Q&A session with Robert D. Steele on big data and the intelligence process

Robert Steele

Here’s the link to a recent Q&A chat I had with Robert D. Steele, CIA and Marine Corps Intelligence veteran, a leading proponent of OSINT, and something of an intelligence establishment iconoclast. I asked him how big data fits in within the intelligence process in terms of methodology, how it complements traditional subject matter expertise (SME), and other things.

See link.

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Israel and Kazakhstan: Assessing the State of Bilateral Relations



The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 107 (with Gil Feiler)

1 May 2014



The relationship between the State of Israel and the Republic of Kazakhstan, a Muslim nation of 18 million, offers a fascinating case study in international relations. On the surface, one finds little common ground. Yet over the past two decades, mutual relations have acquired significance. Israel’s experience, innovation, and qualitative edge continue to provide solutions to Kazakhstan’s development imperatives. Diplomatic relations have evolved overtly and against the general grain of Islamic politics, and in some ways dovetail with Kazakhstan’s wider foreign policy outlook. Both countries report ongoing bilateral trade across a wide sweep of economic sectors. Likewise, there is evidence that suggests more extensive defense and security cooperation than meets the eye.

While high-tech and first-rate human capital stream towards the Kazakh steppe, raw energy and wheat flow toward the Mediterranean, the precise volumes of which are rarely ever presented to public scrutiny. Kazakh foreign policy draws strength from balance as well as the ability to parley with diametrically opposed actors. Relations with Kazakhstan allow Israel to circumvent its hostile near abroad, but also provide a bridge for Israel to re-engage with the wider Islamic world, particularly through the more neutral terrain of inclusive, interfaith dialogue that Astana has prominently championed. In all these ways, historical and material conditions have converged to facilitate cooperation. However, all this notwithstanding, much still surprisingly remains in potentia, andIsrael’s decision-makers would do well by not losing sight of a key partner in the Islamic world.

Click for original, or the PDF.

Photo: Wikicommons

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How Israel should approach Iran’s nuclear program

JpostThe Jerusalem Post, 19 March 2014

The historic agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 last November continues to fire the optimism of the international community four months into its interim phase. At the same time, it has left Israel visibly balking on its own, with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu compelled – by virtue of his position if not historical outlook – to stand up to what Israelis widely consider their principal strategic adversary. Israel may be seen to be playing the petulant spoiler, but its pessimism isn’t driven only by emotions.

Israel views Iran as a ‘strategic’ threat in the most fundamental sense of the term, as a threat to its survival, on which basis any grand strategy must depart. In Israel’s case, overwhelming military strength has long been identified as the necessary condition for this to happen. The practical means to this end finds expression in the two-and-a-half legs of a veritable ‘Iron Wall’ comprising a disproportionately outsized army, the so-called ‘Dimona’ option, and superpower patronage, respectively. This ‘Iron Wall’, an idea which in its most abstract form originated with Vladimir Jabotinsky in the 1920s, was intended to disabuse Arabs or any other hostile regional power as is the case with Iran today, of the temptation to remove the Jews from their historic land by force of arms, and instead convince them of the higher virtues of diplomacy. According to this outlook, even if peace cannot be attained, Israel must at least strive to obtain tacit acceptance of its existence by its Muslim neighbors. This is prefaced by the assumption that the Jewish state will never force quantitative parity, let alone superiority, onto the Arabs.

Now, the ‘Dimona project’ leg of the ‘Iron wall’, i.e. its alleged nuclear arsenal, isn’t only the highest manifestation of its qualitative edge, it is also logically incompatible with the rise of any nuclear adversary – hence the Begin doctrine concerning preemptive strikes. Nuclear parity and mutual deterrence, supposing Iran is deterred, forces Israel to rely on the remaining one-and-a-half legs. The trouble with a disproportionately outsized army is that over time, Iran possesses the necessary resources to develop a similarly disproportionate conventional fighting force. The problem with the US superpower alliance, on the other hand, is that it is meant to support the first two legs, not comprise an independent plank of Israel’s national security. It will be remembered that absolute reliance does not guarantee absolute reliability, and even the US – as committed though it may be despite its receding global dominance – may be compelled to revise its balance of alliances to Israel’s unintended detriment. Alternatively, while a nuclear conflict with Iran may be highly unlikely, even the slightest odds of miscalculation is a risk Israel cannot afford. For this reason, any Israeli prime minister will continue opposing uranium enrichment and plutonium separation on Iranian soil. At least so long as Iran remains hostile.

But Jerusalem isn’t blind to the fact that Iran has indigenized and thereby rendered permanent the rudiments of the knowledge infrastructure necessary to constructing a nuclear weapon, commonly boiled down into the enrichment, weaponization and delivery components. Further, neither US nor Israeli expert military estimates guarantee complete obliteration that does not require repeated strikes. What Israel has been and is likely to continue doing is to disrupt, delay and deter this capability from maturing or at least keep it within the acceptable risk margin, namely a reasonable detection timeframe to a working nuclear weapon minus the means of delivery. To this end, it has reportedly engaged in cyber warfare, the assassination of leading Iranian nuclear scientists and other covert activity, in tandem with international diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.

But if one holds that the epistemic basis for a nuclear Iran can neither be erased, nor would military means suffice to eradicate its existing nuclear facilities, then even as it disrupts, delays and deters, Israel might also conceivably focus on altering the other element of the Iranian threat, namely its intentions. As Jabotinsky bemoaned the illusion of ‘voluntary Arab agreement’, so inducing Iran to desist would require a more robust structure of incentives in concert with strategic coercion. In other words, Israel should consider forcing the Islamic Republic onto the diplomatic defensive, and into such a position as to convince Tehran – with Washington’s close cooperation – that it stands on the verge of a ‘grand bargain’.

Elements of an indirect approach

Three elements are central to this strategy. First, alter the Israeli rhetoric. Netanyahu’s harsh criticism of the interim deal is understandable as a way of maintaining a strong bottom line in negotiations between Iran and the major powers. However, Israeli support for the P5+1 talks, particularly its acceptance of low enrichment on condition of intrusive IAEA inspections and monitoring, would give Iran’s more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani maneuvering room for domestic constituencies while placing the onus on Iran to prove its purely peaceful intentions. This would also make the negotiations more credible, with a clearer understanding of the incentives and penalties on the part of Iran, and less prone to utter failure.

Second, if Israel makes the preceding concession, it must accordingly restore its own credible threat option by not shifting its own red lines as has happened time and again. So while Israel should make it clear to Iran that it will accept enrichment for civilian purposes under extremely rigid supervision, it is imperative that it respond with a limited military strike to violations in the same way it has allegedly disposed of Syrian arms shipments to Hezbollah. Unlike a military intervention aimed at incapacitating Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, limited pinpoint strikes in response to Iran’s violation of its own pledges are far less likely to provoke massive retaliation, international censure or a nuclear breakout.

Third, Israel should in the midst of all this hold out an olive branch to signal to the Iranians that should they be willing to stand down and adopt the Pakistani model (no diplomatic relations, no stated or actual intent of hostility), Israel would desist from any course of action directly inimical to Tehran’s interests. Specifically, neither would it stand in the way of a grand bargain between Iran and the world powers, most importantly Washington. If Tehran seeks longterm accommodation with the west, this must and can only be accompanied by a corresponding degree of de-escalation and détente with Israel.

There is irony in that the sworn adversaries are each attempting to isolate the other but are themselves confronting sanctions, the one linked to the Palestinian issue, the other to its alleged nuclear ambitions. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t the wellspring of the region’s problems, Israel’s Iran strategy could benefit from crucial tailwind should the former rehabilitate its diplomatic standing and moral upper hand as perceived in the eyes of the international community, by persisting in good faith with negotiations with the Palestinians even if a final status agreement is still nowhere on the horizon.

Balancing the odds

The retention of a low enrichment capability (3.5–5 percent) lays the way open for military-grade uranium (90 percent) and is likely to even remain part of the final agreement. Conversely, Iran has already mastered the fuel cycle fundaments, which is the most challenging component of a nuclear weapon. Alternatively, if Iran were to significantly curtail its centrifuges, refrain from introducing faster-spinning models, reduce its 20 percent-enriched fuel stock and shut down the Arak heavywater plant, combined with thorough and intrusive inspections, this would limit its operational nuclear scope and improve early detection towards breakout.

Clear acceptance of limited enrichment would reduce Israel’s margin for maneuver, at least compared to zero enrichment. However, an indigenous low enrichment capability would not only allow President Rouhani greater margin for domestic maneuver, but preserve Iranian dignity and undercut Iran’s fuelstock dependency argument. Moreover, because Iran’s nuclear knowledge cannot be undone, any gain in time to prevent a breakout, whether three months or three years, is ultimately a matter of degree, and violation of clearly stated limits should exact a proportionate military response all the same – if Israel respects its own red lines forthwith.

Strategically, this course of action doesn’t just allow Iran to get closer to a nuclear weapon should it choose. It signals to Iran that stubborn insistence pays off, and may encourage regional governments to acquire or develop nuclear power, thereby increasing proliferation risks. But with the right spurs and bridles in place, it would shift the onus of belligerence from Israel onto Iran, and limit the rampant uncertainty which has governed Israel’s security environment in recent times. If a ‘grand bargain’ were to be reached, issues linked to aggressive Iranian conduct in the region and elsewhere will almost certainly be broached. Ultimately, by bringing a nuclear threshold Iran under firm international constraints, by restoring Israel’s conventional deterrence, and by closing the gap with Israel’s closest allies, this would strengthen rather than undermine the ‘Iron Wall’ in its existing formulation.

Click for the original.

Photo: Reuters

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Key international developments for 2014


Open Briefing, 31 Jan 2014

In December 2013 and January 2014, analysts from the Open Briefing intelligence unit reviewed the key international developments likely to occur over 2014.

Included in this briefing are ten of these developments. They are not offered as a ‘top 10’ list but all warrant serious attention over the next 12 months:

  1. Russian military build-up in the Arctic.
  2. Maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
  3. A stalled Myanmar transition.
  4. A pivotal year in Afghanistan.
  5. Careful optimism over Iran’s nuclear programme.
  6. The opportunities presented by Iraq’s economy.
  7. An uncertain future in Syria.
  8. Instability in Nigeria.
  9. Efforts to contain the fighting in Central Africa Republic.
  10. Civil unrest in Angola.

Click for the full briefing.

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A witching hour deal and the morning after: The Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal

U.S. Mission / Eric Bridiers

Open Briefing, 3 December 2013

The nuclear deal inked in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 at 0300hrs on Sunday 24 November 2013 momentarily closed the curtains on a decade of painful suspense.
According to the published Joint Plan of Action, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany (collectively known as the P5+1 or E3+3) agreed over the next six months – ‘renewable by mutual consent’ – to:

  • shelve further sanctions,
  • repatriate some $4.2 billion worth of Iran’s oil profits previously locked-up in foreign banks,
  • allow Iran’s oil clients to continue business, and
  • suspend trade restrictions in precious metals, automotives and the crucial petrochemical sector.

In exchange, Iran agreed to:

  • restrict uranium enrichment to 5% without expanding its 3.5% stockpile,
  • neutralise its 20% enriched feedstock,
  • keep centrifuge activity at where it currently stands,
  • allow intrusive IAEA inspections, and
  • suspend all work on the Arak heavy water plant, which would yield alternative plutonium fuel towards a nuclear weapon.

Taking stock

The terms appear to be heavily unbalanced in Iran’s disfavour. After all, it is merely getting back what belongs to it. And despite the overall $7 billion on offer, Tehran still stands to lose $30 billion in unrealised oil profits over the next six months while the current sanctions remain in place.

Yet, Continue reading

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Iran’s cyber posture


Open Briefing, 18 November 2013

In early October 2013, the death of a hitherto little known individual by the name of Mojtaba Ahmadi was reported near Karaj, slightly northwest of Tehran.
Ahmadi was shot twice in the chest from a passing motorcycle according to an eyewitness account in the Iranian press that was later taken offline. A statement by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in contrast denied that an assassination had taken place, adding only that investigations were underway. As it turned out, Ahmadi was a key cyber warfare commander, and possibly Iran’s cyber war chief.

The truth of the matter aside, this event brings to mind the spate of Iranian nuclear scientists who were targeted in similar circumstances over the past seven years. In addition to assassination attempts, the covert tit-for-tat war between Iran on the one hand, and the United States, Israel and various Western allies on the other has steadily expanded to include a cocktail of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, attacks directed at civilians overseas, and now, a virtual war with real-life consequences. By force of circumstance as much as by design, Iran has responded in kind and is clearly channelling greater resources towards its own cyber front. Continue reading

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Remote control war: Unmanned combat air vehicles in China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey


Open Briefing, 20 September 2013

The introduction and development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) by an increasing number of countries is creating both new opportunities and complex challenges.

From an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) perspective, drones provide a hitherto unimagined ability to observe in real-time the terrain over which one may conduct operations, plus the location and disposition of enemy troops and equipment. However, we are on the cusp of employing armed variants in far greater numbers, with software that is gradually taking the human decision-maker out of the loop. It is akin to the World War I transition of aircraft from purely observation roles to that of fighters and the revolution in aerial combat systems that followed.

The development of UCAVs has been possible because of three converging trends. First, aircraft have become increasingly autonomous, with computers taking over more of the targeting and weapons delivery functions. Second, missiles have become more sophisticated and capable of functions, such as target selection, which were previously carried out by the weapons platform. Third, new technologies have made UAVs capable of greater performance levels. Their increasing use is partly down to a fourth trend: vastly improved ISR capabilities (itself partly thanks to UAVs), which allow high-value targets to be tracked and targeted while potentially reducing civilian casualties and other collateral damage.

Not surprisingly, there are countless challenges associated with this phenomenon. Chief among these from a military standpoint is the development of sound operational doctrine in order to successfully integrate these systems’ capabilities. The speed with which drones are being developed is far surpassing the imaginations of military planners. When some of these first unmanned systems were used by US forces on the battlefield, impressed military decision-makers were criticised for acquiring a ‘looking down the soda straw’ perspective, whereby they favoured the images UAVs were returning at the expense of awareness of the wider battle space. This made them prone to imbalanced operational decisions. Since then, commanders have learnt how to better maintain situational awareness by viewing the capabilities of such platforms from a distance.

There are wider issues to consider though. Now that ‘drone strike’ has become a household term, a plethora of legal and ethical issues have rightly surfaced. Not least of all the fact that UCAVs are being used for missions that would not likely be approved if more traditional aircraft systems were being used. For example, it is hard to imagine the continued violation of Pakistani airspace by US bombers targeting remote villages in the northwest of the country. Somehow, the use of remotely-piloted systems has temporarily sidestepped international law. It is viewed as a grey area when, in fact, no such ambiguity really exists. They are weapons platforms. The location of the pilot and the type of platform used to deliver a missile should have no relevance to the legality of that strike.

Numerous other questions have arisen as the technology has outpaced our ability to control its use. Should we allow fully autonomous armed systems to be deployed? Do we need a proliferation control regime specifically for armed drones? What impacts do repeated attacks have on the psyche of targeted populations? Are drone pilots more or less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than conventional pilots? While not within the scope of this study to address such wider issues, they bear mentioning from the outset.

Much of the debate over armed drones has focussed on their use by the United States. As the leading country in the development and use of UCAVs this is understandable. It has lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force and pushed back the limits of counter-terrorism efforts to include the targeted killing of its own citizens abroad. However, 75 other countries are known to have UAVs, with approximately 20 countries possessing armed drones (though estimates vary widely). Many of these countries warrant closer attention; after all, a risky precedent has been set.

This study focusses on six of these countries: China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey. It identifies the UAVs in use by each state (see Annex A) and examines in more detail the UCAVs they have in their inventories (see Annex B). In doing so, Open Briefing has identified at least 200 different UAVs in use or in development by the countries in question, with 29 of these being UCAVs. The likely future use of armed drones by each country is also assessed in light of current military doctrines and national security realities.

Some general findings are worth highlighting here. The vast majority of military UAVs in each country’s inventory are unarmed (used for ISR), though many of these can take various payload options, including missiles. In fact, UCAVs are being used to carry far heavier payloads than previously possible. China has the most diverse UCAV inventory, though Israel leads the way in terms of technology and export. All the countries studied are expanding their UCAV industries. Domestic manufacturers are preferred but countries are purchasing some modern drones from abroad. The proliferation of drones to state and non-state adversaries is leading several countries to seek to develop UAV countermeasures. Finally, with the development of loitering munitions and the retrofitting of legacy aircraft or development of new manned/unmanned systems, the lines between missiles and drones at one end and drones and aircraft at the other are increasingly blurred.

This study was commissioned by the Remote Control Project, a pilot project initiated by the Network for Social Change and hosted in London by Oxford Research Group. In undertaking this work, Open Briefing has drawn on a wide range of sources, including defence equipment exhibitions, defence company brochures, foreign media, defence news, military reference books, NGO databases and military forums.

It is clear that armed drones, their uses and their proliferation are issues that are widely misunderstood and surrounded by inaccuracies. This study is offered as one contribution to addressing that situation.

Click for the full briefing, mainly co-authored by OB analysts Rob O’Gorman and Chris Abbott

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The real reason behind Qatar’s hurried power transfer

Qatar powerA critical power transfer is about to unfold in the ultra-rich and disproportionately influential Gulf monarchy. The reasons for this have been largely speculative, part of which improbably also suggests that Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa will not only replace his father the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, but also his cousin, the current prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.

But questions abound. The Emir is still relatively young at 61, and his son at 33 is barely half his age. Then there’re the apparently tense relations between the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister, who also doubles as the energetic longtime foreign minister. Moreover, this all comes at a particularly delicate time. The region has seen a wave of popular uprisings including in the neighboring United Arab Emirates where recent leaks suggest over a hundred individuals are plotting against the regime; Syria’s civil war rages on with Qatar openly backing the more controversial elements amid the armed opposition; and regional tensions continue to build up over Iran’s alleged nuclear program and the fallout of a possible preventive strike by either Israel or the US – all of which could potentially destabilize Qatar.

To many, the Emir’s decision to voluntarily relinquish power, an anomaly in a neighborhood powered by cradle-to-grave aristocracies, comes across as a laudable move aimed at burnishing his image. However, Continue reading

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What Rouhani may mean for Iranians

rouhani_3openDemocracy, 17 June 2013

On 15 June 2013, a moderate, soft-spoken cleric became Iran’s next president-elect after capturing, in just one round of elections and by a threefold margin over the nearest candidate, an absolute majority of the eligible votes. Although he had campaigned profusely on a platform of greater freedoms, moderation and engagement with the international community, there was little evidence of regime-engineered fraud or violence of the type that bedevilled the 2009 elections. So what exactly was it in the Islamic Republic’s byzantine politics that we just witnessed?

Last month, when the twelve-man Guardian Council – half elected jurists, half non-elected clerics – announced the final slate of candidates for Iran’s 11th presidential elections, the shortlist had been painstakingly pruned down from 686 hopefuls to just six mostly well-known hardliners versus two relatively lesser known moderates. For Iranians desiring real change and notably those who identified with 2009’s abortive Green Movement, the flagrant exclusion of the last minute candidacy of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani – a former president, arguably Iran’s most powerful individual after Ayatollah Khamenei, but one many perceive capable of redeeming the economy and closing the gaps with the international community – was another slap in the face.

The rejection might have been anticipated. Rafsanjani didn’t only fall out with the ruling ultraconservatives (or ‘principlists’) and particularly his one-time buddy Khamenei in recent years – he openly backed the reformists in 2009, an act so anathema it would exact its political pound of flesh from him. Meanwhile, the election campaign revved into full gear with much of the initial focus shifting onto Saeed Jalili, the abstrusely doctrinaire, one-legged chief nuclear negotiator and Khamenei’s presumed favourite, who in response to Iran’s thickening crisis grandly offered even more ‘resistance’.

Then mere days before the elections Continue reading

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Iran’s Outreach to Afghanistan, Tajikistan Faces Obstacles

ahmadinejadWorld Politics Review, 5 June 2013

For all the focus on contemporary Iran, relatively little attention is paid to its trilateral ties with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the geolinguistic remnants of an eclectic series of empires collectively denominated Persian. Since 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it a point to revive Persian nationalism, contrasting it with the clerical elite’s claim to Islam as the exclusive basis of Iranian identity. Significantly, Ahmadinejad’s nationalist rhetoric was accompanied by a raft of summits, forums and agreements among the three countries, which he called“limbs of the same body,” echoing the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi.

Despite the historical echoes, however, the current effort is driven by Iran’s strategic interests. A 2009 United Nations report (.pdf) estimated that 40 percent of opiates produced in Afghanistan—the source of 90 percent of global supply—transit through Iran, giving rise to Iranian addiction rates five times greater than Europe’s. The spillover impact is also felt in Iran’s southeast, where an armed narco-insurgency by the Sunni Baluch group Jundollah seethes on.

Afghanistan’s successive wars have moreover burdened Iran with the world’s largest refugee population after Pakistan. Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees, including execution and deportation, has raised tensions with Kabul. This may be linked to another focus of Iranian interest involving an ongoing dispute over the Helmand River, which irrigates the parched Sistan basin that spans the border, rendering Iran vulnerable to Afghan dam construction.

But the post-Taliban turbulence in Afghanistan has also permitted Continue reading

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Seizing the initiative: Israel’s strategic environment and the need for assertive diplomacy

SeizingOpen Briefing, 10 April 2013

Summary for policymakers

Israel’s strategic neighbourhood is in flux but a number of trends have emerged since the start of the Arab Spring:

  • The Syrian conflict is pitching Bashar al-Assad’s chiefly Shiite alliance against the region’s moderate Sunni movers, many now led by or sympathetic to Islamist-Salafist forces.
  • Diffuse Jihadist factions are massing about the Levant, challenging not only Israel’s borders but the stability of status quo Sunni and Shiite actors.
  • Erstwhile ironclad alliances have been undercut by a mixture of deposals, subtle strategic shifts and widespread ire over the Palestinian plight.
  • Amid all this, Prime Minister Netanyahu may have managed to forge a united international front against Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, but still somehow left Israel’s broader foreign standing in tatters.

This dynamic calls for more assertive diplomacy and therefore a change in Israel’s current posturing. Specifically, Israel can and should:

  1. Advance its interests by persistently pursuing multi-track and backchannel diplomacy – including intelligence sharing and security coordination – and rehabilitating soured relations, starting in Ankara.
  2. Facilitate go-betweens with vested interests in Israeli-Palestinian peace and influence over those key Palestinian and Arab decision-makers critical to guaranteeing the implementation of future agreements.
  3. Maintain a consistent and meaningful forward momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even if final-status negotiations are nowhere in sight.
  4. Curb its war talk and instead allow people-to-people outreach and other forms of citizen diplomacy to run their course.
  5. Open or at least encourage a secret backchannel with Tehran as the best and only face-saving way to convince Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that he cannot have nuclear capability and animosity towards Israel, and hope to preserve his regime at the same time; only two of these objectives are possible at a time. Continue reading

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Israel’s 2013 elections and key foreign policy implications

MAPIsraelContingent Security Services Internal/Unclassified Brief for Interport Police, 4 Feb 2013

Background and electoral outcome

Israel’s 22 January elections engendered a number of changes on the country’s political terrain. First, the joint ticket recently created between Netanyahu’s Likud and former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu suffered a setback with only 31 of the predicted 42 seats. Yet it still maintains a clear lead and Netanyahu is as such expected to form the next government.

Second, two fresh trends simultaneously made their mark, one on the pro-settler religious right, the other in the secular center. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party garnered 12 seats up from 3 during the last elections, a remarkable achievement despite pre-electoral hopes. Bennett, who projects himself as ultramodern yet deeply attached to Jewish tradition was able to swipe votes from within the right-wing bloc and notably from Likud. Combined with outright rejection of a Palestinian state and calls to annex 62% of the West Bank, his party’s showing suggests a further right-ward shift within the bloc. This is corroborated by voting patterns in Likud’s recent primaries, when relative moderates including Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were voted out of the list altogether.

In parallel, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) emerged the dark horse with 19 unexpected seats compared to a year ago when it was non-existent. Like the trail blazed by his father Tommy with the reinvented Shinui party in the late 1990s, Lapid’s is a thoroughly secular platform pledging, among other things, draft equality and socioeconomic justice.

Third, Continue reading

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Israel votes, and surprises

Yesh AtidopenDemocracy, 24 Jan 2013

The electoral campaign leading up to Israel’s Tuesday elections initially appeared to tell two parallel tales. The first was of the New Right and its eye-catching turnaround since Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the vigorously Messianist settler movement born in the wake of the June 1967 war. The other was of the Old Center-Left, that collective comedy of errors that has repeatedly crested and foundered since Rabin’s assassination despite the country’s persistently centrist-leaning demographic. Continue reading

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Recent nuclear-related developments at the Parchin military complex, Iran

OB PicOpen Briefing, 12 Dec 2012

  • Iran has refused to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to visit the site of the suspected explosives chamber at the Parchin military complex (PMC) pending agreement over the modalities of cooperation.
  • Other circumstantial indicators, acquired technical expertise and behavioural precedents appear to reinforce suspicions concerning nuclear-related activities at PMC.
  • Recent satellite imagery suggests extensive sanitisation and landscaping efforts around the chamber site.
  • Taking these factors into account and based on public-domain sources, Open Briefing concludes it is highly likely that any nuclear-related activities at PMC have been suspended.
  • In the interests of regional peace and stability, it is incumbent on Iran to provide conclusive clarifications if it is to establish that nuclear-related weaponisation did not take place at PMC in accordance with its claims.


Located 30 km southeast of Tehran, PMC is a key locus for the research, development and production of military materiel, including conventional munitions and explosives. However, analysts believe that the compound’s isolated northeast also houses a containment chamber (at 35° 33′ 33.22″, 51° 47′ 6.12″) specially designed for high explosive and hydrodynamic tests consistent with a nuclear weapons programme.

According to Western intelligence agencies, the chamber was installed sometime in early 2000 and measures approximately 18.8 m by 4.6 m. Nuclear-related activity allegedly also took place in another building located some 140 m to its north.

A November 2011 report by the IAEA stated that:

A building was constructed at that time around a large cylindrical object at a location at the Parchin military complex. A large earth berm was subsequently constructed between the building containing the cylinder and a neighbouring building, indicating the probable use of high explosives in the chamber. The [IAEA] has obtained commercial satellite images that are consistent with this information.

PMC appears to be run by the Defence Industries Organisation, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics which also plays a key role in Iran’s centrifuge programme. Accordingly, nuclear-related explosive tests conducted within the compound, if verified, could further challenge Iran’s assertions concerning the purely civilian nature of its nuclear programme.

Consider that Iran is also currently enriching uranium to near military-grade levels, in quantities reportedly inconsistent with the number of nuclear power plants currently in operation, and is on track to eventually extract fissile plutonium by reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods at the 40 Megawatt Heavy Water Reactor near Arak (IR-40). Furthermore, Iran has been openly developing delivery systems such as the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile and its variants, usually associated with non-conventional or nuclear warfare.

Weaponisation, including experiments relating to high-explosive initiation systems and the machining of weapons-grade uranium in metal form to fit a missile warhead, is the third component required to turn both fissile material and delivery system into a deployable nuclear weapon. Iran is believed to have conducted nuclear-related weaponisation tests until around 2003, when this was temporarily suspended along with uranium enrichment, though this may have resumed sometime after 2007.

Click for the complete article.

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No ordinary trial by fire for Israel


Jerusalem Post, 20 Nov 2012

Israel and Hamas are unsurprisingly at war again. This comes a mere electoral cycle following the three-week nightmare that cost the lives of 13 Israelis and over 1,400 Palestinians in early 2009. Operation Cast Lead was intended by Israel’s then centrist government to restore deterrence on the southern front. But typical of unresolved conflicts in this neck of the woods, one round barely ends when the countdown to the next begins.

With operation Pillar of Defense, the primary stated intent of the Likud-led rightwing government is still to suppress the constant “terror of rockets” that has been plaguing cities in Israel’s near south and now, the Gush Dan metropolitan heartland situated on the central coastal plains.

This began with the 14 November assassination of Ahmed Ja’abari, effectively chief of Hamas’ armed wing as well as the figure who oversaw Israeli soldier Gil’ad Shalit’s five-year captivity. To prove its point, the Israel Air Force (IAF) has so far followed this up, as before, by pummeling over a thousand targets in the Strip such as rocket and missile launch sites and stockpiles, Hamas government buildings, and military command and control infrastructure. In addition, Israel allegedly conducted the 23 October strike on the Yarmouk base in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, which it believes had been subcontracted out to Iran for the transfer of Gaza-bound weaponry.

In response, Gaza has for the first time Continue reading

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The Prospects of an Israeli Strike by mid-2013

Open Briefing (with Rob O’Gorman), 31 Oct 2012

Open Briefing currently assesses an Israeli strike against Iran to be highly unlikely between the US presidential elections in November 2012 and the Israeli elections in January 2013, and unlikely between January and the Iranian presidential elections in June 2013.

This outlook is predicated on five key areas of consideration:

  1. Persisting regional uncertainty will oblige Israel to calculate its moves with painstaking caution. A military strike on Iran, with the possible blowback this could produce, is only likely to occur in extremis, that is, if Israel believed its existence could be jeopardised by containment, or in the face of incontrovertible “smoking gun” evidence. However, growing signs of Iranian cooperation with al-Qaeda and international jihadist groups, as well as the Israeli leadership’s fluctuating views regarding Iranian Shiite rationality, represent wildcards.
  2. Israel’s military ability to eradicate or significantly disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme is far from clear. Israeli military authorities assess that a strike would, even in the best case scenario, merely delay Iran’s nuclear progress by up to two years, thereby calling into question the longer-term wisdom of such a move. In addition, Iran has been ramping up its covert operations and asymmetric assets, demonstrating an ability to respond in kind if provoked.
  3. The impact of parallel measures, especially cyber warfare and far-reaching sanctions, may persuade Israel to postpone a strike. One indicator of their success has been Iran’s demand for upfront sanctions relief during the P5+1 talks. A further indicator would be cuts in Iranian funding of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
  4. Upcoming elections in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran will set the stage for what transpires in 2013. The Obama-Romney US presidential race remains tightly contested. A Barack Obama re-election will most likely favour the ongoing mix of diplomacy and sanctions, but a Mitt Romney victory will not necessarily entail war during the first half of 2013. That said, mounting threats from Israel and the United States – notably if Benjamin Netanyahu and Romney are at the helm – will tip the balance in Tehran further in favour of regime hardliners and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. This could increase the longer-term likelihood of escalation, miscalculation and, ultimately, armed conflict.
  5. Israel’s “special relationship” with the United States and its confidence in Obama’s pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran is a central national security pillar. Although this confidence is currently unclear, the longer-term ramifications on bilateral relations render a unilateral strike in the assessed six month period unlikely. Conversely, if it continues to cry “wolf” and overplays its hand, Israel may yet corner itself into a strike in order to maintain its deterrence credibility. Continue reading

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Israel’s double bluff? It hardly matters.

Not one, or for that matter, two leaders in the history of modern Israel have faced down this much domestic opposition for winging it alone on war. Over the past months, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been publicly excoriated, pleaded with and warned against ordering a premature strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure without wholehearted US backing.

What is indeed striking is that the bevy of protest includes those most practised in the science of warfare, former and currently serving senior military-security officials in both Israel and the US. The recent stream of personal high-level envoys to this sliver of land, including US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to caution against fools rushing in has also added to the adrenaline. Continue reading

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Iran’s secret weapon

The National Interest, 9 Aug 2012

On July 18, hours following the assassination of three of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s top security grandees during a national-security headquarters meeting in Damascus, a suicide bomber in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort city of Burgas set himself off near an Israeli tourist bus, killing five Israelis and wounding scores of others.

The Damascus attack occurred on the fourth straight day of fighting in the capital, and responsibility has been claimed by both an increasingly plucky armed opposition and an obscure Islamist group calling itself the Islam Brigade (Liwa al-Islam).

The Israeli government has accused usual suspects Hezbollah and Iran for the Burgas bombing, all the more since it coincided with both the eighteenth anniversary of the AMIA Jewish center bombing in Buenos Aires and the sixth anniversary of the second Lebanon war.

As far as Damascus and Burgas were concerned, the timing was sheer coincidence. Continue reading

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Unity of Being vs. Unity of Experience: A Comparative Primer of Ibn ‘Arabi and Ahmad Sirhindi’s Ontologies

Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society Vol. 51 (2012)

As an aspect of the Islamic faith in its own right, Sufism (taṣawwuf) emphasizes the importance of intuitive knowledge or gnosis (ma‘rifa) as a means of directly ‘tasting’ (dhawq) Divine Reality. Given its largely ineffable experiential and cognitive environment and its controversial substance, knowledge of the Sufi path was handed down only from master to initiate. Indeed, occasional public disclosures, most famously al-Hallaj’s cry ‘anā al-ḥaqq!’ were often met with censure and even execution. Still others have sought to approach mysticism from the standpoint of philosophy (e.g. Ibn Sina) or theology (e.g. al-Ghazali). As Peripatetic philosophy declined in the Arab world and shifted to Latin Europe, two somewhat parallel trends began taking its place: Suhrawardi’s philosophy of Illumination (Ḥikmat al-Ishrāq) and Ibn ‘Arabi’s speculative theosophy. Yet only with the latter did the first explicit and systematic formulation ofIslam’s esoteric aspect come into being. This article focuses on the central theme of Ibn ‘Arabi’s ontology – variously known as Unity of Being, Unity of Existence, or Oneness of Existence – and its bearing on the Sufi worldview, and proceeds to contrast it against Sirhindi’s Unity of Experience in the following section.

Click for the journal link, or download the full PDF.

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Iran, Israel and the consequences of military strikes

Open Briefing, 28 Jun 2012

Current tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and key Western governments and Israel are entering singularly dangerous straits. Tehran repeatedly insists it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has verbally declared nuclear weapons prohibited by Islam. However, Israeli leaders are sceptical of Iran’s intentions and have threatened military action to prevent the birth of the Iranian bomb. Israel’s leaders have argued that if the international community fails to take action through sanctions or diplomacy, Iran will soon enter a “zone of immunity.” Israel’s closest ally, the United States, continues to vacillate between threats and diplomacy, and representatives of the P5+1 (the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany) have secured little from Iran other than the continuation of talks, but are keen on averting a war that could have serious unintended consequences.

Click for the original dossier on Open Briefing.

Photo credit: SaFoXy

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