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Iran Deal: A Bird in the Hand…

It is generally agreed that a bird in the hand is worth two (or three, or more) in the bush. President Trump, however, does not see it that way.

It has been a busy week in Washington as first French President Emmanuel Macron and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel dropped in to try to persuade Trump not to pull out of the 2015 deal that prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. They failed.

As Macron said: “My view is that [Trump] will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.” The response of America’s three most important allies has been to break decisively with the United States on the issue: on Sunday Macron and Merkel joined with British Prime Minister Theresa May in declaring that the Iran nuclear deal is “the best way of neutralising the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

This is the most dramatic split in the Western alliance since Germany and France refused to go along with the foolish and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 (but Britain went along with it to preserve its imaginary influence in Washington). Indeed, the only American allies that have been urging Trump to pull the plug on the nuclear deal are Israel and the conservative Arab states, which hope to draw the US into a war with Iran.

They are the exceptions because they are the only countries that actually feel threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons. Well, maybe Pakistan too, since that country’s six nuclear explosions in 1998 were the catalyst that set Iran’s nuclear weapons programme in motion. On the other hand, Israel already has hundreds of nuclear weapons and shouldn’t worry so much. Deterrence works.

A nuclear-armed Iran would certainly pose no threat to any of the six countries that signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal that put Iran’s nuclear weapons programme on hold. The US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China all have far more nuclear weapons than Iran would ever possess (or, in Germany’s case, belongs to an alliance that does). Deterrence still works.

So why did they all bother? Probably because they prefer an Israeli monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. They don’t all love Israel, but if more countries in the region had nukes, the Middle East’s endless wars might one day lead to a local nuclear exchange. Maybe that could be contained in the region, but maybe not; some of the major regional powers have outside allies.

So there was general support on the United Nations Security Council for stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and UN economic sanctions were placed on Iran from 2006 onwards. US sanctions were far older, but the deal that was signed in 2015 ended all UN sanctions and the most severe US sanctions, which targeted Iranian banks and oil exports.

Unfortunately for Iran, the country remained largely excluded from the world banking system because banks feared the re-imposition of the sanctions, and so much of the economic relief Iran expected from the end of sanctions never arrived. There is therefore growing hostility in Iran to the JCPOA deal, but why is it even stronger in the White House?

Trump talks about Iran “cheating” on the deal. (International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have certified eleven times since 2016 that Iran is meeting its obligations.)

He calls the deal “insane” and the “worst ever”, complaining that it imposed only a ten-year ban on Iran’s suspect nuclear activities, did not stop the country from testing ballistic missiles, and did not stop Iran from interfering in other countries. “They should have made a deal that covered Yemen, that covered Syria, that covered other parts of the Middle East,” he said.

These are birds in the bush, and they were never within reach. It took two years of negotiation just to get a deal for 10 years of restrictions on the Iranian nuclear programme in return for an end to UN economic sanctions. There was no way that Iran was going to place its foreign, military and energy policies under UN supervision forever. The deal accepted by Obama in 2015 was realistic; Trump’s preferred substitute is pure fantasy.

What really drives Trump’s hatred of the deal, in all likelihood, is simply the fact that it was one of Obama’s major successes – what Macron referred to as “domestic reasons”. It fits a pattern: Trump’s cancellation of the trans-Pacific trade deal, the US withdrawal from the climate pact, the largely unsuccessful assault on health care (‘Obamacare’), and now the attack on the Iran nuclear deal.

So Trump will repudiate the Iran deal on 12 May, or maybe a little later. It will probably then die (although the other five countries will try to keep it going), because Iranians’ pride will not let them stay in a deal whose benefits, in terms of access to world trade, have evaporated. And in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un will draw his conclusions about the reliability of the United States as a negotiating partner.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“This…works”)

Poland: A Pause on the March to Autocracy

Zofia Romaszewska, now in her 80s, was jailed during the years of martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. She is a national hero for her human rights activities in the 1980s and is now one of President Andrzej Duda’s advisers. Last week she persuaded him to veto the government’s new laws on the courts.

She told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state (under Communist rule) where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.” And President Duda actually listened to her.

This came as a complete surprise, because Duda was a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party and is widely seen as a puppet of its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Monday, however, he rejected new laws giving the justice minister the power to fire judges he doesn’t like – including, potentially, the entire Supreme Court – and choose the new judges who take their places.

“As president I don’t feel this law would strengthen a sense of justice,” Duda said in a statement – or rather, an under-statement – on national television. His action has greatly encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people who have been demonstrating in cities all over Poland against the new laws, but there are still many who doubt his sincerity.

Poland is sharply divided between the populists, socially conservative, deeply Catholic, and ultra-nationalist, who form the present government, and the opposition whom they label “the system” or “the elite”. This system allegedly includes both the liberals who led Solidarity’s resistance to Communist rule, and the crypto-Communists who supposedly still exist and are now in league with the liberals.

The whole thing is a paranoid fantasy, but it has a firm hold on many people’s minds in a national culture that wallows in victimhood and self-pity. The Law and Justice government, elected in late 2015 with an absolute majority in parliament, denounces the opposition parties as corrupt traitors under foreign influence, and they in turn mistrust everything the
government says and does – including President Duda’s change of heart.

He’s just playing for time, they think. He’ll get the demonstrators to go home and then he’ll sign some slightly altered version of the laws stripping the judges of their independence. And maybe they are right. Nobody will know for sure until they see the government’s response to his veto.

This is not just about Poland. It is about whether the EU will tolerate an undemocratic government in its midst, and the evidence isn’t in yet.

As soon as it won office twenty months ago, the Law and Justice Party turned the state-owned broadcaster, previously politically neutral, into the propaganda arm of the ruling party. It also destroyed the independence of the civil service, replacing the professionals with its own party loyalists. But when it turned on the courts it started for face real push-back from the EU.

The EU is probably the only reason that the former Communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe almost all became democracies. They desperately wanted to be members of the EU as a safeguard against renewed Russian interference in their affairs – and the EU insists that all its members be democratic.

Not only that, but it carefully defines how democratic states should behave, and a basic principle is the separation of powers: the courts must not be under government control. When the Law and Justice Party introduced laws started taking away the judges’ independence, it ran head-on into the EU’s rules for membership.

Senior EU officials were openly talking about stripping Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Ministers (the closest thing to an EU government) until Duda said he would veto the new laws. If it turns out that he is only playing for time and will soon sign quite similar laws, the confrontation will resume – and the EU might even resort to financial measures against Poland.

Poland is by far the biggest beneficiary of transfers from the EU budget to poorer member countries: in the budgetary period 2014-2020, it is scheduled to get $96 billion. Some or all of that money might stop coming if Poland were no longer a member in good standing.

The Polish government cannot plausibly threaten to quit the European Union: 75 percent of Poles see EU membership as a vital counter-balance to the looming presence of Russia to their east. The EU holds all the best cards in this game, if it chooses to play them.
But will it?

That is not clear. The EU is not famous for its willingness to take bold action, and it would have to overcome the opposition of Hungary, another ex-Communist EU member that also has an authoritarian government (though a less extreme one). But the EU’s own cohesion would suffer if it did not defend its fundamental values, so if Duda is only fooling there may be a real showdown in a month or two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“As soon…EU”; and “Poland…standing”)

Turkey Referendum

Reasonable people have long believed that the first person in a conversation to mention Adolf Hitler or the Nazis loses the argument. Turkey’s President Recep Tayib Erdogan does not subscribe to this view, and he has no intention of losing the argument.

The argument – the referendum, more precisely – is about whether Erdogan should be given absolute power in Turkey for the indefinite future. He was seriously annoyed when various German municipalities dared to doubt his rendezvous with destiny.

Their crime was to withhold permission for Erdogan’s government to hold referendum rallies in German cities. Germany is home to 1.4 million Turkish citizens, and in a tight referendum their votes matter, so Erdogan was quite put out.

“Hey, Germany,” he said last week in a rally in Turkey. “You know nothing about democracy. Your practices are no different from those of the Nazis.” The German government was astonished and rebuked him publicly.

Erdogan’s devout supporters only grow more enthusiastic when foreigners criticise him. And with 140,000 Turkish officials, judges, soldiers and journalists arrested, dismissed or suspended since last July’s failed coup attempt, most of his domestic critics have fallen silent: Reporters Without Borders now ranks Turkey 151st out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

And yet, the referendum that is supposed to grant Erdogan virtually unlimited power could go either way. It will certainly be close, because the country is still split right down the middle – and it’s no longer left vs. right. It is primarily secularist vs. Islamist.

When Erdogan first appeared on the Turkish political scene as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was an openly religious politician in a country that had suppressed any public expression of Islamic values for decades. He even did four months in jail for reciting a religious poem in public.

In 2003, Erdogan became the country’s first devout prime minister, and many secular Turks welcomed him in power. “Kemalism”, named after modern Turkey’s secular liberator Kemal Ataturk, had become corrupt and oppressive, and Erdogan spent his first two terms in office dismantling the secularists’ stranglehold on the state apparatus.

His main ally in this exercise was Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher whose followers
were appointed to tens of thousands of positions in the civil service, the judiciary, the police and the army. But Turkish liberals also supported his attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the militant Kurdish separatist movement PKK, and all the while the Turkish economy grew at a highly satisfactory 5 percent a year.

Things began to turn sour in 2013, when protests grew at Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and there was a bitter split between him and the “Gulenist” movement. His policy of keeping the border with Syria open for Islamists fighting the Syrian regime (including Islamic State) drew strong criticism both at home and internationally, and secularists began to suspect that his ultimate goal was an Islamic state in Turkey.

These suspicions deepened when Erdogan gave up the prime ministership in 2014 and got himself elected president instead. The presidency was a ceremonial non-political office, but he planned to turn it into a powerful executive post that concentrated all power in his own hands. That required a referendum – but his ambition may have played a big part in his loss of the parliamentary election in early 2015.

In order to win back control of parliament he had to make an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). To get their support he had to break the ceasefire with the PKK and reopen the war against the Turkish Kurds. Then Russia and his own NATO allies forced Erdogan to close the border to Syrian Islamists, and Islamic State terrorists started bombing Turkish targets as well.

Erdogan narrowly won the second parliamentary election in 2015, but he almost lost power to a military coup last July. He calls the coup attempt a Gulenist plot, but it was so badly organised that it was probably a panicked last-minute response to a secret government plan to purge all Gulen’s followers in state institutions, including the army.

Since last July Erdogan has used the coup attempt to whip up support for the planned referendum in April that would grant him untrammelled power as executive president. Turkey has been under emergency rule, with mass arrests and government by decree. Nasty, but not necessarily effective.

His default mode is outraged anger, so incidents like his “Nazi” accusation against Germany are ten a penny. Nobody in Turkey is even surprised – but the Turks may yet surprise him.

The Turkish economy is crashing, internal and external wars are multiplying, and there are far too many people in jail for months on end without being charged. Despite a reign of terror in the Turkish media, Erdogan’s victory in the referendum is still not assured.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“When…public”; and “His default…him”)

The Berlin Provocation

Twelve people were killed in a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday, mown down by a terrorist in a big truck. Elsewhere in Germany, if it was an average day, another ten people were killed in or by motor vehicles. They are all equally dead; the only difference is the motivation of the man in the truck.

Oh, sorry, there’s another difference too. On Tuesday, if it was an average day,
another ten people were killed on German roads, and another ten on Wednesday, and another ten on Thursday, and so on ad infinitum — 3500 in the average year. So is traffic a bigger threat than terrorism?

Does this comparison offend you? Why? Would you be offended if I said that driving is more dangerous than flying, because 3500 Germans die on the roads each year and only fifty a year die in plane crashes? Of course not. Yet if I say that traffic accidents are a much bigger threat to human life than terrorism, it sounds almost transgressive.

Three other people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Germany this year, so the total this year will be probably end up at fifteen. That’s the highest number since 1972, but there are 80 million people in Germany, so the average German’s risk of being killed in a terrorist attack is considerably less than the risk of drowning in the bathtub.

The sensible response to such pinprick attacks is prevention: good intelligence-gathering and smarter security measures, not mass arrests and foreign wars. That will reduce the number of attacks and hopefully keep them small (no more 9/11s). It’s not possible to eliminate terrorism entirely, any more than a “war on crime” can end all crime. It can, however, be kept down to nuisance level.

Terrorism is a very small threat that is designed to look very big. It achieves that goal by attracting massive media coverage that inflates it into an apparently huge threat.

The media provide that coverage because they know that people are fascinated by violent death: a single murder is more newsworthy than ten thousand peaceful deaths. I’m contributing to that massive media coverage right now. It’s not the content that matters, it’s the volume of coverage. (“If everybody is writing about it, then it MUST be very important.”)

Terrorists want that wall-to-wall media coverage because it may provoke a huge over-reaction that ultimately serves their own purposes. In the case of the current wave of Islamist terrorism, they hope it will build support in the Muslim world for their revolutionary project and ultimately bring them to power.

In the early phase, they wanted to provoke Western invasions of Muslim countries that would drive more Muslims into their arms (as in the case of the 9/11 attacks). Now they are trying to panic Western governments into abusing and oppressing their own Muslim citizens. The basic strategy remains the same, and it has proved very successful.

Without the Western over-reaction to the 9/11 attacks (especially invading Iraq), there would be no Islamic State today. And they aren’t doing too badly with the present attacks either.

Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that, and her response to the Berlin attack was deliberately low-key: “I know that it would be particularly difficult for us all to bear if it turned out that the person who committed this act was someone who sought protection and asylum in Germany.”

But Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the permanent political partner of Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union, urged the chancellor “to rethink our immigration and security policy and to change it.” He was implicitly saying that she was wrong last year to give shelter to almost a million refugees, a majority of them Muslims.

Frauke Petry, the co-leader of Germany’s far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ party (AfD), said it more plainly: “The milieu in which such acts can flourish has been negligently and systematically imported over the past year and a half.” Angela Merkel is now under great political pressure to “crack down” on Germany’s Muslims, including millions who have been born there.

As for Donald Trump, he was tweeting within hours: “Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany – and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking!” (He says he has a “big brain”, but even so he should attend the intelligence briefings. The Swiss attack actually involved a Ghanaian-born Swiss citizen shooting Muslims in a mosque.)

The US Precedent-elect later expanded on his thoughts: “Isis and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad. These terrorists and their regional and worldwide networks must be eradicated from the face of the Earth, a mission we will carry out with all freedom-loving partners.”

So how will he do that? Invade some more Muslim countries? Round up Muslim Americans and put them in camps, like they did to Japanese-Americans in World War II? If he did anything like that, he would only be serving the purposes of the Islamist terrorists. He would be, in Lenin’s famous phrase, a “useful idiot”.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Does…transgressive”; and “The media…important”)