Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Syria and the Palestinians

Palestinians are deeply involved in the conflict raging within Syria, both on the personal level, as hapless victims, and on the geopolitical level, as major players.

At the start of Syria’s civil war three years ago, some 500,000 Palestinian “refugees” were resident in the country, most of them descendants of families displaced during the Israeli-Arab war of 1948.  The conflict within Syria has resulted in more than half of them being displaced, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Syria borders four nation states: Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.  People fleeing the turmoil within Syria have poured over into each, although most realised that making for Iraq proper would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  Not only was the country itself in a state of turmoil, but it had a history of  the systematic forced displacement of its own Palestinian population following the US’s invasion and occupation in 2003. Approximately 3,000 of those Palestinian refugees who fled from Iraq to Syria again found themselves compelled to flee, and those who made their way to the north-west sought shelter in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the regional government rapidly filled its major Moqebleh refugee camp, and constructed a second at Kawrgosk.

As for Turkey, its efforts on behalf of the million or more Syrian refugees flooding into the country have been commendable.  By all accounts, its camps are among the best in the world, and according to some estimates the country is spending up to $1 billion to accommodate the refugees. However refugees are not all being treated alike.  Under the rules that Turkey has imposed, Palestinians fleeing Syria are under a considerable disadvantage.  Before Syria imploded into civil war, the half-million Palestinians in Syria lived under fairly good conditions, but they were not entitled to citizenship and were not issued with identity cards or passports. 

      So whereas Syrians entering Turkey with passports are free to settle anywhere in the country, those without proper documents have to wait until space opens up in one of the camps.  As a result, across the border tens of thousands of displaced people, many Palestinians among them, live in a handful of impromptu camps that receive humanitarian aid irregularly, waiting for news of an opening.

Before the Syrian conflict Lebanon already hosted some half million Palestinian refugees descended from those who fled in 1948. The vast majority were denied citizenship or the right to work, and were dependent on international aid. Although Lebanon has allowed in more Palestinians fleeing from Syria than any other country, it restricts entry by way of a visa fee that other Syrian refugees are not required to pay.  Those who do enter are accorded the same deprived status as their unhappy compatriots.

Jordan hosts some 2 million Palestinian refugees drawn from those displaced in 1948 and 1967 and their descendants. But while nearly 400,000 Syrians have found refuge from their civil conflict in Jordan, since January the government is reported to have officially denied entry to the Palestinians amongst them, citing security concerns and the country's delicate demographic balance. The 9,200 Palestinian refugees from Syria who did cross the border into Jordan are being held in separate facilities, with local relatives prevented from obtaining their release.  It is reported that in dozens of cases Palestinians have been sent back to Syria, and there are hundreds of Palestinians on the Syrian side of the border who are prevented from entering Jordan.

Given this disturbing background, the two bodies representative of the Palestinian people – Hamas in the Gaza strip, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank – have recently been vying with each other to gain an advantage from the turmoil in Syria.  As a result, both are reneging on their own followers.

Both administrations – in common with the vast majority of Sunni Muslims and their own Palestinian people – originally sided with the Sunni-orientated Syrian opposition. However Hamas's support for them led to the expulsion of its leaders from Syria, while the PA’s failure to side with the Assad regime resulted in tensions between Damascus and Ramallah.  Now, discounting the displacement and death of tens of thousands of Palestinians living in Syria, and the fact that Palestinian fighters are currently in active combat against the Assad regime, both Hamas and the PA are trying to mend fences with the Syrian president, hoping he will forgive them for failing to support him against the rebels.

Hamas's efforts not been markedly successful, mainly because the balance of advantage in any rapprochement would favour Hamas, and help it rid itself of its increasing isolation.  All the same, Hamas leaders and spokesmen have stopped their rhetorical attacks on the Assad regime, while Hamas has been working hard to distance itself from the Syrian "rebels," particularly those affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In a recent speech, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh assured Syria and other Arab countries that his movement does not meddle in their internal affairs. He called for a "political solution and national understandings" in solving Arab disputes.

The shift in the PA's stance became evident during Mahmoud Abbas's recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly. "While we condemn the crime of the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” said Abbas, “we have affirmed our rejection of a military solution and the need to find a peaceful political solution to fulfil the aspirations of the Syrian people."

The fact that Abbas refrained from holding the Assad regime responsible for the use of chemical weapons was received with a sigh of relief in Damascus.

After Abbas's speech, Assad agreed to meet with senior PLO official Abbas Zaki, who relayed to him a letter from the PA president. The Syrian news agency Sana quoted the PLO envoy as telling Assad that the Palestinians support Syria in the face of "aggression" – in other words, that the PLO has decided to support Assad against the various opposition groups fighting against his régime.

There are authoritative reports that this accord was recently sealed by way of a secret agreement between PA President Mahmoud Abbas  and President Bashar Assad. Kept even from US Secretary of State John Kerry, this deal makes Abbas the first Arab leader to break ranks with the united Arab front against Assad. Although there are Palestinians currently fighting against the Damascus regime, Abbas pledged that Palestinian fighters would lay down their arms and withdraw from Syrian rebel ranks.

The shifting pattern of alliances puts Abbas and the PA firmly on the side of Iran, Hezbollah and the Shi’a jihadists, supporters of the Assad regime.  This does not bode well either for Middle East stability or for the Israel-Palestine peace talks.               
                   Oh, what a tangled web we weave
                  When first we practise to deceive.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 October 2013: 
Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 October 2013:

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Israel-Palestine peace talks: where are they?

On July 29, under the benign eye of US Secretary of State John Kerry, peace negotiators for Israel and Palestine, Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat respectively, shook hands in Washington to launch "sustained, continuous and substantive" talks on a long-sought Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. 

At the same moment an information blackout was imposed on all those directly involved in the process.  There were to be no leaks about progress or the lack of it, no briefings to the media about unmet demands from one side or the other.  This curtain of secrecy would, it was hoped, block the usual extremist response to any attempt at reconciliation – action aimed at undermining the peace process and instituting a new tit-for-tat round of violence.

Nine months was the period allotted to reaching agreement between the two sides – a long time to sustain hermetically sealed negotiations.  Inevitably a flood of speculation about the talks, most of it sceptical wishful thinking, has drenched the media.  But a trickle or two of authoritative information about the course of the discussions has also emerged.

One such occurred on October 17, following a private audience granted by the Pope to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.  Following their meeting, Pope Francis presented Abbas with a pen, remarking: “Surely you have a lot of things you have to sign.”

Abbas's response was:  “I hope to sign a peace treaty with Israel with this pen.”

That was an uncalled-for remark. The only reasonable assumption to be drawn from it is that it reflected at least a possibility, if not a probability.

If this was indeed a straw in the wind, it was soon to be followed by another.  Two days after his meeting with the Pope, Abbas allowed himself to be interviewed by the German TV channel DW.  He refused to discuss the talks in detail, but during the course of the cross-questioning he specifically denied that they had reached any sort of impasse.

"The negotiations are difficult,” he said, “but they are not at a dead end.” Quite the reverse, he implied.  "We're just getting started.  We have plenty of time to deal with the main issues that make the talks difficult."

In fact, the negotiating team has until April 30, 2014 if it is to journey right up to the wire, and Abbas’s statement does not have the whiff of defeatism about it. It sounds realistic, and even optimistic of success.

PA President Abbas gave one further indication of how he and the negotiating team are dealing with what has always seemed an almost intractable difficulty – the fact that the PA is the governing authority in only part of what would become a sovereign Palestine, namely the West Bank.  The other main region – the Gaza strip – was seized by the extreme Islamist organisation Hamas, back in 2007, and it remains the de facto government there. 

Despite numerous attempts to reconcile these two constituent parts of the Palestinian body politic, they remain as far apart as ever.  Hamas totally rejects the concept of talking peace with Israel – indeed it disputes the legitimacy of Abbas’s presidency, since his original four-year term ended in January 2009 and has only been extended by diktat ever since.  On October 19, Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, amid blood-curdling threats of the “fire and rage” that Israel would soon have to face as part of a third intifada, called for an end to the peace negotiations.

How did Mahmoud Abbas tackle the thorny issue of Hamas in his TV interview? By equating his bloodthirsty terrorist opponents with what, in the UK, is designated “Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition.”  Acknowledging that in all truly democratic states a government not only permits, but endorses, the right of its opponents to speak freely and seek to persuade others of its point of view – and, indeed, that Israel is a prime example of this democratic pattern – Abbas said:

            “Is there an opposition?  Yes.  Is it strong?  Yes.  Does Netanyahu (the Israeli Prime Minister) have an opposition? Yes.  There is no state on earth that doesn’t have an opposition.”

            Abbas went on to argue that the existence of an opposition, however strong,  is no reason for a state, or its negotiating partner, to refrain from signing a treaty.  He emphasized that he was speaking for the entire Palestinian people – and that, in any case, both parties had agreed that any future peace agreement would have to be “legitimized” by a referendum on each side.

“So why these fears?” demanded Abbas. “There’s no reason for them.”

Abbas is whistling in the wind.  Hamas is no loyal opposition.  It is an extremist terrorist organisation, opposed tooth and nail to any two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel.  Is Hamas ever likely to roll over, puppy-like, and submit to the demand to hold a referendum in the Gaza strip on a peace deal with Israel?  If it does not, would any referendum omitting the views of over a million Palestinians be regarded as legitimate? Abbas must surely recognise that if the peace talks do yield a draft agreement, the problem of Hamas, and its illegal seizure of power back in 2007, will have to be dealt with.

All the same, and despite the nay-sayers and shroud-wavers, it seems that “deep in the forest, something stirs” – a perception strengthened on October 21 when US Secretary of State John Kerry, addressed a press conference in Paris:

"The two parties have been engaged now in 13 meetings - serious meetings. They had three meetings in the last four days. All the core issues are on the table. And they have been meeting with increased intensity."

That does not sound like wishful thinking, but rather like an authoritative progress report. Only two-and-a half months into the allotted nine, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that, far from breaking up in failure and recrimination, the peace discussions may indeed yield something positive.

Despite all the odds, a feeling of moderate optimism seems justified.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 October 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 October 2013:

Sunday, 20 October 2013

What follows a deal with Iran?

On October 15 and 16 the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany sat round a table in Geneva with the Iranian president and foreign minister, and discussed whether, how and to what extent Iran’s nuclear program could be brought under the control of the International Atomic Energy Authority (the IAEA) and shorn of its capacity to produce nuclear weaponry. As the conference adjourned until November 7, both sides stressed: “many details remained to be discussed.”
But the devil, as the old saying goes, is in the details.

It is clear that Iran’s aim is to strike a deal that would convince the UN and the West to lift, or at least ameliorate, the sanctions that have been crippling the régime’s economy, while at the same time retaining as much of its nuclear capacity as possible – and certainly to maintain its access to uranium enrichment, since that would leave the potential for a relatively short dash to build a nuclear weapon. And, after all, it is always possible to expel IAEA inspectors, as North Korea did when it suited their book.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chaired the talks, said that Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Zarif had “presented an outline of a plan as a proposed basis for negotiation” and that talks had been “substantive and forward looking.”

Few details were revealed of these Iranian proposals already agreed, according to some reports, by Washington and Moscow but they are believed to consist of an initial six months of confidence-building measures, including curbs on Iran’s uranium enrichment, in exchange for some sanctions relief. This would be followed by a further six months implementing an “end state” of affairs. Several media reports speculate that this final deal would include, on the one hand Iran’s agreement to spot checks of its nuclear facilities by international inspectors, in exchange for which the international community would permit some continued uranium enrichment by Iran.

What has so far attracted little speculation is the likely political fallout for the parties concerned, including Israel, from a deal of this sort.  For example, if Iran should submit itself to unfettered inspection by the IAEA – a large, but not impossible, supposition the hoary issue of establishing the Middle East as a nuclear-weapons-free zone may be back in play.

     It was as far back as 1980 that Israel and Egypt jointly proposed a resolution in the United Nations on the desirability of establishing the Middle East as a nuclear-weapons-free zone – and the General Assembly decided that henceforth this resolution would be adopted annually without a vote.

Ten years later, in 1990, UN General Assembly Resolution 45/52 invited all countries of the region, “pending the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East, to declare their support for establishing such a zone.”

        This UN resolution, like the many IAEA conferences that followed − the last in September 2013 − petered out without any obviously positive outcome. Why?  Because there is a patently obvious prerequisite to establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East namely, peaceful relations between the countries of the region. How else could its implementation be discussed, carried forward and monitored?

           Peaceful relations, though, have never seemed remotely within reach. One essential element would be a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, endorsed by the Arab League and followed, as they promise, by the “normalization of relations” with the Muslim world.  We are a long way from that.  But take the Israeli-Palestinian dispute out of the picture, and consider the intra-regional rivalries and conflicts in the Middle East over the past 40 years – culminating in the civil war in Syria, where major Arab nations are engaged in a struggle for power while Sunni and Shia jihadists battle out their rivalries to the death.  How, amidst this turmoil, is the infrastructure necessary to establish the region as a nuclear-weapons-free zone to be constructed?

Hours before the Geneva meeting, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani swept logic to one side.  As if presaging Iran’s final compliance with the UN’s demands, he said with an eye obviously cast in Israel’s direction that all nations should be subject to unfettered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that no country had the right to a nuclear arsenal and that Israel should join the 1979 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, it was only a few weeks back – on September 20 – that a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT and put all its nuclear sites under comprehensive IAEA safeguards, failed to pass the General Conference of the IAEA.  Sponsored by a group of 18 Arab states, the measure failed by a vote of 43-51. The majority agreed with Shaul Chorev, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, who said that a nuclear-weapons-free zone was a goal attainable at the end of a process that brings about a change in attitudes towards Israel, not at the beginning.

          “Lasting peaceful relations,” he said, “reconciliation, good neighborliness, open borders and trust among the regional parties” would be “key milestones on the route to a joint regional endeavor to create a mutually verifiable zone, free of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.” Progress toward that goal “cannot be made without a fundamental change in regional conditions not least, a significant transformation in the attitude of states in the region towards Israel.”

            Although Israel has not joined the NPT, it has been a member of the IAEA since 1957, and its nuclear research activities are subject to IAEA monitoring and verification. This has not prevented Israel from maintaining a policy of opacity regarding its nuclear weapons capability, neither confirming nor denying the universally held belief that it is, indeed, a nuclear power.

        Any sudden revelation about an Israeli nuclear weapons capability would seriously destabilise the whole region. So a question for Israel is whether, or possibly when, opacity is to be replaced by transparency.  An agreed deal between Iran and the UN, especially one in which Iran willingly subjects itself to unfettered spot checks by IAEA inspectors, may well put Israel on the back foot and hasten that day of decision.   

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 October 2013:

Monday, 14 October 2013

Thwarting Iran: the secret alliances

           There are two distinct groupings of interests opposed to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but each – to misapply Oscar Wilde’s aphorism – is “a love that dare not speak its name.”

            Benjamin Netanyahu has been taking the lead for one of these covert community of interests.  Ahead of the 6-party diplomatic talks taking place in Geneva on October 15 and 16, where Iran is facing the US, Russia, the UK, France, China and Germany, Netanyahu has been undertaking a diplomatic and media blitz.  He’s been on a whirlwind tour, both of TV studios and the world, voicing the case for maintaining the sanctions pressure on the Iranian regime until soft words are matched by hard action.  He does not oppose diplomatic initiatives to avert a nuclear Iran but, like the range of states and groupings he implicitly represents, he fears that the international community will accept a compromise on this issue, allowing Tehran to avoid dismantling its nuclear weapons facilities and having its stocks of enriched uranium removed from the country.

            His fears seem all too justified, for behind his back and the backs of most European and Gulf state leaders it seems as though a secret deal on Iran’s nuclear program has already been worked out between the White House in Washington, the Kremlin in Moscow and the Tehran office of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  This US-Russian-Iranian grouping represents the second secret alliance – though how far it will go towards curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions remains to be seen.

Sergei Kiriyenko, director of the Russian Atomic Agency Rosatom and the builder of Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, is one of Putin’s most trusted advisers on nuclear affairs.  Reports indicate that he has been in Iran for most of the summer and that, under his guidance, the text of a nuclear accord was drawn up by a team of Farsi-speaking Russian nuclear scientists for Tehran and Washington to sign.

Drafts of this text, which was modeled on the US-Russian accord for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, were then passed between the US and Russian presidents until they saw eye to eye, and finally it was referred to US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, to be shaped into a document that can be put on the negotiating table at Geneva as agreed proposals.

It is reported that President Obama has briefed Netanyahu in detail on the understandings reached with Tehran, including Iran’s concessions on its nuclear program. Obama has also informed him that Washington will soon start easing certain economic sanctions against Iran. Neither European nor Gulf leaders, including Saudi Arabia, had been let in on the scale of reciprocal concessions approved between Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader, although by now an indication has probably leaked out via the diplomatic grapevine. Certainly the Wall Street Journal on October 8 reported, one assumes from informed sources, that Iran will offer to limit its operational centrifuges, cease 20 per cent uranium enrichment and agree to greater international supervision of its nuclear program, in return for a lifting of sanctions on its financial system and oil market.  On October 14 the London Daily Telegraph reported that Iran had drawn the line at removing all the uranium already manufactured in its facilities, and insisted on keeping access to nuclear enrichment – since that would leave the potential for a relatively short dash to build a nuclear weapon.  They seem to have won the day.

“Western diplomats have indicated privately,” said the Telegraph, “a deal is likely to include access to limited enrichment.”

Whether it was a done deal before the principals ever took their places at the negotiating table, time will tell.  What is certain is that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have not been party to any backstairs discussions, and that they view the apparent success of Iran’s charm offensive with alarm.  Their concern is for their regional interests.  They fear that Obama may be tempted to strike a deal allowing Iranian allies to go on dominating Arab countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in return for Iran’s agreeing to inspections of its atomic sites.  They are also desperately concerned about Iran’s ambition to achieve hegemony over the Gulf, and its continuing effort to orchestrate political foes across half a dozen Arab countries.

All this fear was revealed in the 250,000 confidential US documents that were published in November 2010 by WikiLeaks. They showed that, contrary to their public positions, Arab leaders strongly supported, and indeed campaigned for, a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme.  According to the leaked documents Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.”  He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.” Abu Dhabi’s crown prince said that Iran was seeking regional domination, and urged Americans to “take out” its nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops.  Iran “is going to take us to war … it’s a matter of time.” The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”.   Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.”  Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt, expressed a “visceral hatred” for the Islamic Republic.  

         In short, no Arab government accepted Iran’s claim that its nuclear programme was merely peaceful.  More to the point, perhaps, the WikiLeaks documents revealed that Iran loomed as the largest source of concern to the Arab world.  As far back as summer 2010
Dubai's chief of police, Dahi Khalfan, one of the most outspoken security officials in the United Arab Emirates, warned of an "international plot" to overthrow the governments of Gulf Arab countries. Then United Arab Emirates officials announced that authorities were investigating a foreign-linked group planning "crimes against the security of the state."

This perhaps explains reports that Israel has recently been holding a series of meetings with prominent figures from a number of Gulf and other Arab states, supervised directly by PM Netanyahu. The Arab and Gulf states involved in the talks have no diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, the report noted. What they share with Israel is the concern that Iran’s President Rouhani’s new diplomatic approach will fool the US and lead to a US-Iran diplomatic agreement which provides for “less than the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program.”

Which, as it now appears, and with Russia’s blessing, is indeed the most likely outcome.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 October 2013:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 October 2013:
Published in The Commentator, 10 November 2013:

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Iran's charm offensive

 How they must be rubbing their hands and congratulating themselves, Iran’s Supreme Leader and his puppet president.  Using intransigence and defiance as the means of buying time to complete Iran’s nuclear ambitions had brought crippling sanctions down on the nation.  So prior to the recent presidential election the Supreme Leader and his chosen candidate, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani, agreed on a long shot a change of tactics, with no assurance of success.  In order to buy the time we need, let’s try something completely different.  Let’s try talking soft and sweet. Let’s offer to negotiate. In those effete Western democracies – and in none more so than the United States there is a substantial body of opinion eager to grasp at straws rather than act decisively in support of its principles. So let’s provide some straws for them to grasp.

In the event, the  literally incredible U-turn executed by Iran on the world’s stage has worked better than either Ayatollah Khamenei or President Rouhani could have hoped for.  Anxious to avoid confrontation at almost any cost, President Obama seems to have taken Iran’s charm offensive at its face value.  Ignoring Iran’s continued sponsorship of international terrorism, its support both direct and via its satellite Hezbollah for the murderous régime of Bashar Assad in Syria, and its continued defiance of the UN in its dash to enrich uranium to nuclear weapon capability, Obama recently broke a thirty year embargo on US leaders having any dealings with the rogue state, and spent fifteen minutes chatting on the phone to Rouhani.

Over in the UK, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, was also busy on the telephone.  Having met with Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the United Nations, Hague picked up the phone on October 7 and had an interesting conversation with him.  He reported the outcome to Parliament  the next day:

 “I’ve made very clear to Mr Zarif that we are open to more direct contact and further improvements in our bilateral relations,” he said, and proceeded to announce: “Both our countries will now appoint a non-resident chargé d’affaires tasked with implementing the building of relations, including interim steps on the way towards the eventual reopening of both our embassies.”

Nor are these two episodes the only evidence of Iran’s highly successful  foray into the world of realpolitik the art of saying or doing anything at all, as long as it advances your national interest.  Since this political approach involves jettisoning ethical or moral considerations, it has not met with the approval of those guardians of the Islamic revolution, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who have openly rebuked their “moderate” president for having spoken to President Obama the leader of the Great Satan at all, even by telephone.  What their view is of exchanging chargés d’affaires with the UK we have yet to learn.

To be fair to Hague, he did hedge his announcement with qualifications.

“Iran remains in defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions ... and it is installing more centrifuges in its nuclear facilities. In the absence of substantial change to these policies, we will continue to maintain strong sanctions. A substantial change in British or Western policies require a substantive change in that program.”

What Hague failed to include in his parliamentary address was the well-nigh incredible fact that Iran has just been appointed special rapporteur of the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament and International Security. In that capacity, Iran will be reporting on the global disarmament of weapons of mass destruction.

Writing about the appointment to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, was understandably incredulous:

"It is inconceivable that a state under Security Council sanctions for suspected WMD proliferation activities would be allowed to hold this position.”

He put the bizarre, topsy-turvey situation in a nutshell:

“Permitting Iran to serve on the UN’s leading disarmament committee is like appointing a drug lord CEO of a pharmaceutical company. How is it possible to entrust the reporting on disarmament to a country that itself is likely to be the subject of the report?"

Prosor added that Iran’s appointment "erodes the UN’s legitimacy and its ability to promote arms control and disarmament, as well as preserve global peace and security. Rather than provide a global stage for Iran’s defiance and deception, the UN should shine a spotlight on the regime’s ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for terrorism across the globe."

What we are witnessing from so many sources is mass wish-fulfilment.  Some people will always ignore inconvenient facts if they conflict with what they want to believe. Accumulated evidence over years of Iran’s involvement in global terrorism, its ambitions to achieve  hegemony in Islam, its continued defiance of International Atomic Energy Agency demands that it fully disclose its nuclear activities as it races towards nuclear weapon capability – all can apparently be set aside, in some minds, by a few honeyed phrases.

There is wisdom in the old English saying: “Fine words butter no parsnips” – anyone can say anything; it’s what they do that matters.  So as Iran prepares for new negotiations next week with the UN Security Council on its disputed nuclear program, an informed speculation by the Wall Street Journal on October 8 is perhaps relevant. They reported, one assumes from informed sources, that Iran will offer to limit its operational centrifuges, cease 20 per cent uranium enrichment and agree to greater international supervision of its nuclear program, in return for a lifting of sanctions on its financial system and oil market. 

A gesture along these lines would indeed confound Iran’s critics. And it would enormously strengthen those who want to believe that Iran has literally undergone a conversion on the road to Damascus.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, October 10 2013: 
Published in Eurasia Review, October 10 2013:

Friday, 4 October 2013

Iran's internal tensions

 "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

- Winston Churchill, October 1939

 Substitute “Iran” for “Russia”, and Churchill’s words go some way towards explaining the convoluted stance that Iran is assuming on the world stage.  Iranian national interest, as perceived by the Supreme Leader, is indeed the key to forecasting where the nation is heading, however enigmatic the means adopted. 

The comparison with the old Soviet Union is, though, far from exact.  Supreme Leader he may be, but Ayatollah Khamanei is no Josef Stalin. His political position, though strong, is considerably less assured than the unassailable status enjoyed by the one-time absolute dictator of the USSR. Iranian expert, Karim Sadjadpour, points out that Khamenei’s legitimacy was among the many casualties of the tainted 2009 presidential election. Taboos were shattered when hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets, chanting “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei.” Among Iran’s pious classes, images of government-sanctioned brutality against civilians further undermined his image. Afterwards, once-respectful subordinates such as Khatami and Mousavi, to say nothing of Rafsanjani who had rarely been respectful, openly defied him.

As for the recently-elected, so-called “moderate” president, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani, he is hemmed in by internal political constraints that severely restrict his freedom of manoeuvre. Iran’s new stance on the world stage – honeyed words as part of a charm offensive – are a considered change of tactics, designed to provide it with yet more time to achieve its aim of nuclear weapon capability.  But the Supreme Leader’s acquiescence in the election of the non-abrasive Rouhani was also partly a response to the demands of the Iranian people, articulated so clearly during the mass protests in 2009.

Given the opportunity to express their views, they demand democracy, human rights, an improved economy, and an end to their country’s international isolation. It is far from clear that Rouhani has the ability, or even the desire, to respond very far. He is constrained by the Islamic Republic’s constitution, which places real power in the hands of the unelected Supreme Leader and byzantine institutions. Iran’s constitution also significantly limits human rights protections, entrenching inferior status for women and religious minorities, and limiting rights of speech and assembly.

In any case, the President comes well down in the pecking order of Iran’s establishment.  Quite outside his control, and reporting direct to the Supreme Leader, are a range of seven organizations which represent the real instruments of state power:  the Assembly of Experts controlling the electoral process, the judiciary, the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, the Friday Prayer Leaders, the Joint Headquarters which controls both the Revolutionary Guards and the conventional army, and – a vital component – the Bonyads.

Little understood in the West, the Bonyads are para-governmental organisations which account for some 30 per cent of Iran’s GDP. Complex and deceptive, even to those operating within the International Monetary Fund, Bonyads are one reason why Iran has been able to withstand US and international sanctions for so long. Comprising well over 120 corrupt semi-state monetary foundations, Bonyads are tax-exempt charitable entities through which the Iranian oligarchy has accumulated access to vast wealth and power.

To decipher Iran’s system of governance, one must hark back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which ousted the Shah and established the Ayatollah as Supreme Leader of the Iranian people.  An early step by Khomeini was to form the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), created, according to Bruce Riedel, former CIA analyst, as a "counterweight to the regular military, and to protect the revolution against a possible coup."  It is a body imbued with extremist Shi’ite principles.

In recent years the IRCG has mushroomed into a formidable power within the Iranian body politic, and its reach extends well beyond its original military remit. “The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”, to give it its full title, under its Chief Commander Mohammed Ali Jafari, regards itself as the ultimate protector of the principles of Shia Islam.  With a huge military force at its disposal, the IRCG has come to preside over a power structure that influences almost every aspect of Iranian life.

In the economic sphere it wields control over strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises; in the political, it is in a position to administer a sharp rap over the knuckles to the President, if its leaders believe he is stepping outside the area of acceptable behavior – that is, conduct in strict conformity with the Shia Islamic principles that they are in existence to protect. In 1999 the IRGC sent a threatening letter to President Khatami, who had instituted far-reaching reforms, warning him against continuing a policy that threatened the Islamic nature of the régime. Now the “moderate” Rouhani – despite the Supreme Leader’s nod of approval for his tactical U-turn – has also fallen foul of the Guardians.

October 4, 2013 witnessed an historic moment in US-Iranian relations.  The President of the United States and the President of Iran were in direct communication for the first time in over thirty years.  Although a face-to-face meeting had been evaded, by one side or the other, Obama and Rouhani spoke by telephone for a quarter of an hour.  The event was not to the liking of the IRCG’s Chief Commander, who administered a severe public rebuke to his president.

"Just as he refused to meet Obama,” said Ali Jafari, in an interview with the Tasnimnews.com website, “he should also have refused to speak with him on the telephone, and should have waited for concrete action by the United States."

Nor is this the only sign of Iran’s internal strains and stresses coming to the surface.  On September 16, Rouhani called on the Guards to "stand above political tendencies." The next day the Supreme Leader said it was "unnecessary" for the Guards to get involved in politics.

According to Iranian journalist, Omid Memarian, Ayatollah Khamenei has shaped the most homogenous ruling group in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet a side-effect of this is that shortcomings in the country's policies can no longer be blamed on reformists. In this sense, Iran's Supreme Leader is in a more vulnerable position than would appear.

The leaders of the IRCG viewed the Supreme Leader’s bold support of Rouhani for president with not a little suspicion, and it is clear that now they are chafing under Iran’s new charm offensive. The strategy may have as its objective to win as much time as possible for Iran to reach its nuclear objectives, but flirting with the West does not accord with strict Islamist methodology.

         As a result, echoes reach the outside world of a power struggle about the direction Iran is taking, between Khamenei and Rouhani on the one hand, and the IRCG – the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution on the other.  Can the Iranian constitution withstand the strain?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 October 2013:
Published in Eurasia Review, 7 October 2013: