Friday, 27 March 2015

Why Tunisia?

         At midday on Wednesday, March 18, a bus filled with tourists drew up outside the Bardo museum in the heart of Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis.  As the visitors began to disembark, two gunmen armed with machine guns opened fire. Some were killed outright, some took what shelter they could find outside the museum, some fled inside.  The gunmen pursued them.  A three-hour siege of the building followed until the two attackers, later named as 20-year-old Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, aged 26, were killed in a gunfight with security forces.  They had slaughtered 23 innocent victims, and wounded about 50.

Responsibility for the attack, which the Tunisian authorities say was carefully planned, was claimed by Islamic State (IS).  If so, it demonstrates the determination of that brutal and bloodthirsty organization to extend its field of operations from the Middle East, where it is wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, to the African continent. 

The chaotic situation in the North African state of Libya has already proved a prime stamping ground for IS – at the end of 2014 they were setting up training camps in the east of the country.  And then, early in March, the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram declared its allegiance to IS, bringing its influence right into the heart of continental Africa. As for Libya’s neighbor, Tunisia, it had become the antithesis of everything that IS stands for, and thus a prime target. 

Tunisia had long been considered a moderate Sunni country, enlightened and progressive, but in 1987 it fell into the hands of radicals.   President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began introducing extremist Islamist policies which went against the grain of popular sentiment.  So it was in Tunisia, back in December 2010, that the “Arab Spring” first erupted.  In the small town of Sidi Bouzid a young hawker named Muhammad Buazizi, barred by the authorities from setting up a vegetable and fruit stall in the local market, set himself on fire. His death ignited a wave of riots all over the country against the regime and the economic hardships. President Ben Ali ordered the protests to be harshly suppressed, and in violent riots 670 people were killed.

With the country in turmoil, President Ben Ali fled the country. Denied political asylum by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, Ben Ali was smuggled into Saudi Arabia. He was tried in absentia by a Tunisian military court and sentenced to 35 years in prison and a $65 million fine.

Meanwhile parliamentary elections were held in Tunisia. The Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance) won a majority of seats, whether fairly or not was open to question. The secular parties, fearing that Tunisia would become Islamist and run according to sharia law, instigated popular protests demanding a new constitution and fair elections that would reflect the real wishes of the people. The two years of internal dissension that followed resulted in a constitution that combines Muslim religious values with universal and democratic ones.  It embodies principles established in the first Tunisian republic in 1956, notably democracy, women’s rights and a rejection of sharia. 

In June 2012, 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, long a familiar figure in Tunisian politics. established a new, secular, anti-Islamist party called Nida Tunis. In the elections that followed the resignation of the Islamist prime minister, Rashid Gannouchi, Nida Tunis won a majority in the parliament and Essebsi was elected Tunisia’s new president.

But by becoming a parliamentary republic dedicated to democratic and secular values, Tunisia had, in the eyes of IS, become an enemy eminently worthy of attack – thus the terrorist outrage at the Bardo museum.  That attack was symbolic as regards both its location – adjacent to the parliament building – and its target, Tunisia’s key industry, tourism. 

Two factors make Tunisia especially vulnerable. 

First, huge quantities of arms are finding their way into the country.  Libya, its neighbor to the east, is in total chaos, a hotbed of competing jihadist groups while its recognized government cowers in Tobruk. In border regions, Islamist militants from Tunisia link up with criminal groups involved in arms and drugs trafficking, and easily acquire these weapons.

Secondly, some 1,500 Tunisians attached to the outlawed Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia and aligned with IS, are training in Libya, preparing to overthrow Tunisia’s democratic administration.  IS in Iraq and Syria has already attracted high numbers of Tunisian fighters, hundreds of whom have already returned home.  This hard core of extremists, allied to those currently in training, represent an ever-present danger to the state. 

“Counter-terrorism policy has failed to keep up as militants have changed their strategy,” said Badra Gaaloul, who heads a security think-tank in Tunis. “The militants have shown that they're installed in our city and our neighbourhoods and can carry out attacks in broad daylight in a place where there's plenty of security. Security and intelligence officials realise how serious it is – that there's a great risk to Tunisia – but they lack co-ordination and experience."

Some deficiencies may be tackled by new anti-terrorism legislation that was ready for discussion as the attack on the Bardo museum began. Rather in the spirit of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, the draft law would allow policing in urban areas to be assigned to the military, and give the security forces greater leeway to crack down on radicalisation.

About 400 suspected terrorists were already in custody before the Bardo attack. Oxford historian Mark Almond speculates that the jihadists might have wanted to provoke the government into a brutal crackdown. They might then have been able to pose as martyrs of a secularist dictatorship, rather than criminals hunted by a democracy’s police.

President Essebsi has promised to be “merciless” in bringing the perpetrators to justice, but Almond believes he needs to be smart too. He was elected by assuring Tunisians that he represented the best of the secularist past, and would shepherd them to a secure future. Safeguarding the public must indeed be a vital priority for the Tunisian government, but the key weapon against Islamist terrorism might well be the revulsion felt by ordinary secular Tunisians for the murderers of innocent visitors, and disgust at the economic chaos it creates for the nation, tied as it is to the tourism industry. Is it this, rather than additional security measures, that might render the terrorists truly vulnerable?  The will of the Tunisian people has certainly prevailed against all the odds in the past.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 29 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 March 2015:

Friday, 20 March 2015

A nuclear deal with Iran - would it stick?

Although the Obama administration has taken the leading role in the effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, the negotiations are not, of course, a purely US-Iranian effort.  Five other world powers are involved – namely the other members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia and the UK) together with Germany.  US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been skilful and successful not only in his dealings with his Iranian opposite number, but in carrying the rest of the negotiating team along with him.
Of these Russia, and to a lesser extent China, were sympathetic to Iran and its political aspirations from the start, and thus supported the direction the negotiations were taking.  But France, the UK and Germany have also each indicated a willingness to turn a blind eye to Iran’s appalling record in sponsoring terror across the world in pursuit of its Islamist objectives, bring it in from the cold, and conclude an agreement that would progressively lift the sanctions that have been crippling Iran’s economy, while leaving the regime with the ability eventually even after 10 years to become a nuclear military force.

It was because a deal along these lines was in prospect, and the deadline of March 31 for reaching a framework agreement was fast approaching, that 47 US Republican senators took the extraordinary step on March 9 of writing direct to the leaders of Iran.  The essence of their 286-word letter was that the writers "will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen, and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."

This missive resulted in a veritable furore in the States. The cannonade of accusations hurled at the signatories ranged from political skulduggery to outright treason.  One line of attack claimed that the act of addressing the Iranian leaders was illegal. The law the senators was said to have transgressed ­ the Logan Act of 1799 bans US citizens from engaging “without authority of the United States” in “correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government ... with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government ... in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”

Fortunately for Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and his 46 co-signatories, that law is no longer enforced and is quite likely unconstitutional. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at the George Washington University, compares the likelihood of a prosecution under the act to “the chances of being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex on Capitol Hill.”

With that particular red herring out of the way, the remark of State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki that the senators’ letter was factually incorrect seems almost milk and water.

"Congress doesn't have the power to alter the terms of international arrangements negotiated by the executive," she said. "The letter is incorrect when it says that Congress could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."

Is she right?  Not exactly, according to the Pulitzer Prize winning  It all depends on distinguishing between two types of international accords treaties and executive agreements.

Under the US constitution, treaties with foreign countries are negotiated and signed by the executive branch, but ratification only occurs after the Senate gives its approval in a two-thirds vote. Authority for reaching executive agreements, however, lies outside the constitution, and derives from longstanding practice and Supreme Court judgements.

"Presidents since Washington have concluded such agreements,” says Anthony Clark Arend, a Georgetown University professor of government and foreign service, “and the Supreme Court has ruled that the president has the authority to conclude such agreements."

But there is a downside to executive agreements ­ they are much easier to reverse than treaties.  Legal opinion seems clear that a future president has the constitutional power to reverse an executive agreement reached by a predecessor. That is one possible un-sticking point. For its part, Congress could legislate, and, according to Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania legal scholar, “a valid federal statute will prevail in a conflict with an executive agreement… So in that sense, the senators are right."

For a practical view of the senators’ claim, however, other factors need to be taken into account.  The most obvious is that the negotiations with Iran are being conducted by six world powers, not merely the US. For any agreement to be modified in the future, the other signatories would also have to sign off, which would involve difficult, and not very likely, negotiations by a future US administration.  Not a very feasible scenario.

Even if Congress successfully legislated to reverse the executive agreement, implementing it unilaterally might involve the US in violating international law, which requires compliance with binding agreements.  The US’s diplomatic credibility would be profoundly affected. Retreating from an executive agreement would be a radical step, endangering the nation's ability to ensure that old agreements stand and to strike new agreements. concludes that while the senators’ letter makes the process of undoing or modifying any agreement with Iran sound more feasible than is the case, they are correct to say that a future president or a future Congress could do so.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, however, begs to differ. “Let me make clear to Iran, to our P5+1 counterparts who are deeply involved in this negotiation, that, from our point of view, this letter… was, in fact, incorrect in its statements about what power they do have,,,and as far as we are concerned, the Congress has no ability to change an executive agreement …”

And so the negotiations proceed along the lines which have caused such dismay to the Middle East in general, and Israel’s prime minister in particular.  One major cause of concern is the failure of Washington and the rest of the P5+1 to support the director of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yukiya Amano has repeatedly raised questions about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme, has challenged Iran’s professed willingness to cooperate, and pointed out again this month that a dozen IAEA questions to Iran regarding its nuclear programme remain unanswered.  Reference to Amano’s concerns are noticeable by their absence from the various media statements made by the principals.

In the final analysis any agreement with Iran which it subsequently violates, or which contains loopholes or a so-called “sunset clause” (ie permitting Iran to become a military nuclear power in due course), undoubtedly lays itself open to eventual challenge a challenge that could come either in accordance with the letter of the Republican senators, or in other ways.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 March 2015:

Friday, 13 March 2015

Countering Iran and IS - Muslims take action

          When you find the editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya’s English website praising Israel’s prime minister, you can be pretty certain that something unusual is afoot in the Middle East.  Award-winning journalist Faisal J Abbas did just that recently, when commenting on a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu to military leaders in Tel Aviv. 

        Netanyahu had pointed out that Middle Eastern countries are collapsing, and that terror organizations, mostly backed by Iran, are filling the vacuum.  Commented Abbas: “In just a few words Mr Netanyahu managed to accurately summarize a clear and present danger, not just to Israel (which obviously is his concern), but to other US allies in the region.  What is absurd, however,” added Abbas, “is that despite this being perhaps the only thing that brings together Arabs and Israelis (as it threatens them all), the only stakeholder that seems not to realize the danger of the situation is President Obama.”

            An astute observation, which also reflects Arab reaction to Netanyahu’s speech on March 3 to a joint session of the US Congress.  As far as a swathe of Arab countries are concerned, his warning about Iran hit the nail on the head – much derided though it was by the administration in Washington.  

        A major concern of most Arab states today is the prospect of a rampant Iran, armed with nuclear weaponry, riding roughshod over the Middle East in its pursuit of regional dominance both political and religious.  Many Arab leaders, just as much as Netanyahu, view with alarm the direction the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, under the leadership of the US, appear to be taking. “A better deal” was Netanyahu’s demand of the negotiators – a deal that requires evidence of a change of direction on Iran’s part before it is endorsed.  Most Arab states would go along with that.

   Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, claiming the leadership of the Shi’ite branch of Islam, is known to be playing a double game.  Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, may indeed be battling the Sunni Islamic State (IS) in Syria, but elsewhere it is sponsoring and supporting Sunni terrorist organizations. Iran is not only funding Sunni Hamas in Gaza, but it is actively harbouring leading Sunni al-Qaeda figures, most of whom are dedicated to wreaking havoc within the largely stable Arab states of the region.

Only a few months ago the US Treasury Department issued sanctions against a number of al-Qaeda executives, revealing in detail their connection with Iran for example, Abdul al-Sharikh, described as having served as “chief of al-Qaeda’s Iran-based extremist and financial facilitation network.”
Meanwhile the prospect of an agreement that would, in Netanyahu’s words, “pave Iran’s path to the bomb” has resulted in a flurry of activity in the Arab world.  A few weeks ago, shortly after the brutal murder of a Jordanian pilot by IS, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, travelled to Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah.  His message: the Muslim world needs to stand at the forefront of the war against extremism; the reshaping of the region has become a political necessity.

The Kuwaiti leader is not alone.  The new monarch of Saudi Arabia is also pushing for Sunni Muslim Middle East countries to set aside differences over political Islam – namely, disagreements over the Muslim Brotherhood – and focus on more urgent threats from Iran and IS and the need for unity.

          The Muslim Brotherhood is a major cause of dissension in the world of Sunni Islam.  The Egyptian government, having overthrown the previous corrupt – albeit democratically elected – Muslim Brotherhood administration, has proscribed the organization entirely and imprisoned thousands of its members.  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.  Last year, along with the UAE and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Qatar over its links to the Brotherhood.  However Turkey, like Qatar, openly supports the Brotherhood.

         These rifts within Sunni Islam have, up to now, inhibited any attempt at fashioning a united Muslim response to the twin dangers facing the Middle East as a whole, namely Iran and IS. A Western diplomat in the Gulf is quoted as saying:  "Saudi Arabia clearly doesn't want to be open to facing too many battles. IS and Iran are the enemy now, everything else can be put on hold."

Which explains the recent unprecedented activity centred on Riyadh.  It was natural enough for the leaders of the Sunni Muslim world to pay their respects to the new Saudi monarch, but King Salman undoubtedly used the meetings to advance his own agenda. 

Following visits to Saudi Arabia by top officials from neighbouring Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and the UAE, on March 1 Egypt’s President Abdel el-Sisi arrived in Riyadh. It is on the record that the discussions centred on a proposal from Sisi for a joint anti-terrorism force to tackle regional threats, particularly from Yemen, Libya and Syria.  In a subsequent interview with the Al Arabiya news channel, Sisi said that the force which, he claimed, Jordan had expressed interest in creating, would be used “for defending the security of our countries”.

One day later Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Riyadh.  The Muslim Brotherhood issue may have inhibited his exchanges with the king, although the Saudi press agency did indicate that “means of enhancing bilateral cooperation in various fields” had been on the agenda. Something much more substantive may, however, also have been discussed – a matter that probably formed the bulk of the talks between the king and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who arrived the next day for a three-day state visit.

Debkafile is a usually reliable source of information about security and related matters in the Middle East.  It maintains that the Saudis, rather than trusting the Obama administration in its nuclear dealings with Iran, have made advance nuclear arrangements of their own. Last year, it asserts, Salman, then crown prince, visited Islamabad and gave Sharif a $1.5 billion grant toward the Pakistani nuclear program.  The quid pro quo: a guarantee that a nuclear weapon would be made available to the Saudis as needed.  According to the Debkafile report on Nawaz’s visit to Riyadh, King Salman was keen to ensure that this secret nuclear accord was securely in place before the P5+1 deal with Iran is finalized.  As part of that accord, the two governments were said to be considering attaching Turkey to their bilateral nuclear pact.

So the prospect looms of a Middle East, in Netanyahu's memorable phrase: “criss-crossed by nuclear trip wires.” The wry comment of journalist Faisal J Abbas is worth repeating: “the only stakeholder that seems not to realize the danger of the situation is President Obama.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 March 2015:

Friday, 6 March 2015

Putin's Middle Eastern empire

          If some people, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, were tempted to sit back thinking that the Cold War was done and dusted, they have had to think again.  For Russia’s President Vladimir Putin makes little attempt to counter the world’s growing conviction that he aims to restore, as far as he is able, the dominant position on the world scene once occupied by the USSR.  As Putin put it in a speech to the Russian parliament in 2005 – a speech which accurately presages more recent developments: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster … Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”

            To implement his strategic objective, Putin uses the old Soviet Union’s tried and tested formula of mixing force with influence.  The ruthless crushing of the Chechnya rebellion, for example, was intended to serve as an example to other constituent parts of the Russian Federation that might harbour dreams of independence.  More recently, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, swiftly followed by the Russian-supported military uprising in eastern Ukraine, was a further signal that Putin is now set on a course of affirming, and indeed enlarging, what he perceives to be Russia’s essential interests.  He regards NATO’s extension into the now-independent states of the old USSR as a major provocation.

“I am sure Putin wants to destroy our alliance,” said the commander of the US army in Europe, General Frederick “Ben” Hodges recently, “not by attacking it, but by splintering it.”  Speaking to military and political leaders in Berlin, he warned that Russia could seek to test the alliance by using against a NATO member the sort of “ambiguous” warfare seen in eastern Ukraine.

Putin has so far confined the use of force to the European theatre.  As regards the expansion of Russian influence, it is perhaps in the Middle East that he has been most assiduous.  Only a few weeks ago Putin agreed to “restructure” the €2.5 billion bailout loan that Russia gave Cyprus in 2011 in other words, to reduce the interest rate and postpone repayment.  In return, Russian warships will be permitted to dock in Cypriot ports. This will lead to the extraordinary situation of Cyprus very shortly becoming a military hub for both Britain and Russia.

The base in Cyprus will strengthen Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean.  Under a long-standing agreement Russia had operated a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, but with no end of the civil war in sight, acquiring an alternative to Tartus makes good sense.

Just as important for Putin is the political advantage of the new agreement.  He regards the EU with no less suspicion than he views NATO, and to counter the harsh economic sanctions that the EU is imposing because of Putin’s Ukraine adventure, he is seeking every opportunity to exploit cracks in Europe’s unity. His recent visit to Hungary to complete a natural gas supply deal is one example; the Cyprus agreement is another. Sputnik, Russia’s government-sponsored media organization, gleefully declared: “Russia Signs Military Deal with EU Member State.” As commentator Paul J Saunders points out, Sputnik is telling Europeans: “You may think you can isolate us, but you can’t even keep your own members from hosting Russian military forces.”

Historically, Russian influence has been strong in Syria; today it is stronger than ever. Early in 2012, Putin firmly supported President Bashar Assad in the civil conflict raging in Syria, and continued to supply large quantities of arms.  When Assad used chemical weapons against his opponents regardless of the hundreds of collateral civilian casualties,  Putin managed to avert any military response by the West by persuading Assad to dismantle and dispose of his chemical armoury.  Since then Russia has vetoed four Security Council resolutions that would have condemned Assad's government for its conduct of the war, imposed sanctions or referred it to the International Criminal Court.

Putin’s support of Assad’s Syria has inevitably drawn him closer to Iran, its devoted ally.  A new intergovernmental agreement between Russia and Iran on “long term and multifaceted” military cooperation was signed last January.  The deal underlined the two countries’ joint opposition to US foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond.  Five years ago, Putin called off the sale of air-defence missiles to Iran following American and Israeli protests. In February it emerged that the deal is back on the table.According to Iran's IRNA state news agency the deal is an "outstanding event." Iran's Defence Minister, Hossein Dehghan, declared: "As two neighbours, Iran and Russia have common viewpoints toward political, regional and global issues."

         That was more of a hope than a reality, for Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention to eliminate Israel. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed recently between a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom and Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field.

Nor is Egypt any friend of Iran, or of Syria either, but Putin has been actively building influence in that neck of the Middle Eastern woods as well.  Early in February he received a hero’s welcome when he visited Cairo – recognition of his support for President Fattah el-Sisi at a time when Washington had been punishing the new Egyptian government for overthrowing the corrupt, albeit democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood.  The visit was used to announce Russia’s agreement to cooperate in building a nuclear power plant in Egypt, and to underline existing military and strategic collaboration.

But all is not plain sailing for Putin. Saudi Arabia’s continued willingness to endure the collapse in oil prices is inflicting enormous pressure on Russia’s economy, and the country’s dire economic situation looks increasingly likely to limit Putin’s influence in the Middle East.  Nevertheless Putin will retain one of his most important sources of influence — his veto power in the UN Security Council – and his willingness to use it, and also to absorb Western sanctions, will work in his favour.

Will the strength of Putin’s political will compensate for the weakness of the Russian economy?  As columnist Paul J Saunders points out, there is a complex equation in play. Political will enhances power and influence by establishing credibility; at the same time a collapsing economy undermines it. How the equation resolves itself will determine how effective Putin eventually is in establishing a sustainable sphere of influence in the Middle East.

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 March 2015: