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Saudi Arabia: A Populist Dictatorship

Joy and pride among Saudi women who are at last allowed to drive. Delight in the car dealerships that anticipate a lot of new business. And dismay in the families of the 1.4 million chauffeurs, almost all from South Asia, who have been earning around $1,000 a month driving Saudi women around. But it will take a lot more than this to change Saudi Arabia.

Just before driving became legal for women, seventeen women activists who have been campaigning for years against the driving ban were arrested. Eight have now been released, but the others are facing possible trial in a counter-terrorism court and long prison sentences for their activism. Does the right hand know what the left is doing?

Yes, it does. Letting women drive is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s project to win popular support by modernising some aspects of daily life. Looking like he is giving in to popular pressure is definitely not part of his programme. The change must look like a free gift from his hand, not a retreat in the face of public protest.

It’s a less dramatic initiative than last winter’s three-month anti-corruption campaign, which detained 56 high-profile royal family members and prominent businessman (in the capital’s best hotel) until they had ‘paid back’ some of their ill-gotten gains.

The exercise allegedly yielded $100 billion to the government, although none of the thieves saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone went to jail. But the message was the same: I’m on the side of ordinary people and I’m doing the right things, but I make the decisions when and as I choose.

The notion that Mohammed bin Salman is liberalising the Saudi system is a fantasy. Having ruthlessly sidelined all rival claimants to the throne – his father, King Salman, is 82 and ailing – he has now centralised power to an unprecedented extent. Saudi Arabia was a traditional, deeply conservative monarchy that always ensured there was a fair degree of consensus among the elite. It is now a dictatorship.

MbS, as he is known, is an impulsive man, and one of his bigger mistakes was to invite the UN’s special rapporteur on anti-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, to visit the country to report on how it was reconciling the need to prevent terrorism with respect for human rights. Emmerson came back in early May. His report was unusually frank for a diplomatic document, and in a subsequent media interview he went well beyond that.

The Saudi anti-terrorism law is written in a way that criminalises all dissent, he told The Guardian. Torture in Saudi jails is commonplace, the guilty officials go unpunished, and Saudi Arabia “is undergoing the most ruthless crackdown on political dissent that the country has experienced in decades.”

“Reports that Saudi Arabia is liberalising are completely wide of the mark,” Emmerson said. “The judiciary has now been brought entirely under the control of the King, and lacks any semblance of independence from the executive. Put simply, there is no separation of power in Saudi Arabia, no freedom of expression, no free press, no effective trade unions, and no functioning civil society.”

Moreover, MbS’s successes in crushing dissent within the country have made him over-confident about his skill in foreign policy. He summoned Lebanese Prime Minister to Riyadh and forced him to resign, only to see Hariri get his job back in alliance with Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group that MbS utterly detests.

He declared a blockade of Saudi Arabia’s small but wealthy neighbour, Qatar, to force it to close down the Al-Jazeera network, the most influential Arabic-language news service, and to break its ties with Iran, the country that MbS fears most. One year later Al-Jazeera is still alive and kicking, and Qatar has moved closer to Iran.

And in his biggest blunder, he launched a military intervention in the Yemeni civil war to defeat the Houthis, a Shia tribe that has captured most of Yemen and that he believes (wrongly) is controlled and armed by Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s air strikes have killed thousands, its ally the United Arab Emirates has thousands of troops on the ground – and three years later the Houthis still control most of the heavily populated parts of Yemen, including the capital.

It’s not exactly Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam – the Saudis have no troops on the ground, and the Emiratis are mostly using foreign mercenaries – but the Yemeni intervention is very expensive, deeply embarrassing, and probably unwinnable. In the long run, it may be MbS’s undoing.

The wealth has been more widely shared in Saudi Arabia than in most oil-rich countries, and for the non-political majority life is still pretty good. Even for women, things are very gradually getting better: 60 percent of Saudi university graduates are female, and now they can drive too. But the country is now being run by an erratic and over-confident dictator.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“it’s…choose)

Iran: No Plan B

The extraordinary thing is that there is no Plan B. If Donald Trump’s re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran does not cause President Hassan Rouhani’s government to buckle at once (which is almost unimaginable), there is nothing else he can do short of going to war with the country. And he couldn’t even win that war.

Iran is entirely within its rights in condemning Trump’s action. All the other signatories to the deal that hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – agree that Tehran is in full compliance with its terms, as do the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis.

All of Trump’s complaints about the deal are about things it was never intended to cover, and it does not contain those things because Iran would never agree to terms that effectively gave the United States control over its foreign policy. If Trump wants to try to negotiate that kind of deal anyway, it is not necessary to terminate the nuclear treaty in order to do so.

But it’s a mistake to apply rational analysis to Trump’s action, because this was an emotional decision, not a rational one. It is part of his obsession with expunging every single achievement of the Obama administration: healthcare, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate treaty, and now the Iran nuclear deal.

You can, however, apply rational analysis to every other player’s reaction to Trump’s tantrum, starting with President Rouhani. He will try very hard to keep the deal alive because his own political fate depends on it. If he cannot succeed, the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line nationalists will gain the upper hand domestically and his entire reform policy will be paralysed.

Rouhani probably only has a few weeks to get public commitments to continue trading with Iran from the other parties to the deal, and that will require them to defy the United States. Trump’s declaration on Monday only requires American banks and companies to stop trading with Iran within 180 days, but the US may also apply so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ against foreign companies that trade with Iran.

These ‘secondary sanctions’ may actually be illegal under international law, but that has not stopped the US in the past (Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) and it won’t do so now. You can count on Russia and China to push back if the US blackballs their companies for trading with Iran, but will the British, French and German governments also do so? Even if it risks splitting the Western alliance?

Probably not, in which case the deal really will be dead. Rouhani would remain in office for the remainder of his term, but the hard-liners would be in charge. That doesn’t mean that Iran will start working on nuclear weapons right away, however, because it can’t.

In obedience to the deal, it has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium, placed two-thirds of its centrifuges (for enriching uranium) under international monitoring, and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium. It would take a long time to get started again.

The immediate impact is more likely to be seen in a tougher approach in Syria, where Iranian troops (sent to aid the government side in the civil war) are bombed by the Israelis practically every week. So far Iran has not responded to these attacks in any way, but it could start by shooting a couple of those Israeli planes down, and then the fat would be in the fire.

For several years now, the main foreign policy goal of America’s two main allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been to draw the United States into a war with Iran. Therefore they have to provide the hawks in the Trump administration (Pompeo, Bolton, et al.) with a plausible pretext for starting the war, and a couple of downed Israeli planes would do nicely.

If it were just an attack on Iran by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would not be of earth-shattering importance. They would probably lose a lot of planes, since Iran now has good air defences, but none of them could or would do a ground invasion.

Iran is a country the size of Alaska, two-thirds of it is mountain or desert, and it has 80 million people, lots of industry and good science and technology. Invading it would make the Vietnam war look like a tea party. So any ground fighting between Iran and its enemies would be more likely to happen in the countries between them: Syria and Iraq.

You could be forgiven for thinking that both Iraq and Syria deserve a break from war by now, but they may not get it. And the most worrisome thing is that there are both Russian and American troops on the ground in these countries.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“All…so”; and “In obedience…again”)

Two Performances

On Monday we were treated to two pieces of public performance art, one by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the other by Mahmoud Abbas, the closest thing the Palestinians have to an agreed national leader (which is not very close). Both performances were beyond bizarre, and taken together they demonstrate how politicians whose lives are dominated by the Arab-Israeli dispute are ultimately reduced to self-caricature.

Abbas’s contribution was a rambling 90-minute speech to the Palestinian National Council, the (unelected) legislature of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It’s the first full meeting of the Council in 22 years, and an attempt by Abbas to restore some measure of legitimacy to his own position as President of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas has lacked all legitimacy since his last legal term as president expired nine years ago. He survives as the nominal leader because (a) it suits the Israeli government and (b) the Palestinians are so hopelessly divided that nobody bothers to challenge his claim to be the leader.

The ‘peace process’ has been dead for twenty years. President Trump is moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv up to Jerusalem despite anguished Palestinian protests. Hamas, the Islamist rival to Abbas’s Fatah movement, controls the Gaza Strip and almost half the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, and it doesn’t even deign to send delegates to Abbas’s meeting. So what was Abbas’s speech about? History.

Not even real history. Fantasy history, in which the Jews of Europe brought the Holocaust down upon themselves by choosing to fulfill a specific (and lucrative) ‘social function’. “The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe,” Abbas explained, “was not against their religion but against their social function which relates to usury and banking and such.”

Whatever Abbas may believe privately – and he may not believe much of anything after thirty years in the Hall of Mirrors that is Palestinian politics – he would once have known better than to say such vile nonsense in public. But all hope is gone, and there is nothing useful left to say, so he just dredges up the weary old Holocaust denial stuff he played with as a student and serves it raw to an equally despairing audience.

Binyamin Netanyahu, by contrast, is on the winning side, and his contribution on Monday was an up-market, updated version of his celebrated performance at the United Nations in 2012. That was when he showed the General Assembly a child-like drawing of a bomb (the kind 19th-century terrorists used to throw, with a fizzing fuse at the top) and warned the diplomats that Iran would have a nuclear weapon by 2013.

It didn’t, of course. Iran’s brief period of working on nuclear weapons, triggered by Pakistan’s six nuclear weapons tests of 1998, had already ended in 2003 according to the testimony of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and even Netanyahu’s own intelligence agencies agreed with that assessment.

In 2015 Tehran agreed to allow strict international inspections to guarantee that no work on nuclear weapons, even of the most preliminary sort, would be done for the next ten years. Netanyahu, who is paranoid on the subject, would have greatly preferred a ‘pre-emptive’ attack on Iran – and now he has an ally in Donald Trump, who also wants to kill the 2015 deal.

So Bibi did another show-and-tell performance on prime-time Israeli television, all in English and aimed at the global audience, in which he sorta kinda claimed that Iran was cheating on the agreement and still working on nuclear weapons. One of the visuals even said (in metre-high letters) “Iran lied”.

Netanyahu didn’t lie, of course; politicians seldom do. He just stood in front of aerial photos and images of documents and talked about recently acquired Iranian secret documents that showed the country had an active nuclear weapons programme. And it was all true – except that the Iranian programme in question was mostly closed down in 2003, and completely dead by 2009.

“There was nothing there,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “There was nothing the International Atomic Energy Agency didn’t know, and all the theatrics and circa-2004 PowerPoint were a bit silly.” So why did Netanyahu do it?

Partly it was to provide something resembling a justification for his friend Trump’s forthcoming abandonment of the 2015 Iran deal. People who were not paying close attention might walk away from Netanyahu’s dog-and-pony show thinking he had proved that Iran was cheating on its commitments.

But mainly he did it because he lives in a political environment so polarised, so toxic, that people who are immersed in it gradually lose touch with reality. Even as Netanyahu carefully manipulated the facts in order to create a false impression, at another level he probably believed that he was expressing a deeper truth. He’s a winner, not a loser, but he is just as much trapped on the wheel as Abbas.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Abbas…leader”; and “It didn’t…assessment”)

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”)