Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

Posted by John B. Sheldon.

David Ignatius, the novelist and newspaper columnist, writes in The Washington Post today that last year Saudi Arabia requested assistance from the US in the form of high-resolution satellite imagery in order to more accurately target Houthi rebels in Yemen who were fighting a border war with the Saudis. It seems that in an attempt to interdict the Houthi’s Saudi air power had incurred an unacceptable number of civilian casualties and so the request for the imagery was made in the hope that it would aid more precise targeting. According to Ignatius, General Petraeus, the CENTCOM Commander, supported the Saudi request but the State Department demurred out of concern that even by providing satellite imagery to the Saudis “could violate the laws of war.

So, the Saudis were rebuffed by the US and yet were still determined to reduce the number of civilian casualties in their battle with the Houthi. Who else might Riyadh turn to for assistance?

Enter the French.

Yes, and please suppress the derisive giggle, the French came to the rescue – at least according to Ignatius and his sources.

The French, it appears, were also concerned about the fate of innocent civilians along the Saudi-Yemen border caught in the crossfire between Saudi forces and Shiite Houthi rebels, and lo-and-behold, also happen to operate a couple of high-resolution reconnaissance satellites called Helios. Within days of the Saudi request to Paris President Sarkozy pried himself from the passionate clutches of the beautiful Carla Bruni and flew to Riyadh to personally arrange the transfer of this valuable intelligence. So useful was this Helios imagery, according to Ignatius and his Saudi source, that within weeks the Houthi rebels requested a truce after being crippled by devastatingly precise Saudi air strikes against their forces, supply dumps, and hideouts.

Now, of course, the Saudis want their own high-resolution imaging satellites and are reported to be on the verge of requesting bids from Western companies. The enterprising French are already offering their services to the desert Kingdom. French defense minister Hervé Morin recently completed a two day visit to Riyadh where apparently the Saudi’s have expressed an interest in purchasing satellites “to develop an autonomous capacity of observation.”

In his column Ignatius writes of the Saudi use of satellite imagery as if it is something new to the Middle East. He writes that the spread of satellite technologies to countries like Saudi Arabia means “that the lid on Pandora’s Box is coming open,” and that these technologies are “changing the nature of warfare.”

What utter nonsense. Saudi is but the latest country in the Greater Middle East to express an interest in acquiring high-resolution imaging satellites. In fact, several countries in the region already have such capabilities (Algeria, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates) and others are actually acquiring and developing them (Turkey, Egypt, and Iran). The interest in, and acquisition of, these satellites in the Middle East is hardly new and compared to the nuclear ambitions of Iran, is definitely not like the opening of Pandora’s Box. In fact, while we’re talking about Iran, its nuclear weapons program is one of the biggest reason many of its neighbors are buying these satellites – they’re even more concerned about Iranian intentions than we are.

As for the claim that these satellites and their associated technologies are changing the nature of warfare, Ignatius should read some Clausewitz. If he can’t digest the Great Prussian, then perhaps anything by Colin S. Gray might educate Ignatius on how the nature of war endures through history and never changes, but its character changes all the time.

There is, however, a lesson to be learned here for the United States. For a number of years now we have been shoring-up the defenses of our Arab allies against an increasingly ambitious Iran, to include a recent $60-billion arms sale to Saudi. We have also been trying to forge a regional partnership with Arab partners to contain Iran’s ambitions. All of these efforts, coupled with the US commitment to a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear status, are essentially sound enough. So why can’t we provide these countries the space technologies they need to provide critical intelligence and early warning for their national and collective defense? The answer of course is an export control policy that essentially allows foreign competitors to sell high-resolution imaging satellites to US partner nations in the region and beyond.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I know all the usual arguments as to why we don’t. They range from instigating a space race in the region (no such thing, but the space rivalry has long been underway – and we didn’t start it) to upsetting Israel (who have not protested the satellites obtained by the UAE or Turkey) through to the phobia that such satellites could be used against us (never mind Pandora’s Box, this last argument basically calls for the Genie to be put back in its bottle). None of them really ring true anymore and the only ones who are suffering is the US space industry. When the commercial standard is approaching a half-meter resolution why can’t we sell the Saudis and other strategic partners a few imaging satellites?


There is a massive preponderance of evidence that shows Iran is going nuclear.  Some of the evidence is physical and some is circumstantial.  For example, Iran is clearly enriching beyond their needs, they have clandestine nuclear facilities, they are developing delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons, and they have clearly and repeatedly stiffed the international community who has been sent forth to inspect.

In fact, Iran’s nuclear program has turned into a sort of slow-motion nightmare, the kind where we know just what’s going to happen next and yet are unresolved or incapable of taking the actions needed to bring the issue to closure.  Perhaps behind-the-scene diplomacy and military planning will save the day?

An Iranian nuclear weapons capability is not a given, but it is certainly the trend line and is unlikely to end well.  China and Russia are both in excellent positions to greatly impact—not control—the outcomes here, but their interests must not align to those of the U.S., because otherwise they would be fully on board with us.

Now, an Iranian opposition group is identifying other clandestine nuclear facilities. True?  False?  Does it seem we have unknown unknowns?

Seeing Is Believing

Having the ability to attribute the characteristics of a particular nuclear weapon to a specific country is an exceedingly useful ability in responding appropriately.

For example, if a dirty bomb goes off in Tel Aviv, it’s one thing to suspect that Tehran gave Hezbollah the materials for the bomb.  It’s another to know they did it based on the nuclear fingerprints associated with the weapon.

The inability to attribute events in cyberspace back to a particular geographical point, individual, or group, has long been identified as a weakness of cyber defense.  The inability to assign attribution with a nuclear event would perhaps be a failure with an orders of magnitude greater effect.

Nuclear forensics skills, which are said to be in decline, have to be one of the most important capabilities the U.S. can fully develop. Maintaining such expertise is a vital part of deterrence.

The Saudis are one of many nations who are not too far from Iran and who have an interest in nuclear power.  Hmm.

Well in fairness, the Saudis have had an interest in nuclear power for some time.  Still…

Could there be an interest in moving beyond nuclear power?  It depends.

All in all, it seems nuclear “capabilities” are to Middle East states as anabolic steroids are to Barry Bonds–they provide an enhanced sense of self-esteem, power, and ability.

Read the full article at the Carnegie link as you wish.

Rhetorical question of the day: if power is defined as the ability to accomplish national goals, is Iran more powerful or less powerful than it was last year?

OK, onto the post.  Bret Stephens asks (and answers) why hasn’t Israel bombed Iran (yet)?

Without sounding too glib, my answer is conditions aren’t right (yet).

The conditions include many disparate issues many of which Mr. Stephens addresses either directly or indirectly.  Among them:

  • The Israeli political/military/populace consensus regarding war
  • The Israeli perception of the Iranian capability and intent
  • The readiness of the Israeli war-machine to include its defensive capabilities
  • The state-of-play between Israel and Saudi Arabia
  • The state-of-play between Israel and the U.S.
  • The state-of-play between Iran and its friends (or perhaps better, its non-enemies such as China and Russia)
  • Uncertainty regarding the possible impact of recent sanctions
  • Uncertainty regarding internal Iranian stability
  • Other things that I’ve failed to identify.  How’s that for a catchall?

These factors culminate in a human judgment by Israeli leaders that reflects the total risk versus total return of an attack on Iran.  Until the perceived benefit substantively exceeds the perceived risk, wait-and-see rules the day, week, month, or year(s).

Has the Iranian disinformation campaign kicked-off?

So the Iranian spy-guy and former $5 million man turns out to be a radiation safety specialist who asserts there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program. Little ventured, little lost.

If he says Iran has no nuclear weapons program, we’d have to know how he knows. Conversely, if he said there is a nuclear weapons program, the guy’s informational bona fides would have to be vetted.  Chances are excellent he couldn’t do either one and was let go.

It seems clear that the people of Iran would benefit greatly if their leaders allowed for intrusive nuclear inspections, provided no clandestine nuclear programs exits.

Still, as David Kay points out, even intrusive inspections and verification efforts are incapable of keeping a determined (and already nearly nuclear) nation like Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The Russians warrant scrutiny.

Let’s see: public announcement Russia will provide fuels for Iran.  Despite being off-limits via the recent UN sanctions, selling Iran S-300 air defense systems hasn’t been waved off.  Also, Iran is capable of making trouble in Russian “areas of influence.”

This means the administration will have to keep sweetening their deals to keep the Russians holding fast to their current position, which regarding Iran, has recently supported general U.S. actions.

Wonder if the spy trade was part of the sweetening?  That could have been embarrassing…

This also brings to mind the reliability of the Russians in important things like missile warning and missile defense.  We need stone-cold reliable partners and it would take a hand-waive of miraculous proportions to describe the Russians in such a manner.