Monday, December 21, 2020

The Persian Gulf Crisis and the Security Dilemma

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Anant Jani

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The Persian Gulf Crisis and the Security Dilemma

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Global Views 360

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December 21, 2020

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American Assault Ship in the Persian Gulf

American Assault Ship in the Persian Gulf | Source: Cpl. David Gonzalez via Flickr

This article explains the recent tensions between Iran and the United States, and presents it as a case of the ‘Security Dilemma’ theory in practice.

The Persian Gulf Crisis 2019-20

To understand the current crisis in Persian Gulf, we must look at the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The JCPOA was signed between The E3/EU+3 (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, and the United States, China, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the Islamic Republic of Iran, to permit nuclear capabilities for Iran exclusively for peaceful purposes, in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

JCPOA terms:

International Atomic Energy Agency representative in Tehran, Iran for talks on JCPOA implementation | Source: Tasnim News Agency

Under this accord, Iran had to reduce its Uranium stockpile by 98% to 300kg, maintain its level of enrichment at 3.67%, reduce the number of centrifuges, and only keep one of its Uranium enrichment plants active. It also had to redesign its reactor at Arak, so it could not produce weapon’s grade Plutonium. Until 2031, Iran is not permitted to make heavy-water reactors.

Further, it was to permit itself to regular inspection of their nuclear site by the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In return, Iran gained over $100bn of frozen assets overseas, and was permitted to allow trading in oil in international markets and use the global financial system for trade.

Trump Administration’s Revoking of the JCPOA

In 2018, the Trump administration reimposed some of the sanctions in Iran, despite Trump's election promise to reduce involvement in the Middle East. Countering the re-impositions, Iran threatens to resume Uranium enrichment. In May 2019, Iran suspends nuclear deal commitments, and gives other signatories a 60-day deadline to protect it from US sanctions, before resuming Uranium enrichment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had already increased Uranium production, but is unclear by how much.

President Trump signing executive orders, imposing sanctions on Iran | Source: Shealah Craighead via White House

In May 2019, the US increased military deployment in the Persian Gulf, reportedly to prevent what the termed was a “campaign” between Iran and its proxies to threaten US oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Tanker Crisis

In June 2019, two tankers were set ablaze in the Gulf of Oman, using mines. The US blamed Iran for these blasts, but Iran denied the charges.

In the same month, Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a US surveillance drone, escalating tensions and causing the US to name the IRGC as a terrorist organization.

In July 2019, the British Royal Marine Commandos seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, as it was suspected to be en route to Syria, in violation of EU sanctions. The US declared that anyone assisting the ship would be considered an accomplice of terrorist groups, namely the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

In retaliation, Iran seized British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Iranian tanker was released six weeks later, on the condition that they do not unload their cargo of 2.1million barrels of oil in Syria.

December Air Strikes

In December 2019, the K-1 Air Base in Iraq was attacked by an unconfirmed party, killing one American contractor. This base hosts Americans (amongst other nationalities) who are responsible for training Iraqi troops in counter-terrorism. The Americans alleged that the attack was carried out by Kataib Hezbollah, which denies it. Kataib Hezbollah is a rebel group (recognized as a terrorist group by the US) backed by Iran. The Iraqi’s alleged that ISIL was responsible.

In retaliation for the killing of the American Contractor, the US launched air strikes on the weapons depot and command centres of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria in the same month, reportedly killing 25 militiamen.

Assassination of Iranian Major General

Late Iranian General, Qasem Suleimani | Source: Tasnim News Agency

Iraq and Iran condemned the attack, and on 31 December, 2019, Iraqi militia attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad. In response, the US conducted airstrikes at the Baghdad International Airport in January 2020, killing the Commander of Iranian Quds Force, General Qasem Suleimani, the second most powerful man in Iran.

These escalations, placed within the context of US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a good example of the Security Dilemma theory and how it plays out in practice.

What is the Security Dilemma?

Before delving into the theoretical definitions it is worth reminding ourselves that States do not behave as they do because a theoretical model demands them to. Rather, most theoretical models are based on observations of real-world behaviour of states, and seek to explain said behaviour. The Classical Realist theory, of which the Security Dilemma is a part, is amongst one of these, and I endeavour to highlight some of the key points of this theory.

The Classical Realist theory holds that States (or State-actors) are the basic unit of any international system. They are the most important actors, as there is no authority higher than them. The international system is fundamentally anarchic, with every actor left to their own devices with no supranational oversight. Each State finds it in their own self-interest to provide their own means for security. Security comes with the ability of the State to exercise its power, and thus Power Hegemony and Security are inextricably linked. In other words, since no State can rely on a supranational authority to provide security (an every-man-for-himself scenario), it is in each State’s best interest to understand the power distribution across all state-actors and maximize power for themselves, as the ultimate security. This results in a zero-sum game, with one actor’s loss being another’s gain. In providing absolute security for one’s own State, one leaves others insecure. The resulting power imbalance manifests in conflict, and for the Realist it follows, therefore, that Conflict is the natural state of affairs.

This, in essence, is the Security Dilemma: Striving for absolute security leaves others absolutely insecure, thus providing powerful incentives for an arms race, leading to further conflicts. It is little wonder that this is also called the Spiral Model, for in the very process of striving for security, one gives birth to escalating conflict.

How does this relate to the Persian Gulf Crisis?

The US has long followed the Realist model, believing that in a state of fundamental anarchy, it is justifiable to have nuclear capabilities and have intense militarization, as a means of gaining absolute security (justified by ‘offense is the best defence’). However, the US is also known for disallowing Weapons of Mass Destruction and nuclear capabilities in other countries, despite having such resources by itself. Here we see the Security Dilemma: to maintain absolute security, the US cannot allow others to be similarly armed. This is seen clearly in the signing of the JCPOA.

Consider the case from Iran’s point of view. As a result of the US war against Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrow of Saddam Hussain in Iraq, there has been constant American presence in both the countries bordering Iran since almost two decades. That this poses a threat to Iran is obvious: the US caused fundamental regime changes in Iraq after the war; with its manpower and firepower, alongside its strategic placement on both sides of the Iranian border, the US is at a vantage point to attack Iran – placements that are, paradoxically, intended to guarantee American security.

The American show of strength and the impending danger of conflict leave Iran with two choices: Forge alliances with US adversaries, such as China or Russia, to deter Iran-US conflict, or be nuclear-armed. Iran managed both, causing, in effect, a nuclear arms race that culminated in the JCPOA.  In retrospect, the JCPOA seems like the perfect solution to the Security Dilemma in US-Iran conflicts: not only does it allow Iran to benefit from its suspensions of nuclear capabilities, it also ceases the arms race and de-escalates the conflict. In short, it is the Diplomat’s way out of the Security Dilemma, guaranteeing security without arms.

The Trump administration’s call to reimpose sanctions on Iran only serves to re-ignite security concerns for both countries. With Iran having ousted its JCPOA commitments as of January 2020, we can only hope that de-escalations will soon follow to prevent the otherwise inevitable spiralling into arms race and false absolute security.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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