Asawin Suebsaeng

Asawin Suebsaeng

Reporter

Asawin Suebsaeng is a reporter at the Washington, DC, bureau of Mother Jones. He has also written for The American Prospect, the Bangkok Post, and Shoecomics.com.

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A graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., Asawin came back to DC with hopes of putting his flimsy Creative Writing major, student newspaper tenure, and interest in human rights and political chicanery to some use. He started cutting his teeth at F&M's student-run weekly, The College Reporter, serving as editor in chief. He has interned at The American Prospect, been a reporter for the Bangkok Post, and scribbled for ShoeComics.com. His favorite movie is either Apocalypse Now or Pirahna 3D, depending on the day or mood.

Iran War Watch: Azerbaijan Airbases and the Israeli Military

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 1:33 PM EDT

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

Senior US intelligence officials say that the Israeli military has recently gained access to airbases in the Republic of Azerbaijan, an independent Turkic state on Iran's northern border.

Foreign Policy's Mark Perry, who broke the story, explains what it means for the Israeli-Iranian standoff:

[A]ccording to several high-level sources I've spoken with inside the U.S. government, Obama administration officials now believe that the "submerged" aspect of the Israeli-Azerbaijani alliance—the security cooperation between the two countries—is heightening the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran...[F]our senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran's northern border. To do what, exactly, is not clear. "The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."

Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel's military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions, according to the sources. Military planners...must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf—but one that could include the Caucasus.

[...]

It is precisely what is not known about the relationship that keeps U.S. military planners up at night. One former CIA analyst doubted that Israel will launch an attack from Azerbaijan, describing it as "just too chancy, politically." However, he didn't rule out Israel's use of Azeri airfields to mount what he calls "follow-on or recovery operations." He then added: "Of course, if they do that, it widens the conflict, and complicates it. It's extremely dangerous."

In case you're curious, here's what an airbase in Azerbaijan looks like:

The Azerbaijani government flat-out denied the FP report on Thursday. Teymur Abdullayev, a spokesman for the country's defense ministry, called the allegations "absurd and groundless," and another senior official in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, vowed that "there will be no actions against Iran...from the territory of Azerbaijan."

Despite Baku's denials, this story will undoubtedly damage the already fraught relationship between Azerbaijan and its neighbor to the south. The Iranian government openly disapproves of Azerbaijan's friendly relations with Israel—the two countries' partnership includes over a billion dollars worth of arms shipments to Azerbaijan from the Jewish state—and Iranian authorities have repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of colluding with Israeli spies and assassins. Police in Azerbaijan this month arrested 22 terror suspects who were supposedly receiving marching orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Meanwhile, Anshel Pfeffer at Haaretz doesn't buy the speculation of an Israeli airstrike being launched out of an Azeri airbase:

[A] cursory glance at a map hardly bears it out. A range of American military experts claim that Azeri airfields would be invaluable for Israel as it would solve some of the fuel/range issues of a 2000+ km strike, they fail to address the problem of where the Israeli warplanes can fly to once they have refueled in Azerbaijan. There is no friendly route to fly back to Israel, except over Iranian or Turkish territory, hardly appealing alternatives once an attack has already been carried out and both countries will be on highest alert...Other uses proposed in the FP feature, using Azeri fields just in the case of emergency landings or using them to base search-and-rescue helicopters or reconnaissance drones, makes more sense.

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Iran War Watch: The Wheat Import Strategy

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 1:59 PM EDT

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

Just in case, the government in Tehran is pursuing a number of avenues to prep for possible military confrontation with Israel and the United States: Airbone war games. Puffed-up rhetoric. Possibly raising some hell in the Strait of Hormuz.

Also, they're hoarding wheat—lots of wheat. Here's why this matters, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

Iran is ramping up imports of wheat, including rare purchases from the U.S., in a sign Tehran is building a strategic stockpile of grain in anticipation of harsher sanctions or even military conflict...Such a maneuver could bolster the Islamic regime at a time when the West is increasing pressure over Iran's disputed nuclear program, including curbing purchases of Iran's oil and freezing its government banks out of international networks.

Current U.S. sanctions allow companies to sell food to Iran. Access to wheat is crucial for the country, enabling it to prevent spikes in the cost of bread, a key staple among its 78 million citizens. Such spikes have in the past led to social unrest in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Iranians have also purchased wheat shipments from Brazil, Australia, Russia, Germany, and others over the past few months, and is in negotiations for what might be a three-million-ton buy from India, with imports on track to rise even more. The US Department of Agriculture estimates Iran will import 2 million metric tons of wheat through June 2012, which constitutes a tenfold jump from a February estimate, and enough to cover roughly 13 percent of Iran's annual consumption, according to data compiled by the USDA.

"With any number of unknowns out there—a potential attack on its nuclear facilities, the possibility that a different administration takes office in the United States—the regime is prudently laying aside [food] stocks in the event things go very wrong," said J. Peter Pham, a director with the Atlantic Council told Reuters.

But even in times that weren't marked by such bellicose rhetoric, the Iranian regime has been known to indulge in ramping up American imports. During the Bush years, US exports to Iran grew more than tenfold, including over $158 million worth in cigarettes. Other hot items include fur, perfume, military apparel, bras, and bull semen.

Iran War Watch: Budgets and War Games Edition

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 10:40 AM EDT

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is pushing for the upcoming 2013 budget to include items that would further beef-up the Pentagon's ability to fight a war with Iran. Carlo Munoz at The Hill's defense blog reports:

Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is spearheading an effort to pump defense dollars into a specific slate of weapons and programs that could be used in a potential conflict with Tehran.

On Tuesday, the California Republican refused to back down from that plan, even if it could further inflame tensions between the two countries. "We are doing what we can to make sure [the United States] is protected…and that is what we are going to do," McKeon told reporters during a briefing on Capitol Hill...[Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio)], chairman of the committee's Strategic Forces sub-panel, added that the United States cannot afford to bet against Iran turning bellicose rhetoric into action.

Right now, it is unclear what programs or weapons systems would be included in the proposed budget items. (McKeon, Turner, and other committee members declined to comment on specifics.) In recent weeks, the United States military has augmented its sea and land defenses in the Persian Gulf to combat any potential efforts by Tehran to shut down the Strait of Hormuz (a loudly publicized threat from the Iranian regime that is, likely, another bluff). This has included expanded surveillance, more mine-detection technology, and requests for extra shore-launched cruise missiles.

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a story on a classified war game conducted by Central Command—titled "Internal Look"—that mapped out possible consequences of a preemptive airstrike on Iran by the Israeli military. The two-week exercise held earlier this month yielded some grim hypothetical scenarios, including the retaliatory sinking of a US Navy ship, an initial body count of at least 200 American sailors, and the escalation to a larger regional war.

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