Friday, 17 April 2015

Egypt's fight against terror

   “It is not unusual to find a couple of civilians decapitated or shot on the roads of Al-Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid,” a North Sinai resident told a reporter of Daily News Egypt, which describes itself as Egypt’s only independent newspaper in English.  Beheading is the execution method of choice employed by the terror group “State of Sinai” a comparatively new jihadist conglomerate affiliated to Islamic State (IS), and responsible for a remorselessly bloody campaign against the Egyptian military over the past two years. 

The brutal killings include also civilians whom the terrorists accuse of being “armed forces informers”. For example, in February “State of Sinai” released a video showing the decapitation of eight civilians. Their bodies were later found on North Sinai roads.  On April 11 it posted a video featuring both the beheading of an individual, apparently a civilian, and the shooting of a young soldier, Ahmed Fotouh, who had been kidnapped on April 2 in an attack on seven military checkpoints which left 16 armed forces’ personnel dead.

The village of Qarm Al-Qawadis, the scene of a notorious jihadist attack last October which left at least 33 Egyptian servicemen dead, witnessed a new onslaught on April 12. “State of Sinai” claimed to have shot two mortar shells into a military base resulting in the death of six army personnel.  In a separate incident on the same day, a car bomb targeted a police station in Al-Arish killing six police officers and wounding twenty. Three days later two more policemen were killed after a bomb explosion targeted a security vehicle in the Masaeed area in Al-Arish.

And so it goes on, ceaselessly, relentlessly.

Egyptian journalist Sliman Gawda is convinced that the terrorists “are funded, supported, and even trained by outside sources.”  He is referring to Hamas and its Muslim Brotherhood supporters, some of whom have based themselves in Gaza city.  “As the terrorists become more daring,” he writes, “so should the Egyptian army be more ferocious in its war on terror. Yes, we are paying a heavy price for our war against terror. But we must show the Muslim Brotherhood, once and for all, that we will hunt down each of its individuals until we feel safe.”

After the October attack, which produced the biggest loss of life in decades for Egypt's army, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi imposed a three-month state of emergency in the north and centre of the Sinai peninsula, and closed Egypt's Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip. Declaring that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip had become one of the region's main exporters of terror, Egypt mounted a major offensive aimed at overcoming the threat and re-establishing effective control.  A major step was to establish a security buffer zone along Egypt’s shared border with Gaza in order to prevent terrorists from using the vast network of tunnels to launch attacks inside Egypt, or smuggle goods and weapons out. The Egyptian army's security crackdown included imposing a curfew on the region, demolishing hundreds of houses along the border and transferring thousands of people to new locations. 

In a sense Egypt’s war on terrorism began with the overthrow in 2013 of former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government that he headed. Their year in office had demonstrated all too clearly to the majority of the Egyptian population what living under an extreme Islamist administration meant, and by and large they rejected it. Even so, the Muslim Brotherhood retained the support of a fair minority of Egyptians, and al-Sisi inherited an inherently unstable situation. In his view, the restoration of stability required the total rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood and all its works, and given the revolutionary situation, their suppression.  Hence the trial of Morsi, the clampdown on leading Brotherhood figures and their supporters, and the jailing of journalists employed by the TV station Al-Jazeera based in Qatar, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Sisi’s fight against terrorism has gone further.  It has ventured into an area shunned by most political figures in the West, fearful of being tarred with that most unacceptable of brushes for the politically correct – Islamophobia. On January 1, 2015, al-Sisi visited Cairo’s Al-Azhar University where he addressed a gathering of Egypt’s religious leadership.  He said some rather surprising things.

Ideas held most sacred by religious clerics, he asserted, were causing the entire Islamic nation to be a source of anxiety to the rest of the world. “That thinking (I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”), that corpus of texts and ideas that we have held sacred over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. Is it possible that 1.6 billion Muslims should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live?  Impossible! We are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for your next move…because the Islamic nation is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

His initiative has not fallen on deaf ears.  On April 2 Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, spoke not only to the Egyptian people, but to Muslims worldwide.

“There is no true religion that does not regard the sanctity of human life as one of its highest values, and Islam is no exception. Indeed, Allah made this unequivocal in the Qur’an. He emphasized the gravity of the universal prohibition against murder, stating that when a person takes even one life, 'it is as if he has killed all mankind'.”

Referring to the videos showing decapitations in Sinai and Libya, the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot, and other horrific acts by jihadists, he said: “These thugs are invoking religious texts to justify their inhumane crimes.”  This, he asserted,”is a flagrant misreading of both the letter and spirit of the Islamic tradition... These terrorists are not Muslim activists, but criminals who have been fed a mistaken interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah, the teachings and practices of the Prophet Mohammed.

“Beyond a military war on terror, we are in an ideological battle one we must win against radical extremists who use terror as a weapon to achieve their goals of disrupting global stability and the conscience of the peaceful world.  Egypt is in dire need of the world’s support as it fights against the terrorist cancer. In this battle, Egypt is defending not only itself, but also humanity against the encroaching danger of extremism.”

Food for thought.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The sorry state of Yemen

        The Middle East has become a chaotic and bloody battlefield, where opposing forces wage no-holds-barred war on one another in a ruthless effort to gain power, to regain power, or to retain power.  For years Iran’s nuclear ambitions, linked as they are to its undisguised aim of achieving political and religious dominance, have been fiercely opposed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region’s most powerful Sunni state. As a result, both countries are now engaged in a bitter struggle for supremacy throughout the Muslim world, often by proxy.

It is not easy to keep pace with the shifting kaleidoscope of alliances and alienations, or the reasons behind them, but if any one area is a microcosm of the whole, it is Yemen.  Here, as across the region, Islam is at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution plays itself out.  Nowhere is the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam more obvious – and nowhere is it more blurred, as self-seeking interests cut across it.

Who is fighting whom in Yemen?  There are four main principals:  the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels;  the legal president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi;  AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular); and IS (Islamic State).  To these might be added Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs.  Then, joining the fray is Saudi Arabia, which has intervened both militarily and diplomatically in the past few weeks to beat back the Houthis.  Now latest reports indicate that Iran is becoming directly involved.  On April 8, according to Iranian state television, a destroyer and a back-up vessel were sent to the Gulf of Aden, close to the ancient port city that is being torn apart by heavy fighting between Sunni forces and Shia Houthi rebels. 

The Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia group, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year.  The organization’s philosophy is summarized with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red.  They read:

 "God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam".

        The Houthis have been supported for years with weapons and other military hardware by the √©lite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  As a result they have overrun large areas of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a.  Not only do the Houthis receive support from Iran, but they are also in alliance with Yemeni security forces still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who, although a Sunni Muslim, seems intent on maneuvering a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis.  With Saleh’s help, they now control most of the Yemeni military, including its air force.

A second main player is President Hadi and the government he led from February 2012.  Hadi had been deputy to President Saleh who, facing widespread protests and life-threatening attacks, finally - and very reluctantly - left office and transferred the powers of the presidency to him.  Hadi took over a country in a state of chaos, and when the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, Hadi failed to broker a deal with them and resigned.

With the Houthis installed as the interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there, on March 26, to Saudi Arabia.  He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis.  The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the Houthi rebels, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restoring President Hadi to office.

A third major force in Yemen is the spin-off al-Qaeda group known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular). Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, it was formed in January 2009.  Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsular. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.

Finally among the principals in war-torn Yemen is the recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State (IS).  Although IS is just as Sunni-adherent and just as fundamentalist as AQAP, it marches to a different drum-beat, and seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence.  It therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the Sunni AQAP, the legitimate Sunni President Hadi, and the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

Despite the Saudi bombing campaign, which is now in its third week, the Houthis have continued their advance into government territory.  As a result, the United States recently increased logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi campaign.  On April 8 Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Washington was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized.  There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran. We trace those flights, and we know this.” 

Speaking just days after the announcement of a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry said he was seeking to reassure allies, including Saudi Arabia, that the United States could “do two things at the same time” something the principal players in the Yemen conflict have become adept at. 

In Yemen the broad outlines of the Iran-Saudi Arabia struggle, reflecting their Sunni-Shia division, are evident, but in the confusion of the battle Sunni ex-President Saleh throws in his lot with the Iranian-supported Shia Houthis, AQAP seeks to overthrow the Sunni government, and IS is set on eclipsing AQAP and extending the reach of its parent organization into the Arabian peninsular.

In short, the situation in Yemen, reflecting that in the Middle East as a whole, is a prime example of realpolitik in action self-interest taking precedence over principle.  Poor Yemen. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 April 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 April 2015:

Friday, 3 April 2015

Islam's civil war

The Middle East has turned itself into a battlefield in which the age-old fault-line within Islam – the unbridgeable divide between the Shi’ite and Sunni traditions – is being made manifest in bloodshed and terror.  The main protagonists, all professing profound allegiance to the Islamic faith, have engaged themselves in a life-and-death struggle with opponents not only outside their own camp, but sometimes within it. 
The Islamic Republic of Iran, proclaiming itself the leader of Shia Islam, declares that its ultimate objective is to become the dominant religious force within the Muslim faith and the dominant political force in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia, which contains within its borders the two great bastions of the faith, Mecca and Medina, is acknowledged as the custodian of the Sunni tradition of Islam.  Challenging Saudi Arabia for Sunni dominance is the Johnny-come-lately, self-styled Islamic State (IS), which claims to be on a mission to create a new caliphate to embrace first the Middle East and eventually the whole world.  It demands the allegiance of every Muslim, Sunni or not.

The Saudis have been on a collision course with Iran, their powerful Shia neighbour, ever since it was revealed, more than a decade ago, that the Ayatollahs were working on a clandestine programme to develop nuclear weapons. Acquiring an atom bomb would allow Iran to become the region’s undisputed superpower and facilitate the spread of its Shia principles.  So Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been consistently opposed by Saudi Arabia, and the two countries are now engaged in fighting a proxy war for supremacy throughout the Arab world.

Nowhere is this bitter dispute more keenly felt than in Yemen, the chunk of territory lying at the base of Saudi Arabia and bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea.  In 2009 Yemen became the seat of AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), an off-shoot of Osama bin Laden’s terror movement.  AQAP set about provoking ethnic, tribal and social tensions until it brought the country to a state of open civil war. Meanwhile the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were smuggling weapons to the Houthi rebels, the Shia minority in the north of the country, as well as providing expert military training.  The result?  The Shia Houthi militia finally succeeded in seizing control of Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a.  Its fall sent shock waves across countries on the Red Sea, fearful of Yemen becoming an Iranian hub. The time for action by Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunni world had arrived.  So in mid-March, in a move that took the world by surprise, Saudi Arabia launched a series of air strikes against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen.

The situation is not without its irony.  As Saudi opposition to Iran explodes into open warfare, the US is heading a coalition in support of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, as they attempt to recapture the strategically important city of Tikrit from IS.  

Nor is this all. In addition to co-operating with Iran on the battlefield, the Obama administration seems intent on fostering close relations in other ways. For many years both Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, have featured on Washington’s annual National Intelligence Estimate, which lists the numerous threats America faces around the globe. This year they do not appear. Obama has turned a blind eye to the fact that Iran has been boosting Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles and rockets in preparation for its next assault on Israel, to say nothing of Iran’s direct logistical support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. No doubt he was aiming not to upset the final stage of Iran’s delicate negotiations with the US and other world powers about its nuclear programme. 

Placating Iran is a profoundly short-sighted, not to say skewed, policy.  As veteran foreign correspondent Con Coughlin observes, no matter how much the Obama administration would like to put its relations with Iran on a more even footing, Iranian objectives in the Middle East are in direct conflict with those of the West. It is only by the merest chance that in Iraq their interests happen, for the moment, to coincide. 

The fact is that Iran pursues its own political and religious agenda, and will not be deflected from it. In Iraq, for example, it is fighting IS because it wants to cultivate the large Shi’ite stronghold in the south of the country, which it views as its natural sphere of interest. This area strategically controls the gateway to the Persian Gulf, and contains about half of Iraq’s oil reserves. In short, Iranian intervention in Iraq represents one aspect of its broader strategy to achieve dominance in the region.  In Syria it is fighting IS because it wants to preserve Assad in power as a key element in its Shi’ite axis.

Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Muslim world are not fooled.  The new Saudi ruler, King Salman, a man apparently with backbone, quickly took the lead.  Putting aside differences that had previously vitiated attempts at coordinated Sunni action, such as Qatar’s and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, he initiated a summit meeting of the Arab League to endorse his air strikes, and to formulate a concerted plan of action. 

At a summit meeting of the Arab League on March 29, Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said that Yemen had been "on the brink of the abyss", and that the Saudi air strikes had been the only option left "to end the Houthi coup".  He said that not only would the Saudi-led bombing raids continue until the Shia rebels withdraw and surrender, but that a joint military task force was being created to tackle the threat from Iran and from IS jihadists across the region. Egyptian officials said the planned reaction force would be made up of 40,000 elite troops, backed by jets, warships and tanks.

And indeed IS has taken advantage of the chaos in Yemen to continue its expansion across the Middle East.  A group calling itself the Yemeni Representative of the Islamic State has appeared on the scene. On March 20 it claimed responsibility for attacks on two Shia mosques in Sana'a, killing at least 160 people in an act of sectarian violence unprecedented in the country. 

If the armed coalition of Arab states that Saudi’s King Salman has masterminded is successful in Yemen, he unlike the pusillanimous Obama administration and the West will have dealt a blow to the expansionist ambitions of Iran’s Islamic Republic, to say nothing of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.  King Salman is emerging as the resolute leader of the Sunni world, and perhaps of the moderate Muslim world as a whole. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 7 April 2015: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 April 2015:

Friday, 27 March 2015

Why Tunisia?

         At midday on Wednesday, March 18, a bus filled with tourists drew up outside the Bardo museum in the heart of Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis.  As the visitors began to disembark, two gunmen armed with machine guns opened fire. Some were killed outright, some took what shelter they could find outside the museum, some fled inside.  The gunmen pursued them.  A three-hour siege of the building followed until the two attackers, later named as 20-year-old Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, aged 26, were killed in a gunfight with security forces.  They had slaughtered 23 innocent victims, and wounded about 50.

Responsibility for the attack, which the Tunisian authorities say was carefully planned, was claimed by Islamic State (IS).  If so, it demonstrates the determination of that brutal and bloodthirsty organization to extend its field of operations from the Middle East, where it is wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, to the African continent. 

The chaotic situation in the North African state of Libya has already proved a prime stamping ground for IS – at the end of 2014 they were setting up training camps in the east of the country.  And then, early in March, the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram declared its allegiance to IS, bringing its influence right into the heart of continental Africa. As for Libya’s neighbor, Tunisia, it had become the antithesis of everything that IS stands for, and thus a prime target. 

Tunisia had long been considered a moderate Sunni country, enlightened and progressive, but in 1987 it fell into the hands of radicals.   President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began introducing extremist Islamist policies which went against the grain of popular sentiment.  So it was in Tunisia, back in December 2010, that the “Arab Spring” first erupted.  In the small town of Sidi Bouzid a young hawker named Muhammad Buazizi, barred by the authorities from setting up a vegetable and fruit stall in the local market, set himself on fire. His death ignited a wave of riots all over the country against the regime and the economic hardships. President Ben Ali ordered the protests to be harshly suppressed, and in violent riots 670 people were killed.

With the country in turmoil, President Ben Ali fled the country. Denied political asylum by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, Ben Ali was smuggled into Saudi Arabia. He was tried in absentia by a Tunisian military court and sentenced to 35 years in prison and a $65 million fine.

Meanwhile parliamentary elections were held in Tunisia. The Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance) won a majority of seats, whether fairly or not was open to question. The secular parties, fearing that Tunisia would become Islamist and run according to sharia law, instigated popular protests demanding a new constitution and fair elections that would reflect the real wishes of the people. The two years of internal dissension that followed resulted in a constitution that combines Muslim religious values with universal and democratic ones.  It embodies principles established in the first Tunisian republic in 1956, notably democracy, women’s rights and a rejection of sharia. 

In June 2012, 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, long a familiar figure in Tunisian politics. established a new, secular, anti-Islamist party called Nida Tunis. In the elections that followed the resignation of the Islamist prime minister, Rashid Gannouchi, Nida Tunis won a majority in the parliament and Essebsi was elected Tunisia’s new president.

But by becoming a parliamentary republic dedicated to democratic and secular values, Tunisia had, in the eyes of IS, become an enemy eminently worthy of attack – thus the terrorist outrage at the Bardo museum.  That attack was symbolic as regards both its location – adjacent to the parliament building – and its target, Tunisia’s key industry, tourism. 

Two factors make Tunisia especially vulnerable. 

First, huge quantities of arms are finding their way into the country.  Libya, its neighbor to the east, is in total chaos, a hotbed of competing jihadist groups while its recognized government cowers in Tobruk. In border regions, Islamist militants from Tunisia link up with criminal groups involved in arms and drugs trafficking, and easily acquire these weapons.

Secondly, some 1,500 Tunisians attached to the outlawed Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia and aligned with IS, are training in Libya, preparing to overthrow Tunisia’s democratic administration.  IS in Iraq and Syria has already attracted high numbers of Tunisian fighters, hundreds of whom have already returned home.  This hard core of extremists, allied to those currently in training, represent an ever-present danger to the state. 

“Counter-terrorism policy has failed to keep up as militants have changed their strategy,” said Badra Gaaloul, who heads a security think-tank in Tunis. “The militants have shown that they're installed in our city and our neighbourhoods and can carry out attacks in broad daylight in a place where there's plenty of security. Security and intelligence officials realise how serious it is – that there's a great risk to Tunisia – but they lack co-ordination and experience."

Some deficiencies may be tackled by new anti-terrorism legislation that was ready for discussion as the attack on the Bardo museum began. Rather in the spirit of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, the draft law would allow policing in urban areas to be assigned to the military, and give the security forces greater leeway to crack down on radicalisation.

About 400 suspected terrorists were already in custody before the Bardo attack. Oxford historian Mark Almond speculates that the jihadists might have wanted to provoke the government into a brutal crackdown. They might then have been able to pose as martyrs of a secularist dictatorship, rather than criminals hunted by a democracy’s police.

President Essebsi has promised to be “merciless” in bringing the perpetrators to justice, but Almond believes he needs to be smart too. He was elected by assuring Tunisians that he represented the best of the secularist past, and would shepherd them to a secure future. Safeguarding the public must indeed be a vital priority for the Tunisian government, but the key weapon against Islamist terrorism might well be the revulsion felt by ordinary secular Tunisians for the murderers of innocent visitors, and disgust at the economic chaos it creates for the nation, tied as it is to the tourism industry. Is it this, rather than additional security measures, that might render the terrorists truly vulnerable?  The will of the Tunisian people has certainly prevailed against all the odds in the past.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 29 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 March 2015:

Friday, 20 March 2015

A nuclear deal with Iran - would it stick?

Although the Obama administration has taken the leading role in the effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, the negotiations are not, of course, a purely US-Iranian effort.  Five other world powers are involved – namely the other members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia and the UK) together with Germany.  US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been skilful and successful not only in his dealings with his Iranian opposite number, but in carrying the rest of the negotiating team along with him.
Of these Russia, and to a lesser extent China, were sympathetic to Iran and its political aspirations from the start, and thus supported the direction the negotiations were taking.  But France, the UK and Germany have also each indicated a willingness to turn a blind eye to Iran’s appalling record in sponsoring terror across the world in pursuit of its Islamist objectives, bring it in from the cold, and conclude an agreement that would progressively lift the sanctions that have been crippling Iran’s economy, while leaving the regime with the ability eventually even after 10 years to become a nuclear military force.

It was because a deal along these lines was in prospect, and the deadline of March 31 for reaching a framework agreement was fast approaching, that 47 US Republican senators took the extraordinary step on March 9 of writing direct to the leaders of Iran.  The essence of their 286-word letter was that the writers "will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen, and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."

This missive resulted in a veritable furore in the States. The cannonade of accusations hurled at the signatories ranged from political skulduggery to outright treason.  One line of attack claimed that the act of addressing the Iranian leaders was illegal. The law the senators was said to have transgressed ­ the Logan Act of 1799 bans US citizens from engaging “without authority of the United States” in “correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government ... with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government ... in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”

Fortunately for Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and his 46 co-signatories, that law is no longer enforced and is quite likely unconstitutional. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at the George Washington University, compares the likelihood of a prosecution under the act to “the chances of being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex on Capitol Hill.”

With that particular red herring out of the way, the remark of State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki that the senators’ letter was factually incorrect seems almost milk and water.

"Congress doesn't have the power to alter the terms of international arrangements negotiated by the executive," she said. "The letter is incorrect when it says that Congress could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."

Is she right?  Not exactly, according to the Pulitzer Prize winning  It all depends on distinguishing between two types of international accords treaties and executive agreements.

Under the US constitution, treaties with foreign countries are negotiated and signed by the executive branch, but ratification only occurs after the Senate gives its approval in a two-thirds vote. Authority for reaching executive agreements, however, lies outside the constitution, and derives from longstanding practice and Supreme Court judgements.

"Presidents since Washington have concluded such agreements,” says Anthony Clark Arend, a Georgetown University professor of government and foreign service, “and the Supreme Court has ruled that the president has the authority to conclude such agreements."

But there is a downside to executive agreements ­ they are much easier to reverse than treaties.  Legal opinion seems clear that a future president has the constitutional power to reverse an executive agreement reached by a predecessor. That is one possible un-sticking point. For its part, Congress could legislate, and, according to Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania legal scholar, “a valid federal statute will prevail in a conflict with an executive agreement… So in that sense, the senators are right."

For a practical view of the senators’ claim, however, other factors need to be taken into account.  The most obvious is that the negotiations with Iran are being conducted by six world powers, not merely the US. For any agreement to be modified in the future, the other signatories would also have to sign off, which would involve difficult, and not very likely, negotiations by a future US administration.  Not a very feasible scenario.

Even if Congress successfully legislated to reverse the executive agreement, implementing it unilaterally might involve the US in violating international law, which requires compliance with binding agreements.  The US’s diplomatic credibility would be profoundly affected. Retreating from an executive agreement would be a radical step, endangering the nation's ability to ensure that old agreements stand and to strike new agreements. concludes that while the senators’ letter makes the process of undoing or modifying any agreement with Iran sound more feasible than is the case, they are correct to say that a future president or a future Congress could do so.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, however, begs to differ. “Let me make clear to Iran, to our P5+1 counterparts who are deeply involved in this negotiation, that, from our point of view, this letter… was, in fact, incorrect in its statements about what power they do have,,,and as far as we are concerned, the Congress has no ability to change an executive agreement …”

And so the negotiations proceed along the lines which have caused such dismay to the Middle East in general, and Israel’s prime minister in particular.  One major cause of concern is the failure of Washington and the rest of the P5+1 to support the director of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yukiya Amano has repeatedly raised questions about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme, has challenged Iran’s professed willingness to cooperate, and pointed out again this month that a dozen IAEA questions to Iran regarding its nuclear programme remain unanswered.  Reference to Amano’s concerns are noticeable by their absence from the various media statements made by the principals.

In the final analysis any agreement with Iran which it subsequently violates, or which contains loopholes or a so-called “sunset clause” (ie permitting Iran to become a military nuclear power in due course), undoubtedly lays itself open to eventual challenge a challenge that could come either in accordance with the letter of the Republican senators, or in other ways.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 March 2015: