On Friday, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said that the US was ‘disappointed’ with Turkey’s decision on Wednesday to vote against further sanctions on Iran. Gates went on to emphasise that US-Turkey military ties would not be affected, referring to Ankara as a ‘decades-long ally’ of the US and saying that ‘allies don’t always agree’. Speaking in Brussels after a meeting of NATO defence ministers, Gates also said that the world had time to allow the tougher sanctions package to stall Iran’s nuclear programme.
He stated that Tehran was three years from having a nuclear bomb, potentially even longer before it could effectively weaponise it, an assessment with which the Israelis agreed. Iran continues to deny that its nuclear programme has a military component, emphasising its right to the peaceful uses of nuclear power under the terms of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory.
The openSecurity verdict: The decision by Turkey and Brazil to vote against the newest round of proposed sanctions against Iran was almost inevitable. The two countries, with Obama’s assurance that he was willing to ‘show flexibility’, spent most of April putting together a deal that would entail Iran transferring uranium stocks to Turkey in exchange for nuclear fuel for its research reactor. Having finally reached an agreement with Tehran that would see 1,200 kg of Iran’s Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU), the amount given by Obama as representing the US’ ‘red line’, held in escrow in Turkey, the agreement was signed by the foreign ministers of the three countries on 17 May.
On 18 May, in testimony to the US Senate’s foreign affairs sub-committee, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton referred to the deal as a ‘ploy’; the US rejected the proposed deal out of hand. Mohammad ElBaradei expressed his disappointment and surprise in an editorial in the Brazilian newspaper Jornal de Brasil, hailing the deal as a worthy confidence building measure.
The latest round of sanctions, coming in the wake of the proposed Brazil-Turkey deal, can be added to a list of US foreign policy disappointments since Obama became president. In the eyes of those for whom his Cairo speech seemed to mark a new era of constructive dialogue after the disaster of the Bush years, the reaction to the Goldstone report, the failure to seriously pressure Israel over settlements, the muted reaction to the assault on the Gaza flotilla, together with this latest event, will confirm the assertion of the cynics that all that had changed was the presentation.
This in itself is bad enough, and it is unclear whether Turkey shares Gate’s opinion that US-Turkey military co-operation will not suffer as a result of what could be interpreted as US dishonesty and disingenuousness over the Iran nuclear programme. But the implications for future US action are even more disturbing. Gates’ specific reference to Israel implies that Jerusalem still plays a key role in US foreign policy and security decision making. Earlier security guarantees given by Secretary Clinton regarding US pressure on Iran all suggest that an armed attack on the Iranian nuclear programme may still be on the cards.
From Tehran’s perspective, there no longer appears to be any incentive to negotiate; a confidence building measure that would see half of the Iranian LEU stockpile leave the country has been sharply and churlishly rebuffed by the US, in favour of sanctions that will impact on of the business interests of the Iranian elite and their Revolutionary Guard powerbase. A two to three year time table will see, according to US plans, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan with a concomitant increase in American global military preparedness and, of course, a Presidential election. The threat of a military strike on Iran has survived the end of the Bush administration; the diplomatic, strategic and human costs of such a move to the United States and the world defy estimation.
Kyrgyz city struck by violence
Late on Thursday, the Kyrgyz city of Osh was struck by violence when fighting broke out between rival gangs. At least 26 people have been killed and 400 wounded in the fighting, which is reportedly between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups. Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, located in the southern Ferghana valley near the Uzbekistan border. It is a seat of Islamist sentiment in the country, as well as being the power base of the recently deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva has accused participants in the clashes of ‘trying to destabilise Kyrgyzstan and plunge it into fighting or conflicts.’ The violence has once again raised fears of a civil war within the former Soviet republic. Such fears had been allayed with the apparently orderly transition of power from Bakiev to Otunbayeva in April. Both the US and Russia will be following events keenly; both countries have airbases in Kyrgyzstan. In particular, Manas airbase outside the capital Bishkek is a vital component of the US air bridge into Afghanistan.
Nine dead in Afghanistan insurgent attack
On Friday it was reported that nine people had been killed and eight wounded when a minibus hit a roadside bomb in the southern region of Kandahar. The dead included women and children. On the same day two people were killed and at least sixteen others wounded when a suicide bomber struck a shopping area in Shahjoy district in the neighbouring province of Zabul. NATO spokesmen also disclosed that two American service members had been killed in southern Afghanistan, but did not release any further details.
The attacks come during an extensive build up of coalition forces for a campaign to dislodge the Taliban from their heartland around the city of Kandahar. On Thursday, the commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, acknowledged that progress towards this end was likely to be slower than expected. Difficulties include, most prominently, the reliability of Afghan security forces.
Long-heralded efforts to ‘Afghanise’ the conflict have met with mixed success, with the result that US forces, mainly marines, have had to be deployed in patrolling captured areas, a task originally intended to be left entirely to the Afghan national army. This diversion of resources risks undermining the military effort to take Kandahar, a lynch pin of the vaunted US military and diplomatic ‘surge’ aiming to end the conflict.
The tight time frame was underscored by British Prime Minister David Cameron on his visit to Afghanistan on Thursday. Saying that the following year will be ‘vital’ for the campaign against the Taliban, he categorically ruled out any further increase in the British military commitment, which currently comprises nearly ten thousand troops. The precariousness of the security situation was highlighted when a planned visit by the prime minister to a British base in Helmand province was cancelled by the local commander, Brigadier Richard Felton, over concerns that insurgents were planning to shoot down Cameron’s helicopter.
Explosion hits Algerian gendarme barracks
Early in the morning on Friday, a paramilitary police barracks in Algeria was hit by an explosion, killing at least four people, including two gendarmes. The barracks is located near the village of Ammal, in the mountainous Boumerdes region of Algeria, about forty miles east of Algiers. The region has long been a stronghold of the Islamist insurgency that has been fighting the government for decades. It is thought the Islamists have links to Al Qaeda.