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Iran

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War in the Gulf?

Donald Trump is well known for his desire to cut American military commitments overseas. Indeed, it is one of his most attractive characteristics. But his attention span is short, he plays a lot of golf, and he does not have the knack of choosing good advisers.

His main domestic advisers on the Middle East are Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, all hawks on Iran. His closest allies in the region itself are Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, both of whom can wrap him around their little fingers. And they both want the United States to attack Iran for them.

Donald Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He has an extra-strength version of the usual Washington obsession with Iran, as irrational and ineradicable as the parallel obsession with Cuba – the United States will forgive and forget anything except humiliation – but he imagines Iran can be bullied and bluffed into submission. His ‘advisers’ are not that naive.

This is not to say that Pence, Pompeo or even Bolton prefers war to any other outcome of the current confrontation. They would rather see the sanctions they have imposed on Iran, which are strangling the economy and causing great hardship, lead to a popular uprising and regime change. Fat chance.

It’s the ever-popular moral mistake. WE would never yield to such blackmail, because our cause is just and our will is strong. THEY will crumble before the same threats because they are weak and they must secretly know they are in the wrong.

But if the Iranians perversely refuse to overthrow their government, then PP&B would accept war as the next-best outcome. Bolton might actually welcome it, and may already be involved in manipulating the intelligence to justify such a war in the same way he did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (He called a rather peculiar early-morning meeting at CIA headquarters last week.)

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, some players in Iran now appear to be pushing back against the American pressure. They are probably hard-liners associated with the not-so-loyal opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s ‘moderate’ government (moderate in the sense that he doesn’t want nukes and does want trade with the West), and they may just have given the American warhawks something to work with.

If push came to shove, Iran’s one available counter-weight to overwhelming US military strength would be to threaten the tanker traffic that carries 20 percent of the world’s crude oil and LNG out of the Gulf. The ‘choke point’ is the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran’s south coast and the United Arab Emirates, where the navigation channels narrow to three nautical miles wide in each direction.

On Sunday, there was a ‘sabotage attack’ on four merchant ships at anchor off the UAE port of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, where tankers often wait to be refuelled. Two at least were Saudi tankers.

Something holed all four ships at the waterline, and the instant suspicion was that some Iranian group is reminding everybody that Iran can close down the Strait if it is attacked. Or at least that it could do enough damage to drive insurance rates on cargoes transiting the Strait into the stratosphere.

But it might not be an Iranian group at all. It could be an American or Israeli or Saudi intelligence operation seeking to create a pretext for a US attack on Iran (like the ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’ created a pretext for the US to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964). You have to keep an open mind on these things, unless you believe that intelligence agencies never lie.

At any rate, an actual war against Iran now seems much closer than it did last week. The long-planned transfer of another American aircraft carrier into the Gulf is now being re-framed as an emergency response to a new (but unspecified) Iranian threat. B-52 bombers that could easily reach Iran from their current bases are being ostentatiously flown into the Gulf. Mike Pompeo makes an unscheduled four-hour visit to Iraq.

If the United States does attack, nobody will help Iran, even though every other signatory to the no-nukes treaty that Trump trashed knows (and says) that Iran has complied with its terms. And the US would only bomb Iran, not invade it on the ground, so the only people who got hurt in the initial round would be Iranians.

But then it would spread: mines in the Strait of Hormuz, missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, maybe an uprising by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Lots of death and destruction, and no possibility of a happy outcome.

I really don’t think this is what Donald Trump wants. Maybe somebody should tell him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It’s…wrong”; and “But…lie”)

Venezuela: ‘Let Trump Be Trump’

The decision to promote Juan Guaidó as a rival president to Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela was clearly made in Washington, not in Caracas. The speed with which US allies in the Americas and western Europe recognised Guaidó’s claim on 23 January to be the legitimate president of Venezuela would not have been possible without a lot of prior coordination – and a lot of pressure by the Trump administration.

It’s no surprise that right-wing governments in Latin American countries like Colombia and Brazil are going along with a US attempt to overthrow a left-wing regime. (The support of Brazil’s new neo-fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, was a foregone conclusion.) But it’s shocking when Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain also back this sort of intervention in another country’s internal affairs.

Maduro’s government does not deserve to survive. It has run the country’s economy into the ground, its ‘re-election’ last year was the product of a ruthlessly rigged vote, and three million Venezuelans (10% of the population) have fled abroad. But this is a problem for Venezuelans to solve, not foreigners, and least of all Americans.

There is a long, bad history of American attempts to overthrow left-wing governments in Latin America. Some of them, like Cuba (1960), Nicaragua (1981) and Venezuela (2002), were against regimes born in revolutions; others, like Brazil (1964), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976), were against democratically elected governments. It made no difference to Washington.

It used to make a difference to Washington’s allies in Europe and North America, however. They were all in favour of democracy, but not ‘democracy’ delivered by American guns. They also fretted that these US interventions were all made in defiance of international law as embodied in the charter of the United Nations. It was American exceptionalism run wild: Maduro is historically quite right to talk of the “gringo empire”.

Now the Europeans and the Canadians are willing to back an intervention of the same sort in Venezuela, which is very hard to explain. Recognising a rival president as legitimate (on very flimsy grounds) opens the way to supplying his alternative regime with money and weapons, and thence to civil war in Venezuela.

It also creates the preconditions for direct US military intervention in Venezuela, and sure enough US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was soon saying that “all options are on the table.” As everybody knows, that’s US government diplomatic-speak for “we may invade you.” So will they?

You’d think that senior American military officers and government officials would have figured out by now that this is not a great option. Overthrowing governments they disliked by military force didn’t work out so well in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, so why would they think that doing it in Venezuela would work out any better? Even invasions undertaken with good intentions generally end in tears.

But hang on. Almost all the ‘adults in the room’ in the Trump administration have quit or been fired by now, and the second-raters and nonentities who replaced them have no feel for how these things work. Would any competent and well-informed US administration be toying publicly with the notion of attacking Iran? (“Options on the table” again.)

Invading Venezuela would not be as stupid as attacking Iran, but there would certainly be an armed resistance, and even Venezuelan patriots who despise Maduro would be tempted to become part of it: foreign armies of occupation almost always end up being hated. Cuba, Russia and perhaps even China would help the resistance with money, and perhaps with arms (although there are quite enough of those in Venezuela already).

This is a dangerous game, and it is hard to believe that sensible governments like those in France, Spain and Canada really think encouraging Juan Guaidó to claim that he is president of Venezuela on the grounds that he is president of the legislature is a good idea.

Maybe they are so frightened of Donald Trump that they feel compelled to go along with his hare-brained scheme, but that seems unlikely.

Trump is not that frightening once you have worked out that he will settle for even the slightest symbolic concession and claim it as an historic victory. The Mexicans and the Canadians both exploited that fact in the NAFTA renegotiation, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is about to do it again in his second ‘summit’ with Trump, and in due course China will do it over the alleged China-US ‘trade war’ too.

The darker possibility is that America’s NATO allies are afraid that he is going to drag them into a war with Iran, and are willing to contemplate the risk that he may stumble into a war in Venezuela instead. After all, it would do less damage – except to the Venezuelans, of course.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Maybe…too”)

Trump and MbS: Shared Delusions

“It’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape,” the Snowflake-in-Chief told Fox News on Sunday, defending his refusal to listen to the recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi being murdered and sawn into pieces in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it. It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”

At least five weeks after the Turks made the recording available to American intelligence, Donald Trump has finally admitted that it exists. (It only exists because the Saudi hit team who did the murder were so amateurish that they didn’t even sweep the consulate for bugs.)

But Trump’s purpose in going on Fox was to say that the man who almost certainly ordered the hit, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), is still his friend and ally. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” said Trump, but “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.”

Fair enough. We all have to consort with murderers and torturers occasionally as we go about our business. But this relationship between Trump and MbS, genuinely warm and yet deeply cynical, does offer us an entry-point into the weird pseudo-strategies that bind the White House and the Saudi leadership together.

The focus of the US-Saudi relationship for the past four decades has been shared enmity towards Iran. This is perfectly natural for Saudi Arabia, which faces a far more populous and powerful Iran across the Persian Gulf. The sheer disparity of power, combined with the fact that Iran has a revolutionary regime and Saudi Arabia a deeply conservative one, guarantees that the latter will see the former as a threat.

It’s harder to explain the US obsession with Iran. The mullahs engage in lots of anti-American and anti-Israeli sloganeering, but they are much too sane to act on it. Iran’s ability to project hard military power abroad is so limited that it couldn’t possibly invade Saudi Arabia. It poses no threat whatever to the United States. And yet….

The depth and duration of the American obsession with Iran is best explained not by strategy but by psychology. Iran, like Cuba, overthrew an American puppet ruler long ago (the Shah in Iran, Batista in Cuba) and successfully defied subsequent US attempts to snuff out the revolution. For that, neither country has ever been forgiven.

It is that long-cherished American grudge, not some subtle strategic calculation about potential Iranian nuclear weapons, that drives Trump’s current trade embargo against the country. If he were really worried about nukes, he would be concentrating on North Korea, not Iran.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel feed Trump’s obsession with Iran, because they would love to entangle the US in a war with that country. Much better to get the Americans to do the fighting, if war is inevitable.

But war is actually far from inevitable, and even Trump’s close advisers (with the possible exception of John Bolton) know that attacking Iran would be a very bad idea. It is, for a start, much bigger than Vietnam.

However, Trump himself seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid. He prefaced his statement about sticking with Saudi Arabia despite the Khashoggi murder with a rant about the evil Iranians who are allegedly waging “a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”

Despite constant claims that the Houthi rebels in Yemen are just a front for Iran (for the most part swallowed uncritically by the Western media), there are no Iranians in Yemen, and no Iranian weapons either. On one side there are Houthi fighters and the home-made, hopelessly inaccurate missiles that they occasionally fire at Saudi cities in retaliation for the huge, relentless bombing campaign by the Saudi-led ‘coalition’.

On the other side is the aforesaid coalition, the military wing of Arab Military Dictators and Absolute Monarchs Inc., plus some mercenaries that the United Arab Emirates has hired to stiffen the local pro-government forces. And MbS waded into Yemen almost three years ago to put that ‘government’, installed by the Saudis in 2012 without an election, back into power.

There’s not an Iranian in sight anywhere. The geography alone makes the claim utterly implausible. How could this farrago of shameless lies and distortions be repackaged into a casus belli for an American attack on Iran?

Alleged North Vietnamese attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, subsequently disproved, gave US President Lyndon Johnson an excuse to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964. Saddam Hussein’s non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were President George W. Bush’s pretext for invading Iraq in 2003.

So yes, the Yemen war, creatively reinterpreted, could indeed be used by MbS and Trump to justify an American attack on Iran. It is said that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but the wars always come first.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“At…bugs”; and “It…Iran”)

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)