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After the Iran Nuclear Deal

The thing to bear in mind about Tuesday’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) is that without it Iran could get nuclear weapons whenever it wants in a short tme. It has the technologies for enriching uranium, it could make the actual bombs any time it likes (every major country knows how), and the sanctions against Iran could not get much worse than they are now.

If you don’t like the current deal, and you really believe that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons, then your only remaining option is massive air strikes on Iran. Not even the Republican Party stalwarts in the US Congress are up for committing the US Air Force to that folly, and Israel without American support simply couldn’t do it on its own.

Then what’s left? Nothing but the deal. It doesn’t guarantee that Iran can never get nuclear weapons. It does guarantee that Iran could not break the agreement without giving everybody else at least a year to respond before the weapons are operational. Sanctions would snap back into place automatically, and anybody who thinks air strikes are a cool idea would have plenty of time to carry them out.

So the deal will survive. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can fulminate about how it is a “an historic mistake” that will give Tehran “a sure path to nuclear weapons,” but he cannot stop it.

Netanyahu is obsessive about Iran, but even his own intelligence services do not believe that Tehran has actually been working on nuclear weapons in the past decade. The Israeli prime minister has burned all his bridges with US President Barack Obama, and his Republican allies in the US Congress cannot stop the deal either.

John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said that the deal will “hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for a nuclear Iran,” and he can probably muster a majority in Congress against it. (Congress, as Washington insiders put it, is “Israeli-occupied territory.”) But he cannot muster the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Obama’s inevitable veto.

There will be a 60-day delay while Congress debates the issue, but this deal will go through in the end. So far, so good – but this is not happening in a vacuum. What are the broader implications for Middle Eastern politics?

Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution 36 years ago, Iran and the United States have been bitter enemies. They have not suddenly become allies, but they are already on good speaking terms. Since almost all of America’s allies in the Arab world see Iran as a huge strategic threat, they are appalled by the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement.

That is not a done deal yet. While Iran strongly supports Bashar al Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, Washington still advocates Assad’s overthrow and arms some of the “moderate” rebels. It even supports Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels who now control most of Yemen, and publicly accepts the Saudi claim that the Houthis are mere pawns who are being armed and incited to revolt by Iran.

But nobody in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon really believes that the civil war in Yemen is an Iranian plot. Very few believe any longer that Assad can be overthrown in Syria without handing the country over to the Islamist fanatics who dominate the insurgency there. And the most powerful force among those fanatics is “Islamic State”, whose troops are already being bombed by the United States in both Syria and Iraq.

The highest US priority in the Middle East now is to prevent Iraq and Syria from falling into the hands of Islamic State and its equally extreme rival, the Nusra Front. Iran is giving both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments military support that is essential to their survival, so there is obviously the potential for closer US-Iranian cooperation here.

By contrast Saudi Arabia and Turkey, currently America’s two most important allies in the region, are pouring money and weapons into the Nusra Front in Syria, which is why it has been winning so many battles against the Assad regime in recent months. The prospect of an Islamist regime in power in Damascus is acceptable to Riyadh and Ankara, but it is deeply unwelcome in Washington.

So yes, a grand realignment of American alliances in the Middle East is theoretically possible now that the long cold war between the US and Iran is over. In practice, however, it is most unlikely to happen. The long-standing military and economic ties between Washington and its current allies will probably triumph over cold strategic logic, and American policy in the Middle East will continue to be the usual muddle.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Iraq”)

The Hardest Word to Say

It’s hard to say sorry, but it’s even harder to say you’re sorry for a genocide. The word just sticks in the throats of those who should be saying it, as the Turks have been demonstrating for the past hundred years in the case of the Armenians of eastern Anatolia. And the Serbs have just shown themselves to be just as tongue-tied in the case of the Bosnian Muslims slaughtered at Srebrenica.

Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the murder of between 7,000 and 8,000 people when Srebrenica was taken by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. The town’s population was swollen by refugees who had fled there to escape the “ethnic cleansing” that was being carried out against Muslims elsewhere in eastern Bosnia, because it was a United Nations-designated “safe area” defended by NATO troops. Or rather, not defended.

When the Bosnian Serbs, having surrounded Srebrenica for three years, finally moved to take it in July 1995, the UN and NATO commanders refused to use air strikes to stop them. And the Dutch troops who were there to protect the town decided they’d rather live and let unarmed civilians die.

So all the Bosnian Muslim men and boys between the ages of 14 and 70 were loaded onto buses – the Dutch soldiers helped to separate them from the women and children – and driven up the road a few kilometres. Then they were shot by Serbian killing squads, and buried by bulldozers. It took four days to murder them all.

The crime has been been formally declared a genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Both the Bosnian Serb president of the time, Radovan Karadzic, and the Serban military commander at Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladic, are awaiting verdicts in trials for directing genocide. You would think that even the Serbs cannot deny that it was a genocide, but you would be wrong.

There are certainly some Serbs, like journalist Dusan Masic, who are willing to call it what it is. His idea was to have 7,000 volunteers lie on the ground before the National Assembly in Belgrade on Saturday, symbolising the approximate number of Muslim victims at Srebrenica. “On July 11, while the eyes of the whole world are on the killing fields near Srebrenica”, he said, “we want to send a different picture from Belgrade.”

“This will not be a story about the current regime, which has failed to define itself in relation to the crime that happened 20 years ago,” he continued, “or about a place where you can still buy souvenirs with images of Karadzic and Mladic. It will be a story about…a better Serbia.” But the better Serbia has not actually arrived yet.

Serbia’s interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, didn’t like the picture Masic wanted to send. When right-wing groups threatened to disrupt the demonstration last Thursday, Stefanovic banned it in order to guarantee “peace and security in the whole of Serbia.” And the Serbian government had already asked Russia to veto a UN Security Council resolution describing the Srebrenica massacre as a “genocide”.

Russia was happy to oblige, and vetoed it on Wednesday. Maybe Moscow was just sucking up to the Serbs, whom it would like to steer away from their current ambition to join the European Union – but maybe President Vladimir Putin was also thinking that he didn’t want any precedent for some future attempt to describe what he did during the second Chechen war in 1999-2002 as a genocide.

Words matter. Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic, who seems to have changed his mind about Srebrenica since his early days in Serbian politics, still cannot bring himself to use the word “genocide” when he talks about it.

Back in 1995, Vucic was a radical nationalist who declared in the Serbian National Assembly, only a few days after the Srebrenica massacre, that “If you kill one Serb, we will kill 100 Muslims.” By 2010, however, he was saying that a “horrible crime was committed in Srebrenica.”

Vucic even traveled to Srebrenica on Saturday to take part in the commemoration of the events of 20 years ago, a brave gesture for a Serbian prime minister who must contend with an electorate most of whom do not want to admit that Serbs did anything especially wrong. But he still doesn’t dare say the word “genocide”. The voters would never forgive him.

Most Serbs would acknowledge that their side did some bad things during the Balkan wars of the 90s, but they would add that every side did. They will not accept the use of the word “genocide” – whereas that is the one word Bosnian Muslims have to hear before they can believe that the Serbs have finally grasped the nature and scale of their crime.

That’s why, when Vucic was at Srebrenica paying his respects in the cemetery, some Bosnian Muslims started throwing stones at him. His glasses were broken, and his security detail had to hustle him away.

It was a stupid, shameful act, and the Bosnian Muslim authorities have apologised for it. But like the Turks and the Armenians, the Serbs and their neighbours will never really be reconciled until the Serbs say the magic word.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Serbia’s…genocide”)

Burma: The Generals Win Again

It’s game, set and match to the Burmese generals. On Wednesday they finally announced the date of the general election that was once seen as the real dawn of democracy in Burma: 8 November. But the army will emerge as the winner once again.

The political party that was created to support the generals, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, will not win a majority of the seats in the new parliament. Indeed, it may win very few. But serving military officers will still have 25 percent of the seats, in accordance with the 2008 constitution (written by the military), and that will be enough to preserve military rule.

The spokesman of Burma’s president, former General Thein Sein, tried to put a positive spin on this in an interview last month. “In the past the military was 100 percent in control of the country,” he told Peter Popham of The Independent. “Today it is only 25 percent in control.” But that’s not true: it is still 100 percent in control.

Those military officers (who wear their uniforms in parliament and vote in a bloc as the army high command decrees) will continue to dominate politics, because 25 percent of the votes, according to that 2008 constitution, can block any changes to the constitution.

And if they can’t find or buy enough allies in parliament to muster a majority and pass legislation that the military want, they have a fall-back position. The constitution still allows the military to simply suspend the government and take over whenever they like. Well, whenever they perceive a “security threat”, technically, but soldiers are usually pretty good at doing that.

Two weeks ago the civilian parties in parliament tried to change those parts of the constitution. They also tried to drop the clause that was written to stop “Burma’s Mandela”, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president. (She has two sons with British passports, and the constitution says that nobody with “foreign” ties can be president.) The soldiers just used their 25 percent blocking minority to reject all the changes.

Aung San Suu Kyi now has until Saturday to decide whether she will lead her National League for Democracy into the November elections, or boycott them as she did in 2010. In principle, it shouldn’t be a tough decision. Her party could win by a landslide – indeed, it probably would – but she still couldn’t be president, and any NLD-led government would be permanently under threat of removal by the generals if it challenged their privileges.

When she was asked in a press conference last year how the democracy project was faring, she gave a one-word answer: “Stalled”. And in an interview in April she put the blame squarely on the countries that used to support her: “I would just like to remind you that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism would be very, very good, and that too many of our western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process here.”

It’s quite true that just the promise of democratisation was enough to end the long-standing Western economic sanctions against Burma and unleash a tidal wave of foreign investment in the country. After fifty years of military rule during which the soldiers got very rich, Burma is the poorest country in South-East Asia (it used to be the richest), but it does have huge, mostly unexploited natural resources.

So the foreign investors piled in and the economy is being transformed, even though the military are really still in charge. But Suu Kyi has made some serious errors too. She took the generals’ promises seriously enough to let her party run in by-elections in 2011, and even took a seat in parliament herself. She undoubtedly understood that it was a gamble, but unfortunately it failed.

So now she has no practical alternative to going down the road she chose in 2011: taking part in the November elections despite all the limitations on civilian power, and working for change within the military-designed system even though she lends it credibility by her cooperation.

Aung San Suu Kyi used to be a symbolic leader of great moral stature; now she is a pragmatic politician who has to get her hands dirty. It cannot feel good, but it was inevitably going to end up more or less like this if she ever made any progress in her struggle to make Burma a democratic country. She HAS made some progress, and the military were inevitably going to push back. They never thought she was their friend or their ally.

The Burmese army has ruled the country for fifty years, and it has done very well out of it. It has won this round of the struggle, but Burma is changing: all the foreign influences coming in, all the new money, and a more or less free press are creating new dynamics in the society. Aung San Suu Kyi is still in the game, and the game is not over yet.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3and 9 (“The spokesman..control”; and (“It’s quite…resources”)

Greece and the Euro: What Now?

In theory, it could still work. It only requires three miracles.

Maybe the resounding “no” to the eurozone’s terms for a third bail-out in Sunday’s referendum in Greece (61 percent against) will force the euro currency’s real managers, Germany and France, to reconsider. French President Francois Hollande is already advocating a return to negotiations with Greece.

Maybe the International Monetary Fund will publicly urge the eurozone’s leaders to cancel more of Greece’s crushing load of debt. Last Thursday the IMF released a report saying that Greece needed an extra 50 billion euros over three years to roll over existing debt, and should be allowed a 20-year grace period before making any debt repayments. Even then, it said, Greece’s debt was “unsustainable”.

And maybe Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tripras will accept the terms he asked Greek voters to reject in the referendum if he can also get a commitment to a big chunk of debt relief – say around 100 billion euros, about a third of Greece’s total debt – from the eurozone authorities and the IMF. It’s all theoretically possible. It even makes good sense. But it will require radically different behaviour from all the parties involved.

Tsipras has already made one big gesture: on the morning after the referendum victory, he ditched his flamboyant finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. The hyper-combative Varoufakis had needlessly alienated every other eurozone finance minister with his scattergun abuse, and it was hard to imagine him sitting down with his opposite numbers again after calling them all “terrorists” during the referendum campaign.

The IMF’s gesture was even bigger, if much belated. It knew the eurozone’s strategy was wrong from the time of the first bail-out in 2010, and it is finally getting ready to admit it.

Normally, when the IMF bails out a country that is over its head in debt, it insists on four things. There is always fiscal consolidation (cutting spending, collecting all the taxes, balancing the budget) and “structural reform” (making labour markets more flexible, ending subsidies, etc.). All the current Greece-eurozone negotiations have been about these issues. But the usual IMF package also includes devaluation and debt relief.

There was no debt relief at all in the 2010 bail-out, and only private-sector creditors were forced to take a “haircut” (around 30 percent) in the second bail-out in 2012. Most of Greece’s debt was owed to German and French banks, and that wasn’t touched. Indeed, 90 percent of the eurozone loans Greece has received go straight into repaying European banks.

Greece’s debt is not decreased by these transactions: it is just switched to European official bodies including the European Central Bank So the Greeks are getting no real help worth talking about, and European taxpayers are getting screwed to save European banks.

Why didn’t the IMF blow the whistle on this long ago? Because it was not taking the lead in these negotiations, and after it took part in the 2010 bail-out anyway it was deeply embarrassed. It had broken its own rules, and found it hard to admit it. It was also aware that devaluation, usually a key part of IMF bail-outs, is impossible for Greece unless it actually leaves the euro (which Greeks desperately don’t want to do).

So the usual post-bailout economic recovery didn’t happen. Over five years Greece’s debt has increased by half, its economy has shrunk by a quarter, and unemployment has risen to 25 percent (50 percent for young people). The referendum question was deliberately obscure and misleading, but most Greeks know that the current approach simply isn’t working. That’s why they voted “no” in the referendum. It was a valid choice.

If the eurozone authorities know that much of Greece’s debt can never be repaid (which they do), why don’t they just give Greece the debt relief it needs? Partly because Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that her own German voters will be angry at more “charity” funded by their taxes, whereas they stay fairly quiet so long as the debt is still on the books. And partly because other eurozone countries would see it as special treatment for Greece.

Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have also been through harrowing bail-out programmes, and are still making proportionally bigger interest payments on their debts than Greece. Some other countries using the euro – Estonia, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia – have about the same GDP per capita as Greece, and Latvia is even poorer. They don’t see why they should pay for Greece’s folly in running up such huge debts.

“I really hope that the Greek government – if it wants to enter negotiations again – will accept that the other 18 member states of the euro can’t just go along with an unconditional haircut (debt write-off),” said Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor. “How could we then refuse it to other member states? And what would it mean for the eurozone if we did it? It would blow the eurozone apart, for sure.”

So it really isn’t possible to predict whether Tsipras and Greece will be offered a better deal or not. It’s equally impossible to say what will happen to the euro “single currency” if there is no deal and Greece crashes out of the euro in the next couple of weeks, although the eurozone authorities insist that they could weather the storm.

We do live in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 9 and 14. (“Normally…relief”; “Greece’s…banks”); and “I really…sure”)