25 November 2013
Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid
By Gwynne Dyer
“We are not blind, and I don’t think we are stupid,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in response to fierce Israeli criticism after the first round of talks about Iran’s nuclear programme earlier this month failed to reach a deal. Now the deal is done, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is even harsher in his condemnation of Kerry’s handiwork.
“Israel has many friends and allies,” said Netanyahu, “but when they’re mistaken, it’s my duty to speak out….What was achieved last night in Geneva (24 November) is not a historic agreement, it was a historic mistake. Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon.”
What he meant was that the interim agreement implicitly recognises Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses. But that right is already enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, and nobody ever thought that Iran was really going to renounce it. What was at issue was whether it would enrich its uranium to “weapons grade” – 90 percent pure – and make nuclear bombs.
The “Plan of Action” signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union ensures that it will not, at least for the next six months. All uranium enrichment above 5 percent is to be halted, and Iran’s entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched material – the potential feedstock for a “dash” to weapons-grade material – is to be diluted or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment.
Iran is not to install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich material), and large numbers of the existing banks of centrifuges are to be left inoperable. Even Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium ( for use in nuclear power reactors) is to remain the same between now and the end of the six-month period. And there will be no further work done on the Arak reactor, which might give Iran plutonium, and thus a second route to a nuclear bomb.
Iran will also allow more intrusive inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency officials, including daily access to the key enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordow. All it gets in return is $7 billion worth of relief (about $100 per Iranian) on the sanctions that are crippling its economy. All the main sanctions will stay in place until a final agreement has been signed – if it is – six months from now.
Iran can therefore make no further progress towards nuclear weapons while the detailed negotiations continue, if that is actually what Tehran ever had in mind. Yet Israeli officials are talking as if the United States has been both blind and stupid.
On Sunday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that “Israel cannot participate in the international celebration, which is based on Iranian deception and the world’s self-delusion.” And Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of trade and industry, warned: “If in five years a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning.”
This is so far over the top that you wonder whether the speakers even believe it themselves. Israel has talked itself into this obsession with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons project – Israeli sources have been warning that Iran is two years away from a bomb at regular intervals for the past twenty years – but the constant talk about it has also served to draw attention away from Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories.
Israel’s basic position is that the Iranian regime is entirely composed of evil terrorist fanatics who should never be allowed to have refined uranium of any sort. The only recourse is therefore to tighten the sanctions more and more until Iran’s entire economy and government crumble and a completely different sort of people emerge from somewhere to take over the country. No deal can be a good deal.
Israel’s leaders are dismayed that they can no longer keep their allies and friends pinned in this extreme position, but endlessly quoting the ravings of former Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is not enough. They would have to demonstrate that Iran actually intends to attack Israel, and they cannot. So eventually their allies just moved without them.
As Israel’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid told “Time” magazine, “We’ve lost the world’s ear. We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.” But the game is not over yet. Israel’s influence in the US Congress is still immense, and its Congressional allies are already talking about heaping more sanctions on Iran (in order to kill the deal, though they don’t admit that).
President Obama could veto those new sanctions, of course, but he will find it a lot harder to get Congress to revoke the existing sanctions if the final deal is done six months from now. That’s why Iran gets so little relief from sanctions now in return for its concessions: Obama needs more time to work on Congress. But Israel may still win this tug-of-war.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Iran is…now”)
20 November 2013
Bad Times in Libya
By Gwynne Dyer
A little over two years after the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was captured and killed by rebel militiamen outside the town of Sirte, the Libyan state is teetering on the brink of collapse. A dozen different militia organisations have more authority than the central government, and if ordinary civilians protest at their arbitrary rule they get shot.
That happened in Benghazi, in the east of the country, in June, when 31 peaceful demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded while protesting outside the barracks of the “Libyan Shield Brigade”.
It happened again in Tripoli just last week, when a militia brigade from Misrata that has been roosting in the capital for the past two years used heavy machine-guns on unarmed civilians who were demanding that it go home, killing 43 and wounding hundreds.
In between, there have been some eighty assassinations of senior police and government officials. Last month the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by gunmen of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room group. Almost all the east and the south of the country are controlled by militias who have seized the main oilfields and ports.
Oil exports, the country’s only significant source of revenue, have dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day last summer to only 200,000 bpd. Deprived of most of its income, the government will run out of money to pay its employees next month – including the militias that harass it, for it pays them off too. And once the militias are no longer getting their protection money, things may get even worse in Libya.
That’s the bad news in Libya, but it all follows logically from the nature of the five-month war that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011. It was not the militias that defeated him; it was NATO’s air power, which relentlessly bombed his troops and strong-points. But since the Western countries, haunted by their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, had no wish to put troops on the ground, it was the militias who collected the victory.
The militias now have 225,000 members in a country of only 5 million people. Only about one-tenth of the militiamen actually fought in the war, but in a country with 40 percent unemployment it’s the best job going, so they do not lack recruits. And from the beginning what passes for a national government in Libya, lacking any army or police of its own, hired the militias to enforce its authority. As a result, they have become the real authorities.
What government there was at the centre has now largely disintegrated. There was a reasonably free election in 2012, but most of those elected represented tribal, ethnic or regional interests, and they have now mostly withdrawn from the national Congress in disgust, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant influence in the government even though it lacks broad support in the country. So the disintegration continues.
The eastern half of the country, Cyrenaica, with 80 percent of the oil, is now in practice a separate entity, run by militias that demand “federalism” but really mean independence. Prime Minister Zeidan warned in August that “any vessel not under contract to the National Oil Company that approaches the (oil) terminals (in Cyrenaica) will be bombed,” and so far none has dared to – but that means nobody gets the income. It is a truly horrible mess.
Could this have been avoided? Probably not. After forty-two years of Gaddafi’s brutal rule there was no civil society in Libya that could support a democratic government and effectively demand respect for human rights and an end to corruption. Foreign occupation might have supplied some of the necessary skills to run a modern state, but would have been violently rejected by Libyans. Besides, there were no foreigners willing to take on the job.
You have to start from where you are. Libya is taking much longer than the optimists expected to get to where it needs to be: a democratic state that respects its citizens and enforces the law impartially. At the moment it’s not even heading in that direction: Prime Minister Zeidan worries that it might become “an Afghanistan or a Somalia”.
Probably not. The country’s oil wealth can only flow, whether to the warlords or to the citizens, if there is a reasonable degree of peace and order. That is a powerful incentive to cooperation, even if much of the negotiation seems to be done with guns. And there is a kind of civil society emerging in Libya now: those crowds of protesters that the militias massacred were actually evidence that it exists.
It will be years more before the Libyans manage to sort themselves out, but in the end they probably will. They will probably remain a single country, too, although a highly decentralised and federalised one. But it’s very bad now, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“That’s…victory”; and “What…continues”)
18 November 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
The big news of the week is that China’s one-child policy is being relaxed. After 34 years when most Chinese families were officially limited to only one child, most couples will now be allowed to have two children. The reality, however, is that it will make very little difference.
It will make little difference because only about one-third of Chinese couples were still living under those restrictions anyway. The one-child limit never applied to ethnic minorities, and in the past fifteen years it has rarely applied to people living in rural areas either: couples whose first child was a girl are almost always allowed to have a second child (in the hope that it will be a boy).
Controls were stricter in the cities, but if both prospective parents were only children themselves they were exempt from the limit. And people with enough money can just ignore the rules: the penalty for having a second child is just a stiff fine up front and the extra cost of raising a child who is not entitled to free education. (The fines are reported to have raised $2.12 billion for the state coffers last year alone.)
The net result of all this is that the China’s current fertility rate (the average number of children a woman will bear in a lifetime) is not 1.0, as it would be if there were a really strict one-child policy. According to United Nations statistics, it is 1.55, about the same as Canada. Which suggests that most Chinese who really wanted a second child got one.
The new rules that have just been announced by the Third Plenum of the Communist Party say that urban people can now have a legal second child if just one of the would-be parents was an only child. This is not going to unleash a wave of extra babies; it will raise the fertility rate, at most, to 1.6. (“Replacement” level is 2.1.) Indeed, it’s questionable whether the one-child policy really held down China’s birth rate at all.
There are demographers who argue that the one-child policy hasn’t really made much difference. China was already urbanising fast when the policy was imposed in 1979, and the more urban a country is, the lower the birth rate. From about 1970 there was also a very aggressive birth control policy.
The fertility rate in China had already dropped from 5.8 children per woman in 1970 to only 2.7 in 1978, the year before the one-child rule was introduced. It has since fallen to 1.55, but that might well have happened anyway. For comparison, Brazil’s fertility rate has dropped from 6.0 fifty years ago to 1.7 now WITHOUT a one-child policy.
China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission claims that the one-child policy has spared the country an extra 400 million mouths to feed, but it would say that, wouldn’t it? The real number of births avoided by that policy is probably no more than 100 million in three decades. And if we accept these numbers, then three major conclusions follow.
The first is that the one-child policy is not the major culprit in China’s disastrous gender imbalance, with at least 120 boys born for every 100 girls. The social effects of this are very dangerous: by the end of this decade there will be 24 million “leftover” men who will never find a wife.
Any sane government would be terrified by the prospect of a huge army of unattached and dissatisfied young men hanging around the streets after work with nothing much to do. A regime with as little legitimacy as the Communists will be even more frightened by it. Unfortunately for them, ending the one-child policy will have little effect on this pattern.
Only state intervention as arbitrary and intrusive as the one-child policy could reverse the gender imbalance, and it is doubtful that the Communist regime is still confident enough to risk that degree of unpopularity.
The second conclusion we can draw from these statistics is that China’s population is going to drop whether the regime wants it or not. It will peak at or below 1.4 billion, possibly as soon as 2017, and then begin a long decline that will see it fall to 1.2 billion by 2050.
There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it exacerbates what is already the greatest threat to economic growth in China: the population’s rapidly rising average age. The big, old generations will be around for a long time, but the younger generations are getting smaller very fast. Indeed, the number of people in the 20-24 age group in China will halve in the next ten years.
This means the dependency rate is going to skyrocket. In 1975, there were 7.7 people in the workforce for every person over sixty: by 2050, the ratio will be only 1.6 employed persons for every retiree.
No country has ever had to bear such a burden before, but ending the one-child policy won’t get the birth rate back up. The only way China could increase its workforce to lessen the burden is to open up the country to mass immigration. And what are the odds on that?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“The new…policy”; and “Only…unpopularity”)
11 November 2013
Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath
By Gwynne Dyer
What will the Middle East look like after Iran and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It’s time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.
It didn’t get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the “P5+1” – American, British, French, German and Russian – dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.
The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (20 November), and nobody went away angry. “We are all on the same wavelength,” said Zarif. “There is a deal on the table and it can be done,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
There are “still some gaps” between Iran and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but “they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right.” Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said that “we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet.”
Fabius’s demands were that the reactor in Arak, now nearing completion, should never be activated, as it would produce plutonium as a byproduct, and that Iran’s store of uranium enriched to medium level (20 percent pure) should be brought back down to 5 percent to move it farther away from weapons-grade (90 percent). Introduced into the talks at a late stage, his demands brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.
All the other Western powers closed ranks and insisted that these were joint demands, but they were not part of the original draft agreement. Speculation was rife that France was acting on behalf of its customers (for French weapons) on the Arab side of the Gulf, notably in the United Arab Emirates, who view the deal under discussion with just as much horror as Israel does. But France can only delay things: the deal is going to happen.
One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 percent bluff – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American support – but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Iran’s economic isolation will also end, although it may take several years to unwind all the economic sanctions. The gradual return of prosperity in Iran will make the current Islamic regime more secure (which may be the main reason that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah AliKhamenei, authorised newly elected President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal and end the confrontation.)
But the big question is whether a nuclear deal with Iran will cool the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to suck in the whole of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The answer, alas, is probably not.
The split is as incomprehensible to non-Muslims as the religious wars of Europe four centuries ago were to non-Christians, and mercifully Sunni-Shia hostility has never reached quite that intensity of violence and hatred. But right across the Islamic world it has been getting worse for several decades now, and the eye of the storm is in the Middle East.
Iran is the sole Shia great power, so it is inevitably the focus of the fears of Sunni Arabs and the hopes of Shia Arabs. Moreover, given Turkey’s semi-detached relationship with the region, Iran is in practical terms the greatest power in the entire Middle East.
For the past decade, Iran has been greatly weakened by the arms and trade embargoes that the West imposed because of the nuclear issue. Once those embargoes are removed Iran will regain much of its former strength. This is already causing great anxiety in the Sunni Arab countries, especially those that face it across the Gulf.
Even quite experienced people in Washington and other Western capitals don’t realise the extent to which the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East thought that their close ties with the Western great powers gave them a kind of guarantee against Shia power –and how betrayed they feel now that they think that guarantee is being withdrawn.
Sunnis outnumber Shias almost ten-to-one in the Islamic world as a whole, but in the smaller world that stretches from Iran and Turkey to Palestine and Yemen, the “Middle East”, Shias make up more than a third of the population. The war is already hot and quite openly sectarian in Syria and in Iraq. In many other places (Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen) it is bubbling just underneath the surface. It will get worse before it gets better.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 10. (“Fabius’s…happen”; and “The split…East”)