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Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)

Conquest Is Always An Option

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday affirming Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, there was an outcry that went far beyond the Arab world. His action went against the international rule on the ‘inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force’, we were told – conquest, in less lawyerly language. Alas, that is just an ideal, not a hard-and-fast international law.

The Golan Heights, which belonged to Syria, were part of Israel’s conquests in the 1967 war. Israel returned most of Egypt’s lost territory (except the Gaza Strip) in the 1979 peace agreement, but continues to occupy the lands it conquered from Jordan and Syria 52 years later. The only part it has annexed according to Israeli law, however, is the Golan Heights.

As far as Israel is concerned the issue was closed in 1981, although nobody else in the world accepted the annexation, not even its greatest ally, the United States. They all went on referring to the ‘occupied territories’, including the Golan Heights, as defined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 – but Israel didn’t care, and the legal issue was sidelined for another 38 years.

The only reason Trump has now ‘recognised’ the Golan Heights as Israeli territory is to give a little electoral boost to his good buddy, Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges that might lose him the election on 9 April. It doesn’t change the legal situation as far as everybody else is concerned, nor does it make Israel’s hold on the territory more secure.

What guarantees Israel’s position in the Golan Heights is a crushing superiority in military force , and the same is true of most other occupied territories around the world. There is text in the United Nations Charter (Art. Two) requiring all members to refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” but it’s a pious hope, not a universally enforced law.

When there is a conquest, the victim is expected to take action itself if possible, as Britain did when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. It will probably get some legal cover from international law, but it is unlikely to get military aid unless it is in other countries’ interests to give it.

Such interests WERE engaged in the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Iraq conquered Kuwait. For strategic reasons (i.e. oil), many Arab and Western countries volunteered military forces to reverse that conquest – and they got legal cover from the UN too, for what it was worth.

But when it’s a great power doing the invading, like China in Tibet (1950), the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979), or the United States in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Iraq (2003), the UN is paralysed by Security Council vetoes and most other countries lie low. The invaders have no legal cover, but that doesn’t stop them.

When non-great powers invade, like the Indonesian seizure of Timor or the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara, both in 1975, there will be no outside help for the victim unless some great power cares about it – or unless the local people can wage a guerilla war long enough to make the conqueror cut its losses and go home. They succeeded in Timor; they failed in Western Sahara.

There has been a major effort to shrink the role of force and expand the rule of law in international affairs since the Second World War. That war frightened the people in charge enough that they were willing to consider fundamental changes to their old way of doing business, and to some extent they succeeded. This is the most peaceful era in human history.

But it is not actually peaceful, and the project everybody signed up for in 1945 is still very much a work in progress. Trump would quite like to wreck it entirely, as in his view it’s just another part of ‘globalisation’, but there is little chance that he will succeed. He just doesn’t have the leverage.

Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights makes the simultaneous American campaign to reverse the Russian annexation of Crimea look hypocritical, but that campaign wasn’t getting any traction anyway. Similarly, it hasn’t sabotaged the much-trumpeted Trump peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that wasn’t going anywhere either.

Everybody in the Arab world already knows that Trump is completely loyal to Israel, if only because that is the best way to get the votes of US evangelical Christians. Nobody expects anything to come from his Middle East ‘peace plan’, if it ever sees the light of day. On the shock-horror scale, this whole episode rates about 2 out of 10.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“When…Sahara”)

Saudi Game of Thrones

Now is the moment of maximum danger for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS).

He has weathered the immediate storm over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi two months ago. He even went to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires a week ago and persuaded several other national leaders to stand beside him for photographs. But the real threat to his power (and maybe his life) is at home.

It’s not the Saudi public he must fear. He’s quite popular with young Saudis, who are a large majority of the population. He’s relatively young himself (33). He has loosened some of the tight social and religious controls (women can drive now, and you can even go to see a movie). And most of them don’t even believe that he is responsible for the killing.

MbS’s problem is his family, who know perfectly well that he ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and understand what that crime means for the kingdom’s standing in the world. They also realise that his foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster, from the futile war in Yemen to the blockade of Qatar, and that his economic policy hasn’t been much better.

Many prominent Saudis also have personal reasons to hate him. Some were pushed roughly aside in order to facilitate his rapid rise to supreme power. Others were kidnapped, jailed and even tortured in order to extort billions of dollars from them, on the often shaky pretext that their money was the fruit of corruption. If you held a secret ballot among the ten thousand most influential Saudis, MbS would be gone in a flash.

It doesn’t work like that, of course. This is still an absolute monarchy, and so long as MbS has the support of his elderly father, King Salman, he has absolute power – in theory. In practice, he must also have at least the grudging support of the royal family, which sees the Saudi state as a family business in which they all have a stake.

It is a remarkable family, if only for its sheer size: an estimated 15,000 members, many of whom are direct descendants of the kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. When he died in 1953 he left 36 sons, and there are literally hundreds of grandsons.

All these men, their spouses and their children and grandchildren are supported (quite lavishly) by the family business, but there are only a few hundred people who really matter. They matter a great deal, however, and by now they would be close to unanimous in seeing Muhammad bin Salman as a wrecker who is endangering their own futures.

So how to get rid of him? In the past, the family’s rule has survived the abrupt removal of kings: one king was forced to abdicate in 1964, another was assassinated by his own nephew in 1975. The princes closed ranks, and the dynasty carried on with a new king. In theory, it should be even easier when you are only trying to remove the crown prince.

Why not just work through his father, King Salman? After all, the king has already appointed and then dismissed two other crown princes; maybe he could be persuaded to do it again. The problem with this approach is that MbS zealously controls access to the 82-year-old king, who is believed to be suffering from mild dementia (Alzheimer’s).

An alternative would be for the Allegiance Committee, a family-run institution created in 2006 which adjudicates on succession issues, to declare King Salman incompetent because of illness, dismiss the Crown Prince, and appoint someone else as his successor. In the absence of more formal rules, any prince descended from Abdul-Aziz would be eligible.

Plotters hoping to use this device would be risking their lives, of course, for MbS is a ruthless man who would strike first if he got wind of the plan. However, they may be emboldened by the fact that he has now arrested his own chief enforcers in an attempt to shift the blame for Khashoggi’s murder. This betrayal will certainly have shaken the loyalty of their colleagues who still serve the crown prince.

But there is one further consideration that is bound to give even the boldest plotters pause. If MbS concludes that he has decisively lost the support of the royal family, he still has a last card to play: war with Iran.

It’s what he wants in the long term anyway, but his preferred option has been to get the United States and Israel to do the actual fighting for him. If he had no other way of heading off a family-backed coup against him, however, he might take Saudi Arabia into such a war unilaterally, counting on the US and/or Israel to bail the country out. In the midst of a war, nobody at home would dare attack him.

So on balance, MbS is likely to stay in power, perhaps to the ultimate ruin of the country he rules.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“He has…killing”)

Corbyn, Palestinians and Brexit

It sounds like a tempest in a teapot, but it could bring down Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party – and that could end up meaning that Britain doesn’t leave the European Union after all.

It started last Saturday with a photograph in the Daily Mail (a newspaper that regards Corbyn as the Devil’s second cousin) of the Labour leader laying a wreath in a cemetery in Tunisia four years ago. He had laid it, said the Mail, at a memorial to the Palestinian terrorists who planned the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

It was a calculated attempt to paint Corbyn as anti-Semitic, and the mud stuck. The Mail also published a 2013 video in which Corbyn said that Palestinians were experiencing “conditions in the West Bank, under occupation, of the very sort that will be recognisable by many people in Europe who suffered occupation during the Second World War.” That’s perilously close to comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who never misses a chance to portray Europe as a cauldron of anti-Semitism, immediately tweeted: “The laying of a wreath by Jeremy Corbyn on the graves of the terrorists who perpetrated the Munich massacre…deserves unequivocal condemnation from everybody– left, right, and everything in between.”

Corbyn replied at once on his own Twitter feed: “What deserves unequivocal condemnation is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including dozens of children.” Fair comment, perhaps, but that is not what a prudent British politician would choose to say when the Israeli prime minister has just accused him of anti-Semitism. Twitter makes everybody stupid.

Jeremy Corbyn is not anti-Semitic, but he certainly could be described as anti-Zionist. It’s not an uncommon position among British politicians who joined the Labour Party in the 1960s and 70s: admiration for Israel and close ties with the sister Labour Party that then dominated Israeli politics, mixed with a keen awareness that the triumph of Israel had been built on a Palestinian tragedy.

Corbyn is also on the hard left of his party, which means that he has never met an anti-imperial, anti-colonial, or anti-capitalist cause that he did not like. That’s how he found himself attending the ‘International Conference on Monitoring the Palestinian Political and Legal Situation in the Light of Israeli Aggression’ in Tunisia four years ago. And once there, he naturally went along when they all laid a wreath in the cemetery.

The conference was officially linked to the devastating Israeli air strike on Tunis in 1985, which killed 80 senior officials of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, members of their families, and Tunisian civilians. Corbyn doesn’t speak either French or Arabic, the two dominant languages in Tunisia, and he presumably thought that’s what the wreath-laying was about. So he took part in it.

In fact, the wreath was laid in memory of a different bunch of Palestinians, members of the Black September group, who had helped to plan the Munich outrage and were later assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents. Did Corbyn just get confused, or did the Tunisians deliberately mislead him? Who knows? Who cares?

What Corbyn should have done when the Daily Mail broke that story was to admit all, plead ignorance, and make a grovelling apology. It would have been humiliating, but he would certainly have survived to fight again.

He didn’t do that. He is a very stubborn man, and he combined a lame semi-admission of his mistake – “I was present at that wreath-laying. I don’t think I was actually involved in it” – with further criticisms of current Israeli policy. And thereby he turned a little personal problem into a crisis for the Labour Party.

Labour has been tearing itself apart recently over differences about where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism. It is certainly not institutionally anti-Semitic – Corbyn’s predecessor as party leader, Ed Miliband, was Jewish – but it has already alienated a lot of its Jewish supporters. Corbyn’s blunder may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Corbyn has never had the support of most Labour members of parliament. It is becoming plausible (though no more than that) to think that he might lose the leadership – especially as it is becoming clear that he’s the main reason Labour doesn’t enjoy a big lead in the opinion polls over the chaotic Conservative government led by Theresa May.

Which brings us to Brexit. The current stalemate in British politics, which has paralysed negotiations for a sensible post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, risks ending next March in a disaster in which the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all.

The stalemate is mostly due to the fact that both major parties in the UK are profoundly divided between pro- and anti-Brexit factions, but both parties have pro-Brexit leaders. Recent opinion polls show a small but growing majority of voters would vote ‘Remain’ in a second referendum, but neither party will back such a referendum under the current leadership.

If Labour had a different leader, all that could change – and Corbyn is in deep trouble.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“It was…Germany”; and “Labour…back”)