11 November 2013
Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath
By Gwynne Dyer
What will the Middle East look like after Iran and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It’s time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.
It didn’t get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the “P5+1” – American, British, French, German and Russian – dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.
The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (20 November), and nobody went away angry. “We are all on the same wavelength,” said Zarif. “There is a deal on the table and it can be done,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
There are “still some gaps” between Iran and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but “they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right.” Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said that “we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet.”
Fabius’s demands were that the reactor in Arak, now nearing completion, should never be activated, as it would produce plutonium as a byproduct, and that Iran’s store of uranium enriched to medium level (20 percent pure) should be brought back down to 5 percent to move it farther away from weapons-grade (90 percent). Introduced into the talks at a late stage, his demands brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.
All the other Western powers closed ranks and insisted that these were joint demands, but they were not part of the original draft agreement. Speculation was rife that France was acting on behalf of its customers (for French weapons) on the Arab side of the Gulf, notably in the United Arab Emirates, who view the deal under discussion with just as much horror as Israel does. But France can only delay things: the deal is going to happen.
One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 percent bluff – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American support – but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Iran’s economic isolation will also end, although it may take several years to unwind all the economic sanctions. The gradual return of prosperity in Iran will make the current Islamic regime more secure (which may be the main reason that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah AliKhamenei, authorised newly elected President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal and end the confrontation.)
But the big question is whether a nuclear deal with Iran will cool the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to suck in the whole of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The answer, alas, is probably not.
The split is as incomprehensible to non-Muslims as the religious wars of Europe four centuries ago were to non-Christians, and mercifully Sunni-Shia hostility has never reached quite that intensity of violence and hatred. But right across the Islamic world it has been getting worse for several decades now, and the eye of the storm is in the Middle East.
Iran is the sole Shia great power, so it is inevitably the focus of the fears of Sunni Arabs and the hopes of Shia Arabs. Moreover, given Turkey’s semi-detached relationship with the region, Iran is in practical terms the greatest power in the entire Middle East.
For the past decade, Iran has been greatly weakened by the arms and trade embargoes that the West imposed because of the nuclear issue. Once those embargoes are removed Iran will regain much of its former strength. This is already causing great anxiety in the Sunni Arab countries, especially those that face it across the Gulf.
Even quite experienced people in Washington and other Western capitals don’t realise the extent to which the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East thought that their close ties with the Western great powers gave them a kind of guarantee against Shia power –and how betrayed they feel now that they think that guarantee is being withdrawn.
Sunnis outnumber Shias almost ten-to-one in the Islamic world as a whole, but in the smaller world that stretches from Iran and Turkey to Palestine and Yemen, the “Middle East”, Shias make up more than a third of the population. The war is already hot and quite openly sectarian in Syria and in Iraq. In many other places (Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen) it is bubbling just underneath the surface. It will get worse before it gets better.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 10. (“Fabius’s…happen”; and “The split…East”)
7 March 2012
Reasons to Attack Iran
By Gwynne Dyer
The last time US President Barack Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, it was obvious that the two men distrusted and despised each other. This time (5 March), their mutual dislike was better hidden, but the gulf between them was still as big, especially on the issue of Iran’s alleged desire for nuclear weapons.
There is something comic about two nuclear-armed countries (5,000-plus nuclear weapons for the US, around 200 for Israel) declaring that it is vital to prevent a third country from getting a few of the things too. Particularly when that third country, Iran, has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and still abides by it, while Israel has always refused to sign it. But never mind that.
What divides Obama and Netanyahu is a question of timing. Obama’s “red line” is the point at which Iran “possesses” a nuclear weapon, which would not arrive for a couple of years even if Iran actually intends to make one. (American and Israeli intelligence services concur that it is not working on one now.)
Netanyahu’s “red line” comes much sooner: whenever Iran has enough enriched uranium to build a bomb, whether it does so or not. It is, of course, quite legal for Iran to enrich uranium (which it says is solely for use in civilian nuclear reactors), while an unprovoked attack on Iran would be a criminal act under international law. But that didn’t stop former president George W Bush from invading Iraq, and it wouldn’t stop Obama now.
What worries Obama are three other things. First, the American public simply isn’t up for a third “war of choice” in ten years in the Middle East. As retired general Anthony Zinni, former commander of US military forces in the Middle East, warned three years ago: “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran.”
Secondly, this is presidential election year in the United States. If Israel attacks Iran, the oil price will soar and kill the economic recovery Obama is depending on for re-election. However, if the US fails to back Israel, American Jews will turn against him and kill his re-election chances anyway.
Thirdly, the attack would not destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment plants. Israel has been threatening to attack them for years, so the Iranians have buried them deep underground. Israeli and American hawks claim that an attack could delay Iran’s capability to enrich large quantities of uranium for three years, but Meir Dagan, former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, thinks three months is optimistic.
Even if it were three years, Iran would be back to where it is now by 2015 – and an Iran that had been attacked by Israel and the United States would be determined to get nuclear weapons as fast as possible. As Gen Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently, Israeli attacks on Iran “would be destabilising and would not achieve their long-term objectives”.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu and his fellow hawks truly believed that Iranian nuclear weapons would mean the extinction of the Jewish state, then their wish to attack Iran would be defensible, but they don’t. That’s just for public consumption. What’s actually at stake here is not the survival of Israel, just the preservation of the huge strategic advantage Israel enjoys as the sole nuclear weapons state in the Middle East.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, let the cat out of the bag in a recent interview with Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman for the New York Times Magazine. “From our point of view, a nuclear state offers an entirely different kind of protection to its proxies. Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hezbollah, (and a) nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations.”
Big deal. Israel lost its last military confrontation with Hezbollah in 2006 even WITH a monopoly of nuclear weapons, but it suffered no lasting harm as a result. If Israel is not facing an existential threat, but just the potential loss of some strategic leverage, then launching an illegal war of aggression against Iran makes no sense at all.
But there is also a deeper motive. Netanyahu and his allies really think that an attack on Iran would bring the Islamic regime down. As Barak told Bergman: “An Iranian bomb would ensure the survival of the current regime, which otherwise would not make it to its 40th anniversary in light of the admiration that the young generation in Iran has displayed for the West. With a bomb, it would be very hard to budge the administration.”
So what Barak and his fellow hawk Netanyahu are actually demanding is American support for an attack whose real aim is to bring down the Iranian regime. The thinking is delusional: the notion that the Iranian regime will collapse unless it gets the bomb is held by both Israeli and American hawks, but there is no concrete reason to believe it.
As Meir Dagan said in a lecture at Tel Aviv University recently, “The fact that someone has been elected doesn’t mean that he is smart.”
20 May 2011
Obama’s Fine Words
By Gwynne Dyer
Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East lasted for forty minutes, but did it say anything new? Not exactly, although it did reinstate an old rule that had been abandoned. Two years after the American president’s much-ballyhooed speech in Cairo promised a new relationship with the Muslim world, not much has changed in American policy – but a great deal has changed in the Arab world.
Obama angered Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by calling for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement consisting of two states “with permanent borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps (of territory).” It was a return to what was the long-standing American position until former US president George W. Bush changed it in 2004. Netanyahu’s office immediately issued a furious response.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of US commitments made to Israel in 2004….Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centres in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines.”
By “Judea and Samaria” Netanyahu meant the West Bank, i.e. 90 percent of the land that the Palestinians still clung to after the 1948 war. The West Bank has been occupied by the Israeli army since the 1967 war, and Israel has built so many “settlements” on it that almost 20 percent of the population of the West Bank is now Jewish.
Bush said in 2004 that the settlements could stay, even though that made the concept of a Palestinian state completely infeasible. (The settlements control more than a third of the land in the West Bank.) But US policy on the issue is now back to what it was before Bush.
Some settlements might be allowed to stay, but only if the Palestinian state were compensated with land of equivalent value by Israel. (That’s what the “mutually agreed swaps” referred to.) Moreover, the “1967 lines” mean that the United States will not back Israel’s insistence that its army remains in the Jordan valley, along the border between the promised Palestinian state and Jordan.
Netanyahu’s coalition government would instantly collapse if he agreed to any of this, so he wouldn’t agree even if Obama twisted his arm very hard. In any case, there was no hint in the speech that Obama was going to bring serious pressure on Israel to change its position.
So there has been a rhetorical return to long-standing US policy after the Bush aberration, but no evidence that Obama will push the “peace process” forward. As far as the democratic revolutions of the “Arab spring” are concerned, he gave them warm verbal support – but only so long as they don’t damage American interests. There was, for example, not a single mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech.
And for all of Obama’s rhetoric about how wonderful the revolutions are, it was clear that he had little idea how big the transformation in the Middle East actually is. Particularly with regard to the Israeli -Palestinian dispute, the future will not be like the past.
We had a foretaste of that a week ago, when thousands of Palestinian demonstrators commemorating the anniversary of the “nakba” (disaster), the expulsion of their people in 1948 from what is now Israel, surged up against Israel’s borders, and in one place actually breached them. About a dozen of them were killed, although they were mostly non-violent, but this was something new – and we will be seeing a lot more of it.
The issue of the Palestinian “refugees” of 1948 has been on a back burner for a long time, with Israel adamant that the vast majority of them must never return as that would dilute Israel’s Jewishness. Besides, says the Israeli government, they fled voluntarily.
That was always a bad argument. Israeli historians long ago discredited the idea that the flight of the Palestinian population was voluntary, and in any case it doesn’t matter. Under international law, if people flee their homes during a war, they are legally entitled to return to those homes when the fighting ends.
For fifty years, Israel has successfully kept the refugees (and their descendants) out, and by and large the international community has accepted it. But now the Palestinians, emboldened by the non-violent spread of popular rule elsewhere in the Arab world, are not just saying they have the right to return. They are acting on it.
Israel will never consent to this, but if Palestinians go on trying to cross the border, despite the fact that some will get killed each time, then Arab opinion will be firmly on their side. So will the newly democratic governments of the Arab world – and other Arab regimes that are just trying to stay ahead of public anger. Israel will also find itself increasingly isolated in the wider world, especially if it continues to use violence.
This is just one example of how much has changed in the Middle East in the past few months, and American policy has not even begun to take account of it. Obama is trying, but he will have to run much faster to keep up.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“So…speech”; and “The issue…ends”)
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.
18 February 2011
By Gwynne Dyer
Why now? Why revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt this year, rather than last year, or ten years ago, or never? The protestors now taking to the street daily in Jordan, Yemen, Bahrein, Libya and Algeria are obviously inspired by the success of those revolutions, but what got the process started? What changed in the Middle East?
Yes, of course the Arab world is largely ruled by autocratic regimes that suppress all opposition and dissent, sometimes with great cruelty. Yes, of course many of those regimes are corrupt, and some of them are effectively in the service of foreigners. Of course most Arabs are poor and getting poorer. But that has all been true for decades. It never led to revolutions before.
Maybe the frustration and resentment that have been building up for so long just needed a spark. Maybe the self-immolation of a single young man set Tunisia alight, and from there the flames spread quickly to half a dozen other Arab countries. But you can’t find anybody who really believes that this could just as easily have happened five years ago, or ten, or twenty.
Yet there is no reason to suppose that the level of popular anger has gone up substantially in the past two or five or ten years. It’s high all the time, but in normal times most people are very cautious about expressing it openly. You can get hurt that way.
Now they are expressing their anger very loudly indeed, and long-established Arab regimes are starting to panic. The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, by far the largest Arab country, makes it possible that many other autocratic regimes in the Arab world could fall like dominoes. The rapid collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe in 1989 is a frightening precedent for them. But, once again, why is this happening now?
“Social media” is one widely touted explanation, and the al-Jazeera network’s wall-to-wall coverage of the events in Tunisia and Egypt is another. Both are plausible parts of the explanation, for the availability of means of communication that are beyond the reach of state censorship clearly makes mass mobilisation much easier.
If people are ready to come out on the street and protest, these media make it easier for them to organize and easier for the example of the protestors to spread. But this really does not explain why they are ready to come out at last.
The one thing that is really different in the Middle East, just in the last year or two, is the self-evident fact that the United States is starting to withdraw from the region. From Lebanon in 1958 to Iraq in 2003, the US was willing to intervene militarily to defend Arab regimes it liked and overthrow those that it did not like. That’s over now.
This great change is partly driven by the thinly disguised American defeat in Iraq. The last US troops are leaving that country this year, and after that grim experience US public opinion will not countenance another major American military intervention in the region. The safety net for Arab regimes allied to the United States is being removed, and their people know it.
There is also a major strategic reassessment going on in Washington, and it will almost certainly end by downgrading the importance of the Middle East in US policy. The Arab masses do not know that, but the regimes certainly do, and it undermines their confidence.
The traditional motives for American strategic involvement in the Middle East were oil and Israel. American oil supplies had to be protected, and the Cold War was a zero-sum game in which any regime that the US did not control was seen to be at risk of falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. And quite apart from sentimental considerations, Israel had to be protected because it was an important military asset.
But the Cold War is long over, and so is the zero-sum game in the Middle East. The Arab oil exporters choose their customers on a purely commercial basis, and they have to sell their oil to support their growing populations. You don’t need to control them or threaten them to get oil from them; just send them a cheque. Besides, less than a fifth of America’s oil imports now come from the Arab world.
As for Israel, its military value to the United States has gone into a steep decline since the end of the Cold War. Nor does it need American protection: it is a dwarf superpower that towers over its Arab neighbours militarily. So remind me again: why, exactly, should the United States see “stability” in the Middle East as a vital national interest?
The revolutions of 1989 became possible when people in the Eastern European countries realised that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene militarily to preserve the Communist regimes that ruled them. Is another 1989 possible in the Arab world? Well, the Arabs now know that the United States will not intervene militarily to protect the regimes that rule them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7 (“Social…last)