Saturday, 30 August 2014

Iran's golden summer

        Summer 2014 has apparently been a phenomenal time for Iran and its leadership. Over the past few months Lady Luck seems to have been rolling both the political and the financial dice Iran’s way. But everything in the garden is not quite as rosy as it appears.

The good times started in June 2013, with the election of the self-styled “moderate”, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani, as President – a candidate blessed, it goes without saying, by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Also blessed, no doubt, was the deliberate change of tactics from the defiant and confrontational stance adopted by ex-President Ahmadinejad, during previous attempts by the UN to induce Iran to control its nuclear programme.  Now all was to be charm and sweet reason – and immediately after his election, Rouhani made haste to agree to start substantive talks with world leaders about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

World leaders swallowed the bait.   A new Iranian team, led by the president, met the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, UK, Russia, China, France – plus Germany) in October 2013.  What followed provided Iran with precisely what it wanted – additional time for its centrifuges to continue spinning. The two teams indeed reached an interim agreement, but it actually permitted Iran to continue enriching uranium.  Meanwhile, the negotiators agreed to meet again in January 2014.  Four additional months.  In January the teams decided that they would reach an agreement by July.  Six more months.  There was, it goes without saying, no agreement by July, so the P5+1 agreed to extend the deadline until November.  A further four months.  And all the time Iran is moving inexorably closer to nuclear military capability.

        Certain that the Obama administration has discounted any sort of military confrontation aimed at preventing Iran achieving its goal, Iran’s leadership believes that finally the P5+1 will accept a deal allowing it to produce nuclear weapons at the drop of a hat. Every delay, every extra day without a deal, has brought Iran nearer to its desired objective.  Veteran US Middle East observer Eric Mandel believes that while the West has been lauding Iran for converting much of its 20% enriched uranium, Iran’s state-of-the-art centrifuges make possession of 20% uranium irrelevant. With its advanced centrifuges, Iran can apparently convert 3% non-enriched uranium to 90% nuclear grade uranium in six to eight weeks. Right now, Mandel asserts, Iran has enough 3% uranium to produce between six to eight nuclear bombs.

In return for simply talking, Iran has been rewarded with the progressive lifting of financial sanctions.  As part of the November 2013 interim deal, $4.2 billion in oil revenues were allowed to be transferred to Iran. After the July 2014 meeting, with still no agreement on the table, Iran walked away with guarantees of a total of a further $2.8 billion to be paid in six parts four $500-million and two $400-million instalments, in three-week intervals. 

Few Iranian spokesmen these days are bothering to conceal the fact that the state’s long-term objective is to become the dominant power in the Middle East, and that, in pursuit of that aim, they are determined to achieve military nuclear capability. Arab states across the Middle East have come to regard Iran, and its obvious nuclear ambitions, as the major threat to their régimes.

The political and religious elements of Iran’s intentions are inextricably interwoven.  One aspect of the dominance that Iran seeks is the ascendancy of the Shia strand of Islam over the Sunni, for Iran is the pre-eminent power in what has been termed the “Shi’ite Crescent”.  

In striving for this dominance, Iran has in the past set itself foursquare against Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Sunni Islam, with Mecca and Medina located within its borders. Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Gulf régimes under its influence, have been the object of Iranian-inspired plots aimed at destabilizing their governments. But a new player has emerged on the scene, claiming the leadership of all Muslims the world over – the extremist Sunni organization calling itself the Islamic State (IS).  Its military successes, its rapid advance into northern Iraq and Syria, its ruthless persecution of all who fail to subscribe to its extreme brand of Islam, the recent beheading of an American journalist in front of the television camera, and the large numbers of adherents flocking to its black banner from all over the world – all this has shocked the West into realizing the nature and extent of the threat that the IS poses to accepted civilized and democratic standards.

With Iran apparently co-operating in the nuclear discussions, influential voices in the West have been urging their governments to forget the fact that Iran is the world’s number one sponsor of terrorism, ignore its past record (and that of its “moderate” president) in this respect, turn a blind eye to its nuclear ambitions, and enter into some sort of alliance with it, aimed at defeating the bloodthirsty IS armies.  Little account is taken of the likely result of direct Iranian involvement against the IS – namely the triumph of President Bashar Assad’s despotic regime in Syria, and the defeat of the democratic forces ranged against him. Moreover the West, unlike most Middle East states, appears to discount the consequences of Iran gaining a nuclear arsenal – namely that their clients, like the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, to say nothing of Assad’s forces in Syria, would also be probable beneficiaries.  In short, the likely result of clutching Iran to our bosom is that we will all get stung.

At the moment Iran is riding high internationally.  The picture at home, however, is not so rosy. Perennially high inflation, persistent double-digit unemployment, low productivity, rampant corruption, a hostile business environment that actively discourages entrepreneurship, and weak financial institutions, complete a dire economic picture.

These underlying weaknesses in Iran’s economy are masked to some degree by sizable oil revenues, but the underlying cause of much of Iran’s domestic problems is the harsh and prolonged stagflation caused by tightening international sanctions.  Between 2012 and 2013, for instance, Iran faced 40 per cent inflation and an almost 6 per cent contraction in GDP. Today, inflation still hovers around 25 per cent and GDP is set to contract by another 3 per cent by the Persian new year (March 2015).  

This is why Rouhani’s best efforts are devoted to wooing Western opinion and winning further concessions while, of course, not abandoning for one instant Iran’s intention of becoming a nuclear power as soon as may be.  One can only hope that the P5+1 are alive to the realities of the situation, and in November, realizing the effect that sanctions have had on the Iranian economy, stand firm on their demands for genuinely effective control of Iran’s nuclear programme before giving another inch.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 31 August 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 August 2014:

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The new Middle East realpolitik

About this time last year some bright journalistic spark decided to construct a chart to illustrate the complex – and far from logical ­– network of friendships and enmities that make up the political pattern of the Middle East.  The result resembled a web spun by a demented spider. 

A year is an eternity in politics, and even if that chart had been decipherable, subsequent events have rendered much of it obsolete.  One new player on the scene is the self-styled Islamic State (IS), formally established in June 2014 and based on the organization known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).  Led by a man of boundless ambition and undoubted military talent – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now dubs himself the caliph and head of Muslims the world over – the IS swept across Syria and northern Iraq, carrying all before it. In the areas it conquered, inspired by an utterly ruthless religious zeal, the army of the IS set about a brutal and pitiless slaughter of all who would not subscribe to its own version of extreme Islamism.  Tens of thousands fled before it and are now refugees from their own country.

The Islamic State is no-one’s friend but its own.  Rooted in Sunni Islam, its caliph now disdainfully rejects established Sunni authority, declaring to the Muslim world at large: “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas, Support your state, which grows every day.''

This time last year Syria’s President Assad thought it appropriate to provide under-cover support for the then-ISIS, which was at odds with the rest of the Sunni jihadists, including al-Qaida, battling it out in Syria.  That “Machiavellian strategy”, in the words of journalist Itzhak Benhorin, has clearly backfired, and Assad has turned on the IS.  Now the IS is in opposition not only to the Shia alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah – and, by extension, Russia - but also with most of the Sunni Middle East.

The alarming speed of its inroad into Iraq from the north, and the humanitarian crisis it unleashed among the Christian and other communities it overran, finally led to a stiffening of resolve, within both the Iraqi government and the western world.  Humanitarian and military assistance began to be provided by a number of western governments, including the US and the UK, to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces opposing the IS, and its apparently unstoppable advance was checked.

Nevertheless, the Islamic State’s military successes alone would not have generated the reaction they have, were it not for the fact that hundreds of volunteers from all over the world are being attracted into its ranks, and western governments fear the result of a return to their countries of battle-hardened and Islamist-indocrinated extremists.  Whatever the reasons, the civilized world seems finally to be waking to the reality of the enemy it faces –extreme Islamists who have the eventual domination of the whole world in their sights.

For example, UK prime minister David Cameron wrote recently that the creation of an extreme caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria was the UK’s concern, here and now.  “Because if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain.”

Then he postulated an emerging realpolitik approach that is beginning to gain adherents among opinion formers in the West.

“We must work with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey against these extremist forces, and perhaps even with Iran, which could choose this moment to engage with the international community against this shared threat.”

Sunni Qatar? - bidding fair to becoming second only to Iran as the world’s largest sponsor of global terrorism, and one of Hamas’s main financial backers.  Shia Iran? - with its clear ambition to acquire military nuclear capability as a vital step towards dominating the whole Middle East.  Yes, indeed. Both, as sworn opponents of the Islamic State, are being considered as bedfellows by the West.

Noting the trend, former UK Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind asks:. “Has there suddenly emerged an American-Iranian axis? Are the ayatollahs in Tehran working hand in glove with the Great Satan?”  His answer:  “You might be forgiven for thinking so. The United States and Iran joined forces in calling for Nouri el-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, to step down… There have been no protests from the Iranians as American jets carry out bombing attacks across their border. They seem quite relaxed as the US arms the Kurdish peshmerga.”

         Sir Malcom draws attention to the fact that the Iranians have worked informally with the Americans several times in the recent past, though neither side found it convenient to draw attention to it.  It wasn’t hypocrisy or double standards, he asserts, but because their national interests coincided on specific issues.  The most striking example he gives was the Iranian response after 9/11. Al-Qaida was a Sunni terrorist organization and the Shi’ite Iranians were very content to see them crushed by the United States. In short, if the West has to work with Iran to defeat the Islamic State, declares Sir Malcolm, so be it. History clearly shows that distasteful temporary alliances can be the best option.

          He goes further. The US and its allies must also be prepared to work with the Syrian régime of Bashar al-AssadThe Islamic State “needs to be eliminated,” he declares, “and we should not be squeamish about how we do it. Sometimes you have to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier.”

         France’s president François Hollande goes one stage further by calling for an international conference to coordinate the effort.“We want not only all the regional countries, including Arab states and Iran, but the five members of the Security Council also, to join this action,” said French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.

The utterly inhumane and brutal beheading of US journalist James Foley was a message apparently intended only for President Obama a warning to desist from US air-strikes against IS forces.  Nevertheless the cold-blooded barbarity of the act shocked the world, and it may help to solidify opposition to the IS and raise awareness of the universal threat it poses.  But could that execution have the effect of bringing together, even on a temporary basis, states who are otherwise sworn enemies?  That is far from certain - though realpolitik has worked bigger miracles in the past.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 August 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 August 2014:

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Hamas and the Islamic State

            Fiction has given way to fact.  Charges against Israel of crimes against humanity, nay of deliberate genocide of the Palestinian people, cunningly manipulated and loudly trumpeted by Hamas, were taken up with enthusiasm by the world’s media.  Now they have been displaced by genuine and horrific reality in the northern mountains of Iraq.  And apart from what might be termed “the usual suspects”, most world leaders appear to have recognized the real thing when they see it.

Over the past few weeks, as the army of the Islamic State (IS) has been bulldozing its way into vast tracts of Iraq, tens of thousands of Christians with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, have been fleeing for their lives from towns like Qaraqosh and Bartilla.

"What's happening now to the Christians, to the Yazidis, to the minorities," Dr Sarah Ahmed, of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, told CBS News“is a genocide.”  She said that they were shooting people, including children, laying them on the ground and driving tractors over them in front of their families. 

   "We have striking evidence,” reported Iraq’s Human Rights Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, “obtained from Yazidis fleeing Sinjar and some who escaped death, and also crime scene images, that show indisputably that the gangs of the Islamic State have executed at least 500 Yazidis after seizing Sinjar.  Some of the victims, including women and children, were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar."

Beheadings, crucifixions, amputation of hands, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children, burying victims alive ­ these are indeed ferocious and savage crimes against humanity committed by barbaric terrorist extremists lacking the faintest spark of compassion for the fellow human beings they regard as the enemies of Islam.

No longer in the spotlight, and with the world’s headlines concerned with efforts by the western powers to bring humanitarian relief to the refugees and military assistance to those battling the armies of the IS, Hamas is desperate to snatch some shreds of victory from the jaws of defeat, as they managed to do in their previous encounters with Israel.  Negotiation is the only way to come out of this self-generated conflict with something to show for all the wasted effort and unnecessary death, so Hamas takes advantage of the dip in media attention to extend the ceasefire and negotiate.

In a final ceasefire Hamas may indeed come away with some achievements it can wave in the public’s face. It is unlikely to get all it wants. It may gain the payment of salaries to its employees and an increase in the distance that Gazan fishermen are permitted to fish. It wants a free flow of people into and out of Israel through the Erez crossing, and Israel may agree to more flexibility on this. Hamas is demanding a port and airfield. Israel is mulling over the possibility of reopening Gaza port.  To Hamas’s demand for the free flow of cement into Gaza, Israel, determined that it be restricted to rebuilding infrastructure and not for reconstructing military installations or tunnels, might agree, but only under the condition of strict international control and supervision.  Similar rigorous restrictions would be imposed on any easing of the rules governing the flow of Israeli goods into Gaza, and for the same reasons.

These will be modest achievements. Hamas has no-one in its leadership with the charisma or undoubted military talent of the enigmatic Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now dubs himself the Caliph of the Islamic State and the head of Muslims the world over. When the new Islamic State was set up, in June 2014, the group's spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, declared “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.  Support your state, which grows every day.''

   An official document, released in English and several other languages, urged Muslims to "gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war."  The announcement  was couched in terms of ending a century-long calamity ­– namely the break-up of the Islamic Middle East into artificial sovereign states following the first World War – and as marking the return of dignity and honour to the Islamic umma or nation.

Planning to take an iron grip on the whole of Syria and Iraq, Baghdadi doubtless has ambitions to extend his caliphate ever wider, swallowing Jordan, Lebanon and no doubt the Palestinian lands including Gaza.  He may balk somewhat at the thought of confronting Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Israel, but if he succeeds in winning a convincing victory against President Bashir Assad in Syria, and then in pouring over the border into Lebanon, he will have considerably weakened Iran’s allies and Iran itself.

A so-far unanswered question hangs over the IS. As journalist David Blair recently pointed out, volunteers are flocking to fight under Baghdadi’s black banner, including many from Europe, America and even Australia. In capturing territory, securing vast financial resources, achieving propaganda coups and sowing terror by persecuting Christians, Shias and Yazidis, Baghdadi has come further and faster than he could ever have dreamt except, as Blair puts it, “there is one missing piece in his jihadist jigsaw”.  He has not yet landed a blow on the West, the antithesis of everything he stands for. But with volunteers flowing in from all over the world, with his military successes and almost limitless resources, Baghdadi has a real opportunity to strike the West. Will he do so? Will he, in short, having broken with mainstream al-Qaida, attempt to beat them at their own game by carrying the Islamist struggle into the western world, the main enemy of Islamist values?

Compared to the boundless ambition of the new caliph, Hamas’s aspirations are comparatively modest, but they put the organisation ultimately at odds with the Islamic State.  Like the IS, what Hamas really seeks is power – power to rule over the Gaza Strip, power to take over the Palestinian Authority and extend its domination to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and finally the power to attack, overcome and defeat Israel and, by slaughtering, expelling or subjugating all Jews in the area, establish control over the whole of the old mandated Palestine “from the river to the sea”.  How frustrating it would be, while striving to achieve these objectives, to be out-manoeuvred by a triumphant caliph at the head of a rampant Islamic State army, dedicated to imposing his own brand of extremist Islam not only across the Middle East, but on the whole world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 August 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 August 2014:

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Hamas and the IRA

For many in the UK, the nearest analogy to the Israel-Hamas conflict that comes to mind is Britains’s 80-year struggle against the Irish Republican Army (the IRA) and its offshoots.  On and off, the UK endured nearly a century of terrorist activity by people utterly ruthless in pursuit of their political aims but, against all the odds, the conflict was finally brought to an end through the attrition of the IRA’s military capability and a prolonged period of negotiation. 

The question that people of some consequence in the UK are now asking repeatedly is, why cannot the same approach be applied to the Israeli-Hamas struggle?  Why will Israel not enter into discussion with the political leaders of Hamas, just as the British government instituted direct negotiations with the political leaders behind the IRA, and finally achieved a settlement?

The question is easy to ask – especially from the comparative tranquillity of the UK – and the list of those asking it in the past few weeks is impressive.  This, for example, is Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister:
“It is time for the Israeli government to talk to the Hamas political leadership in Gaza. Israel’s refusal to engage with President Mahmoud Abbas’s new unity government, because it includes Hamas, must be reversed.”  Then comes the inevitable IRA comparison:  “Modern history teaches that you can’t shoot, occupy or besiege your way to lasting security. Peace only ever flows from sustained and stubborn engagement. The Queen shaking hands with Martin McGuinness two years ago reminded us that even the most intractable conflicts can be resolved.”  McGuinness was at one time second-in-command of the IRA, and is now deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Then there’s Lord Ashdown, once leader of the Liberal Democratic party and subsequently international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 till 2006.  "Neither side can blast their way to victory,” he pronounced, “so there is only one way to get peace now, and that is for the sides to sit down and start talking to each other. Hamas has to be at the table. Who's firing the rockets? It's Hamas, and so you have to talk to them... “   And the inevitable clincher: “We had to talk to the IRA, for goodness' sake."

Or take blunt John Prescott, once deputy prime minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government.  “It was the same with the IRA. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness may have been the leading lights of a paramilitary group, but without their co-operation in a final settlement, we wouldn’t have peace today in Northern Ireland.  The only way we’ll get a lasting peace in the Middle East is when Hamas and Israel sit down and agree on a two-state solution.  Hamas must stop firing rockets and accept Israel’s right to exist. Israel must end the blockade that keeps the Gazans as prisoners. Both must agree to a lasting ceasefire at the earliest opportunity. If not, the West must intervene.”

Prescott’s piece is replete with “musts”, but devoid of any indication of how they might come about.  When he says “Hamas must stop firing rockets and accept Israel’s right to exist”, he is clearly unaware that the very raison d’être of the organization, its only purpose, is to destroy Israel and kill Jews, whoever and wherever they may be.  Demanding that Hamas “accept Israel’s right to exist,” is tantamount to asking Hamas to disband.

On this, the Hamas Charter is clear and unequivocal.  “Israel will…continue to exist until Islam obliterates it.”  To do so, Hamas “strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”  Article 13 declares: “There is no solution for the Palestinian problem  except by jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility.”

As for Hamas’s genocidal purpose, Article 7 states: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”

In short, Hamas is essentially nihilistic. 

The IRA arose from a nationalism held so deeply that it seemed to its extreme adherents to justify any action, however ruthless. In pursuit of its objective of an independent Ireland, it was prepared to instigate and countenance acts of bloodthirsty terrorism.  Its belief in its cause was so deeply-held that it perverted the morality that lay at the heart of its Catholicism.  But, in the final analysis, Irish nationalism was rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  This is why, eventually, the IRA was prepared to lay down its weapons.  Indeed it had been defeated, but the principles of compromise and even reconciliation that are inherent in Christianity played a part in achieving the final détente.

Writing in 2010, distinguished journalist Michael Weiss surveyed the long succession of steps leading from the first formal talks back in 1993 between the British government and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, to the decommissioning of the IRA’s weapons in 2005, leading to the formal ending of the armed campaign in 2007.

“So what,” he asks, “would the Hamas equivalent of this scenario look like? At the very least, another devastating war with Israel would need to occur, leaving the Islamists completely depleted and certainly not in sole administrative control of Gaza. Israeli intelligence operatives would thoroughly penetrate Hamas' command structure, so as to be able to predict and pre-empt almost every rocket fired into Ashkelon or Sderot, or every attack on settlers in the West Bank. Hamas would then have to concede that its strategic long-war doctrine of violent "resistance" and its dream of establishing Greater Palestine was a fantasy."  Only then, he surmises, if the analogy with the IRA still held, would realistic dialogue with Hamas be started, leading to a demilitarization of Gaza and a formal end to their “armed struggle” against Israel.  But as Michael Weiss himself is the first to assert: “Hamas isn’t the IRA”.

This is the reality behind all those ill-informed calls for Israel to sit down with Hamas and talk peace. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 10 August 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 August 2014: