It’s still time to negotiate with Iran

Nick Wheeler and I have a new piece on Iran and why negotiations must go on. Check it out here

Also cross-posted at the ICCS website:

British Police to Invade Ecuadorian Embassy: an act of war in London?

Embajada de Ecuador

The recent developments regarding the possibility of UK storming the Ecuador embassy in London bring up some important questions regarding international law and politics.

This is my take as someone who is not an expert on International Law:

My guess is that the UK WON’T storm the embassy. They will abide by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and preserve the integrity of diplomatic missions, because the political costs and breaches opened by storming an embassy in London are enormous. Why?

It’s much easier and less tricky not to issue a safe conduct allowing Assange to leave the premises of the embassy and be transferred to the airport and be flown to Ecuador. The situation created will assure (strong surveillance assumed) that if he steps out (meaning being in British soil) he will be arrested at once. His only option will be to face British authorities or “live forever locked in the tower” of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Carl Gardner, at Head of Legal Blog implies that it is more legally viable to have the UK FCO taking necessary measures to cut diplomatic relations with Ecuador and expelling the ambassador from the country, and further withdrawing the diplomatic immunity that the embassy premises currently have. Therefore, they would close the embassy AND THEN, when it ceases to be so, they’d storm it and arrest Assange, if he’s still inside, of course. This is an valid ad absurdum claim, since there’s no point for Assange to stay in the building if it doesn’t grant him any protection. This way, UK wouldn’t have to arm wrestle its Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 with its obligations to the Vienna Convention, and it would be easier to take action without creating a dangerous precedent, so far unseen in Western countries.  As expected, should the UK opt for this course, all Ecuadorian diplomatic staff would have a safe conduct to leave the country, but not Assange, who would be arrested while leaving the embassy or (again ad absurdum) inside the building when it loses its diplomatic status.

I do agree with him, even though I don’t think that this is the expected outcome, and would add a few considerations.

Being stuck at the embassy over the long term is not a good nor a acceptable outcome neither for Assange or for Ecuador. At some point someone will have to back off, and all of the involved know it. I believe that the British rationale is that they have time and geography on their side: they just have to deny safe passage and wait until he gives up and turns himself in. On the other hand, Assange’s rationale is that he wants to buy time for three things, in case he can’t manage to get a safe passage to his asylum (which is a feasible horizon for him):

1) improving his defence in case he has to undergo trial;

2) trying to increase the “costs” for the UK and US to take serious action against him;

3) which I think is the most important, he wants to make his case even more mediatic, getting stronger support from the public opinion to leverage the support of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Indignados (generally anti-Establishment movements) in his favour, once again increasing the costs for the UK and the US (and Sweden) to take strong action against him.

Along with this: wouldn’t it be easier for the Ecuadorian diplomatic staff to have a diplomatic vehicle (also inviolable as per the Vienna Convention) to drive Assange outside of the country through the ferry to Ireland, France, Belgium or the Netherlands? From there, they could either arrange for a safe passage in one of these countries to have Assange flown to Quito, or if necessary, continue driving outside the European Union border and eventually reach a country that would allow it? Or would the British find a way to stop the car from going on the ferry, either by severing the ferry connection, or sustaining any reason not to allow that specific car to board the ferry?

Anyone have a different interpretation?

* I’d like to thank Wagner Artur O. Cabral, Ricardo Moraleida, Luiz Fernando Plastino Andrade and Thomaz Napoleão for their direct and indirect contribution to the ideas present on this post, which were triggered by a facebook discussion first put up early today by Wagner Artur.

Flash post: Is war with Iran imminent?

So, is war with Iran imminent? I’m gonna go out on a limb and say “no”. Israeli officials are pressing the US to issue an ultimatum and threatening unilateral action. The time for negotiation is over, they claim. This isn’t novel by any means, but what explains the timing for this new push, I’d say, also explains why they’re unlikely to follow through. My guess is that it has nothing do to with new developments in Iran’s nuclear program or new information about it, but with events in Syria. Direct US engagement there seems increasingly likely as talks of a no-fly zone intensify. Even if the US manages to stay out of it (which I hope it does, by the way), we can’t be sure at this point, and that possibility detracts from their propensity to back Israel (which is minimal to start with) and the credibility of their threats. The thing, however, is that no amount of moaning from Israeli officials is going to change the situation on the ground in Syria, and that issue now seems to take precedence over Iran, mainly because most in the US still believe that sanctions are doing their work on the Iranian economy and time is on their side, at least for now. The tragedy for Israeli hawks, of course, is that their inability to make good on these threats reduces their credibility.

What do you think?

Operation Ágata: Brazil’s war on crime, drugs and much, much more.

Brazilian Navy Warship somewhere on the Plata Basin. Printed in white letters: "All for the fatherland"

Brazilian Navy Warship somewhere on the Plata Basin. Printed in white letters: “All for the fatherland” (Source: Brazilian Navy)

Brazil is conducting a major military operation in its southern borders. Named Ágata 5 (not to be confused with Operation Agatha), this is the fifth such operation since the beginning of last year, part of a new systematic effort from the Brazilian government to enhance border control, fight illicit activities and improve the overall reach of the state in these border areas. The operation is impressive, not only for its size and scope but also for what it represents.

Let’s start with the numbers. The over 10,000-strong (9,000 uniformed, 1,000 civilians) effort comprises all three Armed Forces and 30 civilian agencies and will last nearly 30 days, being the largest of its kind in Brazil and among the largest ever conducted in South America. It features Urutu and Cascavel armored cars, infantry units, UAVs, F5 fighter jets, Super Tucanos, helicopters and 30 ships (war ships and patrol ships) in a concerted effort to interdict traffickers by sea, land and air in the 3.9 thousand kilometers of borders with Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. But, interestingly, it also includes a hospital ship and medical personnel tasked with “civil-social actions” for local populations (ACISO, in Portuguese): they expect to perform 19,000 medical and 21,000 odontological consultations in the course of the operation.

Operation Ágata in all its instalments is a landmark for three reasons. First, it is the first real effort Brazil has made to assume a role in regional security commensurate with its size and ambitions. After decades of neglect and denial, Brazil seems to be slowly coming to grips with the international and domestic threats posed by these “ungoverned spaces“. Without serious improvement in border control and monitoring, no amount of “pacification” in the favelas (Brazil’s other ungoverned spaces) will do the trick, and unless Brazil shoulders the costs of actual engagement, calls for regional security cooperation will likely amount to little more than words.

Second, it marks a shift in Brazil’s stance of the use of military personnel for border security and, especially, counter-narcotics operations. The military – and many civilian defense “experts” – have long opposed taking on these tasks for fear that it would divert precious resources from they think is the “real” mission of fighting Brazil’s enemies (hypothetical great powers that might want to poach Brazil’s natural riches). They also worry that exposing troops to criminal activities will invite corruption into their ranks. These and other objections are still very common in Brazil, but that notwithstanding, Operation Ágata indicates that tasks are now a major priority in Brazil’s defense and security policy, which bodes well for civilian control of the military. The fact that the operation is being conducted by the Ministry of Defense and, specifically, the newly-created Joint Chief of Staff (EMCFA, in Portuguese), is also a plus for interoperability – mitigating the traditional competition between the three branches – and civilian control.

Third, in planning and conducting the operations Brazil has made an explicit effort of informing and coordinating with other South American countries, so as to allay fears of “Brazilian imperialism”. This is particularly relevant because Brazil has been consistently unwilling or unable to acknowledge the possibility that its newfound economic and political weight, as well as new defense plans (see here, in Portuguese), may be threatening to its neighbors (a lack of what Booth and Wheeler call “security dilemma sensibility“). These efforts are welcome, but unlikely to be sufficient. Inviting officers from neighboring countries as observers does not necessarily eliminate misgivings, as Brazil should well know from its long history of reluctant participation in US DEA/Southcom missions in Latin America. Not surprisingly, some in Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia have reacted negatively to the operation, worried that Brazil’s actions indicate that the country is growing more inclined toward using force in regional affairs. This is especially worrisome for countries that have, in the past couple of months, stepped on the toes of their giant neighbor.

Overall, Operation Ágata is a positive development that should be welcomed by advocates of a more rational defense policy and of greater Brazilian engagement in regional security affairs, even as it presents Brazil with the challenge of offering assurances and voice opportunities to its neighbors to prevent further blowback. To the extent that this is the flip side of recent efforts at combating urban violence and criminality, there is one crucial ingredient missing: demand. And herein lies the greatest challenge. If Brazil fails to move on drug law reform and focuses its effort too much on policing and combating, it runs the risk of getting bogged down in its own endless war on drugs.

*Post co-authored with Daniel Rio Tinto