Friday, 27 July 2018

A Presidential war of words

                                                                            Video version
When President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, he imposed new banking sanctions on the regime.  August 4 is the day on which they are due to come into effect, further exacerbating the damage already done to the Iranian economy – damage which led in June to widespread popular demonstrations against government restrictions, the mushrooming cost of food and household goods, and the falling value of the Rial.  Further US sanctions aimed at strangling Iran’s oil exports are scheduled for November.

Reports indicate that, as a run-up to the new toughened sanctions, Washington has launched an offensive of speeches and online communications meant to encourage internal unrest against the regime, while exerting pressure on the leadership to renegotiate its nuclear programme and end its support for extremist militant groups.  The campaign has been running for some few weeks, but a highlight was a speech delivered on July 22 by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

In a no-holds-barred verbal onslaught, Pompeo openly accused several Iranian leaders, by name, of corruption. He said Nasser Makarem Shirazi, the grand ayatollah, had generated more than $100m for himself in the illicit trade of sugar; that Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani was worth millions after the government transferred several lucrative mines to his foundation; and that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had an off-the-books hedge fund, Setad, worth $95bn.

“The level of corruption and wealth among regime leaders,” he said, “shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government.”

Sometimes, said Pompeo, it seemed as though the world had become desensitized to the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses at home and its campaigns in support of terrorist groups across the Middle East.  “But the proud Iranian people are not staying silent about their government’s many abuses,” he said, “and the United States under President Trump will not stay silent either… I have a message for the people of Iran: the United States hears you. The United States supports you. The United States is with you.”

The intensified anti-regime campaign being conducted by the Trump administration has unsettled the Iranian leadership.  Rattled by the steps already taken by the US, and fearful of those promised, it does not trust even the countries apparently in support of the nuclear deal. Though the EU opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and is seeking to maintain its trade ties with Iran, its proposals for economic guarantees have so far been judged “insufficient” by the Supreme Leader. On July 21 Khamenei said the nation should not count on Europe’s proposals to keep the nuclear deal in place following Washington’s exit. He was echoing Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has questioned whether Europe has the will to continue with the current deal.  The leadership have in mind that the US has promised to bear down heavily on nations which try to by-pass the banking sanctions shortly to be imposed on Iran.

Even more disturbing to the regime are the additional US sanctions promised for November aimed at Iranian oil exports.  Most of Iran’s oil, like most of the seaborne oil trade of other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.   Declaring on 22 July that “No one who really understands politics would say they will block Iran’s oil exports.  We have many straits, the Strait of Hormuz is just one of those,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani addressed the US President directly.  “Mr Trump, we are the honest men who have throughout history guaranteed the safety of this region’s waterways. Do not tweak the lion’s tail, it will bring regret.” 

Rouhani augmented that veiled threat with another less oblique: “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

Messages like these acted on Trump like a red rag to a bull.  At 6.24 am on Monday morning, July 23, he pressed “Send” on a tweet addressed to Rouhani in person, and written entirely in capital letters: 

“Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious!”

          By using capitals Trump was assuring himself of at least a minor advantage, since there are no capital letters in Farsi for Rouhani to reciprocate in. 

Although the US administration is certainly not contemplating initiating regime change in Iran by way of overt military intervention, the Trump White House may be hoping to out-maneuver the leadership, appeal to domestic Iranian public opinion, and facilitate a popular uprising.  Trump is reported to have reached some sort of understanding with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, either to remove Iran from Syria altogether, or at least to severely restrict its presence.  Any such outcome would be a humiliation for the Iranian regime, but is likely to appeal greatly to the Iranian public.  Costly “foreign adventures” like Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war were a major cause of public protest in the popular demonstrations in June, since they were perceived to be at the expense of ordinary Iranians.

Trump is clearly hoping to weaken the Iranian regime significantly, and perhaps fatally, by exerting financial, commercial, economic and political pressure wherever it may hurt.  He may be hoping to replicate with Rouhani the success he had in bringing North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to discussions.  In that event, a renegotiated Iran deal, encompassing both nuclear and missile development as well as an end for Iranian support for terrorist activity directly and through the groups it sponsors, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen this is the least that Trump hopes for from the current war of words.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 28 July 2018:

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 29 July 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 July 2018:

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

What Trump actually said about Jerusalem

                                                                               Video version
             President Donald Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem on 6 December 2017 gave rise to instant and almost universal condemnation.  Western governments saw it as an unnecessary provocation, guaranteed to set back the prospects of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and likely to generate violent protests in the Arab world.  Muslim condemnation was immediate.  Although notably muted from Sunni Arab states, it was at its strongest from Turkey, Iran and the Palestinian Authority.  At a specially convened meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas were vehement in their denunciation of Trump’s statement.  In calling for it to be reversed or rejected by the United Nations, they solicited world opinion to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.  In extreme Muslim eyes Jerusalem is a Muslim and Christian city with no Jewish connection to it.  They maintain that all evidence to the contrary is based on falsehoods.

All the adverse criticism centred on the assumption that Trump had denied Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, in whole or in part, as the capital of a future state of Palestine.  Is this borne out by what he said, or indeed intends? 

             It seems clear that he came into office determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.  “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies,” he said. So he set up a team charged with looking at the Israeli-Palestinian dispute with fresh eyes, and with seeking a new approach to solving it.

            The peace team, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, set about their task.  Meanwhile Trump himself looked at the issue of Jerusalem.

It was as far back as 1995 that Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, urging the federal government to recognize that Jerusalem is Israel's capital, and to relocate the American embassy to that city. This act passed Congress by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Yet for over 20 years, every previous American president had exercised the law's waiver and refused to move the US embassy.

Presidents issued these waivers under the belief that delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace.  But, said Trump, “the record is in. After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result. Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

 His argument was that acknowledging the right of Israel, as a sovereign nation, to  nominate its own capital was a necessary condition for achieving peace.  But he was very careful to point out that in doing so, and in relocating the US capital to Jerusalem, he was not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.

“Those questions,” he said, “are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.”

In short, while extending US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he left wide open the possibility of a later recognition of the whole city, or some agreed portion, as the capital of a sovereign Palestine.  It is this vital aspect of Trump’s statement that has been deliberately overlooked, and is never referred to by those unwilling to compromise, or who, against every sort of evidence, maintain that the Jewish people have no historic connection to the Holy Land.

The rejectionists also close their eyes to the obvious illogicality of maintaining that East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank. is occupied Palestinian territory, while denying that West Jerusalem must, therefore, be part of sovereign Israel. 

In making his announcement, Trump emphasised to his global audience: “This decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.”

Jared Kushner and his team have been beavering away for nearly two years, building a new peace deal brick by painstaking brick.  They have announced that it is virtually complete, and are ready to unveil it when the time seems opportune.  Yet without seeing the deal, or knowing anything of its details, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has denounced it as “a slap in the face”, and declared that he would not participate in any peace effort initiated by the US because of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.  He ignores Trump’s insistence that the US has taken no position on the extent of Israeli sovereignty in the city or the resolution of contested borders. 
In short, this is rejection for rejection’s sake.  Taking Trump’s words at their face value, there is no reason why – to posit one possibility among many others − a peace deal involving a two-state solution could not be brokered, with an agreed contiguous state in the West Bank achieved by mutually agreed land swaps, and also in due course a link to Gaza. Either the whole of Jerusalem could be a shared capital with Israel, or a Palestinian capital could be created from a new Al Quds municipality comprising East Jerusalem and its outlying Arab neighbourhoods.

All that is needed is a will for peace, and a clear-eyed view of the possibilities on offer.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 July 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 24 July 2018:

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Iran - the beginning of the end?

                                                                                    Video version  
        Rumbles of discontent, erupting into public protests, are nothing new in Iran.  They predate the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which swept the Shah from the throne and Ayatollah Khomeini into power.  Today, among the slogans being chanted in the mass demonstrations bursting out all over Iran and threatening the very stability of the regime, are: “Reza Shah, God bless your soul.”  In short, the regime of the ayatollahs has long outlived its honeymoon period. 

        During 2017 it was clear that President Sayyed Hassan Rouhani had been unable to keep most of his promises to the Iranian electorate – namely, to create new jobs, to implement economic reforms and to improve human rights. As a result, at the end of the year unrest broke out across the country.

By January 2018 Iran was in turmoil.  Rallies and street protests were erupting throughout the nation.  At first they centered on the worsening economic situation, and the ever-rising food and commodity prices.  This soon morphed into opposition to the regime in general and the Supreme Leader in particular.
 Especial dissent was voiced against the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza.  The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures were seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
Early in February 2018 Iran tested a ballistic missile, claiming that to do so was not in contravention of its nuclear deal, but Washington imposed sanctions on more than two dozen individuals and companies involved in procuring ballistic missile technology for the country. So even before Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018, Iranians’ confidence in their government had been very largely eroded.  The effect of the US withdrawal, and the announcement of further US sanctions set to hit in August, has been devastating. The Iranian rial is sinking fast against the dollar: 42,890 rials could buy a dollar at the end of 2017. Now the dollar is worth 90,000 rials.
The effect on normal household budgets is catastrophic. The government has prohibited the import of over 1,400 items, and Iranians are discouraged from buying dollars and travelling abroad. Inevitably, the panic generated by this advice has pushed civilians into purchasing more dollars, more gold, and for anyone who could afford it, real estate, causing housing prices to peak. On Monday, June 25 Tehran’s grand bazaar was shut down as merchants joined street protests and thousands defied the riot police trying to quell the rebellion. Other big cities joined Tehran.  Protesters carried signs like “Leave Syria alone, think of us.”  Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, the Houthis and Hamas – all proxies used by the regime − were attacked by the slogan boards.  Worse, from the regime’s point of view, were the prominently displayed slogans: “Death to the dictator.”

So far the regime has been defiant, declaring that it will not “give in to US pressure.”  Meanwhile Iran’s hardliners, especially the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC), have used the political turmoil to criticize Rouhani for negotiating a deal with the West in the first place.  Which leads some commentators to warn western governments against pursuing regime change in Iran, because the secular, liberal elements are as yet unorganized, and the likely result would be that the IRGC, and especially its Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, would seize power.  This would undoubtedly be akin to jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

There is an old English saying meaning that patience is the best way to achieve your object:  “Softly, softly, catchee monkey.”   If eventual regime change is the optimum objective of the West, the process does indeed require patience.   Disillusionment among a large section of the Iranian public probably set in just 30 years after the Revolution, triggered by the presidential election of 2009.

   On June 12, 2009, following a heated campaign between the popular reformist candidate Mir Hussein Musavi and incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians turned out in record numbers to cast their votes. Shortly after the polls closed, the government announced that Ahmadinejad had been re-elected with 64 percent of the vote.  Musavi was reported to have come second with 34 percent.  Incredulity was followed by widespread allegations of vote rigging and election fraud, and supporters of Musavi − who became known as the “Green Movement” − began mounting public demonstrations in major cities of an intensity unprecedented since the 1979 Revolution.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the Revolutionary Guard to crack down on the protestors.  In the ruthless repression that followed, more than 100 people were killed and thousands were arrested to face trial. Many were hanged.

Calm was restored, but by then a spirit of rebellion was in the air throughout the Middle East.  Before the end of 2010 the first spark of what was to flare up into the Arab Spring had appeared in Tunisia.  Although Iran is not an Arab country, this revolutionary fervor found an echo in the Iranian population, and protests about the 2009 presidential election began to erupt anew.  February 14, 2011 saw the start of a year-long period of continuous popular unrest.

   The election as president in June 2013 of the self-styled “moderate”, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani , was, it goes without saying, blessed by the Supreme Leader, as was the deliberate change of tactics.  Now all was to be charm and sweet reason.  Immediately after his election, Rouhani agreed to start substantive talks with world leaders about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

World leaders swallowed the bait.   Bowled over by the change in tactics, the UN negotiating team struck a deal which lifted crippling sanctions on Iran and enabled it to begin trading with the West.  In exchange, Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear capabilities for some 15 years, after which it would be free to manufacture nuclear weapons if it wished. 

Not even Iran’s Supreme Leader could have foreseen the emergence of a Donald Trump, a rejection by the US administration of the deal and a refusal to accept an Iranian missile development process, and the re-imposition of heavy sanctions.  This has thrown Iran into turmoil, with the public openly protesting against the regime’s burdensome domestic, and costly foreign, policies.  Is this the beginning of the end for the Islamic Revolutionary regime?   

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 July 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 11 July 2018:

Sunday, 1 July 2018

The UK has turned its back on BDS

The organization dedicated to isolating and delegitimizing Israel by way of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has not reacted officially to the recent visit to Israel by Britain’s Prince William.  Since he also visited Jordan and what are described in the announcement as “the Palestinian occupied territories”, and since both Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, gave him a right royal welcome, hard-line BDS supporters do not have much of a leg to stand on.  Prince William probably ranks considerably higher in the public popularity stakes than Roger Waters, Lorde or other performers closely associated with pro-BDS views, and so the prince’s visit is likely to have had a major positive effect on young people’s view of Israel across the world.

The term “Palestinian occupied territories” is an exact reflection of the British government’s position on the vexed Israeli-Palestinian situation.  Although more than 70 percent of the countries of the United Nations have, at the urging of the PA, recognized a State of Palestine, the European Union has not formally done so but has left it to individual states to act on this matter as they choose.  A clutch of them have granted Palestine official recognition, but the UK government has always adopted a nuanced approach. Back in 2011 Britain was prepared to grant Palestine non-member observer status  at the UN, though it refused to approve full state membership.  In October 2014 a House of Commons motion called on the government to recognize Palestine as an independent state, but the government has not subsequently implemented the advice.

            A fair number of contemporary issues bear on the royal visit.  In Britain all eyes are on Brexit, and the delicate, not to say precarious, state the negotiations with the EU have reached.  In Prime Minister Theresa May’s keynote speech on March 2, 2018, she made it crystal clear that, after withdrawal, the UK would not enter into any formal customs union with the EU.  Several considerations affected this decision, but high among them was the UK’s determination to negotiate independent trading arrangements around the world – impossible when locked into a customs union. 

A recent UK government White Paper identified Israel as a trading priority for post-Brexit Britain because of the potential synergies between Israel’s high levels of innovation and British strengths in design, business growth, finance and high-technology.  So Israel is a prime potential trading partner for the UK.   The groundwork has already been laid, because UK-Israeli trade is flourishing since the areas in which Israel excels − especially in high-tech fields such as cyber security, Research and Development, and financial technology − are largely outside the EU-Israel agreement which currently governs the terms of trade.

            A second factor is the United States’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.   The immediate, almost universal, wave of protest has largely died down, and it seems to have dawned − in certain quarters at least – that President Donald Trump’s announcement drew no boundaries in Jerusalem, but left wide open the possibility of an eventual separate or conjoint Palestinian capital in the Jerusalem municipality.  Trump’s announcement may have annoyed PA President Mahmoud Abbas mightily, but it did not inhibit the UK from going ahead with the royal visit.

            Thirdly, as the visit to Britain in March 2018 of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman demonstrated, the UK allies itself with the moderate Arab world that is opposing radical jihadist terror organizations intent on disrupting the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are all known to be collaborating with Israel – albeit below the radar − in combatting the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah, Iran’s instruments in its bid for political and religious dominance of the Middle East.

            Fourthly 2018 marks Israel’s 70th anniversary, and an official royal visit was a logical consequence of the recognition and celebration by the British government last November of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.  PA President Abbas welcomed Prince William, but at the back of his, and the prince’s, mind was doubtless his demand in March 2017 that Britain apologises for the Balfour Declaration – a demand that was swiftly rejected by the British government.

            The royal visit to the Middle East in 2018 that included Israel in the itinerary fitted neatly into that policy position, which turns its back decisively on BDS.