National Security Network

New Challenges with Old Roots

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Report 4 February 2009

iran north korea President Bush russia


The past few days have seen a series of troubling signals from around the world with Iran launching a new satellite, North Korea issuing new threats, and Russia influencing Kyrgyzstan to close the U.S. military base in Manas – a key supply route into Afghanistan.  All of these events raise serious concerns.  However, it is important to remember that foreign countries often take advantage of the transition in power to test a new administration and attempt to get to the top of the agenda.  Moreover, these incidents are also a reflection of the terrible foreign policy landscape that the Bush administration left behind.

In the case of Iran, the satellite launch is one concerning sign amidst a series of positive developments, after eight years of ineffective policy that allowed Iran to move closer to a nuclear capability.  North Korea’s behavior was predicted by experts, given its long record of using bluster to get Washington’s attention – including setting off a nuclear weapon after the Bush administration refused to engage for six years.  The Russian case is perhaps most concerning, as it is indicative of the weak US hand after the deterioration of the U.S.-Russo relationship under Bush’s watch. 

Iran’s satellite launch is a cause for concern, but comes amidst a series of positive developments. 
“Iran said Tuesday it had successfully sent its first domestically produced satellite into orbit using an Iranian-made long-distance missile, joining an exclusive club of fewer than a dozen nations with such capabilities,” according to the Washington Post.  “The Iranian launch was tracked by amateur and professional satellite observers from North America to Australia, while its significance was debated by military and intelligence analysts and arms control experts.”  Charles D. Ferguson, of the Council on Foreign Relations, commented to the New York Times that Iran’s actions were a “way for the Iranian people to stand proud, but to do it in a way that is still within a civilian program,” an indication that the launch had “more to do with sending a message to Washington and asserting influence as a regional power than with achieving a new military capability.”  Iran’s satellite test, which White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs described as an “acute concern” of the Obama administration, should be treated seriously.  But the test must also be taken in a broader context, which shows evidence that Iran is willing to move away from the strife and intransigence that marked the Bush years, and work toward a more positive relationship with the U.S.  For instance, last month on January 20, “Iranian state-run TV broadcast a U.S. presidential inauguration and interviewed Iranians after the Obama speech,” the first time such action had taken place since 1979, reported the Washington Times.  Additionally, the New York Times suggested that Iran’s position in Iraq, particularly on the SOFA agreement, had moderated somewhat because of Obama’s election.  Furthermore, the announcement that former Iranian president Sayyid Muhammad Khatami will again seek that office, running against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is yet another sign that more moderate currents may emerge in Iran  [Washington Post, 2/04/09. NY Times, 2/03/09. Washington Times, 1/21/09. Jerusalem Post, 1/21/09]

North Korea follows a pattern, making threats with a new president.   This week North Korea engaged in “Stinging insults, sudden cancellations of military agreements and dark warnings of ‘unavoidable’ war.”  News reports in Asia are saying that “North Korea is preparing to test-launch a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.”  While many see this as reason for alarm, there is a pattern of this behavior from the DPRK.  The Washington Post writes, “North Korea has a history of diplomacy by means of noisy, over-the-top brinkmanship. It exploded a small nuclear device in the fall of 2006 and the next year began to disable its main nuclear plant in return for food, fuel and a reduction in diplomatic sanctions. The current round of foot-stomping in Pyongyang may be a similar kind of performance art.”  One analyst said, “This is quite consistent with North Korea's past track record of creating crisis to attract attention.” The coinciding with new leadership is also common.  In 2003 North Korea, “fired a missile into the sea between Japan and the Korean peninsula hours before the inauguration of South Korea's new president.”  This behavior was even expected from Kim Jong Il.  In early January Reuters reported “North Korea does not like to be ignored and may try to force Obama's hand by raising tension through test-firing missiles, or, in an extreme measure, conducting another nuclear test.” [Washington Post, 2/4/09. Reuters, 1/14/09. BBC, 2/25/08]

Russia’s influence on supply routes into Afghanistan could have troubling implications.  Yesterday’s announcement that Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev intends to close the U.S. military base in Manas, after a pledge of financial support from Russia, is a troubling indication that the Kremlin intends to put pressure on the incoming Obama administration, after years of being neglected by the Bush administration.  The New York Times reported that “[t]he closure would be a victory for Russian leaders, who saw the base as an American attempt to assert control in the region. And by eliminating a vital refueling and transport point for NATO forces, it would present a blunt challenge to President Obama’s highest foreign policy priority: the war in Afghanistan.”  The Times went on to say that “[t]he move could disrupt a fragile détente between Moscow and Washington that emerged after President Obama took office. Afghanistan has been seen as a jumping-off point for cooperation between the United States and Russia, which is wary of the spread of Islamic extremism.” According to Andronik Migranyan, an analyst at a Kremlin-backed think-tank based in New York, Russia’s actions may be intended to gain American concessions on issues such as missile defense and NATO enlargement.  Last week, the U.S. and Moscow reached an agreement on supply routes for Afghanistan that would pass through Russia, rather than through Georgia, a hot-button country after last summer’s military confrontation. Paul Quinn-Judge of the International Crisis group observed: “what is really striking is that the Russians seem to be at this point tightening the screws and trying to get D.C.’s attention in the nastiest possible way.” [NY Times, 2/04/09.  AP, 1/26/09]

What We’re Reading

Speculation on President Obama’s plans for a Afghanistan strategy continues.  U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Afghanistan and urged U.S. and NATO forces to strive for fewer civilian casualties.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appears to have made gains in the provincial elections.  Iraq will investigate allegations of voter fraud in Anbar province.

Kyrgyzstan’s government submitted a draft bill to close a U.S. airbase critical to the war effort in Afghanistan.  After announcing the intention to close the Manas base, Kyrgyzstan received billions of dollars in loans and aid from Russia.

Taliban fighters torched 10 trucks returning from Afghanistan that had been stranded by the destroyed bridge.

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has reportedly decided to run for the presidency again in Iran’s June elections.

Saudi Arabia released a list of terrorism suspects that includes some ex-Guantanamo detainees.

Chinese television aired footage of a shoe being thrown at Premiere Wen Jiabao, previously censored.

Violence continues in Sri Lanka.  The Sri Lankan president vows victory over the Tamil Tigers within the next few days.

The U.S. military knew of safety issues with Humvees since 1994
, almost ten years before they were used in Iraq.

Opposing factions reached a deal in the British strike over the use of foreign labor.

Surrendering rebel forces overwhelm the U.N. unit in the DR Congo.

Commentary of the Day

Spencer Ackerman takes apart Dick Cheney’s interview in Politico.

George Friedman writes about the challenges of getting supplies to the war in Afghanistan and some strategic implications.

Perry Link looks at the possible benefits of the financial crisis for the Chinese people.

Martin Wolf discusses the importance of U.S. leadership in the financial crisis.