East Coast Earthquake Preparedness
By By BEN NUCKOLS
Posted: 08/25/2011 8:43 am EDT
WASHINGTON — There were cracks in the Washington Monument and broken capstones at the National Cathedral. In the District of Columbia suburbs, some people stayed in shelters because of structural concerns at their apartment buildings.
A day after the East Coast’s strongest earthquake in 67 years, inspectors assessed the damage and found that most problems were minor. But the shaking raised questions about whether this part of the country, with its older architecture and inexperience with seismic activity, is prepared for a truly powerful quake.
The 5.8 magnitude quake felt from Georgia north to Canada prompted swift inspections of many structures Wednesday, including bridges and nuclear plants. An accurate damage estimate could take weeks, if not longer. And many people will not be covered by insurance.
In a small Virginia city near the epicenter, the entire downtown business district was closed. School was canceled for two weeks to give engineers time to check out cracks in several buildings.
At the 555-foot Washington Monument, inspectors found several cracks in the pyramidion – the section at the top of the obelisk where it begins narrowing to a point.
A 4-foot crack was discovered Tuesday during a visual inspection by helicopter. It cannot be seen from the ground. Late Wednesday, the National Park Service announced that structural engineers had found several additional cracks inside the top of the monument.
Carol Johnson, a park service spokeswoman, could not say how many cracks were found but said three or four of them were “significant.” Two structural engineering firms that specialize in assessing earthquake damage were being brought in to conduct a more thorough inspection on Thursday.
The monument, by far the tallest structure in the nation’s capital, was to remain closed indefinitely, and Johnson said the additional cracks mean repairs are likely to take longer. It has never been damaged by a natural disaster, including earthquakes in Virginia in 1897 and New York in 1944.
Tourists arrived at the monument Wednesday morning only to find out they couldn’t get near it. A temporary fence was erected in a wide circle about 120 feet from the flags that surround its base. Walkways were blocked by metal barriers manned by security guards.
“Is it really closed?” a man asked the clerk at the site’s bookstore.
“It’s really closed,” said the clerk, Erin Nolan. Advance tickets were available for purchase, but she cautioned against buying them because it’s not clear when the monument will open.
“This is pretty much all I’m going to be doing today,” Nolan said.
Tuesday’s quake was centered about 40 miles northwest of Richmond, 90 miles south of Washington and 3.7 miles underground. In the nearby town of Mineral, Va., Michael Leman knew his Main Street Plumbing & Electrical Supply business would need – at best – serious and expensive repairs.
At worst, it could be condemned. The facade had become detached from the rest of the building, and daylight was visible through a 4- to 6-inch gap that opened between the front wall and ceiling.
“We’re definitely going to open back up,” Leman said. “I’ve got people’s jobs to look out for.”
Leman said he is insured, but some property owners might not be so lucky.
The Insurance Information Institute said earthquakes are not covered under standard U.S. homeowners or business insurance policies, although supplemental coverage is usually available.
The institute says coverage for other damage that may result from earthquakes, such as fire and water damage from burst gas or water pipes, is provided by standard homeowners and business insurance policies in most states. Cars and other vehicles with comprehensive insurance would also be protected.
The U.S. Geological Survey classified the quake as Alert Level Orange, the second-most serious category on its four-level scale. Earthquakes in that range lead to estimated losses between $100 million and $1 billion.
In Culpeper, Va., about 35 miles from the epicenter, walls had buckled at the old sanctuary at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which was constructed in 1821 and drew worshippers including Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Heavy stone ornaments atop a pillar at the gate were shaken to the ground. A chimney from the old Culpeper Baptist Church built in 1894 also tumbled down.
At the Washington National Cathedral, spokesman Richard Weinberg said the building’s overall structure remains sound and damage was limited to “decorative elements.”
Massive stones atop three of the four spires on the building’s central tower broke off, crashing onto the roof. At least one of the spires is teetering badly, and cracks have appeared in some flying buttresses.
Repairs were expected to cost millions of dollars – an expense not covered by insurance.
“Every single portion of the exterior is carved by hand, so everything broken off is a piece of art,” Weinberg said. “It’s not just the labor, but the artistry of replicating what was once there.”
The building will remain closed as a precaution. Services to dedicate the memorial honoring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were moved.
Other major cities along the East Coast that felt the shaking tried to gauge the risk from another quake.
A few hours after briefly evacuating New York City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city’s newer buildings could withstand a more serious earthquake. But, he added, questions remain about the older buildings that are common in a metropolis founded hundreds of years ago.
“We think that the design standards of today are sufficient against any eventuality,” he said. But “there are questions always about some very old buildings. … Fortunately those tend to be low buildings, so there’s not great danger.”
An earthquake similar to the one in Virginia could do billions of dollars of damage if it were centered in New York, said Barbara Nadel, an architect who specializes in securing buildings against natural disasters and terrorism.
The city’s 49-page seismic code requires builders to prepare for significant shifting of the earth. High-rises must be built with certain kinds of bracing, and they must be able to safely sway at least somewhat to accommodate for wind and even shaking from the ground, Nadel said.
Buildings constructed in Boston in recent decades had to follow stringent codes comparable to anything in California, said Vernon Woodworth, an architect and faculty member at the Boston Architectural College. New construction on older structures also must meet tough standards to withstand severe tremors, he said.
It’s a different story with the city’s older buildings. The 18th- and 19th-century structures in Boston’s Back Bay, for instance, were often built on fill, which can liquefy in a strong quake, Woodworth said. Still, there just aren’t many strong quakes in New England.
The last time the Boston area saw a quake as powerful as the one that hit Virginia on Tuesday was in 1755, off Cape Ann, to the north. A repeat of that quake would likely cause deaths, Woodworth said. Still, the quakes are so infrequent that it’s difficult to weigh the risks versus the costs of enacting tougher building standards regionally, he said.
People in several of the affected states won’t have much time to reflect before confronting another potential emergency. Hurricane Irene is approaching the East Coast and could skirt the Mid-Atlantic region by the weekend and make landfall in New England after that.
In North Carolina, officials were inspecting an aging bridge that is a vital evacuation route for people escaping the coastal barrier islands as the storm approaches.
Speaking at an earthquake briefing Wednesday, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray inadvertently mixed up his disasters.
“Everyone knows, obviously, that we had a hurricane,” he said before realizing his mistake.
“Hurricane,” he repeated sheepishly as reporters and staffers burst into laughter. “I’m getting ahead of myself!”
Associated Press writers Sam Hananel in Washington; Alex Dominguez in Baltimore; Bob Lewis in Mineral, Va.; Samantha Gross in New York City; and Jay Lindsay in Boston contributed to this report.
The West cannot assume that the Russian leader will be a rational actor on nukes if he sees his nation and regime under existential threat.By Alexander Gabuev
NOVEMBER 11, 2022, 7 AM ETSHARE
When, in early october, President Joe Biden remarked that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” was now at its highest since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, he faced considerable skepticism and pushback. Yet senior U.S. officials appear to be taking the risk of an escalation involving nuclear weapons in Ukraine deadly seriously.
Later that month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin jumped on the phone to his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and spoke with him twice in three days after Shoigu had claimed that Ukrainian forces planned to use a nuclear “dirty bomb” and blame it on Moscow. The reasons for the Pentagon’s concern were clear: Russian falsehoods about a dirty bomb could pave the way for potential nuclear use by Russia.
American military leaders are worried that Moscow is embarking on a dangerous path of nuclear escalation amid the painful and humiliating setbacks that Russian forces have suffered on the battlefield in Ukraine. The latest reversal for Russia, and a significant indication of the trouble its military is having holding the territory it captured in the early weeks of its invasion, is the withdrawal from the city of Kherson, which weeks ago it had declared part of Russia.
What makes the situation so hazardous is President Vladimir Putin’s mercurial and impulsive decision making. From the start, the war in Ukraine has provided numerous examples of Putin’s emotional overreactions to events, and of his miscalculations. Putin’s move to annex Crimea in 2014 in response to revolution in Kyiv was one such decision, and it has given the peninsula a totemic significance in Russia’s war. Judging by his statements and conduct, the Russian leader appears to believe that the conflict he started has existential stakes for his country, his regime, and his rule, and that he can’t afford to lose.
Some people understandably prefer to believe that under no conditions would the Kremlin use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and that Russian nuclear saber-rattling can be dismissed. This is, in my view, a false assurance, but let’s consider the arguments.
Eight months of war in Ukraine have provided plenty of examples of Moscow signaling red lines, then not following through on them. Back in March, Moscow issued a threat that it would target Western arms convoys entering Ukraine from NATO countries, to very little effect. In September, it declared that it would use all the means at its disposal to defend the four recently annexed Ukrainian regions. (When, days later, Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Lyman in one of those regions, Donetsk, Russia did not escalate matters.)
Others point to the Russian doctrine published in June 2020 that allows for the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear power only if the very existence of the Russian state is at risk. This vague definition, they argue, means that the Kremlin might use nukes if “Russia proper” is attacked but that Putin would not use them to defend territories that, in international law, are part of Ukraine—including Crimea.
Then there is the notion that Putin might be deterred from going nuclear by the negative reaction Russia could face from its remaining economic partners—most notably, China, India, and Turkey. In addition, some analysts argue, the battleground efficacy of resorting to nuclear arms in Ukraine is questionable. Ukrainian forces have good mobility, which means that an attack on them with a tactical weapon, such as nuclear artillery, would require firing a lot of rounds that would have a dubious effect, and might also endanger Russian forces and the civilian population in Crimea and recently annexed territories.
So far, also, Ukrainian leaders and the general population have downplayed the psychological impact that the use of nuclear weapons could have. Finally, there is the hope that American deterrence and messaging will influence the Kremlin’s calculus. If the U.S., as some retired American four-star generals have suggested, threatens to use overwhelming conventional force against Russian military assets in Ukraine—including in Crimea—as a response to any nuclear attack, then Putin will back down.
So much for the case discounting any resort to nuclear weapons by Moscow. But given what we know about the Russian leader, no evidence suggests that he is prepared to vacate the illegally annexed territories—especially Crimea, which Putin sees as a defining aspect of his legacy. If Putin is unable to defend Crimea conventionally, then not to use all means at his disposal, including nuclear weapons, could lead to his being perceived in Moscow as weak; in Putin’s eyes at least, that could endanger his domestic political survival. The Kremlin’s equivocal messaging about its red lines, and its failure to enforce them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Neither should anyone set too much store by the ostensible restrictions in Russian nuclear doctrine. Despite them, as many senior Russian officials have pointed out, the doctrine allows for the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory against conventional aggression. Furthermore, their vague language could give Putin plenty of room for maneuver—something seen in the serial instances on his watch in which Russian laws, including the constitution itself, have been bent or violated.
From Moscow’s point of view, the illegally annexed territories now belong to Russia. Accordingly, losing them to an invading army would mean one thing: Russia’s nuclear arsenal is no deterrent to any potential aggressor. The way that senior Ukrainian officials have been framing the breakup of Russia as a desired outcome of the war is not helpful—serving only to confirm Putin in his long-held belief that the West’s goal in supporting Ukraine is regime change in Moscow and the destruction of his country.
As for the reaction of Russia’s major partners like China, the Kremlin knows full well that Beijing will not use its economic leverage to deter Russia. Xi Jinping might warn against nuclear war, but he won’t threaten the Kremlin with breaking economic and military relations should Moscow use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Beijing knows it is unlikely to reap any reward from the U.S. for putting pressure on the Kremlin to fix a problem that China sees as American-made. India and Turkey have so far voiced concern about possible nuclear escalation in Ukraine only in vague terms, and have also refrained from suggesting that they might impose any real consequences should Russia indeed use weapons of mass destruction.
The Kremlin believes that the devastation inflicted by the Russian air bombardment of Ukrainian infrastructure will be a rude awakening for President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, and make them more clear-eyed about Putin’s determination to fight by all means possible—including nuclear weapons, should that remain the only option for him to not lose this war. Russian leadership also still labors under the misperception that Ukraine’s leaders have no agency, and that Zelensky and his team are beholden to the U.S. If the White House wishes, the thinking goes, Ukrainian military advances can be stopped and Kyiv can be brought to the negotiating table.
Finally, Russian leadership believes that no American president will risk a nuclear war with Russia over a non-NATO member, even Ukraine. The Kremlin believes that Biden understands this when he says that Putin “is not joking.” The Russians believe that any U.S. military response to a Russian nuclear escalation would most likely be conventional, such as U.S. strikes to destroy the Russian Black Sea fleet or other targets within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. But the Kremlin also believes that Washington may be inhibited even in this response, on the assumption that such actions would lead to further Russian escalation. Putin probably judges that U.S. nuclear deterrence in this context means a nuclear response only as a last resort.
Putin also takes inspiration from his experience dealing with the U.S. in 2013, when President Barack Obama declared the use of chemical weapons a red line yet failed to act when the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad crossed it. The White House preferred to reach a deal with the Kremlin rather than use military force. The calculation in Moscow is that something similar will happen this time around.
None of this provides any assurance that Putin will continue to exercise nuclear restraint. The bad news is that the military situation could deteriorate very quickly for the Kremlin, and then Putin, caught off guard by a series of setbacks from the front lines, might act impulsively. Worse, if a nuclear crisis should arise, the chances of successful diplomacy are slim. Putin does not seem to have abandoned his maximalist ambitions of subjugating Ukraine, and is likely to use any cease-fire the Kremlin would agree to as an opportunity to rebuild the Russian military machine and return to combat.
For his part, Zelensky is attuned to the dominant sentiment among Ukrainians, who are ready to fight to the bitter end after seeing the war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere. Ukraine’s war goals call for a return to the 1991 borders, including Crimea. That’s where Moscow’s and Kyiv’s red lines clash, with no chance now of reconciling them.
The good news is that, for now, the Western intelligence community has noted no changes in Russia’s nuclear posture. Putin appears convinced that the tools he is already using in Ukraine will ultimately work.
The mobilization that Moscow conducted in response to the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September has helped stabilize the front lines for the time being. The targeting of Ukrainian infrastructure that followed the explosion on the Crimea bridge a month ago is slowly but surely knocking out power stations and water supply across Ukraine, including in major population centers such as Kyiv and Kharkiv. This trend, the Kremlin hopes, will not only undermine the Ukrainian military advance but also force millions of civilians to abandon their homes in winter and seek refuge in other European countries, increasing the migration pressure on Ukraine’s allies.
Finally, Russia’s energy war on Europe has not yet been as successful as the Kremlin had hoped, because of a relatively warm fall and the European Union’s ability to fill gas storage. But Moscow knows that the coming winter will be more difficult for Europeans, when they will have to compete with the rest of the world for expensive liquified natural gas, given stopped Russian pipelines. Putin hopes that the combination of these factors will gradually erode Western support for Ukraine, and make it unnecessary for him to resort to the nuclear option.
That is obviously not the West’s desired outcome, so the U.S. needs to prepare for what Putin might do if this strategy stalls or fails. Addressing a nuclear escalation will require the U.S. to have a functioning communication channel with Russia. Although, as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently revealed, these channels are not entirely moribund, no diplomatic progress on the nuclear issue has been visible.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, American and European leaders likened communication with their Kremlin counterparts to talking to a TV set tuned to a Russian propaganda station. And Moscow is still speaking from that script.
Alexander Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
By KARL WILSON in Sydney | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-11-09 09:53
Reports of nuke-equipped US aircraft for base fit with secretive tradition
The pandemic and rising household bills have left most Australians blissfully blind to a military buildup that has been taking place in the country’s north.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship current affairs program Four Corners aired on Oct 31 a report outlining how the United States is upgrading a major Australian air force base near Darwin in the Northern Territory that will house at least six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers.
The initiative will also involve major infrastructure upgrades at the Tindal Royal Australian Air Force base and a massive fuel storage depot near Darwin.
In addition, the report exposed a major upgrade to the highly secretive Pine Gap intelligence-gathering facility near Alice Springs in Central Australia. So secretive is this facility that only a few Australians have clearance to enter it. During the Cold War, the former Soviet Union had the facility marked as a “must “target in the event of a nuclear war.
Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the right-wing, Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper The Australian, wrote in a commentary on Nov 1 that the reports of the B-52 deployment heralded a “growing ‘prewar’ environment”.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, in a media conference on Nov 2, tried to play down the significance of the military buildup, saying that nuclear-capable US bombers had been visiting Australia since the 1980s.
In a media briefing on Oct 31, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, when asked to comment on the reports, said the move by the US and Australia “escalates regional tensions, gravely undermines regional peace and stability, and may trigger an arms race in the region”.
“China urges parties concerned to abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow geopolitical mindset, and do more things that are good for regional peace and stability and mutual trust among all parties,” he said.
Zhao said that any defense and security cooperation between countries must “contribute to regional peace and stability and must not target any third party or undermine their interests”.
But Marles said that those against the buildup should “take a deep breath”.
“What we’re talking about is a US investment in the infrastructure at Tindal, which will help make that infrastructure more capable for Australia as well,” the minister said.
David Shoebridge, an Australian Greens senator and the group’s defense spokesman, objected to the B-52 deployment, saying in a tweet: “This is a dangerous escalation. It makes Australia an even bigger part of the global nuclear weapons threat to humanity’s very existence — and by rising military tensions it further destabilizes our region.”
Indonesia has, in the past, voiced its concern over Australia’s nuclear direction, especially following the formation of the AUKUS security pact for military cooperation with the United Kingdom and the US.
Jim Green, national nuclear campaigner with environmental and social justice organization Friends of the Earth Australia, said: “The plan to base nuclear-capable B-52 bombers at RAAF Tindal escalates and worsens a pattern of Australia providing practical and political support for the US nuclear weapons program.”
In an email to China Daily, Green said: “Australia should refuse to allow US nuclear weapons to be located on Australian territory under any circumstances. The federal Labor government has committed to signing and ratifying the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The stationing of nuclear weapons on Australian soil flies in the face of the government’s commitment to the UN Treaty.”
Reports of the impending deployment came days after the administration of US President Joe Biden released a Nuclear Posture Review that nonproliferation advocates said makes catastrophe more, rather than less, likely.
When it comes to the US’ deployment of weapons of mass destruction in the region, Australia is not alone.
The Saipan Tribune noted in a report in January that during the Cold War, Guam was a target of the Soviet military in part because it was home to US Navy submarines that carried intercontinental ballistic missiles containing nuclear warheads. “The United States has not spent … money to fully protect Guam and the Chamorro people from military attack,” the report said, referring to the Indigenous people in Guam.
And the same holds true for Australia.
Diplomats say its ‘likely’ Iran could face a fresh resolution at the IAEA Board of Governors next week in Vienna.
Technicians work on the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, near Arak, 150 miles southwest of Tehran, Iran, on Dec. 23, 2019. | Atomic Energy Organization of Iran
By STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN
11/10/2022 05:38 PM EST
VIENNA — The U.N. nuclear watchdog on Thursday said that Iran continues to increase its highly enriched uranium stockpile, which is just a small step away from weapons-grade.
In its latest quarterly report circulated to member states on Thursday and seen by POLITICO, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran increased these reserves further since its last report in September.
More specifically, the IAEA estimated that as of Oct. 22, Iran had 62.3 kilograms of uranium enriched to up to 60 percent fissile purity, an increase of 6.7 kilograms from September.
Non-proliferation experts say that Iran’s current stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium is sufficient for one nuclear bomb, if enriched further. Building an actual weapon, however, requires additional steps and time, as well as a decision by the Iranian regime to do so.
The IAEA report also estimated that as of Oct. 22, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was 3673.7 kilograms, a decrease of 267.2 kilograms since the last quarterly report in September.
These numbers significantly exceed the limits imposed under the original 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. While the U.S. withdrew from the deal in 2018, the other signatories to the deal, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — continued to implement it. As a reaction to the U.S. withdrawal, Iran incrementally began to breach the pact starting in 2019.
Under the agreement, Iran is allowed to accumulate a total stockpile of not more than 300 kilograms and is allowed to enrich uranium at 3.67 percent — sufficient for peaceful purposes including medical aims or to fuel power plants.
Iran has long held that its nuclear program is solely intended for peaceful purposes.
On Thursday, the IAEA also cautioned that it was no longer able to verify the exact size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium due to the severe restrictions Tehran had begun to impose on U.N. inspectors as of February 2021.
In June 2022, Tehran furthermore decided to remove all surveillance equipment — in total 27 cameras — that had been installed at its nuclear sites to monitor Tehran’s compliance under the 2015 nuclear deal.
In its current report, the IAEA also says that even if theoretically at some point in the future all of the equipment is reinstalled by Iran and inspectors are granted full access again, it would take the UN agency “considerable time” to re-established a baseline which would come with a “degree of uncertainty.”
“The longer the current situation persists the greater such uncertainty becomes,” the report states, adding that this situation is having “detrimental implications for the Agency’s ability to provide assurances of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”
Eric Brewer, a Senior Director at the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, explained this further, saying that this is “mainly about knowledge gaps pertaining to Iran’s centrifuge production activities.”
Centrifuges are machines that spin at high speed to enrich uranium.
“In essence, monitoring Iran’s centrifuge production bolsters confidence that Tehran doesn’t have a covert enrichment facility,” he said.
Iran’s rapidly growing nuclear program comes at a time when efforts to revive the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal are on ice.
The indirect talks between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers are aimed at restoring the original 2015 nuclear accord, which lifted many international sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program and verification by the IAEA.
The talks began in April 2021 and went on for about 16 months in Vienna with several ups and downs, before collapsing at the beginning of September.
At the time, Iran asked for further guarantees that a probe by the IAEA into its past nuclear program be closed once and for all — as a precondition for Tehran re-entering the nuclear deal.
Western nations have refused this demand and said that the investigation must be completed by the IAEA and must be kept separate from the nuclear deal negotiations.
Specifically, the IAEA is seeking answers from Iran on the origin of nuclear traces found at three specific locations inside Iran and wants to know where that nuclear material is located now.
Western officials have long held the belief that the nuclear traces could be a sign of Iran having pursued a clandestine nuclear weapons program that ran until approximately 2003.
But Iran has been stonewalling the agency for three years and continues to do so.
In its second report also circulated on Thursday and seen by POLITICO, the IAEA said that Iran has still not provided explanations about the origin and current location of the nuclear traces that are deemed “technically credible” by the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s experts.
In an effort to break the ice and move the investigation forward, IAEA director general Rafael Grossi held a meeting with Mohammad Eslami, vice president of Iran and the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, in Vienna on Sept. 26-27.
After that meeting, it took Iran until Nov. 7 to send a delegation of senior officials to Vienna for follow-up talks. They ended again without progress.
Iran nevertheless committed to inviting senior IAEA officials to Tehran before the end of November to continue talking.
The second IAEA report warns Tehran that it “expects to start receiving from Iran technically credible explanations on these issues” when its experts meet with Iranian officials in the coming weeks in Tehran.
One senior diplomat with detailed knowledge of the nuclear file said it was “likely” that officials at next week’s IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna will respond to Iran’s lack of cooperation by passing a resolution criticizing Tehran for its behavior. “A lot of time has passed without any progress,” the diplomat said. “What else can be done?”
But the diplomat also cautioned that no formal decision on a resolution has been made yet and no draft text has been circulated.
A senior European diplomat agreed that a resolution is the most likely scenario. Both diplomats requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
A resolution criticizing Iran would coincide with other developments that have made a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal near impossible.
Iran’s security forces have been brutally cracking down on protesters across the country for many weeks, which has prompted the U.S., EU member states and other Western nations to impose additional sanctions for human rights abuses. The protests have been sparked by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict hijab rules. Iran has also been selling lethal drones to Russia that Moscow is using in its war against Ukraine, prompting further sanctions from the West.
Iraq’s ongoing political crisis pits the firebrand Shia militia leader against both domestic rivals and the regime in Tehran.
In a nutshell
- Sadrist candidates won a plurality in Iraq’s last election
- The country’s factions remain in gridlock
- Mass protests are likely to again erupt
This report is the second in a two-part series from GIS Expert Prof. Dr. Amatzia Baram. The first part, which published yesterday, focused on Muqtada al-Sadr’s political and ideological development.
For nearly two decades, Iran has sought to deepen its influence over Iraq’s affairs by exploiting the instability there. By 2021 it had scored substantial success. But if the current political crisis in Baghdad proves to be a hinge point in relations with Iran, it will be largely thanks to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and militia leader who has played a central role in its recent history.
Mr. Sadr’s open confrontation with Iran began in July 2017, when he visited Saudi Arabia with great fanfare. Tehran was not pleased. The summer of 2018 saw another key event: mass demonstrations in southern Iraq against the regime’s corruption and Iran’s exploitation of the country. For the first time, it became a Shia struggle against a Shia ruling elite, a dynamic that has persisted until today.
Both Mr. Sadr and Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani supported the demonstrators, even though the former’s followers included members of the ruling elite. After almost two years of civil unrest, by May 2020 the new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, had announced his support of the protestors’ demands: new electoral legislation, new elections, an anti-corruption campaign and an end to independent armed militias. Both Messrs. Sistani and Sadr, together with Iraq’s Kurdish president, Barham Salih, backed the prime minister all the way. Ultimately, he managed to change the electoral law and conduct democratic elections, but failed to achieve his other goals.
In the early elections held in October 2021, politicians loyal to Mr. Sadr won 73 seats out of 329 in parliament – making him leader of the largest party and kingmaker. He again sought to split the Shia camp and build an all-Iraqi coalition, including most Sunni and Kurdish representatives, and managed to secure a borderline majority in parliament. He declared that his nemesis – ex-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iran’s main supporter in Iraq – would never be part of his ruling coalition.
This step meant that the largest pro-Iranian party would be excluded from Iraq’s government, and that Iran would lose a favorable majority in parliament. For Tehran, this was a looming disaster; it might still exert control over Iraq through the 160,000-strong pro-Iranian militias, but it could not afford losing the democratic legitimacy that came from parliamentary dominance.
In a brilliant move, the Iranian regime convinced its man heading the Supreme Judicial Council, Faiq Zaidan, to issue an unconstitutional rule stipulating that no new president can be elected without a two-thirds quorum in parliament. Constitutionally, only a new president can nominate a new prime minister. And with Muqtada al-Sadr unable to cobble together a two-thirds quorum, the democratic process was frozen solid.
Though surrounded by a million supporters, since 2003 Muqtada al-Sadr has been a lonely man.
As has happened a few times before, beginning June 11, 2022, Mr. Sadr went into an emotional frenzy lasting over six weeks. Instead of using the simple majority that he still retained to dissolve parliament, he ordered all of his 73 delegates to resign, hoping to both delegitimize the legislature and reenergize his base of support. He also believed that his Kurdish and Sunni allies would also resign, but they did not.
But by ordering his party parliamentarians to resign, he gave a majority to his archenemy, Nouri al-Maliki. The latter immediately found a candidate for the premiership, though he, too, lacked a two-thirds quorum to first elect a new president.
Muqtada al-Sadr again lashed out. On July 27, he declared a “revolution” against the sectarian governmental system that was introduced after 2003, and ordered his supporters to storm parliament – and subsequently to evacuate it, to occupy it again, and finally to besiege the Supreme Judicial Council. The latter siege lost him much domestic and foreign support. He later sent an appeal to the same body to disperse parliament and call for new elections, which the Council rejected; constitutionally, only parliament can disperse itself.
This is when Iran dealt Mr. Sadr a humiliating blow. On August 28, his official religious “source of emulation” (muqallad), Grand Ayatollah Kadhim Husayni al-Haeri, resigned from all religious leadership duties – apparently on the orders of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Such a resignation is an extremely rare act in Shia tradition: an ayatollah is muqallad for life. To add insult to injury, Ayatollah al-Haeri sent Mr. Sadr a public and highly offensive letter, reminding him just how insignificant of a cleric he was. Most embarrassingly, he called upon all of his Iraqi followers (which include most of Mr. Sadr’s supporters) to follow Iran’s Supreme Leader from then on.
As a reaction to this profound affront from Iran and his mentor, and with a sense that he has hit a brick wall, Muqtada al-Sadr again flew into a rage. On August 29, he announced – for the fourth or fifth time – his resignation from political life. He once more demanded the dissolution of parliament, but in an escalation, also demanded that all Iraqi senior politicians also resign from politics.
His supporters viewed these as marching orders. They occupied the government palace, and all over Baghdad began challenging pro-Iranian militias. The highly dangerous, pro-Iranian group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq quickly opened fire. No fewer than 30 people were killed, almost all of them Mr. Sadr’s men.
Prime Minister al-Kadhimi ordered a full curfew in Iraqi cities, while security forces tried to separate the warring sides. On August 30 – with the casualties piling up and after receiving a quiet demand from Ayatollah al-Sistani to evacuate Baghdad’s Green Zone and end the violence – Mr. Sadr denounced both his own side and the other. He praised the prime minister for not unduly involving state security, ordered his supporters to evacuate the Green Zone within the hour, and urged all involved to stop the fighting. While tensions remained as high as the August heat of 52 degrees Celsius, his words cooled everybody off.
Though surrounded by a million supporters, since 2003 Muqtada al-Sadr has been a lonely man. The Shia intellectual and political elite, such as the Islamic Dawa Party, have had little respect for him or his supporters. The anti-regime and anti-Iranian demonstrators cannot trust him, because his men harassed them in 2019-2020 for no reason. Since he ordered his lawmakers to resign, his Kurdish and Sunni allies, the prime minister, the president, and the marja’iyya (religious leadership) of Najaf – while all sympathetic – are worried about his decision-making style and predisposition for violence.
Mr. Sadr has no consigliere to make him pause and listen in a moment of anger. After past major crises, he has resigned and then bounced back. This is again the case today: he will be back. But if he desists from political activity for a few months, it will serve the parliament and Iraqi politics on a silver platter to Nouri al-Maliki and Iran. Alternatively, Mr. Sadr can send his people back to the streets, which could also spark a civil war.
While parliament is now widely seen as illegitimate, following the resignation of Mr. Sadr’s lawmakers, even a problematic parliament can serve Iran’s needs. Interim President Barham Salih is therefore supporting Mr. Sadr’s call for new elections. Mr. Salih is highly respected, but this is not enough. Now that the high court has decided against interference, the one person who can save Iraq from the present crisis without subjugating the country to Iran is Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani – who, for the last few months, has kept himself above the fray.
Mr. Sistani favors the fight against corruption and against Iran’s domination of Iraq’s politics, security and economy. Yet, contrary to the Iranian concept that the senior cleric should rule, he does not want to get involved in politics. He seems reluctant to return to the role of political arbiter that he played in 2019-2020.
However, if Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani believes that most Iraqis (or, at least, most Iraqi Shias) want him to intervene, he will. So far, his actions have appeared somewhat contradictory. On one hand, he quietly demanded that Mr. Sadr end all violence. On the other, he and his Najaf colleagues have gently signaled support for the junior Iraqi cleric’s cause, by sending senior representatives to a ceremony mourning the dead Sadrist soldiers and denouncing the killings. But that modest signal was all.
Mr. Sistani’s inclination is to call for new elections – but he faces the dilemma that constitutionally, the parliament is still legitimate. Calling for its dissolution will also alienate Iran and its powerful militias. More likely, therefore, unless Iraq explodes into violent riots, or unless there emerges a constitutional way to dissolve parliament, the Ayatollah will keep his silence.
Still, because too many young Iraqis want to see Iran’s exit, major political reform and new elections, calm is not likely. Peaceful mass protests are very likely to erupt again, as they did most impressively in October 2019 – and the pro-Iranian militias know how to shoot. Muqtada al-Sadr’s mistakes greatly weakened the protesters, as well as his Kurdish and Sunni allies.
Indeed, these two groups of allies are in a bind. If they betray Mr. Sadr and join the pro-Iranian camp, he will never forgive them, and they will be blamed for turning Iraq into Tehran’s vassal. If they stick with Mr. Sadr much longer, the political crisis will become extremely dangerous.
They could solve their dilemma in two stages. First, by agreeing on a president, who must be Kurdish. The two main Kurdish parties are on both sides of the parliamentary divide and, so far, cannot agree on a single candidate. Second, the pro-al-Sadr Kurds and Sunnis may be able to force the pro-Iranian politicians to agree that a new prime minister will declare early elections. If the pro-Iranians prove unyielding, Mr. Sistani’s support for such a step could then be decisive.
As for Western aims, the path to lifting Iran’s grip on Iraq starts with supporting new elections. Muqtada al-Sadr is a dangerous actor, and helping him means riding a tiger. Still, to achieve that goal, Western powers and Arab states would first have to help the woefully divided Iraqi demonstrators organize ahead of the next elections. Then they must ensure that the ballot is a democratic one. Tehran is certain to act in the opposite direction.
Emily RoseNovember 10, 2022
JERUSALEM, Nov 9 (Reuters) – Two Palestinians died in separate incidents with Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, Palestinian officials said, the latest in a wave of violence that has intensified in recent months.
A 15-year-old Palestinian militant was killed during a firefight with Israeli soldiers in Nablus and a Palestinian man succumbed to his wounds after Israeli forces fired at him near Jenin, Palestinian officials said.
The head of the Palestine Red Crescent in Jenin, Mahmoud al-Saadi, told Reuters that the ambulance service was called to transfer the man to hospital after he sustained gunshot wounds in his legs.
Local sources said the man was a Palestinian labourer trying to cross through a breach in the separation fence. The Israeli military said in a statement its forces followed standard operating procedures, including the use of live fire, after spotting a suspect vandalising the fence. Soldiers treated the man at the scene before he was taken to a hospital, it added.
A statement from the Palestinian health ministry said the teen died of shrapnel wounds sustained during clashes with the Israeli military early Wednesday but a statement from the Palestinian Fatah Movement said he was shot dead by Israeli fire. The militant al-Aqsa Brigades, an offshoot of the Fatah movement, claimed him as one of its members.
The Israeli military did not confirm the teen’s death but said it had been securing the entrance to a site known as Joseph’s Tomb, in the West Bank city of Nablus and that troops opened fire after an explosive device was placed in the area.
Local media reported that soldiers were there to guard a visiting group of newly elected parliamentarians from the right-wing bloc that won last week’s election in Israel.
Joseph’s Tomb has been the scene of repeated clashes between Palestinians and Jewish visitors, who believe it is the burial place of the Jewish patriarch. Palestinians say it is the shrine of a sheikh.
The Israeli military would not confirm soldiers were there to guard a delegation but the Likud party’s Boaz Bismuth posted pictures of himself on Twitter visiting the tomb with elected officials from other right-wing parties.
The West Bank city of Nablus has been an epicentre for clashes between Palestinian militant groups and Israeli forces in recent months. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in clashes since the beginning of the year.
Most of the casualties have been recorded since March when the Israeli army launched a crackdown in the West Bank following a series of attacks by Palestinian militants which have killed 21 people in Israel and Israeli settlements.
Reporting by Emily Rose and Ali Sawafta Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Jonathan Oatis
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.