oil revenues is his first priority. How might that shape public opinion going forward? Can you be a man of the people after taking your cut off the top? Countless Arab leaders have done that for decades. But Libyans won’t stand for it–not after forty years under Qaddafi.

This stunt confirms how desperate Jadran has become. It also provides Prime Minister Zeidan a chance to shine.

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Update: No “Geneva bump” for Iran after EU insurance ban lifted

A few weeks ago I blogged about what the six-month suspension of the EU insurance ban could mean for Iran’s oil exports. My reading of events was optimistic for Tehran. India looked like the country best positioned to increase oil imports because it was never able to develop an alternative arrangement. Imports fell dramatically as a result. Other, more marginal barrels could be headed for Turkey, officials also said. “For Iran, every barrel is significant,” I argued on January 17. But it’s looking more and more like the “Geneva bump” will not materialize.

EU-based insurers issued a series of warnings last month, calling for caution. Gard AS of Norway–the largest protection and indemnity (P&I) insurer–had this to say: “Members and clubs should proceed on the basis that beyond 20 July 2014, clubs will not be able to respond to any claims presented in respect of liabilities arising during the 20 January/20 July suspension period… This has the effect of rendering the current suspension of sanctions on insurance cover, and in particular P&I cover, of very limited, if any, value to shipowners.”

Testifying today at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen confirmed that all insurance claims, “from contract to delivery to payment,” must be settled by July 20. P&I claims regularly take a year or more to collect, process and pay out. This is understandable given that huge amounts of money involved. However, for Iran, it means selling more oil won’t be easy. Without EU insurance, tanker owners will be left on the hook to pay for any accident, damage or disaster. We will still see month-to-month variations in Iran’s oil exports but a sustained boost is hard to imagine without EU insurance.

In my January 17 post, I also suggested China might decide to import more oil from Iran it sees P5+1 talks going in the right direction. Chinese imports climbed in the last two months of 2013 but it’s too soon to tell whether or not Beijing is really rolling the dice–and daring the U.S. Treasury to act if talks with Iran fail.

Negotiations for a comprehensive, final nuclear deal will begin on February 18.

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Post-Geneva Oil Prospects for Iran

In keeping with the Geneva deal, the EU ban on insurance (and reinsurance) of Iranian crude oil will be lifted for six months beginning on January 20. As a result, some customers may import more Iranian oil. China could also surprise the U.S. and buy more Iranian crude if talks between Iran and the P5+1 go well. How much more is anyone’s guess but Iran will view any improvement as significant.

The EU ban helped slash Iran’s oil exports from about 2.3 million b/d to an average of 1.1 million b/d over the last 18 months. It exacted the most pain in the summer of 2012, when it first went into effect. Many of Iran’s customers were caught unprepared and had to scramble for alternatives. Iranian oil exports collapsed in July of that year, falling to a shocking low of about 850,000 b/d.

So what does the suspension of the EU ban mean for Iran’s customers?  That depends. Japan is currently the only country providing a “sovereign guarantee” in case of disaster. Tokyo is on the hook for up to $7.6 billion in the event an Iranian tanker is damaged or blamed for an environmental disaster. It will be happy to see EU insurers step in soon. Import volumes will not be affected, according to recent reports.

India stands to be the biggest winner because it never found an alternative to the EU. Some refiners could not accept Iranian-based insurance and a sovereign guarantee never materialized. As recently as December, Indian imports from Iran were in doubt.

Indian imports from Iran fell 40 percent in the first nine months of last year after EU firms refused to insure facilities processing Iranian oil—not just tankers carrying it. Deadly fires at two different facilities, one in May and another in August, forced Hindustan Petroleum to play it safe and cut off Iran. MRPL didn’t accept Iranian insurance until late summer. Essar Oil Ltd., another major Indian refiner, accepted Iranian insurance earlier but Iran still lost about 150,000 b/d in sales last year compared to 2012.

India’s steep drop-off of crude imports from Iran may be used as an excuse to ratchet up imports this year. Though India received a new sanctions waiver from the U.S. in November, the argument can and will be made that reductions were so severe in 2013 that the U.S. should be more understanding in 2014. Total imports may be lower than previous periods but the suspension of the EU ban will allow Indian refiners to achieve more “normal” volumes, at least for six months while the Geneva deal is observed.

Chinese officials were tight-lipped throughout 2012 but supposedly accepted Iranian insurance. This was a gamble given that Iranian-based insurers like Kish P&I were unproven. The risk was easier for Beijing to shoulder because it could presumably pay for any disaster if Iran failed to do so, thus creating a backstop sovereign guarantee for oil imports. For China—Iran’s number one customer—replacing all or most Iranian oil was not an option. Imports averaged about 420,000 b/d in 2012-2013. Volumes so large are not easily replaced.

Like China, South Korea accepted Iranian insurance in October 2012. Turkey, which has averaged about 105,000 b/d going back more than a year, never officially acknowledged how it is insuring Iranian imports. Japan took a different route with its sovereign guarantee of $7.6 billion. Those that took Iranian insurance accepted much smaller offers of $1 billion per tanker, per disaster. Iran’s national tanker fleet has a good record of safe carriage, however, allowing some to settle for less without fearing the worst.

The EIA says Iran’s oil exports are “not expected to increase significantly.” That’s fair. But how would Iran define “significantly”? Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said his country might take 35,000 b/d more now that EU insurance is an option; Indian officials say refiners could import an extra 50,000 b/d through March, maybe more if Iran is ready to agree to better terms. Privately-owned companies could still push the envelope.

While Japan and South Korea have slashed imports hard and fast, China could play chicken with the U.S. Treasury if Beijing believes P5+1 talks with Iran will succeed. China received a new waiver in November although imports from Iran were stable compared to the previous 180-day review period. Knowing there is a one-month delay between imports and the release of customs data, China cut imports from Iran to just 250,000 b/d in October. The sharp decline was reported just before the U.S. extended waivers in late November. The following month, China revealed November imports from Iran had jumped to 538,000 b/d.

The White House has played nice with China so far. Will China return the favor or go after cheap Iranian barrels? The possibility can’t be dismissed. Zhuhai Zhenrong, a Chinese state-owned trader, was sanctioned in 2012 for its relationship with Iran. But it remains less vulnerable because it has little or no exposure to the U.S. financial system. Last month, a former trader from the company asked Reuters, “More pressure? Do you think they [Zhuhai Zhenrong] really care?”

Combined, China’s Unipec and Zhuhai Zhenrong are contracted to purchase 505,000 b/d from Iran this year—about 85,000 b/d more than the imported average over the past two years. What they actually lift is up to their discretion but it could be influenced by ongoing talks.

The Geneva deal holds that Iran’s customers will be allowed to import “current average amounts” of 1 million b/d total. But that depends on enforcement. Some, like Turkey and India, may try to recover lost crude and satisfy existing contracts. China could use the Geneva deal and its seat at the P5+1 talks to as a guide for imports as well. It might even bet on a breakthrough and buy more oil.

Iran, for its part, should be expected to pursue any and all angles to increase exports, even if that means serious discounts or extended credit terms to begin retaking its market share.

For Iran, every barrel is significant.

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What are the Saudis Thinking?

Two stories made a big splash today, suggesting US-Saudi ties are fraying and that Riyadh is hugely disappointed by U.S. policies. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is at the center of both the Wall Street Journal and Reuters articles. European diplomats reportedly met with Prince Bandar (pictured) over the weekend. He made it perfectly clear to them that Riyadh was ready to scale back cooperation with the U.S. on Syria and arm rebel factions now fighting the Assad regime. Sources told Reuters that Saudi Arabia would reconsider arms deals with the U.S. and oil sales just days after the Kingdom rejected a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Three recent developments have inspired Saudi Arabia to beat its own path of late. With this post, I’m trying to capture the logic driving Riyadh. This post is deliberately sympathetic because the media has largely failed to express their views. Saudi leaders haven’t articulated them carefully, either.

Start with Syria. For two years the U.S. has hinted at arming rebels but held back. These hints hardened into explicit promises in June, when the Obama administration first accused the Assad regime of using chemical weapons and crossing the president’s “red line.” In response, the White House pledged to arm rebels. Even then, the goal was not to oust Assad, but to create a stalemate that would force both sides to negotiate.

Countless stories since then have made it clear that rebels are not receiving enough arms or aid from the U.S. and that allies have withheld aid so as to not anger Washington. As reported by Greg Miller on October 5, an ongoing CIA training program “is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces [.]”

The August 21 chemical attack on a Damascus neighborhood changed everything—it seemed. With 1,400 dead, evidence mounting, and outrage rising, the Obama administration prepared to strike Syria. Warships were positioned off the coast and the White House appeared deadly serious. It encouraged the Saudis to rally Arab opinion at the Arab League and beyond. Saudi officials made the case for war and, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer, they even asked for target lists to study, so that they could join an attack.

But the strikes never came. British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to secure enough votes to intervene. In the U.S., Obama decided to seek congressional authorization after a brief public debate turned against an attack. The Saudis, for their part, made their case loudly and in many venues, even offering to pay in full for an expanded effort to oust Assad rather than teach him a lesson. They did so with confidence that the U.S. would follow through and were subsequently humiliated by the U.S. climbing down. Settling for a Russian deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, while pursuing a deeply flawed peace process in Geneva and not punishing the regime in any meaningful way, has created a sense of abandonment in Riyadh.

This may sound absurd to those who hate Saudi Arabia because they think the system is morally bankrupt—but there is a moral component to Saudi foreign policy in Syria. Their support for rebels is not simply a cold calculation to cut off Iran’s right hand in the Arab world. Leaders like King Abdullah see a country under siege from outsiders, both Sunni jihadists and Iranian agents, and a brutal regime defended by Russia and China at the United Nations. They believe the only way to save Syria and stop the killing is to remove Assad by force.

Then there’s Iran. It’s widely assumed that the Saudis fear a “grand bargain” that would allow them to dominate the region. According to this reading, a comprehensive nuclear deal would really be a prelude to a regional security agreement that lessens the burden on the U.S. and gives Iran more breathing room. This fear isn’t new. It dates back to before the Shah fell. Gulf Arab leaders worry that Iran—with its larger population, stronger military and formidable nationalism—could dominate the neighborhood unless outsiders help secure the Gulf.

But why would the Saudis be unhappy with nuclear deal that satisfies the rest of the world? What they’re most alarmed by, I’m guessing, is the public outreach that creates immense pressure to reach a deal even if it’s flawed. A thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations is not out of the question for Saudi Arabia. It’s easy to forget, in a time of heightened sectarianism and bloody proxy battles, that the Saudis have an embassy in Tehran and the two sides occasionally do business in spite of mistrust.

Egypt is another point of contention. The Saudis genuinely believe they backed a popular uprising in Egypt this summer, when the democratically-elected president, Muhammad Mursi, was ousted by a military supported by millions and millions of Egyptians. The ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mursi belonged, has killed over one thousand people. Thousands of others are in jail. But the general who led the coup is hugely popular and could win the presidency if he ran for office today. This is good enough for Riyadh.

At the same time, the Saudis sees the growing insurgency in Sinai and Islamists resorting to terrorism as proof that violence is part of the Brotherhood’s DNA. The Saudis are quick to frame their support for Egypt’s military as a response to this threat.

In an effort to bolster the interim government, discredit the Brotherhood, and improve Egypt’s fiscal standing, the Saudis have committed $12 billion in aid along with Kuwait and the UAE. By contrast, the U.S. decided this month to strip Egypt of military aid, leaving the Saudis to scratch their head in astonishment. Such confusion could have been avoided if the U.S. acted decisively in the early days of the coup and withdrew aid immediately. But the delayed reaction has only complicated the relationship. Why do it now when the worst of the crackdown is over and terrorism is a serious threat gaining momentum?

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What other factors are driving Saudi policy today? Please comment.

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Now on Foreign Policy: Rowhani’s First 100 Days

Al Ajnabee contributor Reza H. Akbari and I have co-written an article on Iran’s new president for Foreign Policy‘s Middle East Channel. Titled “Rowhani’s First 100 Days,” it focuses on what Rowhani will most likely do in the short-term to correct Iran’s political and economic trajectory.

From the opening:

President-elect Hassan Rowhani will assume office on August 3 with a mandate thanks to his decisive first round election victory on June 14. But in his first 100 days, Rowhani will face a daunting agenda: he must address a struggling economy, form a unity government, send the right signals abroad, and start rebuilding the regime’s legitimacy. Most importantly, he must convince Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that his agenda is worth blessing.

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Kurdish Aspirations Gaining Speed

The Middle East Policy Council posted my new briefing titled “Maliki Visits Kurdistan.” It focuses on recent events that prove the Kurds have lost patience with Baghdad. Two episodes are raised specifically. First is the expected completion of a new pipeline connecting Kurdish oil fields with the Turkish border. And second: the mass desertion this month of  Kurdish troops who quit the Iraqi Army in order to join Kurdistan’s independent military force–the Peshmerga. Either case is important. Together they suggest Iraqi Kurdistan is slowly retreating from Baghdad’s orbit.

Unrest in predominantly Sunni provinces of Iraq has also altered the landscape.  The Peshmerga have reportedly advanced in those areas vacated by the Iraqi Army as it prioritizes security in places that have seen protests and renewed violence (like Anbar province). Iraq is clearly entering a new period of negotiation, tension, and violence. The Kurds are making the most of it.

The KRG has seemingly begun a campaign to change facts on the ground both by way of design and opportunism. Officials may phrase it differently, but it seems the KRG’s strategy is to advance their interests now so that they can deal with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki on their own terms whenever he is ready. The past two days have only confirmed this reading of events.

At a conference in London this week, Iraqi officials released new targets for Iraqi oil production in the coming years. Kurdistan’s contribution was not included, however, because Kurdish exports via the federal pipeline were halted in December due to a payment dispute between Baghdad and Irbil. Clearly, Baghdad has very little confidence that the disagreement will be resolved soon. KRG Minister for Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami also made an important announcement at the same conference: the KRG will tie its new pipeline into the underutilized Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline across the border in Turkey, allowing it to sell up to 300,000 b/d without Maliki’s blessing. This had previously been assumed. But now it is confirmed–on the record.

Today the Kurds are on track and gaining speed. It remains to be seen whether their aspirations will be derailed. Two spoilers are worth noting. First is Iraq’s Prime Minister, who has–so far–held his fire and focused more so on his country’s deteriorating security. This could change. Tensions between the regional and central government could worsen quickly as they have in the past. Neither side wants open conflict but it doesn’t take much to stumble into one. The second spoiler is Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mass protests at home and international criticism are hurting his brand. Meanwhile, the ongoing peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish minority is showing the first sign of cracking. Erdogan’s handling of the bloody Syria crisis next door has also opened him up for criticism. He may seek to deflect more controversy by delaying his approval of Kurdish oil exports.

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Romney vs Iran: A Second Look

Jon Ward’s review of Mitt Romney’s Iran policy made me revisit the candidate’s November 10 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Romney’s campaign is convinced Obama’s Iran policy is inadequate and that voters agree. His solution is a credible military threat, which according to some, President Obama has already shelved. The candidate’s rhetoric far surpasses comments made by his GOP rivals or Obama–even though all agree an Iranian bomb is unacceptable. The end of Romney’s editorial is worth quoting at length:

I want peace. And if I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must. I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Every line of this paragraph–except the first one about “peace”–is worth a second-look:

Romney threatens “far tougher” sanctions. Very soon there will be only one screw left to turn: the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), which handles transactions for Iranian oil exports. If the bank was sanctioned, it would make selling Iranian oil infinitely more difficult, perhaps even impossible. Even a partial disruption of Iran’s 2.2. million barrels of daily oil exports could negatively impact the global economy. Remember we’ve already seen America’s strategic petroleum reserve tapped this year and Saudi Arabia release extra crude in concert with Gulf Arab producers in spite of OPEC; taking millions of barrels off the market may not be worth it given the slim margin of spare production capacity left over. Romney must concede this possibility and warn Americans that new sanctions could boomerang. Congress should too, since senators and representatives are eager to sanction the Central Bank, but refuse to admit it could hurt the American economy. (Last week at Brookings, President Obama’s National Security Advisor also hinted that “additional steps” may eventually be taken against Iran’s Central Bank.)

Romney claims he will sanction Iran unilaterally if necessary. Without China and Russia, it’s hard to imagine sanctions ever reaching a tipping point. The US alone simply cannot exact the kind of pain required. China became Iran’s top trading partner early last year. Even then, it’s questionable whether or not sanctions can do the job even if they are complimented by Moscow and Beijing.  Iran could still surprise the world and endure. It’s worth recalling Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s comments made in the mid-1960’s, when he promised Pakistan would “eat grass” in exchange for a nuclear deterrent, while his country sought an atomic bomb in spite of international isolation. At the very least, the US needs the European Union to act because of its financial clout.

Romney will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. Which ones? Is he talking about the Green Movement? Or is he talking about the Mujahideen el Khalq (MeK)? Other Republicans have flirted publicly with supporting the MeK even though the US State Department considers it a terrorist organization. In a recent debate Romney pledged to aid “insurgents” in Iran. He should note that the Green Movement is not an insurgent outfit–but rather a reformist movement looking to non-violently overhaul an increasingly authoritarian system. Obama should have taken a harder line in 2009 when the crackdown began, sure, but Romney needs to clarify his stance as well. So should other candidates.

Romney goes on to suggest he will increase America’s military profile in the Persian Gulf. The problem here is obvious: the United States will maintain a massive presence in the Persian Gulf for the foreseeable future whether Romney becomes president or not. Defense Secretary Panetta confirmed as much recently when he told the Senate Armed Services committee that 40,000 Americans will remain stationed in the Gulf after the Iraq war. In the op-ed, Romney argues that the Persian Gulf needs an aircraft carrier group patrolling the small waterway. But the Gulf already has a carrier strike group deployed on rotation (lately the USS John C. Stennis). And so Romney’s pledge to expand patrols in the Gulf makes little sense. American forces can already attack Iran on short notice and respond to any provocation with overwhelming force. I applaud Romney for highlighting the utility and necessity of naval force in the future–as America shifts eastward to the Pacific–but the Persian Gulf doesn’t need more American muscle. It has plenty and will for years.

Romney will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with other allies in the Middle East. Again Romney’s op-ed gives the impression that Obama is asleep at the wheel. But this just isn’t so. In keeping with agreements made between Bush and Olmert, assistance to Israel favors security aid more than ever; the Obama administration and US congress also made sure “special additions” were added to promised aid in 2009. Last year, Congress okayed Obama’s request to provide Israel with another $205 million for anti-missile research. The administration gave Israel bunker-buster bombs this year. And early next year, under Obama’s watch, the US and Israel will conduct their largest joint military drills ever.  Beyond this, the administration defended Israel repeatedly in international forums as the Palestinians sought shortcuts to statehood in 2011. Romney can certainly enhance Israeli-American relations with a warmer personal touch. But Obama has not jeopardized Israeli security by any objective measure and Romney would find it hard to do much more than deliver a speech in Tel Aviv, which Obama would be wise to do before his first debate appearance.

Increasing coordination with Arab allies will also be tricky: many, especially Saudi Arabia, have already placed their multi-billion-dollar orders for military tech that’s inter-operable with American hardware, thus allowing the coordination of radar and perhaps even joint operations in the future. Can they afford to buy more?  Romney seems to think so–although “coordination” is a vague word. Certainly the willingness is there for Gulf Arab sheikhdoms. But these countries are also facing economic  and unemployment crises, as well as spill-over effects from democratization and political discontent affecting their neighbors. Iran may be a timeless enemy for some. But domestic concerns are a higher priority since regimes are threatened first and foremost at home if they fail to provide for their citizens. It’s worth noting also that the Israelis are historically apprehensive about American-sponsored arms build-ups in the Arab world since they wish to preserve their military advantage.

Finally, Romney believes Tehran will receive and act on the “unequivocal signal” sent by a military build-up, new sanctions, and aid to “insurgents.” But what if they don’t get the message and do as expected? What if Iranian leaders instead look at American posturing and presume that their only guarantee for security is a nuclear bomb? Romney’s prescription could very well accelerate Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The problem then becomes one of probability: how long can the US wait until it’s “too late”? Naturally, this course of action would increase the chances of miscalculation and confrontation. That confrontation, however, may not be decisive. Washington could attack, with all its high-tech advantages and amazing bunker-busting capabilities–and still come up short, leaving the Iranian nuclear program limping but still moving forward. Should Iran go nuclear after intervention, then there is no question that Iran would be even more hostile to American interests. And–at the same time–Tehran would feel more immune to American threats because it possesses the ultimate weapon.

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