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Iraq

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Soleimani Killing

If the Iranians played the game the same way that Donald Trump does, then their revenge for the American assassination of Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, would be a simple tit-for-tat. Just kill US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man who actually organised the hit and then boasted about it.

If Pompeo was too hard to get at, the Iranians could get even by murdering any one or two of a hundred other senior US officials. Probably two, because the US drone that hit Soleimani’s car coming out of Baghdad airport also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the most powerful pro-Iranian militia in Iraq. An eye for an eye, and so forth.

Tit-for-tat is clearly the game Trump thought he was playing. That’s why he warned late on Saturday on Twitter that the US has identified 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”, and warned they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND HARD” if Tehran retaliates for Soleimani’s murder.

But that’s not the game the Iranians are playing at all. It’s a much longer game than tit-for-tat, and their targets are political, not personal.

Tehran’s first response has been to announce that it will no longer respect any of the limits placed on its nuclear programmes by the 2015 nuclear treaty, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Donald Trump pulled the United States out of that treaty in 2018, and Iran has given up hope that the other signatories (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany) would defy the United States and go on trading with Iran. It signed the deal in order to end the sanctions, but all the sanctions are effectively still in place

Tehran didn’t say that it is now going to start working on nuclear weapons, but it will resume producing enriched nuclear fuels in quantities that would make that possible. Iran knew that it was going to have to pull the plug on the JCPOA eventually, but Trump’s assassination of Soleimani lets it do so with the open or unspoken sympathy of almost every other country in the world

And there’s a second, less visible benefit for Iran from Soleimani’s murder. It greatly strengthens Iran’s political influence in Iraq, which has been deteriorating quite fast in recent months.

Ever since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has been the scene for intense competition for influence between the United States, which dominated the country militarily, and Iran, whose state religion, the Shia version of Islam, is also the faith of the majority of Iraqis.

There are still about 5,000 American troops in Iraq, but they are now vastly outnumbered by local pro-Iran Shia militias, who did the heavy lifting during the 2014-17 military campaign to crush Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. Lately, however, the pro-Iran faction has been losing ground.

When popular protests broke out in September against the huge corruption of Iraqi politicians and the impoverishment of the general population, the pro-Iran militias started killing the protesters. That was General Soleimani’s idea, and a very serious mistake on his part: the street protests began to target Iranian influence as well.

But Soleimani’s murder has largely erased that resentment: he is now yet another Shia martyr to the cause. The prime minister of Iraq showed up at his huge funeral procession in Baghdad on Saturday, and an extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday passed a resolution demanding the expulsion of US troops from Iraq.

The Iraqi political elite may or may not carry through on that policy, but there is genuine outrage that the United States, technically an ally, would make an airstrike just outside Baghdad airport without telling Iraq. All the worse when it kills an invited guest of the Iraq government who is the second most important person in Iraq’s other main ally, Iran. This is what contempt looks like, and it rankles.

In just one weekend Iran has had two big diplomatic wins thanks to Soleimani’s assassination. The Iranians will certainly go on making deniable, pin-prick attacks on US assets and allies in the Gulf in retaliation for the US sanctions that are strangling the country’s economy, but they may feel that they have already had their revenge for Soleimani.

Iran doesn’t want an all-out war with the United States. The US could not win that war (unless it just nuked the whole country), but neither could Iran, and it would suffer huge damage if there were a flat-out American bombing campaign using only conventional bombs and warheads.

Apocalyptic outcomes to this confrontation are possible, but they’re not very likely. The Iranians will probably just chug along as before, staying within the letter of the law most of the time, cultivating their allies in the Arab world, and waiting for Trump to make his next mistake in their favour. He’s reliable in that, if in nothing else.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“If Pompeo…murder”)

Iran Is Not An Exception

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. It begins to seem possible that it could be one of the last, if not the very last.

The protests that broke out on Friday in at least 21 cities in Iran seem to have died down, although that is uncertain since the entire country is silenced by an almost complete internet shut-down. But the death toll, according to Amnesty International, is at least 106. Other reports suggest that it might be twice that number.

This is at least five times the number that were killed in the last outbreak of protests in late 2017, and unofficial reports put the number of injured at around 3,000. Snipers have been firing into the crowds, who are denounced by state-controlled media as ‘hooligans’ and ‘thugs’ who are under foreign influence, or even in foreign pay.

The pace of the protests is picking up, too. The previous mass protests were way back in 2009, and were against the manipulation of election results, not against the regime as a whole. In 2017, and again this time, they were against the whole system of repression and corruption that sustains the theocratic rule of the ayatollahs.

This latest and biggest outburst of defiance in the streets is at least partly due to the unilateral trade sanctions imposed on Iran last year by the Trump administration. Washington scarcely bothers to deny that the real objective of its sanctions is regime change, or that the impoverishment of the Iranian population is the means chosen to attain that goal.

In the past year Iranian oil exports have dwindled to less than 200,000 barrels per day, compared to two million bpd before the US reimposed oil sanctions almost exactly a year ago. Inflation has soared, the value of the Iranian rial has collapsed, and life has become much harder for the poor.

The poor have nothing to fall back on and quickly become desperate. The young had nothing to start with, and see no future for themselves in an economy that is currently shrinking by 6% annually. These two groups are the real target of the sanctions, and the strategy seems to be working.

The trigger for these protests was a 50% rise in the price of petrol (gas), but that was just a last straw, not a major economic blow to the poor. It’s still only $0.12 a litre ($0.45 per US gallon), and most of the poor don’t have cars anyway. Indeed, the government’s stated reason for the price increase is to raise $2.5 billion a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes.

The poor are not impressed, since their health costs have gone up by 20% and the price of meat and vegetables has risen by around 50% in the past twelve months. It’s their anger and desperation that drive the poor and the young out into the streets, but it’s really the sanctions that have made them so angry and desperate.

So can the religious despotism that has ruled the country for the past forty years survive? In the short run, probably yes, because the ayatollahs have several million fanatical and well-armed supporters in the Revolutionary Guard and its part-time affiliate, the Basij militia. In the slightly longer term (2-5 years), probably not.

Because most Iranians follow the Shia version of Islam while all the countries around them except Iraq are overwhelmingly Sunni, Iran is seen as a special case whose politics has little relevance for elsewhere in the region. That is not true. The differences are big, but the politics in the region’s various countries tends to march in step, or even to rhyme.

Right next door to Iran, in Iraq, other young men are protesting in the streets, and there too they are being shot down by the ‘security’ forces. Two months ago thousands of young Egyptian men and women took to the streets to demand the resignation of the military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Four thousand were arrested. The non-violent revolutions in Sudan and Algeria continue.

In Egypt, Algeria and Sudan money and privileges are monopolised by a military elite, in Iraq by an elected but deeply corrupt civilian elite, and in Iran by a religious and paramilitary elite. There is poverty and anti-regime anger everywhere, but in Iran it is also being stoked by Donald Trump.

Revolution in Iran would probably be a long and bloody process, because the theocratic regime has a coherent ideology and would go down fighting. Nobody knows what kind of regime would follow, and nobody knows if such a revolution would stay confined to Iran.

Despite the Sunni-Shia gulf, the last revolution in Iran inflamed similar Islamist movements in many Arab countries. Another Iranian revolution could also ignite anti-regime revolts elsewhere in the region. Trump should be careful what he wishes for.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The trigger…desperate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Hopeless in Iraq

Four months of mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, and thousands of injuries and arrests – but only two gunshot wounds, both very recent and neither life-threatening.

Five days of mass protests in the streets of Baghdad, and there are already a hundred dead, most by gunfire from the various ‘security’ forces that work for the government. It’s all the more deplorable because Iraq, unlike the vast majority of Arab states, is not actually ruled by military or royal tyrants.

There are free elections in Iraq, and a democratically elected civilian government. The lengthy military occupation after the US invasion in 2003 spawned brutal terrorist movements like Islamic State, but it did give Iraq a full suite of democratic institutions. The trouble is that it also empowered one of the most corrupt political systems in the world.

That’s what the young Iraqi protesters are out in the streets about: not democracy, but corruption. They are very young – most are under 20 – and there are simply no jobs for them. They are condemned to pass their lives in idleness and poverty because they lack the political contacts that might lead to employment.

There have been intermittent anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad and Iraq’s big southern cities since mid-2018, and Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital has been occupied by a few thousand protesters for the past three months. But it was only when they decided to march on the Green Zone on 1 October that the killing started.

The heavily fortified Green Zone was American headquarters during the occupation, and it is now home to most government offices. The protesters were unarmed and non-violent, so the safest thing for the authorities to do would have been to shut the gates until they went home for the evening.

Instead, the military and police fools in charge decided to blockade a bridge leading to the Green Zone. When the protesters tried to cross, they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live bullets.

Only half a dozen young men were killed that day, but they were back in the streets in far larger numbers the next day and the slaughter began in earnest. This is not a revolution. It’s more like a cry of pain and despair by young Iraqis who see no future for themselves, and unfortunately they are right.

Almost every country that depends on a single natural resource (usually oil) for most of its income experiences massive corruption: politics becomes mainly a struggle for control of the money flowing from that resource. But the situation is much worse in Iraq because corruption has become embedded in the structure of all the main political parties.

Each party controls one or more government ministries, but instead of spending that ministry’s share of the national budget on education or infrastructure or whatever its particular responsibility may be, the party creates as many jobs as possible to reward its members and retain their support.

So almost half the adult males in Iraq who have jobs of any sort have government jobs – jobs that often require no work at all, but are much better paid than private-sector jobs.

Iraqi public services are in a desperate state, because the ministries’ money is being spent on salaries for those party members rather than on maintaining the school system or electricity generation or even the water supply.

And of course there are no jobs whatever left for young people now coming into the work-force.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has no idea what to do about the situation, because corruption in Iraq is not a blight on the system. It IS the system, and he will never persuade the political parties to relinquish their control over the state’s revenues. And he can’t really negotiate with the protesters either, because they have no leaders.

It gets worse. The bitter fact is that there’s not enough oil money to give everybody a decent life even if the Iraqi government were to spend it on public services and jobs for all.

Iraq’s current oil production (4.6 million barrels/day) is not dramatically higher than its previous peak in 1979 (3.5 million b/d), before production collapsed during the era of wars with Iran and the United States.

Back then, there were only around 13 million Iraqis, so it was genuinely an oil-rich country. Before Saddam Hussein gained absolute power in 1979 and plunged the country into a generation of war, the Baath Party had even managed to build a pretty good welfare state in Iraq, with a decent education and free medical care for all.

But there are now three times as many Iraqis – 40 million – and the population will double again in the next 30 years. The country still depends on oil for its income, but it is no longer ‘oil-rich’. There is little prospect for a radical improvement in the lives of those angry young men in the streets of Baghdad (and their equally despairing sisters at home).
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 12. (“The heavily…bullets”; and “Iraqi…supply”)

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”)