Monday, 27 May 2013

Jordan and Israel – interests in common

The Jordan-Israel connection is on the up-and-up. Strangely enough, one circumstance that has strengthened the somewhat uncertain alliance is the civil war in Syria. It was only a few days ago that a senior Jordanian official, close to King Abdullah, was reported as saying that the two countries are “working as one over Syria”, adding that if the need arose, “of course we will allow Israel to use Jordanian air space for another attack on Syria”. During the course of the interview, he remarked, as if in passing, that Jordan is currently allowing Israel to fly unmanned drones over its air space, as part of Israel’s monitoring of the situation.

The same report indicates that Jordan is “in deep discussions” with Israel over a route map for any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. No final decision has been taken on the level of Jordan’s co-operation, but it was “near certain” that they would help facilitate any Israeli attack. “Although,” he is reported to have added, “we will of course condemn it publicly.”

Within Jordan, government circles are concerned about the increasingly strident Islamist opposition. For over two years Jordan has experienced almost weekly demonstrations, led primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), demanding an end to steadily declining living standards and calling for the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy.

So far, King Abdullah has effectively contained the internal forces ranged against him while maintaining a “hands-off” attitude to involvement in discussions about the future of the West Bank, but regional developments have forced a reassessment of where Jordan’s real interests lie. Iraq, once US troops have departed, could easily descend into a civil war even more violent than that Syria is currently enduring. The possibility of a chaotic Iraq equalling the chaos in Syria is not one that appeals to Jordan, especially if the outcome in either country is the triumph of jihadist forces in general, or Al-Qaeda in particular. Abdullah is well aware that Al-Qaeda is already trumpeting the existence of an “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”

As for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, now being given a mighty shove forward by energetic US Secretary of State John Kerry, the last thing that Jordan needs is a weak Palestinian state some 15 minutes from Amman that could be overrun by Hamas. They view with apprehension the prospect of a West Bank transferred to the PA which – as Gaza was – is subsequently taken over by Hamas to become a possible base for Iranian Revolutionary Guards and jihadist elements keen on overthrowing not only Israel, but Jordan as well.

And so now Jordan wants a say in what emerges in the West Bank, and Abdullah is asserting a leading role in pushing the peace process forward. Again, there is undoubtedly a community of interests at work. Abdullah is as anxious as Israel that there should be a long-term Israeli security presence along the Jordan River, and that this should be written into any final peace agreement. Israel must insure itself against a jihadist takeover of a newly created Palestine that could result in a viscerally hostile presence in Israel’s very heartland; for Jordan a strong Israeli presence could act to prevent jihadist elements from making their way east, to strengthen the already over-powerful disruptive Islamist presence in the country. So Jordan, like Israel, is intent on ensuring that the border between a sovereign Palestine on the West Bank and Jordan is as secure as possible.

The deal to accord Jordan a leading role in the current push towards peace was signed and sealed at a meeting in Rome, a few weeks ago, between Kerry and Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh. Afterwards Kerry declared: “It is absolutely critical … everybody understands we are engaged in a serious process to reopen negotiations. Jordan will play a key role in that.”

Accordingly there has been a distinct warming of relations at official level between Jordan and Israel.

For example, a few weeks ago Jordanian Members of Parliament (MPs) passed a resolution by a large majority demanding that the government expel the Israeli ambassador. The reasons given were attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and alleged Israeli attempts to occupy the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The move was pretty quickly shot down under pressure from the palace, the government and security officials. MP Yaya Saoud, who had orchestrated the move, later asked the speaker of the parliament to shelve the motion. The resolution is dead in the water.

Of greater significance is the fact that Israel has recently begun to facilitate Jordanian trade with Iraq and Turkey by allowing goods to be transported by truck via the Jordan river crossing near Beit She'an. It is reported that the Jordanian goods are loaded on to Israeli trucks, taken to Haifa and Ashdod ports and shipped from there. The arrangements, which also operate in the opposite direction, were concluded following secret talks between Israeli, Turkish and Jordanian officials following incidents in which merchandise transported by convoys to and from Turkey to Iraq and Jordan was stolen. The trade, which has been estimated at tens of millions of dollars a month, involves a unique cooperation between the customs authorities and transportation officials in Jordan Iraq and Turkey, and Tax Authority and other government officials in Israel.

And now the latest moves at reactivating the peace process have taken place in Jordan. On Sunday, at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in the King Hussein Convention Center in Amman, John Kerry, Israel’s president Shimon Peres and PA president Mahmoud Abbas are pictured in a three-way handshake sealing their pleasure at the US’s $4 billion economic plan to revitalize the Palestinian economy as a major step towards a resumption of peace negotiations. It is reported that Quartet special envoy, Tony Blair, will head the initiative, with the help of the international business community.

There is undoubtedly a new buzz in the diplomatic theatre, and Jordan’s King Abdullah must be delighted to find Jordan playing a major role, centre stage.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 May 2013, as:
"Jordan and Israel - the revival of a new-old alliance"

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 May 2013:

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Jihadists in Syria - a struggle for power

There is more than meets the eye to the civil war raging in Syria. On the surface it is an armed conflict between forces of the Assad régime and a popular opposition bent on overthrowing it. However a variety of individuals and groups have flocked to the two banners, some with vested interests and agendas of their own, and some more set on destroying their own deadly rivals in the opposing camp than in the fate of Syria and its people.

“Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world,” said UK foreign minister, William Hague, on May 20, worried – as indeed are a number of European governments – at the effect on home-grown extremists of exposure to this ruthless intra-Islamist strife.

One crucial dividing line separates the protagonists – the fault line in Islam itself between Muslims of the Shia and those of the Sunni persuasion. The Assad régime represents the Alawite tradition of Shi’ite Islam. The Islamic Republic of Iran is solidly Shia, and so is the puppet organisation that it created in Lebanon, and that it funds and supports – Hezbollah. Assad’s recent modest successes against the rebels is due in no small measure to the 150,000-strong fighting force that Hezbollah, under instructions from Tehran, has thrown into the fight.

On the Sunni side of the battlefield are ranged the forces not only of the official opposition, but also of the jihadists, Islamists and extremists, including Al-Qaeda, seeking a long-term advantage out of the current chaos.

Al-Qaeda, in particular, has featured in the latest reports of in-fighting amongst supposedly united anti-Assad forces. Al-Qaeda seems set on replicating in Syria the carnage it orchestrated in post-Saddam Iraq. Al-Qaeda's leader, since the death of Osama bin Laden, is Ayman al-Zawahiri. He recently appointed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former head of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq”, as head of a new merged organisation which they dub “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”

Baghdadi is reported to favor using intense violence to break down society in order to allow jihad to flourish. Proclaiming the need for an international caliphate, ending national borders, he must have seemed an ideal candidate to head an Al-Qaeda-led Sunni entity covering the whole of Iraq and Syria.

This active intervention by Al-Qaeda has paid dividends. The major militant jihadist group fighting the government in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra. A successful fighting force, it has taken control of large rebel-held areas of northern Syria. But the group was infiltrated by hardline jihadists from Iraq, and they recently gained control of the organisation. Shortly afterwards Jabhat’s Syrian leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, publicly proclaimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

The result of his declaration was to split Jabhat al-Nusra in two, and troops unwilling to align themselves with Al-Qaeda are reported to have disowned their leader and withdrawn from the front line fighting the Assad régime in Aleppo. One report affirmed that recently an entire unit of 120 men left Jabhat al-Nusra to rejoin the biggest “official” brigade in Aleppo, Liwa Tawhid, a branch of the so-called “Free Syrian Army”. Many of the young men in Jabhat claim they are Syrians first and joined Jabhat simply to rid the country of President Bashar al-Assad. Such fighters would be uninterested in becoming embroiled in a struggle for power between Sunni and Shi’ite jihadists.

Meanwhile Jabhat fighters in the east of the country still loyal to al-Jolani are reported to have started calling themselves the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" on videos posted online – in accordance with instructions from the international Al-Qaeda leadership.

In short, alongside the conflict in which Assad is fighting to retain control of the levers of power in Syria, another battle is being waged for ultimate mastery of the country. On the one hand Shi’ite Iran, via Hezbollah, is desperately anxious to ensure that Syria remains in its sphere of interest – Mehdi Taaib, who heads the think tank of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently stated that “Syria is the 35th district of Iran.” Iran’s cover story for the young men from south Lebanon who have joined the Hezbollah contingent to support Assad – and for the grieving parents of those killed or wounded – is that they are fighting to defend their Shia religious beliefs, and that if Sunni extremists win in Syria, the next battle will take place in Lebanon itself.

On the other hand Al-Qaeda, in the interest of Sunni Islam, is seeking to establish an “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” on the ruins of a Syria they have devastated, just as Iraq was devastated after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is a grim prospect, and one the rest of the world must take fully into account before it starts arming one side or the other.

Unlike a fair proportion of the western world which is calling for the departure of Assad and the triumph of the Free Syrian Army – although none are yet prepared to commit themselves much beyond declarations of support – Israel has said that it favors neither side in the Syrian civil conflict. Its main concern is to prevent the Syrian government’s vast stocks of conventional and non-conventional weaponry falling into the hands of its Shi’ite Islamist allies – Iran or Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Israel must view the prospect of a post-Assad Syria in the hands of jihadists of any hue – Shi’ite or Sunni – with some concern. The best outcome for all concerned would be to establish some means of boosting the military capability of the Free Syrian Army while ensuring beyond a peradventure that its Islamist camp-followers and hangers-on do not get their hands on the weaponry. There may, unfortunately, be no guaranteed way of squaring that particular circle.

Published in the Jeruslaem Post on-line, 10 June 2013:

Monday, 20 May 2013

Iran – new president, new direction?

On 11 May 2013, only minutes before the deadline, a surprise candidate registered himself to stand in the Iranian presidential elections due to be held on 14 June. The current incumbent – the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – has served his statutory two terms, although whether he was in fact entitled to his second period in office remains a matter of intense speculation both inside and outside Iran.

Electoral fraud on a massive scale was alleged in the 2009 presidential ballot – and massive it must have been if it occurred, since Ahmadinejad’s share of the vote was announced as 63 per cent, against the 37 per cent won by his main rival. On the day of the disputed election, a woman prominent in the Iranian establishment, Efrat Marashi, called on the public to take to the streets if the vote was rigged. And indeed, on the day of Ahmadinejad’s inauguration, there were widespread street demonstrations. Hundreds of riot police met opposition protesters outside parliament and elsewhere in Tehran. Responding to the allegations of vote-rigging, the US, the UK , France and Germany refrained from sending the re-elected president the usual letters of congratulation.

The street protests continued well beyond inauguration day, and on Friday, 17 July 2009 some 1.5 million worshippers attended a particular Friday Prayer meeting. In the subsequent sermon, the speaker called for national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners and freedom of the press.

The speaker that Friday was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had served as Iranian president from 1989 until 1997. And it is Rafsanjani who has now declared himself a candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections.

Rafsanjani and his wife – for that is who Efrat Marashi is – have proved themselves a thorn in the side of the ruling Iranian élite in general, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in particular. But Rafsanjani is too powerful, and with too great a popular following, to be entirely crushed. Instead the government has taken to harrying him. Senior members of his Construction Party, including Hossein Marashi, Mrs Rafsanjani's cousin, were detained after the election. His daughter was arrested during the street protests and later sentenced to six months in jail on charges of spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic. His official website was blocked by the Iranian judiciary for refusing to remove the transcript of his famous Friday Sermon.

Now the Iranian constitution requires a new president to be elected, and Rafsanjani’s entry into the contest radically alters what was previously seen as a contest between rival conservative groups. Not that Rafsanjani currently is more than a relative moderate – currently, because in his time he has veered sharply from side to side across Iran’s political spectrum; and relatively moderate because, although he now favours a domestic free market, privatization of state-owned industries, and a moderate position internationally, he is still sought by the Argentinian government for ordering the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed and hundreds injured; while in 1997, during the trial in Germany into an assassination of Iranian opposition activists in Berlin’s Mykono restaurant, it was declared that Rafsanjani (then president of Iran) along with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and others had authorised the operation. Rafsanjani, moreover, still supports Iran’s nuclear programme – although he has indicated that he would be much more flexible than Ahmadinejad in negotiating with the UN, the US and the West about its future.

Rafsanjani’s chances of heading the poll depend on a variety of uncertain factors. His age might possibly count against him – he is 78 – but he is in good health. Given his status in Iranian society, the fact that more than 400 other candidates have thrown their hats into the ring may not be as daunting as at first glance. Rafsanjani stands head and shoulders above all of them. It is, perhaps, significant that Rafsanjani did say some time ago that, in a desire to avoid conflict and dispute, he would not enter the field without the consent of Ayatollah Khamenei. It is, therefore, possible that a last minute agreement with the Supreme Leader may have opened the way for his registration.

If however he did not come to such an agreement before the poll, the vast field of candidates does give the Supreme Leader and his immediate supporters in the higher echelons of government the opportunity to throw their weight behind some other candidate – as they did for Ahmadinejad, prior to his second ballot success. For example, there is Saeed Jalili, a hardline conservative who is seen as close to Khamenei. Jalili has been leading Iran’s team in its so-far fruitless negotiations with world powers about curtailing its nuclear programme.

Professor Shaul Bakhash is a leading expert in Iranian studies at George Mason University in Virginia. "Rafsanjani is above all a pragmatist,” says Bakhash, “a problem solver. He looks for ways to get things done. As president, if Khamenei allows him, I think he would move quickly to hold direct negotiations with the US, zero in on getting sanctions lifted, considerably moderate Iran's foreign policy rhetoric and take steps to create conditions for foreign investment.”

An intriguing prospect. The election and its outcome are only a few weeks away. We shall learn soon enough whether Iran is to be set on a new path – and whether it will be Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who leads the way.

[21 May 2013 - Iran's electoral watchdog announces it has banned Hashemi Rafsanjani from participating in the presidential election.  The grounds given are his "advanced age".] 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 19 May 2013:

Monday, 13 May 2013

The persistent Mr Kerry

The rusting engine of the peace process seems to be coughing its way back into life. Stalled since September 2010, when Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank came to an end and was not renewed, US President Obama – just starting his second term – seems determined to kick-start the motor into action. Will he ever get it to a desirable destination, humming along on all eight cylinders? Precedent and the odds are against him, but politics is an unpredictable game.

The new US Secretary of State, John Kelly, charged with reinvigorating Arab-Israeli relations, has set about his task with a refreshing enthusiasm.

An early success was initiating a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey – a month later still somewhat shaky, but undeniably in existence. Since then he has, with dash and dynamism, striven to facilitate a resumption of face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (the PA). It was a triumph of diplomatic adroitness on his part to organise a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Washington on 29 April, hosted by him in conjunction with Vice-President Joe Biden. It was an even greater coup to obtain from them a concession – tiny though it may seem, and instantly rejected by hostile voices as it was – that modified the spirit of the original Arab Peace Proposal of 2002. Following the discussions, the Arab League ministers conceded that the borders of a future sovereign Palestine need not be precisely the boundaries between Israel and the West Bank on 4 June 1967 (the day before the Six-Day War), but could be the subject of “minor land swaps.”

The statement by Qatari Prime Minister Sheik al-Thani at the end of the meeting, confirming the delegation’s agreement to this modification, acted as a political catalyst. It suddenly seemed, in both Washington and Jerusalem, that meaningful peace negotiations might once again be a possibility.

A flurry of diplomatic activity ensued. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister responsible also for peace negotiations, flew over to Washington to discuss the developing situation with him. A few days later, Kerry was off to Rome to meet with Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh. The result? A declaration by Kerry that Jordan, because of its geographical and diplomatic affinity with Israel, was an essential partner to peace.

“It is absolutely critical,” said Kerry, “for all of us to try to move speedily and with focus to try to get to a place where everybody understands we are engaged in a serious process to reopen negotiations. Jordan will play a key role in that.”

Meanwhile Tzipi Livni repacked her overnight bag, and took her own flight to Rome, where once again she was on the scene to follow up Kerry’s breakneck initiative. Back in Israel, Livni lauded Kerry’s dynamism which, she said, had given the peace process a new momentum.

Even Fatah seems to have caught a whiff of the new “can-do” spirit. On 11 May 2013 the Fatah Central Committee not only welcomed US efforts to revive the peace process, but formally accepted the Arab League’s proposal to authorise land swaps with Israel when determining the borders of a future Palestine. Hamas would endorse neither position.

The real question, of course, is whether all this energy and enthusiasm is leading either Israel or the Palestinians to a desirable destination. The declared objective is two states living side by side in peace and cooperation. Rejected are two versions of the one-state solution – the Hamas doctrine of Palestine “from the river to the sea” with Israel eliminated from the scene, and the bizarre proposal from Israel’s hard-liners to annex Judea and Samaria and pay its Arab inhabitants to re-settle elsewhere. The consequence of this hare-brained scheme seems obvious – not a government in the world would recognise this land-grab. Israel would have added its friends to the already long enough list of its enemies, and guaranteed for itself a future of continuous conflict both diplomatic and military.

On the other hand, continuous conflict is the fear underlying Israel’s right-wing extremists. Inviting one’s enemy into one’s drawing-room, so that he can the more easily cut your throat, seems to them quixotic – and would indeed be so, unless copper-bottomed guarantees of future security for Israel are built into any final peace accord. Can such assurances indeed be formulated and agreed between the parties? One of the many questions still hanging in the air.

No doubt another tricky conundrum is exercising John Kerry and his officials – how to achieve a sovereign Palestine when a vital piece of the jigsaw, namely the Gaza strip, home to well over a million Palestinians, is missing. They have no doubt considered that one unsatisfactory, and interim, outcome to Kerry’s current peace efforts might be a West Bank Palestine run by the Fatah-dominated PA, and a Gazan mini-Islamist state run by Hamas. They may calculate that once Gazan Palestinians see an actual sovereign Palestine up and running, the political atmosphere might change, rejectionism might lose its appeal, and the PA might be able to resume its authority within Gaza. Wishful thinking? Undoubtedly.

Meanwhile it appears that John Kerry has given himself until 7 June to announce the results of his current efforts to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. One authoritative speculation, which describes itself as an “exclusive”, affirms that Kerry has obtained the agreement of both Netanyahu and Abbas for a novel plan to run peace negotiations simultaneously on twin tracks: the first would see Israel facing the PA across the table; the second, Israel facing the Arab League in direct discussions, for the first time ever. He will be back in Israel on 23 May, perhaps to advance this very plan.

We wait with bated breath.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 May 2013:

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Post-conflict Syria

When the dust settles on Syria’s civil war, what sort of a situation will the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, be facing? Even if Russia and the US manage in their current discussions to agree that a negotiated settlement is the way forward, there is no guarantee that either the Assad régime or the official opposition would come to the table without imposing conditions that the other side would find unacceptable. A negotiated settlement, moreover, takes no account of the aims, ambitions and interests of the score of other bodies – jihadists, Islamists, extremists – that have attached themselves to one side or the other in the conflict, hoping to achieve some particular advantage at the end of the day.

Chief among these “hangers-on”, in what began as a home-grown protest movement à la Arab Spring, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran has long had political ambitions regarding Syria. Over the years it has invested huge resources in converting Syria to the Shi’ite version of Islam, and in its heyday the Assad régime freely allowed Iranian missionaries into the country to strengthen the Shi’ite faith. Now, in addition to instigating the transfer of tens of thousands of Hezbollah troops from Lebanon to fight for Bashar Assad in Syria, Iran is reported to be building up a sister organisation to Hezbollah, recruited from Shi’ite forces in Iraq, to further strengthen Assad’s régime. The particular mission of these troops, known as the League of the Righteous and Kateeb Hezbollah, is to defend the Shi’ite centres in Damascus.

Syria is an indispensible element in Iran's strategy to achieve hegemony in the Middle East. In January 2012 General Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, declared that, in “one way or another”, the Islamic Republic controlled Iraq and South Lebanon. Now, with the old collaborative arrangement between two independent régimes looking increasingly shaky, control of Syria is in their sights. Mehdi Taaib, who heads the think tank of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently stated that “Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab-populated district inside Iran].”

A few weeks ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah paid a secret visit to Tehran where he met with the top Iranian officials headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and General Suleimani, who had prepared an operational plan for winning the civil conflict in Syria. The Arab political weekly, Al-Shiraa, published in Lebanon, reported on 15 March 2013 that the Suleiman plan includes three elements:

1) the establishment of a popular sectarian army made up of Shi’ites and Alawites, to be backed by forces from Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf;

2) this force is to total 150,000 fighters;

3) it will be integrated with the Syrian army.

Suleimani himself visited Syria in late February-early March to prepare for the implementation of his plan.

It is, perhaps, significant that all this Iranian-led manipulation of Hezbollah does not go unchallenged within Lebanon. NOW is an on-line Lebanese journal, published in English and Arabic, covering Lebanon, the Lebanese diaspora and the Middle East. On 4 May it published an article claiming that, in his visit to Iran, Hassan Nasrallah received guidance on how to present Hezbollah’s escalating – and increasingly unpopular – involvement in Syria to the Lebanese public.

Hezbollah, though in fact a sectarian Shi'ite militia, has long sought to enhance its legitimacy in the Sunni Arab world by presenting itself as a non-sectarian, pan-Islamic resistance movement against Israel. But its activities in Syria do not fit this picture, and Hezbollah has been having trouble in portraying its involvement to the Lebanese public, especially in view of the increasing number of fighters killed in the conflict

Subhi Tufayli, the first head of Hezbollah who was dismissed from its leadership by Iran at the start of the 1990s, has been one of the prominent critics of Hezbollah’s incursion into Syria. Tufayli recently claimed that 138 Hezbollah fighters had been killed there along with scores of wounded who were brought to hospitals in Lebanon. Ceremonies for burial of the dead are frequently held clandestinely, sometimes at night, so as to avoid anger and resentment. The families, however, have raised harsh questions about such unnecessary sacrifice that is not within the sacred framework of jihad against Israel, which Hezbollah claims as its raison d’être.

Hezbollah needs a convincing narrative, beyond the fact that it serves Iran’s regional interests, to justify the toll of dead and wounded from its Syrian adventure. Conjuring up the spectre of hostile Sunnis coming after Shi’ite villages and religious places serves that purpose. So, in a recent speech on Hezbollah’s TV station, Nasrallah offered that up as the rationale for the movement’s involvement in Syria.

But Hezbollah, and Iran standing behind it, relies on its pan-Islamic, anti-Israel stance for its popular support. Which explains the despatch of a drone over northern Israel a few weeks ago. . As NOW put it: “Although Nasrallah reiterated his party’s denial that it was behind the drone he, and the group more broadly, were clearly taking credit for it and boasting about it as an achievement.”

The drone was almost certainly authorised by Iran’s leaders during Nasrallah’s visit to Tehran – as was Hezbollah’s reaction following it. The drone, via a nod and a wink, would be Hezbollah refocusing the public’s attention on its anti-Israel activities, but it would not go the whole hog and claim responsibility. A retaliatory Israeli attack on Lebanon is far from what Iran’s leaders want at present; they would prefer to safeguard Hezbollah’s military capabilities in readiness to counter any strike on their nuclear programme.

So in Syria Hezbollah is engaged in building Iran’s new strategy, acting in tandem with Iran against the Sunni Islamic groups that threaten Iran’s interests in that benighted country. For at the end of the day, Hezbollah is not a Lebanese national movement but a creation of Iran and subject to its exclusive authority.

As Dr Shimon Shapira, of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote recently: “For the Islamic Republic, this is a war of survival against a radical Sunni uprising that views Iran and the Shi'ites as infidels to be annihilated. This is the real war being waged today, and it is within Islam. From Iran’s standpoint, if the extreme Sunnis of the al-Qaeda persuasion are not defeated in Syria, they will assert themselves in Iraq and threaten to take over the Persian Gulf, posing a real danger to Iran’s regional hegemony. Khamenei does not intend to give in.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 13 May 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 May 2013:

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Iran and the Sunni extremists

Iran is a non-Arab Muslim state that adheres to an extreme form of Shi’ite Islam. In the Shi’ite axis through which Iran conducts its regional policy (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah in Lebanon), Syria forms a vital link – which is why Iran is expending every effort to keep Bashar Assad in power. Supported by Iran, Shia fundamentalists in their thousands have flocked to Assad’s banner, and are in deadly conflict with the thousands of Sunni jihadists who have joined the opposition forces that are battling to overthrow the Assad régime.

For example, the assassination attempt on the Syrian Prime Minister, Wael Al-Halki, on Monday 29 April, was pretty clearly an operation carried out by one of the extremist Sunni groups that have affiliated themselves to the anti-Assad rebellion.

In particular the military wing of Hezbollah, the terrorist organisation set up in Lebanon by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the 1980s, is heavily engaged in the Syrian civil conflict, determined to ensure that the Assad régime is not swept away. If eventually a political settlement is reached between the Syrian rebels and the Syrian government, then Hezbollah’s power and influence, already great and growing within Lebanon’s body politic, would have spilt over into its vastly larger Syrian neighbour. In that eventuality the Gulf states, all of which, with the exception of Bahrain, are Sunni Muslim, would be locked in a sort of Shi’ite pincer – and, as the recent release of Wikileaks documents revealed, virtually all of them greatly fear that Iran aims to topple their régimes and dominate the region.

Yet in the convoluted, Byzantine world of Islamic fundamentalism, “my enemy’s enemy is sometimes my friend”, and Shi’ite and Sunni jihadists are agreed at least on a common enemy – Israel. A visceral hatred of Judaism and Jews has been hot-wired into the extreme Islamist world view, and to jihadists of either persuasion Israel as a Jewish state is literally intolerable. As a result, Shi’ite Iran has been far from consistent in its relations with Sunni extremists.

For example, united by a desire to destroy Israel, Iran has consistently supplied the Sunni terrorist organisation Hamas in the Gaza strip with ever-more sophisticated weaponry. As a result the volume and range of the rockets fired from Gaza indiscriminately on civilian targets inside Israel increased to a point when, in 2012, Israel felt obliged for a second time to respond to the continued provocation by a direct military assault.

Now, evidence is emerging that Iran is looking for new ways to reopen its supply lines to Hamas. Rather than risk detection by the Israeli navy, Iran is trying to link up with the hard-line Sunni Muslim government in Sudan to smuggle arms to Gaza, passing through Egypt where another Islamist Sunni government is in power.

“In short,” wrote the distinguished columnist Con Coughlin recently, “Iran has no problem working with its Sunni rivals when it suits its interests to do so – and this should worry us.”

Another disturbing phenomenon is the on-off working relationship between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Al-Qaeda. Divided by race and religion, they are not natural allies: what unites them is their loathing of the US and Israel. This common hatred was sufficient, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, to persuade Iran to grant refuge to bin Laden’s daughter, Fatima, and four of his sons – Othman, Mohammed, Laden and Sa’ad – along with various other key Al-Qaeda figures Including former security chief, Saif al-Adel. Now the US believes that Saif al-Adel's father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, is the link between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian government.

A recent incident linking them is the pre-emptive arrest last week of two men suspected of a plot to derail a passenger train in Toronto. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the surveillance operation leading to the arrests was "a result of extensive collaborative efforts" – FBI agents from the US were said to be involved in helping foil the attack – and that the terrorist operation had been planned with support from Al-Qaeda elements in Iran.

Canada's Globe and Mail, reporting that the arrested men had been under investigation for months, asserted that the planned terrorist attack involved a Toronto-New York City train and, in the words of New York Republican Representative Peter King, was intended "to cause significant loss of human life including New Yorkers."

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi described the accusation as “the most hilarious thing I've heard in my 64 years." However Jonathan Eyal, head of security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, has said: ”The Canadian claim that this plot has been engineered on Iranian soil is entirely plausible. Western intelligence agencies have known for a long time about the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran.”

So yes, as and when it suits the Iranian regime and advances their global strategic objectives, Iran will provide support to extremist Sunni groups like Al-Qaeda and Hamas, and these Sunni fundamentalists will accept it. But outside observers need to bear in mind that, in the eyes of hard-line Sunni salafists, the Shia faith is a heresy – indeed some challenge the right of Shi’ites to call themselves Muslim at all. Some Wahabi groups, often designated “takfiri” and sometimes linked to Al-Qaeda, have even advocated the persecution of the Shia as heretics. Such groups have been allegedly responsible for violent attacks and suicide bombings at Shi’ite gatherings at mosques and shrines, most notably in Iraq during the Ashura mourning ceremonies in 2005, where hundreds of Shias were killed in coordinated suicide bombings.

It is some consolation to reflect that cooperation resting on such uncertain foundations is unlikely to be either solid or permanent – and that, effectively challenged, it would almost certainly prove vulnerable.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 April 2013:

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Israel and Palestine: signs of a thaw

Yes, in these early days of May 2013 cracks are appearing in the solidly frozen iceberg that has been the Israel-Palestine peace process over the past two-and-a half-years. Is this the start of a genuine thaw? Too early to say – but the atmosphere is certainly warming up.

From the moment US President Barack Obama assumed office for his second term in January 2013, he made it clear that his administration would accord a high degree of priority to tackling the Arab-Israel conflict in general, and the Israel-Palestine issue in particular. In point of fact he had attempted to do just that, back in January 2009, but subsequent events had demonstrated all too clearly that his first effort had gone disastrously wrong. He would not make the same mistakes a second time.

It was on 22 January 2009, in a special ceremony in the White House, that newly-elected President Barack Obama named George Mitchell his "special envoy to the Middle East" charged with seeking a "comprehensive peace". The event, attended also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was widely interpreted as a determination on Obama's part to involve himself and his new administration in working for, and in finally achieving, a settlement to the long-running Arab-Israel dispute.

At the ceremony Mitchell said that, along with Obama and Clinton, he believed the objective of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side was possible, and that the conflict, old as it was, could be resolved.

In March 2009 the Obama administration explicitly incorporated into US policy the 2002 Arab League peace plan, originally mooted by Saudi Arabia, under which the Arab world undertook formally to recognise Israel and enter into normal relations with her in exchange, inter alia, for Israel's withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war. Three months later President Obama, in an unprecedented move, reached out to the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo. The "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world, he declared, must end. He called for a "new beginning"; both sides needed to make a "sustained effort... to respect one another and seek common ground". The US bond with Israel was unbreakable, he said, but the Palestinians' plight was "intolerable".

To the fledgling administration in Washington, this initiative by America’s first black president must have seemed a bold, unprecedented step well worth the effort. Perhaps this president, with his Black Power background, could achieve things that no other could even have contemplated.

It was not long before reality overtook aspirations. It quickly became apparent that all the overtures in the world counted for nothing against the reality of Iran's nuclear ambitions. As for Syria, when reports emerged of their transfer of a batch of highly sophisticated Scud missiles to the terrorist organisation Hezbollah in Lebanon, Obama’s plan to reinstate formal diplomatic relations was put on hold. In Gaza, the Islamist terrorist group Hamas, having seized control of the Strip in a bloody internecine coup d'état, remained virtually at war with Fatah, its rivals within the Palestinian Authority, and deeply opposed to any accommodation with, or even recognition of, Israel.

So although George Mitchell’s unremitting efforts did result, in September 2010, in the first of a few face-to-face meetings between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, they soon petered out. They foundered on Obama’s own outright condemnation of the resumption of construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements, following the 10-month building freeze that he had persuaded Netanyahu to institute. Construction in the West Bank had never previously inhibited peace talks between the PA and Israel, but with the US President condemning them outright, Abbas had been painted into a corner and could scarcely do less.

Obama’s second effort has so far endeavoured to by-pass the obstacles in his first. There has been no renewal of his overtures to the Muslim world. On the contrary, he made a point of visiting Israel early in his second term, and reiterating his support for a renewal of the peace process – a support which made no direct reference to construction in the West Bank. He has voiced a hard line against Iran’s continued nuclear activity, although not perhaps as hard a line as Israel’s prime minister – also in office for a further term – might wish. He has called for Syria’s President Bashar Assad to step down, in light of the remorseless hammering of his own civilian population in the course of his civil conflict.

And to carry forward the administration’s policy of achieving a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute, President Obama has designated not a “special envoy” but the Secretary of State himself, John Kerry.

Kerry has been notably vigorous and enthusiastic in tackling his formidable task. Unsparing of his personal convenience, he began his new effort with a succession of visits to the region – three in as many weeks. An early, if partial, success was his brokering of a somewhat shaky rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Meanwhile the US quietly unblocked almost $500 million in aid to the PA which had been frozen by Congress for months, and Kerry promised further economic assistance in developing the Palestinian economy, presumably as a sweetener to the PA to return to meaningful negotiations.

Kerry wanted the Arab League to play a role in the process, to ensure that any future peace negotiations had as wide a backing across the Arab world as possible, and to out-manoeuvre the Islamist rejectionists. Most members of the League are hostile to Islamist fundamentalists, opposed as the jihadists are to any accommodation with Israel, but also to many stable Arab régimes which they regard as over-secular in character.

On the last day of April 2013, Kerry and US Vice-President Joe Biden hosted an Arab League delegation, which included the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, and senior officials from Lebanon, the PA and Saudi Arabia. The discussions focused on the principles of the 2002 Arab League Initiative, which proposed full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a return to the boundaries of 4 June 1967 (the day before the outbreak of the Six-Day War), the inclusion of East Jerusalem in a future Palestinian state and the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.

Israel had never formally rejected the Arab peace plan, but nor did it ever accept it. One objection, of several, was the principle of establishing the border of a sovereign Palestine along the cease-fire line of the Israeli and Jordanian armies in 1949 – which is what the 1967 boundary was. In 1967 there was no recognized international border between the West Bank and Israel. The Armistice line was the position on the ground when the fighting stopped. In fact, Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specified that the agreement did not compromise any future territorial claims of the parties, since it had been "dictated exclusively by military considerations."

As Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out, after the Six-Day War the architects of UN Security Council Resolution 242 insisted that the old armistice line had to be replaced with a new border. "Which is why," Dr Gold writes, "Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; the 1949 Armistice lines were no longer to be a reference point for a future peace process."

US President Lyndon Johnson made this very point in September 1968: "It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders."

The 1949 Armistice line, of course, takes no account of geographical and demographic changes over the past 64 years, so it must be regarded as something of a triumph for John Kerry that, in his meeting with them, the Arab League delegation softened its stance on this issue. Qatari Prime Minister Sheik al-Thani said that the delegation agreed to the possibility of “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“We’ve had a very positive, very constructive discussion,” said Kerry. “The Arab League delegation affirmed…the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line* [*note “line” not “border” - NT], with the (possibility) of comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land.”

Israel’s President Shimon Peres, in his visit to Pope Francis on 30 April, designated this development as “a new opportunity for peace.” Prime Minister Netanyahu said on 2 May to a visiting delegation of five US congressmen: “We’re engaged right now in an effort that we appreciate, led by President Obama and Secretary John Kerry, to restart the peace negotiations between us and the Palestinians. We’re eager to do it; we have no preconditions.”

What was not said in the statement by the Arab League, however, is almost as significant as what was – for the League made no mention of Hamas, the Islamist terrorist organization that is the elephant in the room. Controlling a large proportion of any future sovereign Palestine, viscerally opposed to recognizing, let alone negotiating with, Israel, and almost certainly aiming to oust both Abbas from the PA presidency and Fatah from control of the PA, Hamas represents a major obstacle to any peace process as long as it remains in control of Gaza. Most of the knotty problems requiring resolution in a final peace agreement have been discussed ad nauseam  in the years of previous negotiations between the two sides, and have pretty obvious answers. What to do about Hamas and the Gaza Strip in any final accommodation remains a loose end.

Kerry’s next move? Well, according to some sources it could be hosting a four-way summit, as a precursor to renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This speculation – which, it must be acknowledged, has been denied by official US spokespersons – also indicated that Turkey, Egypt and other Arab countries might be invited to participate in the summit, though at what level was not made clear. According to these sources, Kerry discussed the planned summit in his recent meetings in Istanbul with the Turkish and Egyptian foreign ministers, as well as with PA President Abbas. It might also have been be discussed at the White House meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah on 26 April, and could feature on the agenda in the planned mid-May Washington visit by Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Putting aside all speculation, it seems clear that Kerry has taken up his Middle East challenge with energy and enthusiasm. Through undoubted diplomatic skill and the application of sheer persistence, he has injected renewed animation into what many had already written off as a defunct corpse. Whether he and President Obama can succeed in the major enterprise to which they have dedicated themselves – the conclusion of a genuine peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – where so many have failed before them, time alone will tell. From the standpoint of these early days of May 2013, all we can say is that they have made a positive start.

Published in shortened form in Eurasia Review, 2 May 2013: