Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Iran’

Saudi Arabia: Going Rogue

We haven’t heard much about rogue states since George W Bush’s tenure in the White House ended, but maybe the term should be revived and applied to one of America’s closest allies – Saudi Arabia.

The talks on Syria in Vienna have finally got all the relevant international players around the table with Iran taking part along with the Saudis. Following the deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, the US no longer had a good reason to refuse to talk to the Iranians and as Assad’s main backers they are crucial to making any progress.

So far so good.

But Saudi Arabia seems to have been doing its upmost to provoke the Iranians into walking out.

Ahead of the talks, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, gave media interviews saying Iran had to accept Syrian President Assad’s removal – interesting, given how Saudi diplomats are usually pretty media shy.

Then when the talks started it appears al Jubeir went out of his way to provoke his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, and there was a blazing row.

Under King Salman’s predecessors, Saudi Arabia pursued a cautious foreign policy and shunned the limelight.

No longer.

Although King Abdullah did send troops into neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring to put down unrest among the country’s Shia majority, since his successor ascended to the throne in January this year he has taken this regional activism to a different level.

Salman appointed his favourite son, the young and inexperienced, Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, Defence Minister. The Saudis promptly launched a direct military intervention in the civil war over the country’s southern border in Yemen. With air and some ground forces, the Saudis are leading an alliance of Sunni states trying to crush the Shi’ite Houthi rebels the Saudis accuse of being Iranian proxies.

Many of the more than 4,500 civilians killed so far in the fighting have died in air strikes and recently – in a gruesome rerun of what happened last month in Afghanistan – a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital was hit. The UN says 39 medical facilities have been struck – and possible war crimes committed – in Yemen since the intervention started, although the Saudis deny they are responsible.

Saudi-led forces have imposed a blockade on Yemen though and according to the UN, this is causing a humanitarian crisis as almost 13 million people – half the population – are now short of food, medicine and fuel.

Credible reports indicate the new Saudi government also escalated support – in arms and money – for Syrian rebel groups, including those allied to the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front. This is thought to have been crucial to the rebel advance which led to Russia’s intervention to prop up President Assad in September.

The new Saudi leadership, unnerved by the prospect of US rapprochement with Iran following the nuclear deal and angered by President Obama’s sudden U-turn in 2013 when he called off American military strikes on Assad’s forces at the last minute, has become markedly less pliant to US wishes.

Like Washington’s other close ally in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia is doing its own thing and Obama, faced with a determined friend, seems largely content to let the tail wag the dog.

The Americans have turned a blind eye to Saudi links to rebels Washington doesn’t consider “moderate” enough to merit its own backing. The US has also supplied arms and intelligence to support Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen.

While Washington says Assad’s use of indiscriminate force against civilians has put him beyond the pale, the moral and diplomatic credibility of its position is undermined by its failure to oppose what the Saudis are up to around the region.

Try a little exercise. Imagine what President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry would have said and done if it were Iran launching air strikes on Yemen and blockading its ports.

If the US is serious about restoring stability to the Middle East and protecting the rights of civilians there, it should be reining in the Saudis in Yemen, not aiding and abetting them.

On Syria, the Americans should take the Saudis to one side and make it clear to them they should play nice at the talks so as not to extinguish the glimmer of hope for political progress that’s appeared since Russia intervened directly in the conflict.

Russia: Anything You Can Do ….

Watching Russia’s military intervention in Syria unfold has taken me back to my secondary school days when we put on the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

You may remember it from its best-known song “Anything you can do” and with the Russians carrying our air strikes in support of Syrian ground forces and using cruise missiles launched from ships in the far-off Caspian Sea, Moscow seems to be sending that same message to Washington

Where the US used its air power to help the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbian forces in 1999 and give the Northern Alliance the edge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and where the US Navy used cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and Libya, the Russians seem to be using their Syria campaign to put down a marker and demonstrate the US and its NATO allies aren’t the only ones who have such capabilities.

And it is not just in military prowess that President Putin is showing he can do at least some of the things the US and NATO have pretty much had a monopoly on up to now.

More significantly, Moscow is showing that when the US decided to disregard the niceties of international law and the rules-based international system it did so much to establish after 1945, it set a dangerous precedent others would follow.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in western outlets about how Russia’s actions expose the relative decline of US power and also President Obama’s unwillingness to exercise the considerable power the US undoubtedly still possesses.

Russia’s Syria intervention is being seen as evidence that Putin is taking advantage of the unwillingness and inability of the US to lead and we are now living in a G-Zero world where power is exercised – by those who have it – in the pursuit of national interests rather than the common good.

But this analysis is missing some key points.

While it’s true US power is in relative decline and Obama has been reticent in using the conventional military on a large-scale – though not drones and special forces – the US itself is partly responsible for undermining the international order it criticises Russia for flouting.

From the 1989 invasion of Panama, through its disregard for the UN in the 1999 assault on Serbia, to Iraq in 2003, the Americans showed that when rules got in the way of what they wanted to do, they would be bent or just ignored – hence, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s self-serving formulation of the Kosovo intervention as “not legal but … right”.

The US response to Russian criticism over its manipulation of international law has been to argue each case is unique or “sui generis” and to insist it hasn’t set a precedent.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t get to decide what sets a precedent and what doesn’t. And since 2007, Putin seems to have decided that while continuing to publicly argue for the primacy of international law, Russia would use American conduct to justify its own actions.

When it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and subsequently recognised their independence from Tbilisi, Russia justified its action as humanitarian intervention and cited what the US and NATO had done in Kosovo.

Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea also cited previous western actions.

In entering the Syrian conflict, Putin’s case is more clear cut under international law given he was invited in by President Assad, who heads what is still recognised by the UN as the government of Syria, though we are yet to see if the conduct of the Russian campaign conforms to the laws of war.

If the world is to bolster the international system and establish a semblance of stability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where let’s not forget a Saudi-led Gulf alliance has also taken a leaf out of the US book by intervening in Yemen’s civil war (and I’m surprised Moscow hasn’t cited this yet as another precedent for its actions in Syria), then a starting point would be to return to diplomacy over Syria.

An international system based on rules, rather then “might is right”, requires that all the international players, especially the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, swallow their pride and sit down together to thrash out a political solution that isolates the extremists of Islamic State and al-Nusra and ends Syria’s war and the suffering of its people.

With Russia escalating its attacks, NATO making angry noises at Moscow and Saudi Arabia talking about increasing support for the rebels, as things stand it doesn’t look like they’re willing to do this, so we continue on down the rocky road to a G-Zero world.

Syria: Russia opens a window of opportunity?

In the fog of claim and counter claim over the real target of Russian air strikes in Syria one thing is clear: Russia’s direct intervention is intensifying the war and that means even more civilian deaths and more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe.

It’s estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million forced to flee in more than four years of fighting.

So you’d think another foreign power intervening is the last thing Syria needs.

But, depending how others respond, President Putin may have opened a window of opportunity to move towards a political settlement of this confused and confusing conflict.

Russia has joined a growing list of foreign players backing different sides in what is now a four-sided battle between the Syrian government, so called moderate rebels, the Kurds and Islamist insurgents.

Fighting alongside President Assad are Iran, its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and now Russia, who’ve sent forces to help prop up a Syrian army short of troops.

Then there are the air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and now France, which joined the fight the same week as the Russians. They are attacking Islamic State, which controls a fair chunk of Syria as well as neighbouring Iraq.

These US-led air strikes are supposed to help the moderate rebels and Kurds, who are fighting IS as well as Assad’s forces.

IS itself originated over the border in Iraq and is estimated to have recruited up to 30,000 foreign fighters from all over the world.

As well as all these international players stoking the flames, the war has dragged on into its fifth year because there’s no international consensus on how to end it.

What began as civil war also quickly became a proxy war between Iran, which is Assad’s key backer, and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia, which saw an opportunity to remove Tehran’s long-standing ally from power.

Along the way, the varied anti-Assad rebel groups picked up different sponsors with different agendas. In addition to those backed by the Saudis, some were supported by Qatar, some by Turkey, others by the US.

UN efforts to broker a peace deal have been undermined from the start by the failure of the US and Russia to agree on President Assad’s future.

Washington and its western allies made the mistake of assuming Assad wouldn’t last long, so very early on they insisted he could have no role in a settlement.

When he didn’t fall, it left the western powers with little room to manoeuvre between an embarrassing climb-down over Assad or continued, if half-hearted, backing for the rebels.

Despite some signs he may now be prepared to agree a transitional role for the Syrian leader, President Obama can’t yet bring himself to eat the necessary humble pie.

So how could Russia’s intervention open the way to talks?

Moscow says it has entered the war to support the Syrian government’s fight against Islamist terrorists and says its objective is the same as Washington’s.

Except as things stand it isn’t – unless Putin and Obama can break the deadlock over the future of Assad.

Clear strategic thinking is required in Washington and other western capitals.

They need to decide whether their priority is the defeat of Islamic State or getting rid of Assad. Given they decided not to intervene militarily against the Syrian leader but did so against IS, it is safe to assume the defeat of the latter is more important to them. So it’s time policy matched priorities.

In his speech to the UN, Putin offered a grand coalition against IS and this was followed by the first Russian air strikes.

It seems those strikes were aimed at other rebel groups fighting Assad as well as IS. But despite this, the US-led coalition should test Moscow’s proposal and try to forge that grand coalition.

If the war is to be ended and Syria put back together, the international supporters of both Assad and the rebels, especially the Iranians and the Saudis, need to come together and put real pressure on them to stop fighting and start talking.

The UN has its mediation team led by Steffan de Mistura in place to broker negotiations. The legal basis for international involvement is sound too given the Responsibility to Protect can be invoked following the Syrian state’s failure to protect its own citizens and indeed its indiscriminate attacks on many of them.

Alongside the diplomacy, this international coalition would need to agree to isolate IS and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front and focus their military efforts on reducing the areas under their control.

Of course all this is easier said than done.

It means Washington and Moscow engaging constructively rather than scoring points off each other in the court of international public opinion. Crucially it also means the US needs to agree to sit down at the same table as Iran, as well as Russia, and bring a reluctant Saudi Arabia along too.

It may not work. International pressure may not be enough to stop the fighting, but it can’t make matters any worse than they are now.

The Americans clearly don’t trust the Russians, but Washington needs to agree to Assad’s long-term fate going on the back burner, overcome its reluctance to give Putin a boost and put the interests of the Syrian people and regional stability first.

Yemen: proxy war and war by proxy

There’s more than one nasty war going on in the Arab world.

Iraq and Syria get most of the headlines in western media given the current focus on the threat from Islamic State to European and American interests and citizens, as well as the direct involvement of western military forces in the campaign against IS.

But there’s also a war going on in Yemen, which since neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies intervened in March has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis as Saudi forces have imposed a tight blockade on much of the country.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened when the complex on-going Yemeni civil war appeared to shift decisively against the government of President Hadi and in favour of Houthi rebels – Shi’ites seen as close to Iran.

The fighting appears to have escalated with Houthi forces being driven out of the strategically important port of Aden and a nearby airbase (which the US has used in the past to carry out drone strikes on al-Qaeda and its allies in Yemen and the region – told you it was complicated).

Reliable press reports suggest what seems to have turned the tables on the Houthis is the recent arrival of ground troops – both regular and special forces -from the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia has also been funding Sunni rebel groups in Syria against President Assad, while Iran – rather than Russia – has been the main source of foreign support for the beleaguered Syrian government.

This aspect of the Syrian conflict is very much an old-fashioned proxy war and it has added greatly to the complexity and destructiveness of what is also a civil war.

The parallels with Yemen are clear. Though unlike Syria, Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia and so direct intervention is a practical option.

To Sunni Saudi eyes, the Shia Houthis are like the Syrian government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. They are apostates and allies of Riyadh’s great Shia rival for influence in Middle East – Iran.

But the Saudis are not freelancing. Its coalition’s intervention has the full backing of the United States, which is supplying arms and intelligence.

The US Navy has also been deployed off Yemen to prevent Iranian ships docking, citing suspicions they may be carrying arms for the Houthis.

So for Washington, Yemen is more like war by proxy against Iran.

In this way it resembles some of the conflicts of the Cold War where the US backed one side and the Soviet Union another.

What is also striking is the absence of any talk of “humanitarian intervention”.

There have been “humanitarian pauses” in Yemen where the two sides have agreed to (frequently broken) ceasefires to allow delivery of aid to civilians by the UN and NGOs.

But there has been no hiding that the intervention in Yemen is part of a good old-fashioned, geo-political power struggle.

Saudi Arabia moved when it thought its side was losing.

Perhaps after the debacle of Libya where the Responsibility to Protect was invoked and NATO, endorsed by the UN Security Council, intervened leading to the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi and the country’s collapse into its current anarchic state, there is a realisation the humanitarian rhetoric just doesn’t wash any more.

Also, since Libya there’s been Syria.

If anything has demonstrated that the era of Sierra Leone and Kosovo in the late 1990s where western intervention in local conflicts was justified on moral grounds has passed, it is the international response to the Syrian conflict.

Instead of trying to help end an escalating civil war, the US, its western and Turkish allies took sides early against President Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia.

Despite this though, there has been a reluctance to get directly involved in the battle against Assad. Instead, the US has used its diplomatic muscle to try to undermine his government’s international legitimacy and support his non-Islamist opponents, as well as ill-fated efforts to train so-called moderate rebels.

For their part, Moscow and Tehran have propped Damascus up with arms – and in Iran’s case with money and military advisors.

In all this, the humanitarian interests of Syrian civilians have seemingly counted for a lot less than the struggle over the fate of President Assad.

The UN-led aid operation to help those forced to flee their homes has been chronically underfunded and most western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees – helping to drive the surge in migrants trying to get into the EU by any means.

So as the World continues its transition from one dominated by the US to one where there are competing centres of power prepared to back different sides in conflicts – and stymie UN action when their interests are directly involved – we can expect to become more familiar with proxy wars and wars by proxy like the one in Yemen.


I was going to write about the EU migrant crisis this week but could not have said anything more poignant than my friend and former colleague, Robin Lustig. You can read his blog here.

Iran nuclear talks: at the Rubicon

Most eyes seem to be focussed on Brussels and the clock counting down to the impending deadline on June 30th to avoid a Greek default and possible exit from the Euro.

But there is another clock – this one in Vienna – that should be holding our attention too.

The Iran nuclear talks also have until the last day of June – this coming Tuesday – to reach a final deal on the how the framework agreement reached in early April will be implemented and verified.

The talks have made more progress than sceptics expected when they began in earnest after the election of President Rouhani two years ago. The framework deal envisages Iran restraining its ability to develop nuclear weapons for ten to fifteen years in exchange for the suspension of economic sanctions imposed both unilaterally by the US and its western allies and the United Nations over the past decade that have hit the Iranian economy badly.

Back in April, the two sides – Iran and the P5+1 i.e. the US, China, Russia, France and Britain plus Germany – agreed that by June 30th they would agree the technical details of how Tehran would cap its programme, how that would be verified and how the sanctions would be lifted, including how they would be re-imposed in the event of a breach by Tehran.

The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, who have been the key drivers of the talks arrive in Vienna tomorrow to add their weight to the final push to overcome the remaining hurdles

According to media reports these include a demand Tehran open up its non-nuclear military sites, including its missile production facilities, to inspection, and an American idea – unlikely to get Moscow’s approval – for the mechanism for re-introducing sanctions to by-pass the UN Security Council where of course Russia and China have a veto.

Both the US and Iran seem to genuinely want to do a deal, but not at any price.

There have been hints the talks, like those for the framework deal, could continue a few days past their deadline, but the possibility of failure is real and the cost of that in a region already beset by open conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – all of which are partly driven by a proxy war between Shia Iran and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia – and the simmering tension between Israel and the Palestinians could be exorbitant.

President Obama has taken a high stakes gamble to try to reach a diplomatic solution to the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme. But in so doing he has stoked up already heightened/exaggerated (delete as appropriate) fears in the US over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme – despite US intelligence concluding an attempt to develop nuclear weapons ended over a decade ago.

So if the talks fail, the political pressure on the Obama Administration from both Republicans and Democrats – watch presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton – to take alternative “tough” action will mount.

And if it is the demands of the western countries at the table that are seen to be the main cause of breakdown, Russia and China may break ranks preventing further constructive action by the UN.

This would increase the pressure on the White House still further by narrowing its options, especially its ability to emphasise the need for building consensus for a unified international response before taking unilateral action.

Then there is Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, recently re-elected and heading a new right-wing coalition, is a possible wildcard. He has made no secret of his intention to take pre-emptive action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which would challenge Tel Aviv’s own arsenal.

Military strategists debate whether Israel has the capability to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities effectively without support from the US. But Tehran would undoubtedly respond, either directly or via its allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, so even an abortive Israeli attack would have unpredictable consequences in a region already wracked by war.

Talk of a widespread conflagration in the Middle East has such a long pedigree the danger now is a complacent attitude that things there will not get much worse.

But with the US moving towards a policy of confronting growing Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, if the Iran talks fail there will be voices inside the White House arguing it would be dangerous to risk escalation with Tehran as well, so it would be best to restrain Israel and stick to sanctions.

US Israel relations: bump in the road or terminal decline?

On the face of it relations between Israel and US have not been this bad since the Suez crisis of 1956 when President Eisenhower opposed the Israeli invasion of Egypt.

Before Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered his address to Congress in Washington at the invitation of the Republicans, National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, said his intervention in American partisan politics would be destructive of relations and other senior US government figures have openly criticised him.

Mr Netanyahu is using his speech to criticise the US approach to the nuclear talks with Iran which are coming to a crunch with a deadline of the end of March for an agreement and signs of progress is being made.

For the Israeli leader a deal with Iran which allows Tehran to retain any nuclear technology seems to be a red line. He believes Iran wants to destroy Israel and is developing nuclear weapons, although intelligence leaks this week indicate his own spy agency doesn’t see it this way.

The US on the other hand seems willing to accept a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme in return for safeguards it will not be used to make weapons. Something Iran is entitled to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Back in 1956, Israeli reasoning was not that different. The government of the time regarded President Nasser as bent on the destruction of Israel and decided to attack Egypt before Cairo was able to build up its armed forces.

The French and their British allies wanted to reverse General Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal and secure control of the strategic link to their colonial and commercial interests further east. So they had common cause with Israel and sent troops to take control of the Canal by force – ostensibly to secure international access.

In Washington, President Eisenhower saw things differently. The US wanted stability in the Middle East as it was becoming increasingly dependent on oil imports from the region. The Cold War was also intensifying and the Americans wanted to prevent Egypt, the key Arab power, from going over to the Soviet camp.

So, not only did the US condemn the invasion, it took active diplomatic and economic measures which forced Tel Aviv – as well as the British and French – to withdraw their troops from Egyptian territory.

As history shows, relations between the US and Israel recovered and Israel has gone on to become the largest recipient of American aid of any country since 1945. The US has also spent a lot of diplomatic capital over the years wielding its veto – or the threat of it – at the UN to protect Israel from international censure over its military action against Palestinian groups and continued occupation of land captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Of course there have been ups and downs since Suez – notably under the first President Bush who had a frosty relationship with another Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, when Mr Bush wanted to get the peace process moving.

So will relations recover this time?

Mr Netanyahu’s visit is controversial because he is involving himself in partisan American politics by giving succour to Republicans opposed to Mr Obama’s approach to Iran. But it is also contentious because Mr Netanyahu is in the middle of an election campaign and the Obama Administration says the US has a long-standing policy of not hosting foreign leaders so close to polling day.

Relations between Washington and Tel Aviv have been on a downward trajectory ever since President Obama launched his ill-fated attempt to revive the peace process in his first term by calling for a freeze in Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories.

Back in 2010, Mr Netanyahu went as far as attempting to humiliate a visiting Vice-President, Joe Biden, by announcing the expansion of settlement housing in occupied East Jerusalem while Mr Biden was still in town.

Mr Netanyahu has also repeatedly tried to outflank the White House by appealing for support from the US Congress, despite the danger of a backlash from Americans who could see it as interference in their internal affairs. Before now, he has worked with both Democrat and Republican supporters of Israel, but this time he accepted the invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and a substantial number of Democrats have said they will boycott next Tuesday’s speech.

However, Mr Obama will not be president in two years’ time and Mr Netanyahu may also have passed from the stage by then, so the likelihood is relations will improve again whatever happens in the Iran nuclear talks.

Although polling evidence in recent years suggests younger voters in US, including Jewish Americans, are less supportive of Israel than their parents’ generation, Washington’s support for Israel is based on solid foundations.

The much cited influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups, like AIPAC, is one reason American politicians will continue to push any US government to support Tel Aviv. And although the US shale revolution has made Americans much less dependent on Middle East oil imports, Washington still sees Israel as an important ally in an unstable region.

But most importantly, there is a strong ideological and emotional basis for the relationship.

When Americans look at Israel many see a reflection of their own national myth – a democratic state built by a hardworking people who migrated in the hope of creating a new country and society for themselves.

Given this deep well spring, it is difficult to envisage any US President turning his back on Israel.

It is also instructive that in spite of the antipathy between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, Washington has kept its financial and military support to Tel Aviv going, even in the face of international criticism of Israel’s military actions, such as last summer’s Gaza conflict which cost the lives of around 2,200 Palestinians and 71 Israelis.

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