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The INF: Another Treaty Bites the Dust

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty died last Friday, but there won’t be many mourners at the funeral. There should be.

The problem the INF was intended to solve, back when US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed it in 1987, was ‘warning time’.

Bombers would take many hours to get from Russia to America or vice versa, and even intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would take 30-35 minutes. That would at least give the commanders of nuclear forces on the side that didn’t launch the surprise attack enough time to order a retaliatory strike before they died.

Whereas intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) based in Europe could reach the other side’s capitals, command centres, airfields and missile launchers in ten minutes: barely time to tuck your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye, as they used to say.

The IRBMs put everything on a hair-trigger. You had maybe five minutes to decide if you trusted the data from your radars or your satellite surveillance before you had to decide whether to launch your nuclear counter-strike. Which makes it all the weirder that the Russians took the lead in introducing IRBMs to Europe.

They were called SS-20s, and they put all the capitals of NATO’s European members on ten minutes’ notice of extinction. However, Moscow would also have only ten minutes’ warning once the US developed its own IRBMs and based them in Europe (they were called Pershing IIs).

But the United States is not in Europe, and only the Soviet Union’s ICBMs could reach it. No matter what happened with IRBMs in Europe, the US would still have a half-hour-plus warning time. The Russians were exceptionally foolish to start this particular bit of the arms race.

By the mid-1980s the Russians were looking for a way out, and Ronald Reagan, who hated nuclear weapons, was happy to help them. He and Gorbachev signed the INF treaty in 1987, banning all land-based ballistic missiles with ‘intermediate range’ (500-5,500km).

They also banned all land-based cruise missiles of similar range, although the relatively slow-moving cruise missiles never posed a ‘warning time’ problem. The INF Treaty was the first major sign that the Cold War was ending: 2,700 missiles were destroyed in the following two years, and everybody lived happily ever after. Sort of.

So why have they now just let the INF Treaty die?

The Russians have been fiddling around with an existing sea-launched cruise missile that has a range of several thousand km. That’s legal at sea, but then they test-fired the same missile from a land-based mobile launcher. They kept that test below the INF-permitted limit of 500 km for land-based cruise missiles, but the test proved that it would work at any range.

Naughty and stupid, but boys will be boys. It’s a cruise missile, so it has no impact on warning time, nor would it give Russia any strategic advantage. Why didn’t Vladimir Putin just stop the nonsense, and maybe apologise?

Same goes for the United States: the INF is good value, and the Russian infringement is legally questionable but strategically unimportant. Why haven’t you taken the time to sort this out and keep the treaty alive?

The reason is China. All the arms control treaties of the later 20th century were made in a bipolar world: the United States and the Soviet Union were the only players who counted. Now China counts too, and arms control becomes a ‘three-body problem’. Those are very hard problems to solve.

The sane answer is simply to deal the Chinese in. Beijing doesn’t want to live with ten minutes’ warning time either. It would probably sign up to the INF terms provided that the U.S. and Russia were willing to grant it parity in other weapons. You could even throw in a new ban on ‘hypersonic’ missiles of intermediate range, which will be otherwise be threatening warning times in a few years.

But there are people in Washington, and no doubt in Moscow, who would love to have the option of a no-warning disarming strike on Beijing. You have to kill the INF to achieve that, because you would need to put land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles on the ground in Asia. But those people have won the argument, because nobody else cares enough.

Former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, who negotiated the INF Treaty, told the Voice of America recently: “When something like the INF goes down the drain almost like nothing, it shows you the degree to which people have forgotten the power of these weapons. One day it’ll be too late.”

It’s thirty years since the Cold War ended, and the insiders in the American and Russian defence establishments who are letting the INF die are betraying our trust. New weapons, new strategies, new threats are the building blocks of their careers, and they have forgotten to be afraid of nuclear war.

So don’t blame Donald Trump or John Bolton or Vladimir Putin, who are only doing their usual belligerent shtick. Blame the careerists, who should know better.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“The Russians…alive”)

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

The Real Refugee Problem

Every once in a while a photograph of a migrant’s tragic death (usually that of a child) catches the public’s imagination.

The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, fleeing from the Syrian civil war, dead face down in the surf on a Turkish beach in 2015, triggered a wave of sympathy that ended with Germany opening its borders to 900,000 refugees that year – and Hungary building a border fence to keep them out.

Here we go again. A picture of 23-month-old Valeria Martinez, tucked into her father Oscar’s T-shirt, both dead face down on the banks of the Rio Grande, has unleashed a similar wave of sympathy in the United States, although it certainly hasn’t reached the White House. And once again most of the migrants are claiming to be refugees.

In fact, few of the migrants fit the legal definition of refugees in either case. The Arabs and Afghans trying to get into Europe had fled genuine wars, but they were already in Turkey, which is quite safe. They just wanted to move on to somewhere with better job opportunities and a higher standard of living. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t give you right of asylum as a refugee.

The same applies to the migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, even though thousands of them are drowning in the attempt. They are fleeing poverty, or dictatorial regimes, or even climate change, but they are not fleeing war.

Neither do they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (My italics.) That is the language of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, so they don’t qualify as refugees. You may feel sorry for them, but there is no legal duty to let them in.

The Refugee Convention was incorporated into US law in the Refugee Act of 1980, so few of the people now seeking entry at the Mexican border qualify either. This matters, because while twenty years ago 98% of the people crossing the border were Mexican young men seeking work, more than half are now entire families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and most of them claim to be refugees.

They are not, and that (not Donald Trump) is why US courts are rejecting at least three-quarters of the applications for refugee status. You may wish that the law took a more generous and humanitarian view, but it does not. And if you think things are bad now, they will be ten times worse in twenty years’ time.

Global heating is starting to bite. We’re still on the learner slopes, but the droughts and the floods, and the crop failures they cause, are multiplying, especially in the tropics and the sub-tropics where temperatures are already high.

In the worst-hit areas (which include the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America) family farms are failing, some people are going hungry, and the number of people on the move is starting to soar. This is precisely what unpublished, in-house government studies were predicting twenty years ago in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Now it’s here.

As the number of migrants goes up, the willingness of host populations to receive them will inevitably go down.

5% new population in a decade will feel disruptive to some people, especially if there are big cultural differences between the old population and the immigrants, but most people will accept and adapt to it. 10% in a decade is definitely pushing it, even though it’s only 1% a year. And 20% new population in a decade would generate a huge political backlash in almost any country on Earth.

That’s human nature. You may deplore it, but it’s not going to change. And behind uncomfortable considerations of what the politics will permit lies the even starker reality that they can’t all come. Twenty years from now there will be far more people who desperately want to move than the destination countries could possibly accommodate.

So the borders will start slamming shut in the countries, mostly in the temperate zone of the planet, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food to eat. And don’t believe the myth that you cannot really shut a border.

You can do so quite easily if you are willing to kill the people who try to cross it illegally, and the governments of the destination countries will probably end up doing just that. Their military and their civil servants, if not their politicians, were already having grim internal debates about it fifteen years ago.

Sorry to spoil your day.
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To shorten to725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“5%…Earth”)

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

Iran and Trump: “Uniquely Dysfunctional and Divided”

Iran has “begun its march…towards nuclear weaponry,” said Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz, and that is technically correct. Only one year and sixty days after President Donald Trump ripped up the treaty that guaranteed Iran won’t make nuclear weapons and peed on the pieces*, Iran has taken a tiny step towards reviving its nuclear programme.

Just a baby step: on Monday Tehran announced that it would start enriching uranium fuel to more than 3.67%, the limit set by the treaty that it signed in 2015. Until last week it was fully obeying all the terms of the treaty, as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, the other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), all confirmed.

The fuel Iran is making now will be used in its reactor at Bushehr, which requires fuel enriched to just below 5%, so this is not a very big breach of the treaty. Indeed, Iran says it is not a breach at all, quoting the part of the JCPOA that says a party can “cease performing its commitments… in whole or in part” in the event of “significant non-performance” by any of the other parties.

You could certainly argue that the United States ‘ceased performing its commitments… in whole or in part’ by abandoning the JCPOA , but there would be no point. This is about power, not legality or fairness, and the United States has the power.

The United States has blocked all trade with Iran and used its power to force most of the other countries that signed the treaty to stop trading with Iran too. Unfortunately, it’s not ‘Germany’ or ‘France’ that trades with Iran; it’s German and French companies, which will not be allowed to buy or sell in the United States if they trade with Iran.

The European governments have no legal power to force their companies to trade with Iran, and they have not offered to compensate companies that do so and as a result lose American contracts. They all acknowledge that Iran is in the right and Donald Trump is in the wrong, but they lack the courage to act accordingly.

So Iran has been hung out to dry. Its foreign trade has collapsed, including the oil sales that kept the economy afloat. Inflation has quadrupled, its currency has lost 60% of its value, household incomes have fallen sharply, and the economy is predicted to shrink by 6% this year. It’s what Trump calls “maximum pressure”, and ordinary Iranians are hurting.

Iran’s response, after more than a year of this, was to become just a little bit non-compliant with the JCPOA. Its clearly stated policy, however, is to ratchet up the scale of the breach a bit more every sixty days, applying pressure back in a quite different mode.

You can only sub-divide the move back to a full civil nuclear programme into so many steps, however, and even at 60 days per step Iran will probably be there by this time next year.

That doesn’t mean it will be making nuclear weapons next year. It had a full civil nuclear programme for several decades before the JCPOA was signed, and it didn’t get nuclear weapons then. But without the treaty the ‘break-out time’ to Iran’s first nuclear weapon, if Tehran decided to go for broke, would drop from one year to only a couple of months.

This is what the JCPOA was really about. Iran always swore that it would not make nuclear weapons – Ayatollah Khomeini even called them “un-Islamic” – but a lot of other governments hated or at least mistrusted the Iranian regime. Before the 2015 deal, there was much wild talk in the US and Israel about the need to make a ‘preemptive attack’ on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The JCPOA kicked the can down the road for 15 years. Iran dismantled various nuclear facilities and agreed to intrusive inspections so that if it ever did decide to cheat, everybody else would have a year or more to respond. Nobody loved the deal, but everybody agreed that it was the best available, and made the future a lot safer.

So why did Donald Trump trash it? His obsession with destroying Barack Obama’s political legacy undoubtedly provided the initial impetus, but he also probably believed that putting ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran would make it crumble. Another triumph for the great statesman.

The hawks in the White House (John Bolton, Mike Pompeo et al.) probably do know that Iran is too proud to crumble, but they don’t care because they actually want a war.

Trump is trapped between them and his promise not to lead the United States into another Middle East war – which is why we have crazy episodes like the air strikes on Iran he allegedly cancelled on 20 June ten minutes before they hit.

No wonder Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, said in a confidential dispatch leaked to the press on Sunday that Trump’s White House is “uniquely dysfunctional” and “divided”.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The fuel…power”)

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

Al-Matrafi’s Tweet

Killing journalists is no big deal. “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do,” said Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, the one international leader that he never criticises or condemns. They were joking together at the G20 summit meeting in Japan on Friday, and Putin replied: “We also have. It’s the same.”

No it isn’t. Twenty-six Russian journalists have been murdered since Putin became president, and the Russian media have become very cautious about what they say. No journalists have been killed for political reasons in the United States on Trump’s watch, and the American media can still do their jobs. Some of them do, and some don’t, but there’s nothing new about that.

What is relatively new is that it’s getting seriously unhealthy for journalists in the Middle East to criticise the United States or its local allies. The highest-profile case of recent date was the slaughter of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul by an Saudi government death squad. (‘Slaughter’ is the right word: they cut him up after they killed him.)

Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post, so his murder attracted a lot of attention, but the group facing the biggest threat are the journalists who work for the Al Jazeera Media Network. It’s the best news network in the Arab world (with a full English-language service as well), and it’s worried that Saudi Arabia is going to bomb its headquarters in Qatar.

In fact, the Al Jazeera management have been taking out full-page paid ads in leading world newspapers (e.g. New York Times 23 June, The Guardian 29 June) pointing out that they now face a “credible death threat” from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, they’re right.

It began with a tweet in mid-June from high-ranking Saudi journalist Khaled al-Matrafi claiming that Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar was “a legitimate and logical target” for the Saudi-led, US-backed coalition that has been bombing the living daylights out of Yemen for the past four years.

Al-Matrafi is not just some loose cannon. He is the former director of the Al Arabiya news channel, originally founded by relatives of the Saudi royal family to counter criticism coming from Al Jazeera. He is also known to be close to the kingdom’s decision-makers (including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who probably gave the orders to murder and dismember Jamal Khashoggi).

Twitter took down al-Matrafi’s tweet after a day, but Al Arabiya is often used to convey official Saudi threats. When Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies imposed a blockade on the small Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar in 2017 (partly to force it to close down Al Jazeera), Al Arabiya’s general manager at the time, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, warned that if Qatar did not submit Al Jazeera staff (94 nationalities) would be massacred when the invasion came.

The invasion did not happen, probably due to American intervention, so Qatar is still independent and Al Jazeera is still in business. But Washington was trying to avoid embarrassment, not to save Al Jazeera. In fact, it generally sees the network as an enemy.

Back in 2001, when George Bush was planning the invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, urged him to bomb Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul and gave him its coordinates. By an amazing coincidence, the United States did bomb the Al Jazeera office in Kabul a couple of weeks later.

By an even more amazing coincidence, exactly the same sequence of events led to the destruction of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US was given the office’s co-ordinates (by Al Jazeera itself this time), and US forces proceeded to destroy the office – killing three journalists on that occasion.

So it’s understandable that the network’s journalists take a Saudi threat to attack them seriously, especially when it looks like the United States and Saudi Arabia are both thinking about going to war with Iran. Or rather, Saudi Arabia is pushing for AMERICA to go to war with Iran, while the Saudis (and the Israelis) cheer from the sidelines.

Qatar, a small peninsula sticking out into the Gulf from the Arabian coast, is directly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It might not get invaded by Saudi Arabia in that hypothetical war, but would either the US or Saudi Arabia take out Al Jazeera’s headquarters if a war gave them the excuse? Of course they would.

Would Saudi Arabia do it even before that war starts, using the Yemen war as a pretext, as Khaled al-Matrafi suggested this month? Less likely, but not unthinkable. There’s not a great deal left that’s unthinkable in today’s Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Back…occasion”)

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