Tuesday, 24 November 2015

EU labelling and the Arab Peace Plan

        If there’s one thing you cannot fault the European Union on, it’s consistency. For the last forty years the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), have maintained that the territory occupied by the Arab armies on the day the armistice between them and Israel was signed – July 20, 1949 – are the borders of a putative sovereign state of Palestine.

        Of course, Israel was not fighting Palestinians in 1949. There was no such Arab entity. It was facing the armies of Egypt and Jordan, and it was with those sovereign nations that Israel signed the armistice. Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specifies that the cease-fire agreement had been “dictated exclusively by military considerations,” and did not “prejudice the rights, claims and positions of the parties”. The EU and its predecessors, however, have never acknowledged that the ceasefire lines were not to be regarded as permanent borders.

        What happened after 1949? On April 24, 1950 King Abdullah of Jordan annexed the West Bank together with east Jerusalem, areas the Jordanian army had overrun and occupied during their attack on the new-born state of Israel, and formally incorporated them into the Hashemite Kingdom. In June 1967 Jordan still held this territory – illegally, according to most of world opinion – when it joined with Egypt and Syria in planning a three-pronged attack on Israel.

        In the Six-Day War of June 5-10, 1967 Israel chased the Jordanian army out of the west bank of the Jordan and Jerusalem, pushed the Egyptian army out of Gaza and pursued it across the Sinai peninsula, and captured the Golan Heights from Syrian forces.

        Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out that 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.”

        In championing Palestinian sovereignty the EU has consistently ignored the fact that in 1967 the West Bank did not, according to international law, belong to Jordan, or indeed to any sovereign state. This became even more obvious in 1988, when Jordan renounced its annexation. Subsequently, however, a general consensus arose that if or when the Israel-Palestinian conflict is resolved by way of a two-state solution, the majority of the area will form part of a sovereign Palestine.

        In 1999, at a meeting held in Berlin, the EU announced: ”The European Union declares its readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian State in due course.” This the European parliament duly did, although only in principle, on December 17, 2014.

        The corollary emerged on November 12, 2015. In a “Notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”, the European Commission stated that the EU does not consider the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be part of sovereign Israel. So the notice advises that all products originating from these areas and being sold in the EU should be labelled to indicate they are not from Israel proper.

        “For products from Palestine that do not originate from settlements,” states the notice, “an indication … could be 'product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)' ‘product from Gaza’ or 'product from Palestine'.

        The EU seems blissfully unaware of the anomaly it is promulgating. Bending over backwards to ensure that certain goods are labelled as not emanating from the Israel that the EU recognizes, it recommends they are labelled as coming from a state of Palestine that does not exist.

        What is this “Palestine”? In effect the EU has determined it consists of the territory occupied by Jordanian forces on July 20, 1949, together with Gaza, where the PA’s writ does not run, and where the de facto rulers, Hamas, are designated a terrorist organisation by the EU.

        “A lasting solution,” runs the EU’s official policy statement, “must be achieved on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, the Madrid principles including land for peace, the Roadmap, agreements previously reached by the parties and of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

        The Arab Peace Initiative was promulgated in March 2002 by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, when he was still Crown Prince. Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of “right of return” or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). The plan was discussed for a week and adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions.

        The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.

        Early in President Obama’s first term the plan was incorporated into US foreign policy and, just prior to the start of the 2014 peace negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry achieved something of a triumph in discussions with Arab League delegates. “The Arab League delegation affirmed…the two-state solution,” he announced, “on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line [note “line” not “border”], with the (possibility) of comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land.”

        On 12 November 2015 Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal called for the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative. In a pre-recorded message to the Israel Conference for Peace in Tel-Aviv, he urged Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to declare that he was “ willing to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative,” adding that he believed the plan could jump-start a new peace process. “What better time … for Israel to say, ‘Let us have peace with our neighbours’ and come from a position of strength to the table.”

        This time, to ensure that Palestinian hardliners do not sabotage delicate negotiations, and perhaps to exert some pressure on the PA delegation, the table should include Arab League representatives. Something of the sort was actually suggested by Netanyahu, in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2014.

        “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace,” he said. To achieve that peace, he asserted, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere. In short, Israel’s prime minister backs the idea of a broadly-based peace conference. 

        As for the EU, for once he could be assured of its support.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 November 2015:

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Russo-Iranian missile deal

          Russia’s S-300 family of surface-to-air missiles is generally acknowledged to include the most sophisticated and effective air-defence systems in the world. There are nearly 30 variations of S-300 in existence, and the PS and PM versions are, it is believed, fitted with nuclear warheads. It was more than mildly disturbing, therefore, to learn on November 9 that Russia has lifted its embargo on supplying Iran with the S-300, and that a firm contract to provide four systems is signed and sealed. What is not yet clear is when they will be delivered.

          Speaking at the Dubai Airshow-2015, which ran from November 8-12, Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russia’s Rostec Corporation, the conglomerate that includes arms exporter Rosobornexport, said: “The contract for the delivery of the S-300 to Iran…has already entered into force.”

         This deal has had a long gestation. The contract under which Russia agreed to supply Iran with S-300 missile systems was signed back in 2007. Three years later, following the imposition of sanctions by the UN on Iran, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stepped in to prohibit the deal from going ahead. Iran hit back by filing a lawsuit with a Geneva arbitration tribunal against Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms company, claiming nearly $4 billion in damages.

          In April, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin repealed his predecessor’s ban on fulfilling the contract. Following the conclusion of the US-led nuclear deal with Iran on July 14, Putin decided that, since international sanctions on Iran were about to be lifted, Russia would give the S-300 contract the go-ahead. As a result Iranian and Russian officials are negotiating about the withdrawal of the lawsuit.

          But Russia has jumped the gun. The official timeline for implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran allows sanctions to be lifted only when the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verifies that Iran has implemented key nuclear-related measures, such as reducing its stockpiles of fissile materials and centrifuges.

          But on October 21 Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, published a document laying down nine new requirements before Iran would agree to implement the JCPOA. These unilateral conditions fundamentally change what was agreed on July 14, and virtually declare the JCPOA a dead letter.

          For example, under the JCPOA Iran is obligated to start changing the function of its nuclear reactor at Arak and shipping out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium as a precondition for the lifting of sanctions. In his document Khamenei declares that Iran will not carry out these actions until after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) closes its dossier on Iran, targeted for December 15. But how can the IAEA report by the target date about Iran meeting its obligations, when Iran is not even going to begin doing so by then? In short, the JCPOA has been thwarted from the very start.

            So far the US and the EU appear to have turned a blind eye to Iran’s new position on the nuclear deal, but if Khameini means what he says and acts on it, they will surely have to defer the lifting of sanctions. Russia too, as one of the negotiating parties to the nuclear deal, will have to decide whether to hold off providing Iran with the S-300 missile systems.

          Providing the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with the world’s most sophisticated surface-to-air missile system might be a lucrative business deal for the Russian arms industry, but it represents a considerable risk for the world in general, and the Middle East in particular. It seems to have little relevance to the joint Russo-Iranian operation in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Neither the Free Syrian Army nor Islamic State have air power at their disposal. The only air combatant besides Russia itself is the US-led alliance, and there could surely be no intention in Tehran to use S-300 surface–to-air missiles against them – although, if Syria’s civil conflict were to be prolonged, Iran’s mere possession of them might act as some sort of deterrent.

          No, Iran is seeking, and Russia is supplying, S-300s as part of a system of defence against aerial attack on one or more of three possible targets: Iran’s nuclear facilities; the military installations of its stooge army, Hezbollah, in the event of a new conflict with Israel; or the Iranian-supported Houthi forces in Yemen, currently under aerial bombardment by the Saudi Arabian coalition.

          No wonder that the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel are all opposed to the missile contract that Russia has signed with Iran. The one saving grace is that no date has been set for delivery of the S-300 systems. Long may it be delayed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 November 2015:

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Iran reneges on the nuclear deal

          Iran’s body politic is far from tension-free. Not only does the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keep the tightest of reins on the political process and the politicians who administer it, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also regard it as their bounden duty to protect the principles of the revolution by stamping on any politician with too-liberal tendencies.

          Back in 2013, Khamanei had lost faith in the then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not least because the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on Iran since 2005 were biting hard, and Ahmadinejad had no policy for easing them. So Khamenei backed the more accommodating Hassan Rouhani in the new presidential elections, and charged him with negotiating Iran’s way out of the sanctions.

          Rouhani succeeded, but in his very success lie the seeds of his failure. On November 3 the New York Times reported that Rouhani’s hard-line adversaries in the government were promoting an internal backlash against the nuclear deal. In addition, the Revolutionary Guards Corps had started arresting pro-deal journalists, activists and cultural figures.

          The development reflects the current views of the Supreme Leader. Yes, Khamenei heartily approves of the fact that the US and the EU are prepared to lift sanctions on Iran, but no, the Supreme Leader does not like the conditions they have laid down, and that Rouhani has agreed to. Perhaps reckoning that the US president and world leaders are so anxious for a deal with Iran that he has more leeway than the signed document apparently allows, Khamenei has virtually stated in black and white that Iran has no intention whatsoever of adhering to the terms of the agreement reached on July 14, 2015.

          July 14 was the day that world powers, led by the US, reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Under its terms, sanctions will be lifted only when the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verifies that Iran has implemented key nuclear-related measures, such as reducing its stockpiles of fissile materials and centrifuges.

          “Adoption Day”– the day participants would start the process of implementing their JCPOA commitments – was set for October 18. On that day, therefore, the US and the EU began preparatory measures for lifting the multiple sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy since they were first imposed in 2005. Only three days later, on October 21, Ayatollah Khamenei published a letter of guidelines to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the JCPOA.

          This letter, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported, was posted on Khamenei’s website in Persian, tweeted from his Twitter account, posted on his Facebook page in English, and published in English by the Iran Broadcasting Authority. In this document, clearly the definitive statement of the conditions under which Iran would be willing to execute the JCPOA, Iran’s Supreme Leader sets nine new and unilateral conditions that fundamentally change what was agreed on July 14. In short, he has virtually declared the JCPOA a dead letter.

          What are these nine new conditions?

          First Khamenei demands that sanctions are lifted fully, not suspended, before Iran takes steps to meet its obligations under the agreement. In addition he asserts that any endorsement by the West of the “snapback” option (the reintroduction of sanctions should Iran fail to meet the terms of the agreement) will be considered “non-compliance with the JCPOA”.

          Secondly: Any future sanctions against Iran for whatever reason, including terrorism or human rights violations, will “constitute a violation of the JCPOA,” and a reason for Iran to stop executing the agreement.

          Thirdly: Under the JCPOA Iran is obligated to start changing the function of its nuclear reactor at Arak and shipping out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium. In his letter Khamenei declares that Iran will not carry out these actions until after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) closes its dossier on Iran, targeted for December 15. But the IAEA will not be able to report about Iran meeting its obligations regarding the Arak reactor and shipping out its enriched uranium by the target date, because Iran is not going to do so by then. In short, the JCPOA has been thwarted from the very start.

          Fourth: Iran will change the purpose of the Arak reactor only after there is a signed agreement on an “alternative plan” and “sufficient guarantee” that it will be implemented. In other words, Iran intends to postpone fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA regarding the Arak reactor to some unknown future date.

          Fifth: Iran intends to postpone indefinitely the date set by the JCPOA for shipping out its enriched uranium to another country in exchange for yellowcake. Moreover Khamenei is demanding that Iran receive in exchange for the enriched uranium not raw uranium as per the JCPOA, but instead uranium that has been enriched, albeit to a lower level than the uranium it ships out.

          Sixth: Khamenei instructs President Rouhani, while reducing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium under the JCPOA, immediately to expand Iran’s ability to enrich uranium on a 15-year long-term plan for 190,000 centrifuges. In short, he is nullifying the declared goal of the JCPOA, which is to reduce Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities.

          Seventh: The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization must ensure continued nuclear research and development, in its various dimensions, so that in eight years’ time, Iran will not be lacking in enrichment technology.

          Eighth: Khamenei declares that Iran must be involved in resolving queries about the JCPOA – a recipe for unending dispute and the ability to paralyze the execution of the agreement.

          Ninth: A new committee tasked with monitoring the execution of the agreement is to be established – nominally to obviate any attempt by the US or the West to cheat, but in effect, a mechanism for creating perpetual obstacles to carrying out the agreement.

          So far world opinion has turned a blind eye to Khamenei’s virtual rejection of the nuclear agreement. The US and the EU are proceeding enthusiastically with the first stages of dismantling their multiple sanctions regimes. Government officials and businessmen from around the globe are making a beeline for Tehran, eager to share in the vast commercial opportunities they see awaiting.

          The nuclear agreement is the basis for Iran’s re-entry into the comity of nations, and Khamenei seems to be setting the stage for a battle of wills between Iran and the West. Will the West’s desire to come to terms with Iran outweigh Iran’s determination to give away less than their president has actually signed up to? Will the West delay the lifting of sanctions? Who will blink first?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 November 2015:

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The US and Russia in Syria and Iraq – foes or allies?

        Battlefields are chaotic. In the turmoil created by forces in conflict, it is often difficult to discern a clear pattern until the smoke of battle has cleared. The battlefields that are Syria and Iraq are especially difficult to evaluate. Are the US and Russia foes or allies? Implausible though it may seem, they are actually both simultaneously, at least on a tactical level. Strategically, they are poles apart.

        Long-standing Russo-Syrian accords have provided Russia with invaluable naval and military assets inside Syria. Protecting them means supporting President Bashar al-Assad, at least in the short term. Assad is fighting two main opponents – his domestic enemies represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and Islamic State (IS), the Sunni jihadist organization intent on overrunning the whole of Syria and Iraq. On entering the fray Russia undertook to strike both, though so far it has rather concentrated its firepower against the FSA. According to a survey compiled by the Institute for the Study of War, out of 64 targets attacked in air strikes by Russia during the first three weeks of its campaign, a maximum of 15 were in areas held by IS.

        The US, however, entered the Syrian conflict in order to boost the FSA, fight IS in conjunction with them, and overthrow Assad. The US coalition has been supporting FSA military operations with air strikes although, it must be said, to no great effect as yet. With Russia attacking FSA and the US supporting them, the two outside protagonists seem at daggers drawn.

        Russia’s clear aim of establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East is certainly not to America’s liking, and doubtless played a part in the recent accord between the US and Saudi Arabia, both concerned about the growing number of Russian air-strikes in support of the Assad regime. On October 25, they announced a joint agreement to boost their military and diplomatic effort in aid of the Syrian rebels.

        “They pledged to continue and intensify support to the moderate Syrian opposition while the political track is being pursued," announced the State Department.

        The “moderate Syrian opposition” are precisely the forces being attacked by Russia and Iranian-backed fighters. This enhanced US-Saudi activity must be co-ordinated with the Russians in some way, or the two sides, if only by proxy, could find themselves in active combat against each other.

        If they are on opposite sides in this aspect of the conflict, the US and Russia are at one in their opposition to IS and its ruthless drive to extend its power over the region and wider. Even so, Russia’s latest move in this struggle is unlikely to meet with US approval.

        On October 26 Russian officials were reported to have been discussing with senior Taliban warlords in Afghanistan the possibility of an alliance aimed at defeating IS in Syria and Iraq. In return Russia’s President Putin would supply the Taliban with heavy weapons and promise to support it internationally should it overthrow the Afghan government and retake control of the country. Pure self-interest on Russia’s part dictates the move. Bringing Taliban fighters into the conflict on its side could avoid the need to deploy Russian boots on the ground.

        The Taliban and IS would be well-matched as opponents. They are as fanatical, vicious and inhumane as each other. The record of Taliban rule over Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s is every bit as barbarous as that of IS in Syria and Iraq. Public executions and amputations flourished; men were required to grow beards; women had to wear the all-covering burka; girls were banned from going to school. Television, music and cinema were proscribed.

        The Taliban record, however, counts for nothing in Russian eyes, when set against the realpolitik advantages of a Russo-Taliban alliance, although how Russia intends to square this move with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, both committed to overthrowing the Taliban, is anybody’s guess.

        The Iranian dimension to Syria’s civil conflict adds a further complication. Iran regards Syria as its client state – an essential building block in the Shi’ite axis it has assembled across the Middle East – and it has supported Assad with money, arms and fighting forces, both its own Revolutionary Guards and scores of thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. It considers Sunni IS its implacable enemy, and directs considerable military effort to countering IS attempts to expand its territorial advances in both Syria and Iraq.

        As regards Iran’s role, the US, unlike Russia, is in a morally ambiguous position. It disapproves of Iran’s pro-Assad activities in Syria, but favours its anti-IS activities in Iraq.

        In September 2014, while Iran was in the midst of negotiating the future of its nuclear programme, the BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had authorised his top commander fighting IS in Iraq to co-ordinate military operations with the US, Iraqi and Kurdish forces. By March 2015, with the delicate nuclear negotiations still under way, the American-led coalition in Iraq launched airstrikes to support Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi troops fighting IS for the key city of Tikrit, which they eventually won back.

        And then, on October 24, the Iraqi government announced that it is authorizing the Russian military to use the Al Taqaddum airbase that is also being used by US troops for operations against IS. So it looks as though Russia and the US have become allies of a sort in Iraq.

        Iran and Russia appear to be in close accord, but everything in the Russo-Iranian garden is far from perfect. A variety of observers believe that the military alliance between Christian Russia and Shi’ite Iran aimed at keeping Assad in power is fraught with underlying tension. For example, Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, believes that Russian and Iranian long-term interests diverge.

        “Russia does not trust Iran,” he says. “Russia doesn’t want Iran to be an equal partner in Syria. Russia wants to rule the roost.” He believes Russia has no wish to see an Iranian-led Shi’ite bloc dominating the Middle East.

       If Russia’s strategic interests are indeed out of kilter with Iran’s, the way might be open for the US to seek some kind of deal with Russia aimed at limiting the Shi’ite axis. This possibility, running counter to the whole Middle East approach of the Obama administration, may lie hidden within the present political maelstrom – a prize to be won by a future US president.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 November 2015: