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Iran

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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”)

Tillerson Gone, Trump Unleashed

Rex Tillerson did not suffer fools gladly. He called Donald Trump a “moron” in a private conversation after one meeting at the Pentagon, and did not take the opportunity to deny it when a journalist asked him in public. In meetings with the president, he would “roll his eyes and slouch” whenever Trump said something he thought was particularly stupid. It’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

He wasn’t a very good Secretary of State either. He gutted the State Department in the name of efficiency, and large numbers of experienced diplomats quit in despair as he ‘downsized’ the organisation. His only real achievement in his fourteen months in office was to restrain Trump from doing some truly dangerous things like starting a major confrontation with Iran. But we’ll miss him now that he’s gone.

Donald Trump used to enjoy dismissing people with a brutal ‘You’re fired!’ when he was doing reality television, but he seems to have problems doing it face-to-face. Tweets addressed to the world at large are more his style, with his actual victims left to find out from the media. But he is getting rid of the people who question his judgement at an impressive rate: 35 senior people have been fired or quit in little more than a year.

The net effect of all this ‘turmoil’ in the White House, unsurprisingly, has been to remove most of the people whose ideas, values, or experience and knowledge of the world led them to disagree with Trump’s obsessions, his policies (to the extent that he has any), or just his whims of the moment. What’s left, for the most part, are the yes-men and women.

The most notable remaining exceptions are the three generals who hold high positions in the Trump administration: his chief of staff, John Kelly, the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. But McMaster is widely rumoured to be next for the chopping block, and even Kelly’s willingness to continue shouldering the role of senior grown-up indefinitely is to be doubted.

The era of adult supervision in the White House is coming to an end, and Donald Trump is more and more “free to be Donald.” As he said on Tuesday, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”

The Cabinet he wants is one that is entirely free from the constraints that were initially imposed on him by the Republican Party’s establishment. He is a populist who cherry-picks ideas from anywhere, and no more a Republican than he is a Democrat. In fact, he once was a Democrat, and even considered trying to hijack the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination before the 2008 election.

In the end he hijacked the Republican Party instead, but it did try to rein him in by putting orthodox Republicans in key positions in his administration. His struggle to be free began with the dismissal last July of the Republican Party’s choice as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. It has ended in total victory in the past two weeks with the resignation of his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and the firing of Rex Tillerson.

Cohn resigned last week because of Trump’s decision to to impose steep tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminum. The Republican Party has been a staunch supporter of free trade for the past half-century, and Cohn feared that the new tariffs were likely to cause an international trade war that impoverishes everybody. Trump doesn’t care about that. “Trade wars are good,” he said. “And easy to win.”

His new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is a hard-liner who shares Trump’s obsession with breaking the international deal that stops Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess (Tillerson) thought it was OK,” he said. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”

So stand by for Trump to alienate all of America’s main allies by sabotaging a treaty they worked very hard to achieve. Since he has swallowed Saudi Arabia’s argument that Iran is an ‘expansionist’ power that must be stopped, even direct military clashes between the US and Iran, especially in Syria, become a lot more likely.

And what about the unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Trump agreed to last week (without consulting Tillerson)? In theory it’s a good idea, because nuclear war in the Korean peninsula is a very bad idea. But there are few people left around Trump who can steer him away from disastrous decisions. They can’t even make him read his briefing papers.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The most…doubted”)

The End of Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh seized power in Yemen in 1978, when he was only 36 years old. He lost it in 2012, when the ‘Arab spring’ was in full spate, and had been trying to get it back ever since. Thirty-four years was not enough. But on Monday, his truly astonishing ability to switch sides got him killed.

Saleh was Saudi Arabia’s man in Yemen for a long time, but when Riyadh turned against him in 2012 and put his vice-president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in power instead, Saleh went rogue. A lot of the army was still loyal to him, so he made an alliance with the powerful Houthi tribes in the north (exactly the same people whom he had attacked six times in the past), and started working his way back.

In 2014 the Houthi militia and Saleh’s forces seized control of the capital, Sanaa, and Saudi Arabia’s new placeman, President Hadi, fled south to Aden, the country’s second city. Later Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi-Saleh alliance took over most of the country.

Yemen matters a lot to the Saudis, because it is the other big country in the Arabian peninsula, with 27 million people (same as Saudi Arabia), but it is very poor and very unstable. The fact that almost half the Yemenis follow the Shia branch of Islam (in their own Zaidi variant) is of particular concern to the Saudi regime.

Such distinctions didn’t stop the Houthis (who are Shia) from getting together with Saleh’s people (who are mostly Sunnis), because Yemenis are not much troubled by such things. But the Saudi Arabian regime, all Sunnis, is obsessed by the ‘Shia threat’. That mostly means Iran, their rival across the Gulf, but the Saudis sees Iranian plots everywhere, especially if there are Shias involved.

The current Yemeni civil war is about the twentieth such power struggle in the past thousand years, and little different from all the others. Iran no doubt enjoys the Saudi Arabian panic about it, but there is no evidence that it is sending the Houthis anything except good wishes. Whereas Riyadh and its allies are sending bombers.

In March 2015 Saudi Arabia and eight Arab allies launched a bombing campaign against the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, with the United States and the United Kingdom both providing political, logistical and propaganda support to the operation. More than 8,000 Yemenis have been killed by the coalition’s air strikes and around 50,000 wounded, but the lines on the ground have scarcely shifted in the past two years.

The air war has been very costly for Saudi Arabia both in money and in reputation, and it has been getting increasingly embarrassing for the man who started it, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. So Ali Abdullah Saleh calculated that this was the right time to change sides: he could get a good price for ratting on the Houthis, and maybe even recover the presidency he had held for so long.

He pretended to be driven by humanitarian motives. In a televised speech on Saturday, he called on “the brothers in neighbouring states and the coalition to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded, and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighbourliness.”

The bit about “aggression” was meant to placate his Yemeni audience, which does not love the Saudis, but he was actually offering to change sides. The Saudi-led coalition immediately responded, welcoming Saleh’s decision to “take the lead and to…free Yemen of…militias loyal to Iran.”

The Houthis, however, had seen his treachery coming. They accused Saleh of staging a coup against “an alliance he never believed in,” and Sanaa was engulfed by heavy artillery fire as the Houthis went to war against their former ally. Despite Saudi air strikes to help Saleh’s forces, the Houthis had fought their way to within 200 metres of Saleh’s house by Monday morning.

Reports differ about what happened next. Some say Saleh died in the wreckage of his house, which was blown up by Houthi fighters. Others say he made a run for it in his car, which was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. What the internet images show is a fatal wound in his head. The old fox is definitely dead, and the civil war within the civil war is probably over.

Bits of Saleh’s army may fight on for a while, but without him to bind them together most of Saleh’s soldiers will eventually either go over to the Houthis or go home. The Houthis will be a bit weaker without Saleh’s support, but so long as the the coalition’s members are not willing to put large numbers of their own troops in the ground in Yemen – and they are not – the Houthis will probably keep control of most of the country.

And the war will go on until Mohammed bin Salman gets tired of it, or the Saudis get tired of him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He…Iran”)

Trump and Iran

“…One orb to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Five months ago, during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he was invited to open the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. (I’m not making that up.) The huge, darkened room they were in looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a television control room. And there was a photo op, as there always is at these events, but this one was different.

There was a glowing orb on a pedestal, with the continents in black and the seas in pale grey. Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi all put their hands on it as if they owned it – and held the pose for almost two minutes.

The radiant globe (and the illuminated floor) lit their faces from below. If you want to make somebody look evil, light the scene dramatically from underneath, and they did look evil in a comic-book sort of way. Like the three witches in Macbeth, suggested conservative commentator Bill Kristol. And everybody knew that their curses were aimed at Iran.

Now Trump has directed more curses at Iran, declaring that he will pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. Or rather, he has announced that Congress will do that – but the Republicans probably don’t have enough votes in the Senate to make it happen.

Why didn’t he do it himself? Maybe he just wanted to share the blame. Every one of Trump’s senior officials and advisers has told him not to do it, and so have all of America’s allies. Every other signatory to the treaty – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – also says it will continue to abide by it no matter what the United States does.

Trump says Iran is cheating on the deal, but Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran is implementing it faithfully, and all the other signatories agree. Trump doesn’t like the fact that Iran tests ballistic missiles, or supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and says they are against the “spirit” of the treaty, but those things were not part of the deal.

If there is one thing Trump understands, it’s contracts. If the words are in the contract, then it’s part of the deal. If they aren’t, then it’s not part of the deal. There is nothing in the treaty with Iran that says it has to do everything the US wants, and nothing either that says it must not do things that Washington does not like. It’s strictly about Iran not working on nuclear weapons, and the other countries dropping their sanctions against Iran.

And why does Trump want to kill the treaty anyway? One reason is that he is pursuing a bizarre vendetta against ex-president Barack Obama, seeking to erase every one of his legislative and diplomatic achievements regardless of their value. But he has also fallen in with bad company.

Trump really is one of the three witches now: he has joined the alliance of conservative Arab states against Iran, although it doesn’t serve any imaginable US interest to get involved in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can blame that choice on Trump’s ignorance, perhaps, but Saudi Arabia and Israel are run by well-informed and intelligent people. Why do they want to cancel the nuclear deal?

On the face of it, it makes no sense. If your choice is between Iranian nuclear weapons some time after 2025 (if the treaty isn’t renewed or extended before then), or Iranian nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time (if it is abrogated now), why would they prefer the latter? Yet they do. Their unspoken calculation may be that if the nuclear agreement does get trashed, then there will eventually be a war – but the United States will be on their side.

There is no doubt that Trump can pull out of the treaty even if Congress will not do it for him. He just has to declare new sanctions against Iran, which is well within his power. And if he does, other Western companies trading in Iran will find themselves banned from the huge American market unless they go along with the ban, so they will probably comply no matter what their governments say now.

But even if all that comes to pass, Trump cannot stop Iran from making nuclear weapons once the treaty is gone. The United States would probably suffer no grave damage as a result, as it is a long way from Iran. The Arab states and Israel could suffer greatly, but turkeys vote for Christmas all the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 8. (“If there…Iran”)