Saturday, 27 May 2017

Rouhani's bitter-sweet triumph

        The 20th of May 2017 was a red letter day for Middle East politics. Not only was Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, re-elected by a substantial majority to a second term of office, but it was the day that US President Trump, on the opening leg of his first foreign tour, landed in Saudi Arabia to a right royal reception and, within hours, was signing a multi-billion dollar deal with his hosts.

        Shortly afterwards the President made a keynote speech to some 50 leaders of the Arab world. In its closing passages he turned to Iran, but you could scour the transcript for any word of congratulation to the re-elected Rouhani. Instead Trump was unremitting in his condemnation of the Iranian regime.

        “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen,” he said, “Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror...Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism...”

        To what extent has Rouhani been complicit in the regime’s involvement over the years in acts of terror, and its support for terrorist organisations like Hezbollah and Hamas? There is no escaping the conclusion that – moderate though Rouhani can be dubbed in comparison with hardline elements within the Iranian body politic – as Iran’s president for the past four years, and as a leading servant of the state for decades earlier, he bears a heavy share of the guilt.

        An early supporter of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, he was a leading light in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and subsequently held a string of important government posts, controlling aspects of the nation’s defence forces, and acting as security adviser to the president, and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

        And yet Rouhani was never as extreme as the hardline caucus – the guardians of the revolution – that was a permanent feature of the Khomeini administration and has remained so. When in 2005 the presidency was won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose extreme views Rouhani was never afraid to criticize, he resigned as secretary of the security council. Following Ahmadinejad's second term, Rouhani ran for president against several hardline candidates, promising moderation and more engagement with the outside world. He won with more than 50 percent of the vote.

        Yet it must be remembered that in Iran the title Supreme Leader means what it says. The regime is strictly controlled, and it would have been impossible for Rouhani to have stood in the presidential election without the explicit support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who must have adjudged him sufficiently mainstream in terms of Iran’s revolutionary orthodoxy. As for his political agenda, Rouhani made no secret of his desire to reopen negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue, linked to the lifting of the sanctions that had crippled the Iranian economy. Khamenei must have felt that a move away from Ahmadinejad’s confrontational tactics might yield some economic and political benefits.

        An easing of sanctions certainly followed the signing of the nuclear agreement, and by adhering strictly to the terms of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the basis of the nuclear deal – Rouhani ensured that sanctions were progressively lifted. Even Trump signed a sanctions waiver on 17 May. Although by the time of the election economic benefits had not filtered down to the general population, and unemployment remained very high, there was a general feeling that Rouhani had improved the country’s international standing. His liberalisation policy was popular among the upper-middle classes and the intelligentsia.

        The feeling did not extend to the conservative element within Iran’s polity. They had opposed the nuclear deal on two grounds: it would inhibit Iran’s bid for regional hegemony by restricting its development of nuclear power, and opening up Iran to greater interchange with the rest of the world would pose a threat to the integrity of the Iranian Islamic revolution. Indeed, immediately after the signing of the JCPOA, the Supreme Leader made it clear that Iran’s hatred of western democracy was unaffected. “Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”

        Scores of potential candidates in Iran’s presidential election were rejected, one by one, by Iran’s Guardian Council, doubtless with the approval of the Supreme Leader. The choice finally offered to Iran’s electorate narrowed to just two – Rouhani and a genuine hardline conservative, Ebrahim Raisi, one of the so-called “principlist” or osulgarayan group of fanatic supporters of the Supreme Leader. Not surprisingly the general perception was that Khameini favoured Raisi – although he was careful never to endorse Raisi publicly.

        Rouhani’s victory, while undoubtedly a personal triumph, must be leaving him decidedly uneasy on a number of grounds. He knows that any efforts he makes to liberalise conditions domestically, or to increase the country’s standing internationally, will be opposed by the enormously powerful hardline elements embedded within the administration. He will be aware that the Supreme Leader, while prepared to allow him another term of office in which to expand foreign investment and ease the domestic economic situation, will permit no policy initiatives that impact on the basic aims of the Iranian revolution – the political domination of the region, the global expansion of Shia Islam, and the eventual overthrow of western democracy.

        Rouhani accordingly must be mulling rather nervously over Donald Trump’s remarks to the assembled Sunni Arab leaders in Riyadh, amounting as they do to a call to arms against Iran. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism...”

        Rouhani hopes that some at least of the other five states which signed the nuclear deal, Russia in particular, will oppose Trump’s push towards Iran’s international isolation. He also hopes, as he declared during the election campaign, to improve relations with at least some of the Sunni Arab states. If he fails in either hope, his triumph will be bitter-sweet indeed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 May 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 May 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 June 2017:

                  [Next posting:  Saturday, 3 June 2017 at 8.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 20 May 2017

UK peers urge pro-Iran, pro-Palestinian policies

        A year ago, in May 2016, Britain’s House of Lords decided to establish a new International Relations Committee. On 2 May 2017, after six months deliberation, the committee issued its second report: “The Middle East: Time for New Realism”. It is, quite frankly, an astonishing document, imbued with unconcealed hostility towards US President Donald Trump, with the anti-Brexit rhetoric of much of the British establishment, and with downright naïve recommendations, reflecting the consensus of the politically correct, concerning Saudi Arabia, the Iran nuclear deal, and Palestinian sovereignty.

        Roughly reflecting the composition of the House of Lords itself, the 12-member International Relations Committee contains only four Conservatives. The rest are left-wing, liberal or unaffiliated peers. An amalgam of their prejudices informs every aspect of this new report.

        Anti-Trumpism prevails. "The mercurial and unpredictable nature of policy-making by President Trump,” it asserts uncompromisingly, “has made it challenging for the UK government to influence US foreign policy so far, a challenge that is not likely to ease." Based on this assertion, the committee chairman, Lord Howell of Guildford, said:

        "We have a new and uncertain American policy in the region…We can no longer assume America will set the tone for the West’s relationship with the Middle East, and the UK must give serious thought to how our own approach will need to change.”

        The serious thought undertaken by the International Relations Committee boils down, inter alia, to:
        – discounting any pro-Brexit optimism that UK citizens may harbour about negotiating a UK-Gulf trade deal: “the UK's departure from the European Union does not necessarily offer the UK any added advantage”;
        – urging the UK government to “work with Iran, despite US policy, to ensure the stability of the Iran nuclear deal”; and
        – placing the onus of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute unequivocally on Israel. Accordingly, their logic runs, “the Government should now give serious consideration to recognising Palestine as a state, as the best way to show its determined attachment to achieving the two-state solution.”

        Illogicality permeates the Committee’s stance on Iran. It turns a Nelsonian blind eye to the clear evidence provided to it by a Middle East expert, who spelled out Iran’s unconcealed religious and political ambition to undermine Sunni Arab states and dominate the region. It takes no account of Iran’s record as the world’s leading sponsor of terror, its long history of initiating, promoting and supporting terrorism across the globe aimed at the Western democratic world, and in particular the US and Israel. Nor does it project any likely scenario involving a nuclear-armed Iran in some fifteen years’ time, when nuclear weaponry would become available not only to Iran, but via Iran to the jihadist-minded terrorist organizations it supports.

        On the contrary, the committee’s concern is that Iran might feel frustrated if it is barred from Western markets. It worries that the nuclear deal could be imperilled by “a hostile US administration”, and that US sanctions “remain a serious impediment to attracting new finance and investment into Iran.” As regards what might be done to contain a rampant Iran, the committee throws its hands in the air, but can’t avoid a dig at the US at the same time. “The international community is limited in its capacity to respond to Iranian provocation in the region, but the approach by the US has a dangerous escalatory logic.”

        So, wishing for the moon, the Committee suggests that the “external parties” to the Iran nuclear agreement should “find a way” to form a united and proportionate international position on Iranian actions. When one considers that these “external parties” include not only the US but also Russia and China, the committee’s recommendation becomes so much wishful thinking – a replica of the UN Security Council hamstrung by the veto.

        Reinforcing its policy of weak appeasement, the Committee concludes that the external parties “will also have to recognise that Iran has legitimate security interests and needs to be recognised as having a role as a regional power.”

        Regarding the Israel-Palestine issue, the witnesses selected to be heard by the committee were, without exception, out of sympathy with Israel. The committee heard no evidence of any sort critical of past or present Palestinian policies. It did not probe the Palestinian failure during the numerous peace initiatives of the past decades to come to an accord with Israel. It heard nothing of the possible effect of leaving a new sovereign Palestine on the West Bank unprotected against Hamas, nor of the associated security concerns of Israel in that event. In fact the Committee entirely ignores the presence of Hamas in the Gaza strip, ruling some 2 million Palestinians.

        The Committee seems focused on the idea that Israel, in the words of one of its witnesses, “holds all the cards” and that “more political robustness” is needed by the UK. So, roundly condemning past and present settlement construction as “illegal and an impediment to peace”, the Committee asserts that “the balance of power in the delivery of peace lies with Israel. If Israel continues to reduce the possibilities of a two-state solution, the UK should be ready to support UNSC resolutions condemning those actions in no uncertain terms.”

        Moreover the Committee urges the UK government to associate itself with the French-led initiative aimed at obtaining international recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state if no face-to-face talks can be organized. This initiative surely carries within it the seeds of its own failure. If Palestinian leaders know in advance that they will gain international recognition provided there are no negotiations, why on earth should they agree to negotiate? Even given the partial and skewed evidence the committee received, it is difficult to perceive how it can believe that recognizing the Palestinian Authority as a state could advance an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. All the major issues that have frustrated past attempts will remain unresolved – the refugee problem, the status of Jerusalem in general and the holy places in particular, Israel’s security, the future of Gaza, the eternal Hamas-Fatah feud.

        This report is shallow, biased and inadequate. Take it back, my Lords, and try again!

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 May 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 22 May 2017:

         [Next posting Saturday, 27 May 2017 at 10.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Can deal-maker Trump facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace?

        US President Donald Trump has one attribute that his greatest friends and most impassioned enemies are agreed on – he is a great deal-maker. Deal-making has been the key to his business success, which has been considerable. And way back in the 1980s he co-authored “The Art of the Deal” which reached number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, and stayed there for 13 weeks.

        So when Trump declares, after meeting Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, that he believes he can foster an Israel-Palestinian peace deal, perhaps the world should take notice. On 3 May 2017 Trump remarked: “I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians; let’s prove them wrong…I think there’s a very, very good chance.”

        Such an undertaking would certainly represent a challenge for this master in deal-making, but nothing in his business career suggests that Trump is one to duck a challenge. In fact the Trump-Abbas meeting was an object lesson in how a successful deal-broker might manage the preliminary stages of a particularly complicated and delicate operation. Take two small, yet highly significant, indicators.

        How often do you see the president of the United States position himself in front of any flag other than the Stars and Stripes? But examine the photographs of Trump and Abbas at the media conference that followed their one-on-one discussions. The leader standing in front of the American flag is Abbas; Trump is placed in front of the flag of the putative state of Palestine. Trump agreed to this symbolic gesture, it is reported, at the specific request of the PA.

        On the other hand, scrutinize every word said publicly by Trump during Abbas’s visit, and you will fail to find one mention of a Palestinian state or any reference to the two-state solution. Prominent member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, Hanan Ashwari, remarked afterwards: "He made sure he never mentioned Palestine — you noticed that, yes?"

        So, on the one hand he accorded Abbas every honour feasible, real and symbolic; on the other he bowed to the susceptibilities of the Israeli government, leaving open the possible process of setting up a viable new peace negotiation and also any desired outcome.

        As far as the deal-making process is concerned, the rumour is that, soon after his forthcoming trip to the Middle East scheduled for mid-May, Trump will seek to convene a regional summit. The Los Angeles Times reports that Trump “hopes to enlist some Sunni Muslim Arab allies in crafting a deal. Several, especially among the Persian Gulf states, have quietly signaled a willingness to cooperate with the administration — and, by extension, with Israel — in exchange for tougher actions against their common enemy, Shiite Muslim Iran.”

        Tzipi Livni, once Israel’s foreign minister, and chief Israeli negotiator in the last attempt at peace talks, recently wrote that while it usually takes two to tango, “in our case, we may need a few more dancers.”

        “The United States,” she wrote, “will undoubtedly be a central player for such an agreement, but we should not underestimate the role of the pragmatic, moderate Arab states.”

        In point of fact, the Arab world’s involvement would be a vital necessity if three cardinal factors are to be successfully addressed – internal Palestinian political tensions, Hamas rejectionism, and Israel’s vital security interests.

        The PA has painted itself into a political corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA leadership has spent decades making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian. The end-result of its own narrative is that now no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel unilaterally. The political backlash, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, has made it impossible. For any new peace initiative to become a viable possibility, the PA leadership would have to be provided with cover from other Arab states.

        Trump referred to this regional approach in his joint press conference with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 15 February 2017. The journal, Al-Monitor, reports that prior to the Trump-Netanyahu meeting the US administration had held discussions with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan about a “regional umbrella” to possible Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

        From the Israeli perspective, a Palestinian state created on pre-Six Day War boundaries, however much modified by land swaps, simply will not do. Almost certainly Hamas, which is intent on Israel’s destruction, would gain power sooner or later, either through elections, or by way of a violent coup as it did in Gaza, and the new state would become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. Once administering a sovereign Palestine. the PA leadership would be extremely worried at the prospect of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

        New “out-of-the-box” thinking is required. One neglected possibility is an initiative, backed by the US, the Arab League and Israel, aimed at bringing two new legal entities into existence simultaneously – a sovereign state of Palestine and a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

        A confederation is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation would be dedicated above all to its own defence and that of its constituent sovereign states, but in addition to cooperating in the fields of economic development, infrastructure and trade.

        Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition from whatever source, Hamas or Fatah, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined and formidable defence forces of the confederation.

        A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security but also future economic growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here is a viable game-plan for deal-maker Trump to consider.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 May 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 19 May 2017:

         [Next posting Saturday , 21 May 2017 at 10.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Hezbollah and the balance of power in Lebanon

                                                       The flags of Lebanon and Hezbollah   

        Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, is a fervent Hezbollah supporter; Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, most certainly is not. Hariri’s position is scarcely surprising, since he has every reason to believe that back in 2005 his father, Rafik, was brutally assassinated by Hezbollah operatives, acting on the orders of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

        Why should it matter what either of Lebanon’s leading figures think of Hezbollah? Because that organization has succeeded in infiltrating so deeply into Lebanon’s body politic that it has become a virtual “state within a state”. It not only directly runs a range of social, health, infrastructure and media services, but its heavily armed military wing conducts itself much like an independent army. Its political bloc, designated “March 8”, holds 57 of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament.

        In short, although plainly and obviously subject to outside foreign control in the shape of both Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has gained a tenacious grip on the internal power structure and functioning of the Lebanese state. The fact that it has been designated a terrorist organization by, inter alia, the Arab League (of which Lebanon is a member) has not affected its position as a major political player within Lebanon.

        It was around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – that Hezbollah planted itself in the soil of Lebanon, a state torn apart by civil conflict. Drawing its inspiration from the extremist Shia-based philosophy expounded by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, Hezbollah declared that its purpose was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. It backed its vision with a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later.  Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

        Sparked by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias, civil war had erupted within Lebanon in 1975. This small country, divided in beliefs and weak by design, was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbor, Syria. President Hafez al-Assad invaded and all but annexed it. The end of the war in 1990 did not end Syria’s military occupation. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but Bashar al-Assad, who had by then taken over from his father as Syria’s president, left Hezbollah in place, partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s conflict with Israel.

        Lebanon’s “March 14 Alliance” is a coalition of politicians opposed to the Syrian régime and to Hezbollah – March 14, 2005 was the launch date of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, earlier that year. The echoes of Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Hariri had been demanding that Hezbollah disband and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's armed forces. This demand has become ever more insistent since Hezbollah began fighting in Syria alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in support of Bashar al-Assad. A large segment of Lebanese opinion hates Assad and favors toppling him.

        In a recent interview on Egyptian television, Lebanon’s President Aoun described Hezbollah’s armed forces as a “complement” to the Lebanese army, and “an essential part of Lebanon’s defense." Adverse reactions came swiftly, from the UN and from within Lebanon.

        Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the UN secretary-general, reminded Aoun of the UN Security Council resolutions that “clearly call for the dissolution and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. Keeping arms in the hands of Hezbollah and other armed groups outside the state framework would limit Lebanon’s capacity to exercise its sovereignty and full authority over its geographical area.”

        Fares Soueid, secretariat coordinator of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition, tweeted: “If Aoun believes that Hezbollah is able to protect Lebanon, why don’t we call on Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s leader) to move into the presidential palace?”

        Lebanon’s Future Movement, led by Prime Minister Hariri, issued a statement confirming its commitment to the UN resolutions which preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty and security: “The Lebanese State’s arms are the only legitimate weapons in Lebanon.”

        On 21 April 2017 Hezbollah organized a media tour in south Lebanon. The next day, Prime Minister Hariri visited the area and heavily criticized the appearance of Hezbollah armed militants in the UN buffer zone meant to be free of Hezbollah presence. "What happened yesterday is something that we, as a government, did not order and do not accept.“

        A week later, on 27 April, a Hezbollah arms supply hub in Syria, close to Damascus International Airport, was attacked from the air and destroyed. Fahad al-Masri, head of the National Salvation Front in Syria, said that the strikes targeted arsenals of weapons and munitions that had arrived recently from Iran. “A large portion was to support Hezbollah and the other armed militias belonging to Iran in Syria,” he said, adding, “there was also qualitative and strategic weaponry to be transferred to Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s military arsenal.”

        Al-Masri characterised the strike as a “blessed” blow on Hezbollah by Israel. Israel does not usually comment on action it takes in Syria, but in a radio interview minister Israel Katz appeared to confirm Israel’s involvement: "The incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel's policy to act to prevent Iran's smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hezbollah." He was referring to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s earlier statement: “whenever we receive intelligence that indicates an intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act."

        Slowly, perhaps too slowly, leading elements among Lebanon’s opinion formers are coming to recognize that Israel is not their enemy. Their true antagonist is the malign organism that has taken root within their own body politic – Hezbollah – and that, in this, they are at one with Israel. Indeed, to think what may have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago, Israel could prove a staunch ally in helping Lebanon reassert itself as a fully sovereign state.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 May 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 May 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 May 2017:

                  [Next posting: Saturday, 13 May 2017, at 8 pm GMT]