Saturday, 28 December 2013

Turkey simmers

            To say that 2013 has not been a good year for Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would be an understatement.  In fact, in the telling phrase used by UK’s Queen Elizabeth in describing 1992, it has been an “annus horribilis” for him.

Twice during the course of the year violence directed largely against Erdogan and the party he leads, the AKP, has broken out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities. “The illusion of invincibility that once surrounded Erdogan is crumbling,” asserts former Pentagon official Michael Rubin. The incidents precipitating the protests may have been different, but the underlying cause has been essentially the same – a widespread perception that Erdogan has become too dictatorial, too involved in the Islamist politics of the Arab Spring, and too arrogant in attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world.

Back in May, popular fury was triggered by a terse government announcement that a shopping mall was to be built on Gezi Park, one of the last green public spaces in the centre of Istanbul.  With no public consultation on the proposal, the announcement fell like a spark on tinder-dry brushwood.  A small organisation calling itself the Taksim Platform launched a demonstration, people gathered, the unrest spread, and it quickly developed into a nationwide protest.  It soon became clear that, in addition to the Gezi Park development itself, a whole raft of grievances underlay the dissent so-called “urbanisation”, recent alcohol restrictions, government policy on Syria, the Uludere massacre of 34 Kurdish villagers, energy efficiency projects, nuclear plants and disregard for human rights including the arbitrary arrests of journalists, intellectuals and activists.

As summer turned into autumn, the protests appeared to die down, but beneath the surface a more powerful, and more dangerous, opposition was building up within Erdogan’s own party, the AKP.  This centred around followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Gulen was once one of the AKP's main spiritual leaders, preaching a blend of moderate, business-friendly Islam that helped the party rise to power. His dispute with Erdogan and the AKP leadership arose over a government decision to shut down the large network of private schools that the Fethullah Gulen community, or Hizmet Movement, operates – a matter of life or death for Hizmet. 

Gulen and his Movement has followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment, including the judiciary, the secret service and the police force.  Early in December Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year and unknown to him, the police had been engaged in an undercover enquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of the AKP specifically a multimillion dollar graft and corruption operation implicating a number of cabinet ministers and involving, inter alia, bribery around construction projects and illicit money transfers to Iran in sanction-busting deals.

         The first result of the police investigation was the arrest of 24 high-profile names, including the sons of cabinet ministers, and the head of the state-owned Halkbank.  Erdogan’s immediate, and perhaps typical, reaction was to arrest some 70 police officers, including Istanbul’s powerful police chief Huseyin Capkin, and to order others to brief government officials on the progress of the corruption probe.  This, critics say, will allow suspects to be tipped off in advance.

        Erdogan’s intemperate reaction to what many see as a legitimate police inquiry antagonized many Turks, led to Turkey's secular opposition claiming it as proof that Erdogan represented a dictator-in-waiting, and triggered a resumption of the anti-government rallies that took place in the summer.

        Thousands of anti-government demonstrators attended a protest in Istanbul on December 22,  which police dispersed with tear gas and water cannon.  One protestor is reported as saying: "Erdogan has gone crazy with power. He is already white-washing the investigation.”  Another said: “The AKP are hypocrites. They say they are fighting corruption, but when it comes to their own corruption, they try to silence the press and the people.”

        On Monday, December 23, the European Union warned Erdogan that he was in direct breach of EU rules safeguarding the independence of the judiciary, which is a key condition for Turkey's EU membership bid.

"The latest developments," said a spokesman for Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for Enlargement, “including the sacking of police chiefs and the instructions to police to inform authorities on investigations, raise serious concerns as regards the independence, efficiency and impartiality of the investigations and the separation of powers.”

The fallout of the corruption enquiry has so far been the resignation of three cabinet ministers whose sons have been arrested.  One, Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, urged Erdogan to step down as well, insisting that "a great proportion" of the alleged corrupt construction projects that were under investigation had been approved by the prime minister himself.

        The call fell on deaf ears, even though by December 27 Erdogan’s own son had become the latest high-profile figure to be named in the widening corruption investigation.  Following the ministerial resignations, Erdogan undertook a major cabinet reshuffle, and appointed ten new ministers.  In a series of somewhat paranoid statements he has described the police investigation as a "dirty game", accused unnamed foreign ambassadors of conspiring in a "dark alliance" against him and hinted that he might expel them from the country, and claimed the whole conspiracy investigation was a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to discredit his government ahead of local elections in March 2014.

Those coming March elections hold the key to Erdogan’s aim of holding on to supreme power in Turkey, one way or another.  If the AKP party manages to ride the tiger of popular discontent and retain its political lead, Erdogan will be able to achieve his scarcely-concealed ambition to change the constitution, allowing him to remain as Turkey’s prime minister beyond his statutory three terms, which end in 2015.  Alternatively, if he fails in that aim, AKP victory would allow him to imbue the office of the presidency – currently largely a ceremonial role with greatly increased powers, and to stand as president in 2014, when President Abdullah Gul’s term of office expires.    

As 2013 ends, Erdogan’s ambitions, and to a certain extent Turkey’s future, turns on how far-reaching the corruption scandal proves to be.  Turkey cannot be said to be on the boil, but it is certainly simmering. 

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

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Jordan and the Israel-Palestine détente

          When the current Israel-Palestinian peace talks began on July 29, 2013, a nine-month gestation period was ordained. The due date for the birth of an agreement is therefore the last day of April 2014. We are currently about half-way through this pregnancy which has, not unexpectedly, involved hard labour from the very beginning.  Whether it will turn out to have been a false pregnancy remains to be seen.

          The prime mover in this enterprise is US Secretary of State John Kerry, and if an infant agreement is finally born, he may well be dubbed its daddy.  At the very start of the face-to-face discussions, Kerry announced that all parties had agreed to cover the proceedings with a blanket of secrecy.  Not a word would emerge about their progress from any source except Kerry himself.  Any other reports emanating from supposedly informed sources would be speculation and rumour.

          Speculation and rumour have nonetheless been rife, and one whisper currently circulating is that the attention of the negotiating parties is now focused on the matter of Israel’s security.  In the words of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu: “There must be iron-clad security arrangements to protect the peace arrangements that allow Israel to defend itself, by itself, against any possible threats. And those security arrangements must be based on Israel’s own forces. There is no substitute for that.” 
          One commentator asserts that the Americans know that he means what he says and, as a result, have set up a team led by retired General John Allen, unprecedented in size and scope, to look at Israel’s security requirements and to suggest solutions. Speaking at the Saban Forum recently, Kerry said that some 160 people from US defence and intelligence organizations are involved in the project, evaluating the security implications of a Palestinian state from “every potential security scenario.”

         A key aspect of the evaluation is how both Israel and a future sovereign Palestine can be secured against infiltration by terrorists, or defended against future invasion by jihadists, across the Jordan valley from the east.

"We don't want to see rockets and missiles pouring into a Palestinian state,” said Netanyahu back in 2010, “and placed on the hills above Tel Aviv and the hills encircling Jerusalem. If Israel does not maintain a credible military and security presence in the Jordan Valley for the foreseeable future, this is exactly what could happen again."

The Jordan valley, some 120 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, extends from the outlet of the Jordan River up north at Lake Kinneret, to its inlet at the Dead Sea. To the north it forms the border between Israel and Jordan; further south it delineates the West Bank which extends along part of the Dead Sea. For the portion of the Dead Sea not included in the West Bank, the Israel-Jordan border runs right down its middle, and then down the Negev to the Red Sea.

As the Washington Post recently pointed out, a generation of Israeli generals has considered the Jordan Valley a crucial flank against a land invasion from the east. The valley has been under the control of the Israeli military since 1967. The area bristles with covert listening stations, radar sweeps and thermal- and night-vision cameras. On the mountain tops that rise steeply from the valley floor, Israel maintains a series of early-warning stations. Troops are on constant patrol along the river and the passes.

Kerry and his team have tried to help Israel overcome its security fears with offers of US-provided intelligence and technology, but Israel already has sophisticated drones, surveillance technology and some of the best “smart fences” in the world.  At one point, US diplomats discussed placing international troops in the Jordan Valley, but Israel pointed to numerous failures by UN forces in demilitarized zones along the Lebanon and Syrian borders.

In short, Israel sees its future security as dependent on the continued presence of its own forces in the Jordan valley. To the Palestinian Authority (PA), the whole concept of Israeli military being stationed in a future sovereign Palestine is anathema.  Equally unacceptable is the idea that Israel should transfer sovereignty of the Jordan Valley to the PA, which would in turn lease it back to Israel an idea that is not new.  Israel signed a similar leasing agreement with Jordan as part of the 1994 peace accords, in which Israel acknowledged Jordanian sovereignty over 300 square kilometres along the border, and leased back 30 square kilometres in automatically renewed long-term leases.

While the peace negotiators toss Jordan and its borders to and fro across the table, it is legitimate to wonder why Jordan itself has not been directly involved in the discussions, and what it thinks of a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan valley.  It is legitimate, because back in May 2013, when Kerry was in the process of setting up the peace discussions, he flew to Rome to meet 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.  “Jordan will play a key role,” said Kerry.

The fact is that the last thing 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. In addition Jordan wants Israel in the Jordan Valley to prevent a further influx of Palestinian Arabs. Jordan’s Palestinian majority has threatened the Hashemite monarchy in the past, including in the 1970-1971 Jordanian civil war.

Which explains recent reports of Jordan pushing the United States to support Israel’s position that it needs to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley. And indeed, in a new proposal to both Israel and the PA last week, Kerry is said to have suggested that Israel be permitted to maintain a military presence there. According to Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, Jordan coordinated with Israel to convince Kerry of the crucial importance of continued Israeli army control of the border region.

Predictably, the PA responded with outrage. Chief Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told France’s AFP  that Kerry had put the entire peace process on the verge of “total failure” by backing the Israeli demand.

If Jordan were permitted a look-in on the peace discussions, it might be able to convince the Palestinian negotiators that a deal with Israel on the Jordan Valley might  be no bad thing.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 December 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 December 2013:

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Will Assad triumph in Syria?

In November, when details of the peace conference on the Syrian civil war known as Geneva 2 were finally agreed, and the event was scheduled for January 22, 2014, the outcome of the conflict was in the balance.  A month later, it seems as though Bashar Assad’s régime supported as it is by Russia, Iran and Iraq, and augmented by substantial fighting forces from Hezbollah and the Iranian Al-Quds Brigades is gaining the upper hand militarily, while his opposition has fallen into disarray.  As a result, the projected peace conference could be a non-starter or, if it does take place, could easily degenerate into a travesty.
Back in April 2011, as small-scale popular protests developed into nationwide rebellion, it seemed that the rule of President Bashar al-Assad was doomed. Protesters were demanding his resignation and an end to Ba'ath Party rule, which began in 1963.  Soon the opposition began to organise political and military wings, in anticipation of a long uprising against the Assad regime. By December 2012 the US, Turkey, the Gulf states, France and Britain had recognised the main opposition, the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution (NCSR) , as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people" – a clear sign that they believed the Assad government was doomed. 
However, the NCSR never coalesced into a coherent or effective body, nor did it ever achieve sufficient authority to persuade Western powers to provide it with the sort of military support it needed to overcome the Syrian army. This was mainly because of the rise in its ranks of a radical Islamist militia allied to al-Qaeda the Al-Nusra front.  No Western power was minded to ally itself with the world’s number one terrorist organisation. The result was a marked cooling of international support for the National Coalition, and this, in turn, allowed the Assad government and its supporting fighting units to launch a counter-offensive. In August 2013, this onslaught included the use of chemical weapons indiscriminately against both rebel fighters and any civilians who chanced to get in the way.
Far from suffering the immediate and crushing retaliation repeatedly threatened by President Obama if Assad should dare to use chemical agents against his own people, Assad emerged from the incident relatively unscathed, if not positively strengthened.  His Russian ally took charge of the situation.  Perceiving the reluctance of Western powers, and especially the US, to use military force of any kind, Russia adopted the role of honest broker in fostering a diplomatic solution.  Assad was persuaded to destroy his chemical stockpile and its means of manufacture, and to submit to international inspection.
Since then Assad’s forces, strengthened by units from Hezbollah, the Iranian Al Quds Brigades and Iraqi Sh’ite fighters, has seized the military initiative.  To date, they can claim four major war gains.  The highway from Damascus to Syria’s two port towns, Latakia and Tartus, is now open by way of the town of Homs; the last remaining rebel supply routes from Lebanon are cut off; the Damascus-Beirut highway is now wholly under Hezbollah control; and on December 8, after a two-week siege, they retook Nabuk in the Qalamoun Mountains the last step before loosening the rebels’ two-year grip on the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
In brief, a stage has been reached where the rebels no longer seem to pose a military threat to Assad’s hold on power.  A consequence has been a crumbling of morale among the opposition forces. A number of rebel commanders have been defecting and handing sectors of eastern Damascus over to Assad’s forces, declaring they are no longer part of the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council (the SMC), the military wing of the National Coalition. Defectors include leaders of the new Islamic Front, an alliance of seven non-al-Qaeda jihadist groups which came together in November.
As a consequence, the more moderate elements of the opposition are engaged in a struggle on several fronts – against Assad and against a variety of hardline groupings, nominally their allies, including al-Qaeda. The most extreme is the group proclaiming the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has succeeded in taking over army posts in the north belonging to the Free Syrian Army. But ISIS is not having it all its own way because other extremist jihadist groups, many with their own agendas, have been using Syria as a convenient battleground on which to wage their intra-Islamic struggles. 
This fracturing of the anti-Assad nexus has political implications.  It means that attempts by the Western powers to forge a “moderate” military alliance that would oppose both Assad on the one hand, and his jihadist opponents including al-Qaeda on the other, are no longer practical. It also throws into confusion the question of who will be sitting round the peace conference table in Geneva on January 22 – assuming that event indeed takes place.
The Syrian opposition is now effectively in the hands of extreme Islamist groups with a very different agenda from that of the secular-led Free Syrian Army.  So even if moderate Syrian opposition leaders attend the Geneva talks, they would be in no position to negotiate a deal with President Bashar al-Assad on behalf of the rebels. The jihadist fanatics who now dominate the Syrian opposition have no interest in doing any kind of deal with the Assad regime. Many have a different agenda.  They are intent on establishing an extremist Sunni caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq   which is why Iraq is again facing an insurgent bloodbath, as al-Qaeda reclaims large swathes of territory in the west and north of the country.
As for the Islamic Front, six out of the seven groups that form the new alliance have explicitly rejected Geneva 2, and some have threatened to try for treason any moderate rebels who attend. Assad, especially if he retains military superiority, may well be present, sitting alongside his Russian ally and possibly Iran, if Russia succeeds in gaining it a seat at the table.  Together, this triumvirate would, at the very least, insist on Bashar Assad retaining the Syrian presidency.
So, if it does take place, Geneva 2 will resemble nothing so much as a performance of “Hamlet” without the prince – the absent prince being the effective elements in the opposition that, despite their recent reverses, remain intent on ousting Assad from power.  In short it is impossible to imagine anything productive coming out of the so-called peace conference. The almost certain outcome is that the war will continue, and that Assad might yet emerge the victor.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 December 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 December 2013:

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Saudi Arabia, Iran and the nuclear deal

Confused signals from the Saudi/Iranian front. 
That the Middle East’s two Islamic superpowers are competitors for the religious leadership of the Muslim world is well recognized.  Saudi Arabia, a key Arab state, contains both Mecca and Medina within its borders and is the guardian of the Sunni tradition of Islam. Its lack of affinity with Iran is acute.  The Islamic Republic of Iran is not an Arab but a Persian state, its native language is not Arabic but Farsi, and it proclaims itself the custodian of the Shi’ite branch of Islam. 
The Sharia law that each claims as its legal framework varies considerably between the two.  Iran’s version incorporates both the “Hadd” penal code of unalterable punishments for certain crimes and “jihad” – a call for Holy War which incorporates the obligation to convert the unfaithful.
For the past three decades, ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran began spreading its wings, the two states have pursued radically different political and religious paths.  Iran has declared  that Western-style democracies in general, and the United States and Israel in particular, are the devil incarnate.  They and those who support them, from whatever source – even from within Islam are legitimate targets for terrorist attack.  On the other hand Iran supports all those who oppose these representatives of Satan – even Muslims from the normally derided Sunni sects.  Thus Iran has armed, financed and sustained not only Shia-based Hezbollah in Lebanon, but Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood Hamas in Gaza.
Saudi Arabia has, in Iran’s eyes, been supping with the devil – and not with a particularly long spoon, for over the same period the Saudi monarchy has proved itself a major ally of the United States.  For this reason Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf régimes under its influence have been the object of Iranian-inspired plots aimed at destabilizing their governments.  As a result Arab states across the Middle East have come to view Iran’s activities – especially their obvious ambition to achieve hegemony in the region through the development of a nuclear weapons capability with acute suspicion.
But the politics of the Middle East are an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, and the old pattern is mutating before our eyes, initiated by the US’s perceptible change of gear in the region.  Abandoning established political attitudes expected of Washington, the Obama administration has clearly decided to stake its reputation on embracing diplomacy and dialogue as the method of choice in tackling some of the intractable problems of the region, and absorbing the deleterious consequences. 
Consequences there have been.  The new approach – applied to the Israel-Palestine dispute, to Bashar Assad and his chemical weapons, to Iran and its nuclear development program, and now to the resolution of the Syrian civil war has undoubtedly dented the US’s image in the Arab world.  With the US on the back foot, Iran has clearly decided to extend to the Arab world in general the “charm offensive” deployed with such success against the West by President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. 
Writing in the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, recently, Iran’s foreign minister Zarif said: “notwithstanding the focus on our interactions with the West, the reality is that our primary foreign policy priority is our region.”  He then undertook a tour of Gulf states Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to persuade them that a deal between Iran and Western powers on Tehran's nuclear program would enhance regional stability.  Almost anything could be read into the notable omission of Saudi Arabia from his itinerary. but Zarif was careful to post on his Facebook page a note to the effect that he was ready for negotiations with Saudi Arabia whenever Riyadh was ready, adding that talks would  be “beneficial for both countries, the region and the Muslim world.”
Had relations with the US not deteriorated as they have done, this extension of Iran’s charm offensive would surely have cut little ice in Saudi Arabia.  In the changed circumstances, it has not been written off.  Speaking on his return to Washington from a recent visit to the kingdom, Richard LeBaron, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Kuwait, said that Saudi Arabia is expected “in the next few months” to begin diplomatic engagements with Iran to “test the waters.”
The former ambassador said that the kingdom is beginning to think through its options. “If they think the scenario is going to emerge where the United States is going to have improved relations with Iran, I think they’ll want to hedge their own bets and test Rouhani’s indication that he believes, for example, that improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia should be an Iranian priority.”
Soon after the interim agreement with Iran was announced in Geneva, the Saudi Arabian cabinet issued a statement welcoming its implications:  “The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program. The kingdom hopes the agreement will be followed by further steps that would guarantee the rights of all states in the region to peaceful nuclear energy.”
The final words may be more significant than at first appears, for Barry Pavel, another official with the Atlantic Council group, said that during their meetings in the kingdom they were told that if Iran reaches a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia would go to the US “or other countries” to develop their own nuclear capabilities.” For “other countries”, read Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, yet the interim nuclear deal with Iran has projected the two nations into the same corner and resulted in shared concerns about the future.  Various rumours have persisted, including joint meetings between the Gulf states and Israel and, most recently, an unconfirmed report from Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency that the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia and Israel are “co-conspiring to produce a computer worm more destructive than the Stuxnet malware to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.”
The words that the poet Tennyson puts into the mouth of the dying King Arthur spring to mind:
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways…

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 December 2013:

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Iran's darker purpose

                            Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
                            Give me the map there.....                                                                                                                    Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

                      Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his new chosen instrument,  President Sayyed Hassan Rouhani, have already given the world a glimpse of Iran’s darker purpose in entering into negotiation with the world powers.

   After the initial round of talks early in November 2013, Rouhani gave a speech in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, under the title, “Iran Did Not Go to the Negotiations Because of the Sanctions.”

“The significance of the talks’ success,” he said, “is that Iran will be able to fulfill its role better in the world and the region. The world must recognize that without Iran’s presence and participation, the problems of the region will either remain unsolved or will be solved at a high price. There is no doubt that Iran’s involvement in international issues will play a constructive and effective role. The reason we have agreed to sit with the powers at the negotiating table is that they are convinced that the sanctions are not the solution.”

In other words, Iran is using the sanctions/nuclear development issue and the eagerness of the western powers to reach an agreement on it as a key to unlock the door that has so far barred its way to the world’s top table.  For it is only by sitting as of right with global leaders that Iran’s essential strategic aim pre-eminence in the Middle East can be asserted and strengthened. 

No doubt Iran will be bidding for a seat at the Geneva-II Syrian peace conference, to be held on January 22, 2014. Aimed at a democratic political transition, the conference is billed as bringing the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table for the first time since the conflict started in March 2011.  Iran is heavily engaged in the civil war. It supports and equips a substantial Hezbollah fighting force with the aim of maintaining Bashar Assad in power, and ensuring that Syria emerges from the conflict as a key element in the “Shia Muslim crescent” under Iran’s leadership.

Iran’s wider expectations flowing from the interim agreement reached with the P5+1 powers seem to be matched by the US and the UK.  Reports on November 28 claim that the UK is acting as honest broker in secret negotiations currently being conducted between Hezbollah and the US, which cannot act independently because, unlike the UK, it has categorized both Hezbollah’s military and its political wing as “terrorist”.  Senior British diplomatic sources, quoted in a report in the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai, said the backstairs discussions are intended to “prepare for the upcoming return of Iran to the international community.”

And indeed so far the discussion of Iran’s nuclear program has been conducted without connection to other regional issues where Iran exerts decisive influence. These include the ongoing crisis in Syria and Hezbollah’s involvement in it – described by one Saudi spokesman as an Iranian invasion; Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon; Iran’s continued support for groups opposed to a political settlement with Israel; Iran’s subversive activities in the Gulf States, particularly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; and, to cast the net wider, the reshaping of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Do the US and the UK envisage bringing Iran into discussions on these matters, should a final agreement be reached on the nuclear issue?

Such an aspiration would have profound repercussions across the Middle East, and nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia, hitherto regarded as the US’s main ally after Israel in the region.

Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization, which is under its control,  together with that part of Syria still governed by Bashar Assad, form the bulk of the key Shi’ite grouping dedicated to opposing the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian-Saudi rivalry is essentially about power and money, but as political risk analyst Primoz Manfreda has pointed out, the two governments are also ideological rivals.  Saudi royals have spent vast amounts funding the spread of the Sunni Wahabi school, an ultra-conservative, literal interpretation of Islam, which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, is dedicated to its own version of political Islam. The founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a passionate advocate of government by strict Sharia law, condemned the Saudi monarchy as a tyrannical, illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, rather than God.    

The vacillating image conveyed recently by the United States in respect of Egypt, of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and of Iran’s nuclear ambitions has raised great concern among its neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia. Turki al-Faisal is a former Saudi ambassador to the United States. In his recent address to the annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference he revealed that, should the Iranian leadership succeed in building a nuclear weapon, he has advised Gulf Cooperation Council members to consider acquiring their own nuclear deterrent.

As regards the endemic Shia-Sunni power struggle, he said:  “Iran portrays itself as the leader of not just the minority Shiite world, but of all Muslim revolutionaries interested in standing up to the West.” He continued: “Another concern we need to address in the coming decade, is the Iranian leadership’s meddling and destabilizing efforts in countries with Shia majorities, Iraq and Bahrain, as well as those countries with significant minority Shia communities, such as Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen, and the fact that it still occupies the three Emirati islands in the Gulf and refuses to talk about them.”

The fact is that Iran remains what it has been since the Islamic Revolution – a rogue state that supports and exports terror in pursuit of its aims.  The list of kidnappings, bombings, assassinations and guerrilla warfare conducted under Iranian auspices across the world from Argentina to Berlin to Kenya is frighteningly long, and Iran shows no sign of withdrawing its support from terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban. 

In short, Iran’s regional, ideological and political aims are unlikely to undergo a sea change on account of the interim agreement. On the contrary, its reasons for coming to the nuclear negotiating table its “darker purpose” extend well beyond the nuclear issue. They reflect, as Michael Segall recently wrote, “a wide range of regional and international interests, along with Iran’s assessment of the United States’ declining regional and international status and its own expanding reach.”

This is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that the western world seems eager to embrace. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 December 2013:
 Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 December 2013: