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The Middle East: Iran is Back

“This (Arab) nation, in its darkest hour, has never faced a challenge to its existence and a threat to its identity like the one it’s facing now,” said General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now the ruler of Egypt.

And you wanted to say: Not the Crusades? Not the Mongol invasion? Not even the European conquest of the entire Arab world between 1830 and 1920? You really think the gravest threat ever to Arab existence and identity is a bunch of tribal warriors in Yemen?

Sisi was addressing the Arab League summit in Cairo last week that created a new pan-Arab military force to confront this threat, so overheated rhetoric was standard issue, but still…. The air forces of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours are blasting Yemen from the air, and there is talk of Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and even Pakistani troops invading on the ground, but it all smells more of panic than of strategic calculation.

The panic is due to the fact that the status quo that has prevailed in the Middle East since approximately 1980 is at an end. Iran is back, and there is great dismay in the palaces of Riyadh – especially because it was Saudi Arabia’s great friend and ally, the United States, who finally set Iran free.

It was the agreement in Lausanne last Thursday between Iran and the group of 5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) that marked the end of the status quo. It was about ending the various trade embargoes against Iran in return for ten to fifteen years of strict controls on Iran’s nuclear power programme, but it will also let Iran out of the jail it has been confined to since the 1979 revolution.

Initially that revolution was quite scary for Iran’s Arab neighbours, because Iran’s example in overthrowing the local pro-Western ruler and taking a stronger stand against Israel was very popular in the Arab street. The solution was to paint Iran as a crazy terrorist state and isolate it as much as possible from the rest of the region.

The other tactic that the conservative Arab states deployed was to stress the religious gulf between Iran (which is 90 percent Shia) and the Arab countries (whose people are at least 85 percent Sunni). The doctrinal differences are real, but they do not normally make ordinary people see one another as natural enemies unless somebody (like state propaganda) works hard at it.

Those measures worked for twenty years, assisted by some really stupid Iranian actions like holding US embassy personnel hostage for 444 days, but by the end of the 20th century they were losing credibility. What saved the “quarantine” policy in 2002 was the discovery that Tehran had been working on nuclear weapons design.

The work was a revival of research that had been started during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88 (when Saddam Hussein certainly was working on nuclear weapons), and was shut down afterwards. It was restarted in 1998, almost certainly in response to the nuclear weapons tests by Pakistan, Iran’s eastern neighbour. It was Iran being stupid again, but it was probably never about Israel.

The alleged Iranian nuclear threat provided the basis for another decade and more of political quarantine and trade embargoes that have crippled Iran economically and isolated it politically. All that came to a sudden end last week with the agreement in principle in Lausanne (unless the Saudi Arabian and Israeli lobbies in Washington manage to torpedo the deal in the next few months).

Iran has about the same population and GDP as Egypt, the biggest Arab country by far, but it is far closer both to the Arab Gulf states and to the Sunni-Shia battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria (both of whose governments are closely linked to Tehran). That’s what Sisi was really talking about when he spoke of an existential threat to Arab existence and identity. However, he’s still talking through his hat.

Arab existence and identity are nowhere at risk, and Iran has no need to paint the Sunni Arab countries as enemies. The Iranian regime may be losing its support among the young (or maybe not), but it has absolutely no need to inoculate them against the attraction of Arab political systems and foreign policies by promoting an Arab-Iranian confrontation. They hold no attraction whatever for young Iranians.

As for the notion that the Houthi militia that now controls most of Yemen is really an Iranian tool (which is the main justification for the military intervention there), it is nonsense. The Houthis, like the Iranians, are Shias, but they have their own local interests to protect, and Iran has no plausible reason to want some sort of strategic foothold in Yemen. It is a safe bet that there is not now even a single armed Iranian in Yemen.

If the United States could send troops into Iraq in 2003 in the delusionary belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, then Saudi Arabia can believe that it is fighting Iranians in Yemen now. No country has a monopoly on stupidity, and Riyadh will probably have ample opportunity to regret its mistake.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7 and 9. (“And you…Yemen”; “The other…at it; and “The work…Israel”)

Yemen: Unintended Consequences

The Sunni Arab countries that started bombing Yemen on Wednesday night seem to think they are fighting an Iranian-backed plot to expand Shia power and influence in the Arab world. Most other countries find that hard to believe, but even if the Sunni countries are right, wars often have unintended consequences. This military intervention is likely to have results that Saudi Arabia and its friends don’t like one bit.

They’ve all shown up for this war. Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies of the Arab world (Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and even Morocco) have all committed aircraft to bombing Yemen. Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan have offered to send ground troops. And the United States (which just pulled the last American troops out of Yemen) promises to provide “logistical and intelligence support.”

In practice, however, this coalition of Sunni Arabs and Americans is unlikely to commit large numbers of ground troops to Yemen: the country has been the graveyard of foreign armies from the Romans to the Ottomans. But if they don’t do that, the (entirely unintended) result of their bombing may be to facilitate the take-over of most of Yemen by al-Qaeda and/or ISIS.

Sunni paranoia about the rise of Shia power has its roots in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. So long as the Sunni minority ruled Iraq, it limited the influence of Iran, the paramount Shia power, in the Arab world. With the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of Sunni supremacy in Iraq, Iran’s power automatically soared – and so did its influence in Shia parts of the Arab world.

Iran didn’t have to do anything particularly aggressive for paranoia to take off in the Sunni countries of the Gulf. Of the 140 million citizens of countries that border on the Persian/Arabian Gulf, about two-thirds are Shias. With a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Sunni Arab monarchies felt terribly exposed and began to see Shia plots everywhere.

They see such a plot now in Yemen. The Houthi militia, drawn from the warlike Shia tribes of northern Yemen, have taken control of all the country’s big cities and most of its thickly populated agricultural heartland in less than one year. This is not actually all that rare an event in Yemeni history, and it never required help from Iran before, but now the hand of Iran is suspected everywhere.

That’s why Sunni countries from all over the Arab world piled in so readily. They really believe they are fighting the Iranian bogeyman, although there is almost no evidence of direct Iranian support for the Houthis. (Nor is it easy to think of any strategic reason why Iran would be interested in Yemen.)

The historical pattern is that these periodic conquests of the country by the northern tribes usually recede again after a while, because Shias are only a third of the population and the northern tribes who provide the manpower for the Houthi milita are only a fraction of the Shias. But this time nobody is willing to wait for the local Sunni backlash in Houthi-occupied parts of Yemen to push the northerners out.

The “coalition” is now bombing the Houthis all over the country. How intensively and how accurately remains to be seen, but if they really succeed in breaking the Houthi grip on central and southern Yemen, they will create a power vacuum that will NOT be filled by the “legitimate” president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whom they are allegedly trying to restore to power.

Hadi’s forces have utterly disintegrated, and Houthi fighters now occupy the temporary capital that he established in his home city, Aden. (The real capital, Sanaa, has been in Houthi hands since September.) Hadi left Aden by boat on Tuesday, which suggests that he has left the country entirely – unless he plans to create another provisional capital on, say, the island of Socotra.

So if the coalition bombs the Houthis out of Aden, but does not commit ground troops of its own, the real winners will be the al-Qaeda forces that wait just outside the city. Much the same goes for Taiz, the third city, and even for Sanaa itself: it is al-Qaeda or ISIS jihadis who stand to profit most from a Houthi retreat.

The only other force in Yemen that could offer any opposition to the jihadis is the fighters who have rallied to the support of exiled ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh since he returned to the country. But Saleh is allied to the Houthis and he is a Shia himself, so it’s hard to see the coalition switching its support from Hadi to him.

Yet it’s also hard to see the coalition committing a big army to Yemen. Everybody who has done that has regretted it. So while Sunni planes bomb Shia fighters, the jihadis may step in and sweep the board. An unintended outcome, of course, but not an unforeseeable one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The coalition…Socotra”)

Bibi’s Back

Midway through the election campaign Israel’s leading satirical TV show, Eretz Nehederet, came up with a new take on the man who has dominated the country’s politics for the past twenty years. Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, it suggested, was cursed as a child to be Israel’s prime minister for eternity. His only chance to break the spell was to become its worst-ever leader.

Well, if that was his strategy, he has failed again. Despite having run a government that delivered too few jobs, stagnant wages, a rapidly rising cost of living, and a full-blown housing crisis – it now costs the average Israeli 148 months’ salary to buy a home, compared to 66 months for the average American – Israelis voted him back into power in Tuesday’s election.

Only a week ago, he was running behind in the polls, but a massive last-minute scare campaign turned it around. On polling day, Netanyahu even put a video clip on his Facebook page in which he warned that “the rule of the right is in danger. The (Israeli) Arabs are moving in droves to the polling stations. Left-wing organisations are bringing them there in buses.” And who was paying for those buses? “American money,” explained Bibi’s campaign team.

Israel’s voting system of strict proportional representation has never given a single party a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats in any election in the state’s 67-year history. Netanyahu’s Likud Party won 30 seats, while its nearest rival, the centre-left Zionist Union, got only 24. But that gives Likud the first chance to form a coalition with the required 61 seats, and there are enough smaller right-wing parties to make up the numbers.

Bibi is back for up to five more years, which would make him the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history. But turning the tide had a price, and Israel has not yet begun to pay it.

Netanyahu won mainly by cannibalising the vote of the parties to Likud’s right, but that strategy required him to say some things out loud that he had previously conveyed to his hard-right admirers only by nods and winks. The most dramatic shift came just one day before the election, when he finally said plainly that he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian state.

“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate (Israeli-occupied Palestinian) territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” he said. Does that mean that a Palestinian state would not be permitted if he were re-elected, asked the interviewer. “Indeed,” Netanyahu replied.

This will come as a vast surprise to practically nobody. Netanyahu’s entire political career has been dedicated to sabotaging the 1993 Oslo Accords (which envisaged Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side in peace) and planting so many Jewish settlers on the Israeli-occupied territories that a separate Palestinian state becomes physically impossible.

He largely destroyed the Oslo agreement in his first term as prime minister in 1996-99 (the creation of a Palestinian state was scheduled for 1998). Almost 10 percent of Israel’s Jews now live in the occupied Palestinian territories (east Jerusalem and the West Bank) that would make up a Palestinian state. But to keep his American allies and his European supporters happy, he never actually said he would not allow an independent Palestine.

Netanyahu finally spoke the truth on Monday because that’s what the settlers and their supporters wanted to hear, and he needed those votes in order to survive politically. But it destroyed the myth, useful to the United States and the European Union, that there is some surviving “peace process” that must be protected by keeping the Israelis happy. The “peace process” is dead, dead, dead. Has been for years. There is no “two-state solution” on the table.

This makes it a lot harder for the US to veto resolutions critical of Israel at the United Nations, as it has done 51 times since 1972. Without the cover of peace talks, these vetoes become votes for perpetual Israeli rule over the Palestinian people. And it will accelerate the broader erosion of the old pro-Israel reflexes of people in Europe and the US who needed the reassurance that some day, somehow, there would be a just peace settlement.

Netanyahu made matters considerably worse during the campaign by openly showing his contempt for President Barack Obama. His panic-mongering speech to the US Congress, painting Obama’s quest for a nuclear deal with Iran as a naive surrender to Iran’s alleged desire for nuclear weapons, was an unprecedented foreign intervention in the US political process. It will not be forgiven or forgotten by Obama.

His election promise to speed up Jewish settlement in the Palestinian territories (which is illegal under international law) was another nail in the coffin of peace negotiations. Still, it did help to get Netanyahu re-elected, and for him that’s all that counts.

He still truly believes that only he understands the real and existential dangers facing Israel, and has the will to do something about them. Except that all he ever really does is kick those dangers down the road a bit. Unable to believe that a peaceful settlement is possible or even desirable, he condemns his country to perpetual conflict and growing isolation.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“Israel’s…numbers”; and “Netanyahu…Obama”)

Coalition of the Unwilling

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons,” said Winston Churchill in 1941, defending his decision to regard Stalin as an ally after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

If the brutal fanatics of ISIS and their new “Islamic State” in parts of Iraq and Syria were really an existential threat to the United States, then President Barack Obama, using the same logic, would now be treating the governments of Syria and Iran as allies. But he isn’t.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just ended a recruiting tour of the Middle East, signing up Arab states and Turkey for a new coalition that will allegedly “degrade and ultimately destroy (ISIS).” Moreover, it must do so without ever requiring US “boots on the ground”: the American public would not stand for any more of that.

The US will happily provide air strikes if others will do the dying on the ground, of course, and the Iraqi government will go along with that deal since it has just lost a third of its national territory to ISIS. But it will take a long time to rebuild the Iraqi army after its recent collapse – and the only other US allies who are willing to die to stop ISIS are the Kurds.

Jordan will supply intelligence services. Turkey will make it harder for would-be jihadis to cross its borders with Syria and Iraq (the route by which most of ISIS’s foreign recruits have traveled), but it will not let the US use Turkish air bases for military operations. Egypt murmurs words of encouragement but makes no specific commitments.

Almost all the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait included, have promised to stop the large flow of donations from wealthy individuals to the various jihadi outfits in Syria (including, at least until recently, ISIS). The United Arab Emirates reportedly even offered to carry out air strikes against ISIS. But it’s hardly a mass mobilisation, and it doesn’t involve any “boots on the ground”.

There are plenty of boots available if Washington wants them, but they are on the wrong feet. The Syrian Army has been fighting the jihadis for almost three years now, and after its initial losses it has managed to hold its own against them everywhere except in eastern Syria. Elsewhere, it has actually been gaining back ground for more than a year now.

Then there is Iran, a big, industrialised country whose armed forces do know how to fight. Iran provided the key support for the local Shia militias that stopped ISIS from sweeping into Baghdad last summer, and it has been providing indispensable support to the Syrian government for years.
Finally, there are the “wrong” Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq can be part of the coalition, because they have their own self-governing region and are legitimate recipients of American military aid. But the Kurdish nationalist forces of northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, who have lots of combat experience and have been holding their own against ISIS, are classed as “terrorists” by Washington and so cannot be part of the gang.

But Washington has not asked these major players to join its new coalition. Indeed, it has invited everybody in the Middle East to join except those who are actually willing to fight ISIS on the ground. How peculiar.

There are reasons for this odd behaviour, of course. The obsessive American mistrust of Iran goes back to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s, and is reinforced by Israel’s paranoia about Iran.

Turkey would go ballistic if the United States started arming the Kurdish rebels of the PKK, who have fought a long and brutal war (currently in remission) against the Turkish state. And it’s just too abrupt a U-turn for Obama to start doing business with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom he was getting ready to bomb just one year ago.

Maybe a rebuilt Iraqi army can drive ISIS out of Iraq eventually, although ISIS has lots of local support in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. But where does Obama think the troops will come from to drive ISIS back in its Syrian heartland?

His only answer is to build a new “Free Syrian Army” composed of “moderates” who will fight on two fronts, defeating ISIS while also overthrowing Assad. But that’s ridiculous, since the old FSA has almost all been absorbed into the various jihadi groups in Syria. There is nothing left to build on.

For added comic effect, this new Free Syrian Army will be trained in Saudi Arabia, the principal supporter and paymaster of those same jihadi groups until ISIS scared it into hedging its bets.

One is tempted to think that Obama is not really all that worried about ISIS as a strategic threat. One is further tempted to speculate that he has learned not to care too much about what happens in the Middle East any more. But those are subjects for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 11 and 12.  (“Finally…gang”; and “There…ago”)