Commentary Magazine


Topic: Robert Wood

Yawn II: A Dangerous and Inexplicable Boredom

If your Spider Sense told you there was something significant about Friday’s news of Iranian forces taking over an Iraqi oil well – then it’s functioning properly. The U.S. government’s information mechanisms, on the other hand? Not so much. Our officials have given the absurd impression that this is no big deal. Such incidents, we are informed, “occur quite frequently” in the disputed Iran-Iraq border area. (So do a lot of things that we nevertheless bother to warn perpetrators about.) State Department spokesman Robert Wood noted, with an air of giving the correct answer on an oral pop quiz, that the U.S. military was aware of the incident. Then he referred media questions to the Iraqi authorities.

This ineffable performance merits an award for its misleading banality and buck-passing. Given the obviousness of the border incident’s current context, meanwhile – let alone the historical context – real determination is required to ignore it.

The oilfield in question lies in Iraq’s Maysan Province, which has gained fame as the principal geographic corridor between Iran and its insurgent clients in southeastern Iraq. For reasons geographic, commercial, military, and even ethnic, there is nothing random about seizing an oil well in that area. The Iranians wouldn’t be thinking only about oil assets either. In this desolate border territory, an oil well is a major terrain feature: a structure whose control has tactical import.

But, of course, the Iranians are thinking about oil too. Tehran is currently being sidelined from a key event in the region; foreign oil companies were finally awarded contracts last week to develop southern Iraq’s biggest oilfields (map here), and will soon be flooding the country. The huge resulting increase in Iraqi oil traffic and revenues will involve at least some areas Iran claims as its territory. Converging with this development are looming transfers of security responsibility from U.S. forces to the Iraqi army.  The transfers alone would make fresh Iranian maneuvers inevitable. In southeastern Iraq in particular, the U.S. 34th Infantry Division, currently charged with the security of Maysan Province, is scheduled to turn over its headquarters base in Basra to the Iraqis in January 2010. That’s only a few weeks from now.

As Iranian probes increase, the Iraqis won’t always lend clarity to events. Their initial difficulty getting their story straight on the oil-well seizure portends frustrating dramas as our forces draw down, with disputed reports, conflicting official statements, and everyone advancing his pet conspiracy theory. It’s way too early in the drawdown to make “Ask the Iraqis” the answer to every question.

None of this is specifically attributable to Barack Obama being in the Oval Office. But a worsening trend will be the fault of American passivity. We don’t have to have an opinion on the outline of the Iran-Iraq border to affirm pointedly that a peaceful resolution of the border dispute is a U.S. national security concern. We should have done that Friday. If nothing else, we still have over 100,000 soldiers in Iraq. It’s basic self-interest to act like we care what happens there.

If your Spider Sense told you there was something significant about Friday’s news of Iranian forces taking over an Iraqi oil well – then it’s functioning properly. The U.S. government’s information mechanisms, on the other hand? Not so much. Our officials have given the absurd impression that this is no big deal. Such incidents, we are informed, “occur quite frequently” in the disputed Iran-Iraq border area. (So do a lot of things that we nevertheless bother to warn perpetrators about.) State Department spokesman Robert Wood noted, with an air of giving the correct answer on an oral pop quiz, that the U.S. military was aware of the incident. Then he referred media questions to the Iraqi authorities.

This ineffable performance merits an award for its misleading banality and buck-passing. Given the obviousness of the border incident’s current context, meanwhile – let alone the historical context – real determination is required to ignore it.

The oilfield in question lies in Iraq’s Maysan Province, which has gained fame as the principal geographic corridor between Iran and its insurgent clients in southeastern Iraq. For reasons geographic, commercial, military, and even ethnic, there is nothing random about seizing an oil well in that area. The Iranians wouldn’t be thinking only about oil assets either. In this desolate border territory, an oil well is a major terrain feature: a structure whose control has tactical import.

But, of course, the Iranians are thinking about oil too. Tehran is currently being sidelined from a key event in the region; foreign oil companies were finally awarded contracts last week to develop southern Iraq’s biggest oilfields (map here), and will soon be flooding the country. The huge resulting increase in Iraqi oil traffic and revenues will involve at least some areas Iran claims as its territory. Converging with this development are looming transfers of security responsibility from U.S. forces to the Iraqi army.  The transfers alone would make fresh Iranian maneuvers inevitable. In southeastern Iraq in particular, the U.S. 34th Infantry Division, currently charged with the security of Maysan Province, is scheduled to turn over its headquarters base in Basra to the Iraqis in January 2010. That’s only a few weeks from now.

As Iranian probes increase, the Iraqis won’t always lend clarity to events. Their initial difficulty getting their story straight on the oil-well seizure portends frustrating dramas as our forces draw down, with disputed reports, conflicting official statements, and everyone advancing his pet conspiracy theory. It’s way too early in the drawdown to make “Ask the Iraqis” the answer to every question.

None of this is specifically attributable to Barack Obama being in the Oval Office. But a worsening trend will be the fault of American passivity. We don’t have to have an opinion on the outline of the Iran-Iraq border to affirm pointedly that a peaceful resolution of the border dispute is a U.S. national security concern. We should have done that Friday. If nothing else, we still have over 100,000 soldiers in Iraq. It’s basic self-interest to act like we care what happens there.

Read Less

Slow-Motion Train-Wreck Watch

If train wrecks really happened in slow motion, observers might have time to note carelessness and irrelevance in the human actors involved. Metaphorical train wrecks certainly afford us such opportunities. The State Department bracketed a busy weekend for the Iran problem with a bit of both. In the daily briefing on Friday, spokesman Robert Wood responded to a point-blank question on why we are stretching out the time line on negotiations with this affirmation:

QUESTION: Then why stretch it out? I mean, isn’t it quite clear that they’re not going to do this?

MR. WOOD: Look, we are — we have said from the beginning, we’re willing to go the extra mile with regard to diplomacy. The President and the Secretary have been very clear about that. Iran has had plenty of time to consider this proposal. We still hope that they will reconsider and give the IAEA Director General a yes. But that’s up to Iran.

Iran had already, last week, given the IAEA director general a “no,” rejecting the P5+1 proposal to ship Tehran’s low-enriched uranium out of the country and offering a counterproposal: to exchange higher-enriched uranium for Iran’s current stock, simultaneously and inside Iran. In support of this negotiating ploy, the regime launched a major joint-forces exercise over the weekend, punctuating it with air-defense drills around the nuclear sites. In case the message was unclear, a senior Revolutionary Guard official emphasized the “deterrence power” of Iran’s ballistic missiles and threatened Tel Aviv with them. Meanwhile, President Lula da Silva of Brazil, with Ahmadinejad at his side, affirmed Iran’s right to civil nuclear technology and criticized “attempts to isolate Iran,” a condemnation that included the imposition of further sanctions.

So it’s not clear what gave Wood hope that Iran might reconsider. Monday’s laconic briefing from Ian Kelly projected a peculiar air of detachment, revealing mainly that there was no new policy guidance on Iran since Friday. There were some laughs, however. Kelly alluded, in suggesting that Iran seize a “fleeting opportunity,” to Friday’s thrice-repeated theme that the diplomatic window for Iran won’t be open forever. This led to a humorous exchange in which the word “fleeting” was suggested to amount to “new guidance.”

Surreal levity aside, Iran’s strategic wisdom in making a counterproposal, to which the P5+1 will have to take time in responding, has probably guaranteed that “fleeting” will not accurately describe the window bounded by negotiations. What the State Department has to show for eight years of business-as-usual negotiations is an Iran much closer to a working nuclear weapon. Robert Wood, in that sense, was exactly right: as long as we have a diplomacy-only approach, it is up to Iran. The only way to change that is to pose the credible threat of involving a different department of the U.S. government.

If train wrecks really happened in slow motion, observers might have time to note carelessness and irrelevance in the human actors involved. Metaphorical train wrecks certainly afford us such opportunities. The State Department bracketed a busy weekend for the Iran problem with a bit of both. In the daily briefing on Friday, spokesman Robert Wood responded to a point-blank question on why we are stretching out the time line on negotiations with this affirmation:

QUESTION: Then why stretch it out? I mean, isn’t it quite clear that they’re not going to do this?

MR. WOOD: Look, we are — we have said from the beginning, we’re willing to go the extra mile with regard to diplomacy. The President and the Secretary have been very clear about that. Iran has had plenty of time to consider this proposal. We still hope that they will reconsider and give the IAEA Director General a yes. But that’s up to Iran.

Iran had already, last week, given the IAEA director general a “no,” rejecting the P5+1 proposal to ship Tehran’s low-enriched uranium out of the country and offering a counterproposal: to exchange higher-enriched uranium for Iran’s current stock, simultaneously and inside Iran. In support of this negotiating ploy, the regime launched a major joint-forces exercise over the weekend, punctuating it with air-defense drills around the nuclear sites. In case the message was unclear, a senior Revolutionary Guard official emphasized the “deterrence power” of Iran’s ballistic missiles and threatened Tel Aviv with them. Meanwhile, President Lula da Silva of Brazil, with Ahmadinejad at his side, affirmed Iran’s right to civil nuclear technology and criticized “attempts to isolate Iran,” a condemnation that included the imposition of further sanctions.

So it’s not clear what gave Wood hope that Iran might reconsider. Monday’s laconic briefing from Ian Kelly projected a peculiar air of detachment, revealing mainly that there was no new policy guidance on Iran since Friday. There were some laughs, however. Kelly alluded, in suggesting that Iran seize a “fleeting opportunity,” to Friday’s thrice-repeated theme that the diplomatic window for Iran won’t be open forever. This led to a humorous exchange in which the word “fleeting” was suggested to amount to “new guidance.”

Surreal levity aside, Iran’s strategic wisdom in making a counterproposal, to which the P5+1 will have to take time in responding, has probably guaranteed that “fleeting” will not accurately describe the window bounded by negotiations. What the State Department has to show for eight years of business-as-usual negotiations is an Iran much closer to a working nuclear weapon. Robert Wood, in that sense, was exactly right: as long as we have a diplomacy-only approach, it is up to Iran. The only way to change that is to pose the credible threat of involving a different department of the U.S. government.

Read Less

Live from the State Department, It’s Friday Afternoon Live!

State Department spokesman Robert Wood began this afternoon’s press conference by providing an update on the P-5+1 meeting from earlier in the day in Brussels. He reread the statement that the P-5+1 had issued on September 23 — in which they had anticipated that the October 1 meeting with Iran would provide an opportunity to seek a “comprehensive, long-term, and appropriate” solution (great adjectives). But unfortunately:

Iran has not engaged in an intensified dialogue and, in particular, has refused to have a new meeting before the end of October to discuss nuclear issues. Iran has not responded positively to the IAEA proposed agreement for the provision of nuclear fuel for its Tehran research reactor.

Given the absence of an intensified dialogue, the refusal to hold a new meeting, and the failure to respond to the IAEA proposal, Wood wanted to convey the U.S. position that Iran should . . . “reconsider the opportunity.”

Message: “Give it to us straight, Mahmoud!”

Wood also announced that the U.S. had agreed that the P-5+1 would hold another meeting shortly to decide about the next steps. One of the reporters mistakenly thought this might be a serious moment, that this might finally be it:

QUESTION: But it sounds like this is a very serious moment then, because you were saying one more meeting, that’s it.

MR. WOOD: No, I didn’t say that at all. I didn’t mean to say that that was it. I said at the next meeting we would take a look at – based on Iran’s response, up until that – at that time, or lack thereof, and take a look and see what new measures we may have to take. But I’m not saying that the next meeting is it – that’s it and then we start moving to the pressure track.

QUESTION: Then why stretch it out? I mean, isn’t it quite clear that they’re not going to do this?

MR. WOOD: Look, we are – we have said from the beginning, we’re willing to go the extra mile with regard to diplomacy. The President and the Secretary have been very clear about that. …

At the next meeting, the P-5+1 may decide that the next step is to ask Mahmoud to give it to them straight.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood began this afternoon’s press conference by providing an update on the P-5+1 meeting from earlier in the day in Brussels. He reread the statement that the P-5+1 had issued on September 23 — in which they had anticipated that the October 1 meeting with Iran would provide an opportunity to seek a “comprehensive, long-term, and appropriate” solution (great adjectives). But unfortunately:

Iran has not engaged in an intensified dialogue and, in particular, has refused to have a new meeting before the end of October to discuss nuclear issues. Iran has not responded positively to the IAEA proposed agreement for the provision of nuclear fuel for its Tehran research reactor.

Given the absence of an intensified dialogue, the refusal to hold a new meeting, and the failure to respond to the IAEA proposal, Wood wanted to convey the U.S. position that Iran should . . . “reconsider the opportunity.”

Message: “Give it to us straight, Mahmoud!”

Wood also announced that the U.S. had agreed that the P-5+1 would hold another meeting shortly to decide about the next steps. One of the reporters mistakenly thought this might be a serious moment, that this might finally be it:

QUESTION: But it sounds like this is a very serious moment then, because you were saying one more meeting, that’s it.

MR. WOOD: No, I didn’t say that at all. I didn’t mean to say that that was it. I said at the next meeting we would take a look at – based on Iran’s response, up until that – at that time, or lack thereof, and take a look and see what new measures we may have to take. But I’m not saying that the next meeting is it – that’s it and then we start moving to the pressure track.

QUESTION: Then why stretch it out? I mean, isn’t it quite clear that they’re not going to do this?

MR. WOOD: Look, we are – we have said from the beginning, we’re willing to go the extra mile with regard to diplomacy. The President and the Secretary have been very clear about that. …

At the next meeting, the P-5+1 may decide that the next step is to ask Mahmoud to give it to them straight.

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