Sunday, 31 March 2013

Where is Iran going?

What are the long-term ambitions of the Iranian regime?

The answer to that conundrum, if indeed it has been fully formulated, is a secret restricted to Ayatollah Khamenei (the “Supreme Leader”), and the tight group of oligarchs of which he is head. As long as they are able to retain complete dominance over the instruments of the state, their grip on the reins of power is well-nigh absolute. That dominance is not, however, without threat.

One predominant aim within the Iranian oligarchy must be to preserve in their own hands the vast access to wealth and power that they have managed to accumulate through a network of foundations, charities and other bodies − essentially business organisations with extensive national and international connections. These are estimated to control some 70 per cent of the national economy outside agriculture and the state-owned industries.

Amir Taheri, a veteran Iranian writer, estimates that in the past 10 years some 200 state-owned enterprises have been “privatized”, in other words transferred to a small group of politicians and mullahs close to the Supreme Leader. Senior Khomeinists, including Khamenei himself, are among major shareholders of over 100 companies. In addition, the oligarchy has divided Iran's foreign trade among its members − for example, trade with much of Asia, China and Japan, is reserved for the Rafsanjani-Bahremani clan.

Perhaps the greatest internal threat to dictatorial regimes in the modern world − as the Arab Spring has vividly demonstrated − is the internet. It is no surprise that the Supreme Leader has denounced the internet as sinful and a means for the West to wage "soft war". Accustomed to censors blocking Facebook, email and foreign news sites, Iranians recently learned that the régime has ambitious plans to block access to foreign-based social media sites and email altogether, and to substitute Iranian versions. The first phase of this “Halal Internet”, as it has been termed, has already being introduced into government departments and the universities. The aim appears to be to isolate Iran altogether from the world wide web, partly perhaps to avoid another Stuxnet-type cyber attack like the one carried out on its nuclear facilities in 2010. Something similar is being attempted in Saudi Arabia. There is, though, some doubt whether either country has the necessary infrastructure to cut off users' access to the internet entirely.

The religious ambitions of Iran’s oligarchy seem to centre on precipitating the introduction of extreme Islamism across both the Muslim, and as much of the non-Muslim, world as possible − for example in Latin America, where considerable inroads have been made via Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador. According to Amir Taheri, under the 1979 Khomeinist Constitution the Supreme Leader represents Allah's sovereignty on earth, is the leader of all Muslims throughout the world, whether they like it or not. and has unlimited powers to decide what Islam is and is not at any given time. Considering that the Iranian religious oligarchy are firm followers of the Shi’ite tradition, this is not a proposition that the vast Sunni Muslim world has ever accepted, or is likely to. Nevertheless, the Iranian oligarchy sees itself as the embodiment of a messianic revolution, opposed root and branch to state structures that require to be cleansed of "corrupt" rulers and Western democratic constitutions.

As the mass of Wikileaks documents released into the public domain in 2010 revealed, many Arab leaders – especially, perhaps, in the Gulf states − view Iran’s bid for leadership of the Muslim world, to say nothing of its covert operations to achieve that aim, with alarm. Their deep-seated fear of a nuclear-armed Iran stems from these activities.

Iran’s bid for regional hegemony has been sustained by the military and financial support it has lavished on Shi’ite organisations like Hezbollah and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, but also by nurturing the extreme Islamist – albeit Sunni-based − Hamas organisation in the Gaza strip.

Do Iran’s ambitions – which doubtless extend to developing a military nuclear capability as soon as possible − also encompass the physical destruction of Israel? Both the Supreme Leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have on numerous occasions declared their desire to see Israel removed from the map of the Middle East. It would not take more than three or four atomic bombs to wipe out Israel’s infrastructure and most of its citizens. Tempted though Iran’s leaders might be − once they possessed the requisite nuclear capability − could the régime contemplate with equanimity the possible response by Israel or the USA to a nuclear strike on Israel?

The balance of probability is that Iran, from mere self-interest, would probably desist from a direct nuclear-based assault on Israel, unless it was part of a concerted action. Iran’s lack of allies in the region render this an unlikely proposition. The old “Shia Crescent” concept – the crescent-shaped area in the Middle East where the majority of the population is Shi’ite − is a busted flush, as far as an active military campaign against Israel is concerned. Two of the major members, in addition to Iran, were Iraq and Syria. Neither are now capable of joining such an alliance; Azerbaijan and Bahrain would not wish to; Hezbollah, although a major player in Lebanon, does not control the government.

A nuclear capability in Iran’s hands, does, however, open up the prospect of much heightened terrorist activity, fostered and supplied by Iran, both within Israel and in the wider world. Which explains the near-universal approval for the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on the Iranian regime for failing to comply with its nuclear obligations.

From the point of view of the West, Iran exemplifies the “rogue state” – a regime intent on advancing its own malign interests and undermining or destroying states which stand in its way, regardless of almost all considerations. The will to control its overweening ambitions, backed by a convincing display of force, is long overdue.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 March 2013:

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Commonwealth, Israel and Palestine

On 11 March 2013 Queen Elizabeth formally signed the “Commonwealth Charter” - a document setting out for the first time 16 core values shared by the peoples of the Commonwealth and their governments.

The Commonwealth is an aspect of contemporary life that most people know little about. Perhaps the Commonwealth games, interspersed every four years between the Olympics, might occasionally raise a flicker of interest, but as for the background or purposes of the organization itself, there is little general knowledge or interest. And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics. Judging by the charter just signed by Queen Elizabeth as its head, and endorsed by the 54 governments who are members, the organization also has the collective will to do so. What it has so far failed to demonstrate, and may still lack, is the drive to provide positive leadership on the world stage in favour of the core values it professes.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 nations most of whom, but not all, were once part of the British Empire. All of them, however, regardless of their individual constitutions, agree to recognize the current British monarch as head of the association. The members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, almost a third of the world’s population. What unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are the association’s values of democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law.

Essentially, these are the basis of the 16 core values now enshrined in the charter. They include a commitment by Commonwealth leaders to uphold democracy and human rights (“we are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination”); to advance international peace and security (”we reiterate our absolute condemnation of all acts of terrorism in whatever form or wherever they occur or by whomsoever perpetrated”); to promote tolerance and respect, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, to protect the environment, provide access to health, education and food for all, promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, and recognise the positive role of young people in promoting these and other values.

The Commonwealth is not a political union, but an intergovernmental organization in which countries with diverse social, political and economic backgrounds are regarded as equal in status. Alongside shared values, Commonwealth nations share strong trade links; trade with another Commonwealth member has been shown to be up to 50 per cent more than with a non-member.

Five countries are currently seeking membership of the Commonwealth. Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority (PA) are among them – though, as part of former British mandated Palestine, both would have a stronger claim than, say, Mozambique or Rwanda, which are members, or Algeria which has applied to join.

Could a stated intention to apply for membership of the Commonwealth by both Israel and a sovereign Palestine be a positive factor in the process of negotiating a solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute?

One organization that would probably support the idea – way off the map though it might appear at the moment − would be the Israel Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth. Over the years the IBCA has developed close links with the British and Commonwealth embassies. Regular meetings, addressed by prominent politicians, diplomats and academics and attended by many members of the diplomatic corps, have fostered a continuing dialogue between representatives of Israel and the nations of the Commonwealth.

And indeed Israel may quite recently have come close to applying to join the Commonwealth. It was only in 2007 that the Jewish Journal reported:

“As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

Perhaps right now it should be. With renewal of the peace process looming – fostered, perhaps, by President Obama’s forthcoming visit to the region and a new Israeli government about to take office with peace on the agenda − some new idea is needed to burnish the old, old arguments. Whatever Israel’s traditional enemies might assert, there is no doubt that Israel’s core values precisely match those of the Commonwealth. The Palestinian Authority could make a reasonable case for aspiring to most of them – though the same could not be said of Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza, an essential element in any future sovereign Palestine. However, it is the PA, as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” that is the acknowledged negotiating partner – and what within the Palestinian body politic might follow any peace agreement is anybody’s guess.

The offer of future membership of the Commonwealth to both Israel and a new sovereign Palestine would provide a new element in any peace negotiations – a previously unconsidered framework within which the two states might flourish, for it would incorporate acceptance of the peace agreement by a swathe of nations from every continent, the assurance of new markets and flourishing trade relations for both parties, and membership of an association dedicated to democracy, freedom and peaceful co-existence.

It’s a thought.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 17 March 2013:

Sunday, 10 March 2013

What's wrong with the Human Rights Council?

See revised article "What's wrong with the Human Rights Council" posted on 11 August 2013.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Lebanon in crisis

Damascus is half-an-hour’s drive from the Lebanese border, and refugees from the civil war currently raging in Syria are flooding over that border in ever-increasing numbers. An authoritative estimate is that asylum-seekers from Syria have reached 400,000 – which, if true, would represent a 10 per cent increase in Lebanon’s population of 4 million. If this influx of homeless people into a small, and not particularly prosperous, country continues on this scale, it will speedily turn a humanitarian crisis into a disaster.

The number of refugees involved is, moreover, only one aspect of the problem for Lebanon. Just as important is the sectarian allegiance of the majority of those pouring into the country. For they are mainly Sunni Muslims fleeing from President Bashar Assad and his ruthless Shi’ite-affiliated régime, supported as it is by Iran and its protégé, the Islamist terrorist organization Hezbollah. But Hezbollah has managed to infiltrate itself into Lebanon’s body politic, and is an integral element in the government. So the Sunni refugees are perforce flying into the arms of a country where a government minister is a member of Hezbollah, and the terrorist organization controls eleven of the thirty seats in the cabinet. In the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the Lebanese government has done little for their hapless visitors, who have largely been left to fend for themselves.

The civil war in Syria − which to a large extent involves a Sunni-backed attempt to oust the Shi’ite-affiliated Assad régime − is a deeply divisive issue in Lebanon, and its sectarian issues are inhibiting the government from taking decisive action to relieve the humanitarian crisis on its doorstep. Lebanon’s political constitution is a complex mechanism, aimed at achieving a delicate balance of power between Christians, Sunnis and Sh’ites. By design the composition of the government, together with that of many public institutions, is shared between these three elements.

Which explains Lebanon’s reluctance to unbalance the country’s fragile stability, and also why reporter Anne Barnard, writing in the New York Times, notes that Lebanon’s refugee crisis does not match the familiar image of vast, centralized tent camps and armies of foreign aid organizations. The crisis, she says, “is nowhere, and everywhere. Displaced Syrians seem to fill every nook and cranny: half-finished cinder block houses, stables, crowded apartments… Drying laundry peeks from construction sites. Bedsheets hang in shop windows, concealing stark living spaces. Daffodil sellers, shoeshine men, women and children begging in Beirut − all incant, “Min Suria.” From Syria.”

One other factor may be deterring the Lebanese authorities from acting more positively. The nation has been overwhelmed by at least two previous refugee crises − in 1948 and again in 1967, when Palestinians poured over the border during two of Israel’s conflicts with Arab forces that had combined against it. The consequences are ever-present. Because the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has bestowed the status of “refugee” on all the descendants of those who originally fled their homes, generation after generation, regardless of how much time has elapsed, the number of so-called Palestinian “refugees” has mushroomed. As regards Lebanon, over 400,000 Palestine refugees, as defined by UNWRA, live in the country, half of them in 12 official refugees camps. But the Lebanese, only too aware of the delicate system of checks and balances that keeps their state afloat, have consistently denied them the right to settle and adopt Lebanese citizenship. A sudden influx of Muslims into the body politic would totally unbalance the constitutional basis of the state.

Locked into the collective national memory, also, is what can happen when refugee issues remain unresolved and passions become inflamed. The Lebanese remember the shameful episode in 1976, when Christian Phalangist militias overran and destroyed three Palestinian refugee camps in East Beirut (Tel-El-Zaater, Jisr-El-Basha and Dbayeh). Tel-El-Zaater was besieged for 51 days and, when it surrendered, an estimated 3,000 of its inhabitants were massacred.

So, in an attempt to preserve the national status quo and avoid providing citizenship to some 400,000 foreigners, the Lebanese government has consistently deprived Palestinian refugees of basic rights – for example, the government bars most of them from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They are not allowed to own property, and those in refugee camps need a special permit to travel. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are denied access to the Lebanese health care system. A 2007 study by Amnesty International denounced the "appalling social and economic condition" of Palestinian Arabs in Lebanon.

With all this as the background, it is scarcely surprising that a further 400,000 Syrian Sunni Muslims flooding into the country are not being welcomed with open arms by the Lebanese authorities in general, and Hezbollah-affiliated officials in particular. Until quite recently no camps had been provided for Syrians, and international agencies had been given only limited access.

Lebanon has, however, recently made a move to ease its hard line on the issue. With no end to the problem in sight, and the Assad government hanging on to power, the Lebanese government recently approved plans to co-operate with the United Nations in managing the crisis. The UN now awaits funds and permission to build two transit camps, each housing 5,000 refugees − a drop in the ocean, perhaps but, to change metaphors, also a move in the right direction.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 10 March 2013: