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Iran’s Election

The six-week campaign is over, and 55 million Iranians will vote in the first round of the presidential election on Friday. Or rather, most of those 55 million people will vote, but many will not, because there is great disillusionment with President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to improve the economy – and therefore also with the international treaty on curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions that was supposed to bring back prosperity.

Donald Trump (who calls the treaty “one of the worst deals ever signed”) is not alone in seeing it as a failure. Although Rouhani’s main challenger in this election, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, does not formally reject the deal, his whole campaign is focussed on the fact that the end of foreign economic sanctions did not bring Iranians the rapid economic relief that Rouhani had promised

Iran has a big, middle-income economy with a large industralised sector, but largely because of those sanctions it has been in the doldrums for the past decade. Incomes have stagnated or fallen, youth unemployment is 26 percent, and many people have lost faith in Rouhani.

Forty-three per cent of Iranians “strongly approved” of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), as the deal is called, when it was signed two years ago. Now only 21 per cent “strongly approve”. Yet nothing has actually changed with the deal. Rouhani’s problem is that nothing much has changed in the economy either.

The Western partners in the JCPOA, the so-called “Five plus One” (the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union) have been slow to remove the sanctions, mainly because of foot-dragging in Washington – although the US government was quick enough to grant a waiver when Boeing wanted to sign a $16.6 deal to sell 80 passenger aircraft to Iran Air last December.

The bigger problem for Iran is that major international banks have been reluctant to re-engage with Iran because they fear being caught out if the US reneges on the deal and reimposes sanctions. So the Iranian economy continues to bump along the bottom, and a lot of people who voted for Rouhani last time say they will sit this election out.

Ebrahim Raisi is capitalising on this disillusionment by running a populist campaign promising “work and dignity”. He is thought to have the tacit backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the final authority in Iran’s peculiar blend of democracy and theocracy.

Khamenei has not given his public backing to any candidate in this election (there are also two less well-known candidates running for the presidency). It is generally assumed, however, that he supports Raisi, who is best known as one of the four Islamic judges who ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

As a result, Raisi is doing well with his target audiences, the poor, the devout and the ill-educated. If they turn out to vote in large numbers, while more urban, more sophisticated voters express their disappointment with Rouhani’s failure to work miracles by staying home, it is entirely possible that he will beat Rouhani and become the next president.

This would plunge the country’s relations with the West back into the deep freeze, but Raisi says he doesn’t care about that: Iran doesn’t need outside help, and his goal is to restore the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But it certainly wouldn’t improve Iran’s prospects for prosperity, or the entire region’s prospects for peace.

Rouhani is trapped between two fires in this election. At home he faces a conservative backlash that condemns his opening to the West and (implicitly) his nuclear deal. And on election day the voters who might come out to support him are likely to hear Donald Trump just across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, spouting anti-Iranian rhetoric to a summit meeting of Arab countries.

It’s not just Trump. Hillary Clinton, while giving the nuclear deal her tepid approval, was just as negative about Iran in general, and Barack Obama regularly recited the misleading mantra about Iran being the “leading state sponsor of terrorism”. As did his predecessors in the US presidency all the way back to Ronald Reagan.

Iran is no worse than many of America’s allies in the region (and better than some) in its treatment of its own citizens. It is no more prone to interfering in its neighbours than they are. Yet it is routinely treated by US administrations of both parties as a rogue state that poses a huge and unique threat to the peace of the Middle East. Why?

Because it defied the United States and got away with it. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew Washington’s puppet ruler, the Shah of Iran, and just as in the case of Castro’s revolution in Cuba, the United States has never forgiven it for that crime. Whereas by now Iranians have more or less forgiven the US for the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that destroyed Iranian democracy and gave the Shah supreme power in the first place.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The Western…out”)

Preposterous Times

All the talk of special prosecutors and the like will not bring the man to book. The soap opera will continue and no amount of dysfunction in the White House will make it stop until early 2019 at best. Even though a great deal of damage will have been done by then.

Some of the damage will only affect the United States. Donald Trump doesn’t often violate the Constitution, but he breaks all the unwritten rules that regulate the behaviour of public officials: don’t use your office to enrich yourself, don’t give plum jobs to your relatives, don’t fire the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he’s leading an investigation into possibly treasonous behaviour among your close associates.

However, these are domestic American problems, and the American republic will survive them. In four years, or at most eight, Trump will be gone, and more-or-less normal service will resume. But the same recklessness, brought to bear on foreign affairs, may have far bigger consequences.

Most of the concern at the moment is focused on North East Asia where Trump’s
scarcely veiled threat to “do something” about North Korea could escalate a long-standing problem into a “major, major conflict”. But most other major players in the North East Asian game are grown-ups who do not want a nuclear war in their region, so the risk of a calamity there is much smaller than it looks.

The Middle East is more frightening than north east Asia in this context, for half the countries of the regions are already at war one way or another, none of the regimes really feels secure – and Trump has already launched a missile strike against the Syrian regime.

He justified it as retaliation for the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime – an allegation that has not been conclusively proved – but most people in the region take it as a sign that he is joining the Sunni side of a region-wide Sunni-Shia war.

This alignment didn’t start with Trump, of course. For more than half a century the United States has seen Saudi Arabia, the effective leader of the Sunni bloc, as its most important ally in the Middle East, and for the past forty years it has regarded Iran as the root of all evil in the region.

Iran is the leader of the Shia bloc. In fact, it is the only big and powerful Shia country. Trump has already expressed hostility towards Iran, and his intentions to abandon the treaty that President Obama signed to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions for the next ten years. And on Friday Trump is making his first foreign visit – to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia and leader of the Sunni bloc.

Although Prince Mohammed is almost forty years younger than Donald Trump, the two men share several striking characteristics. The Saudi Arabian leader (his father, King Salman, is 81 and not fully functional) is not as ignorant as Trump, but the two men are almost twins in temperament. The Prince is just as vain as Trump, just as impulsive, and just as likely to start a fight he can’t finish.

Prince Mohammed’s escalation of Saudi Arabian support for the al Qaeda-linked faction in the Syrian civil war two years ago was the direct cause for the Russian intervention that ultimately saved the Assad regime. His military intervention in Yemen, trying to put the Saudi Arabian-imposed president back into power has led only to an unwinnable war and a looming famine in the country. And he’s up for fighting Iran too.

In an interview broadcast this month on Saudi TV he said: “we will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia. We will work so the battle is in Iran.” Why? Because, accordin to the Prince, Iran’s leaders are planning to seize Islam’s most sacred city, Mecca, in the heart of Saudi Arabia, and establish their rule over the world’s billion and a half Muslims.

This is paranoid nonsense. Only one tenth of the world’s Muslims are Shia. The only three Muslim countries (out of 50) where they are the majority are Iran, Iraq and tiny Bahrein.

Iran sends troops to help the beleaguered, Shia-dominated Assad regime in Syria, and money and weapons to the (Shia) Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But in the 38 years since the current regime came to power in Tehran, it has never invaded anybody And the notion that it could or would invade Saudi Arabia is simply laughable.

Never-the-less, what matters here are not the facts but what Trump and Prince Mohammed may believe to be the facts. So the prospect of the two men getting together in Riyadh will arouse dread in Iran, and in some other quarters as well.

It’s preposterous to imagine that Saudi Arabia would attack Iran directly or that the United States would encourage Saudi Arabia or pursue such a strategy – or that Russia would let itself be drawn in on the other side. But we do live ibn preposterous times.

There is no chance that the Republican majority in the US Congress would impeach Donald Trump before the mid-term elections in late 2018 no matter what he does. Unless there is a complete collapse in the Republican vote then, they won’t impeach him either. It’s going to be a long four years.

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To shorten to 7 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Most …looks”; and “Prince…too”)

So Much for the Populist Wave

In his victory speech on Sunday night Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, said: “I want to become…the president of the patriots in the face of the threat from the nationalists.” The distinction would be lost on most Trump supporters in the United States and on the “Little Englanders” who voted for Brexit in Britain, but it’s absolutely clear to the French, and indeed to most Europeans.

In the United States the preferred word is “patriot”, but it usually just means “nationalist”, with flags flaunted and slogans chanted. “America First” says Trump, and the crowd replies “USA all the way!”

You can’t imagine a British election rally doing that – the United Kingdom is too close to mainland Europe, where that sort of thing ended very badly – but the English nationalism behind Brexit was painfully obvious. For some in both countries it’s actually “white nationalism”, but even the many non-racists who voted for Trump or Brexit draw the line at the border or the water’s edge. There’s “us”, and on the far side there’s “them”.

Whereas the French men and women who voted for Macron understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism very well. They will have to vote for Macron again in the run-off election on 7 May, when his opponent will be the neo-fascist candidate, Marine Le Pen, but in that round they will be joined by almost all the people who voted for other presidential candidates in the first round. She is a nationalist; they are patriots.

In Europe, nationalism is linked in the collective memory with the catastrophe of the last century’s great wars, and the racism that is often associated with it triggers images of Nazi extermination camps. Not all Europeans are immune to that kind of nationalism or political phenomena like Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Beppo Grillo in Italy could not exist, but they remain a minority almost everywhere.

That was not obvious four months ago. After the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s election in November, Europe’s ultra-nationalists were convinced that their moment had finally come – and many observers feared that they were right. Brexit seemed like the first step towards the break-up of the European Union, and from the Netherlands to Austria it felt like the fascists were at the door.

Not so. Wilders’s party gained only a few seats in last month’s Dutch election and remains very much a minority taste. Marine Le Pen is no closer to the French presidency than her openly fascist father was fifteen years ago: the National Front vote never breaks through the 25 percent ceiling. And the hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-EU “Alternative for Germany” party has lost its leader and one-third of its popular support in the past month.

Some of this is simply disillusionment. Significant numbers of Europeans were initially tempted to back local populist parties by the sheer flamboyance of Trump’s US electoral campaign. After all, Europeans also worry about immigration and terrorism and unemployment, and his rude and crude rhetoric seemed to validate the similar language of their own populist leaders.

But the reality of the dysfunctional Trump White House has turned off most of those recent European converts to populist politics. By and large the hard-right parties of Europe are back where they were before The Donald burst upon the scene, with almost no chance of gaining real political power. It was a false alarm.

The “populist wave” that seemed to be sweeping through Western politics turns out to be merely a storm in the much smaller teacup known as the “Anglosphere”. It’s only known this way to Europeans, who use the word, often tinged with contempt, to describe the deregulated economies and market-obsessed politics of the post-Reagan United States and post-Thatcher United Kingdom. (Australia occasionally gets an honourable mention too.)

For a quarter of a century the politics of the Anglosphere has been consistently subservient to “the market” even when purportedly left-wing leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were in power. The result, as you would expect, has been somewhat higher economic growth rates, and a rapidly widening gulf between the incomes of the rich and the rest.

The rest of the West has not been immune to this political fashion, but it has been far less prominent in the countries of the European Union (and even in deviant anglophone countries like Canada and New Zealand). Now the disparity in incomes between the 1 percent and the 99 percent has grown so great in the heartlands of the Anglosphere that the political chickens are coming home to roost.

The response in both the United States and the United Kingdom is not real populism, which for all its faults does at least try to shrink income inequalities. It is standard right-wing politics in a populist style, using nationalism to distract the victims from the fact that these governments actually serve the rich.

Move along, please. There’s nothing new to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Some…alarm”)

“Solving” North Korea

Never mind the legalities of the situation. Never mind morality either. Just answer the pragmatic question: Is it ever a good idea to start a nuclear war? Because that’s the notion that Donald Trump is actually playing with.

He didn’t say exactly that, of course. He said that “If China is not going to solve (the nuclear threat from) North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” But in the context of that interview with the Financial Times, it was clear what he meant.

Trump was saying that if China did not use the tools at its disposal (political influence, trade sanctions, withholding financial aid) to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons and long-range rockets, then the United States would use the tools at its disposal (the world’s most powerful armed forces) to accomplish the same goal.

This does not necessarily mean that the United States would launch a large nuclear attack against North Korea. If you are really serious about carrying out a “disarming strike” that destroys all of North Korea’s nukes, you probably should do exactly that. (You never get a second chance to go first.) But maybe the US Air Force would promise that “precision” non-nuclear weapons could accomplish that goal, and maybe some gullible people would believe it.

It would still turn into a nuclear war in the end, unless American “surgical strikes” miraculously eliminated every last one of North Korea’s nukes at the same time. Kim Jong-un’s regime would find itself in the position known in nuclear strategy as “use them or lose them”, and it is hard to believe that it would not launch whatever it had left.

The targets would be in South Korea, of course, but probably also American bases in Japan. Maybe even Japanese cities, if North Korea had enough weapons left. The regime would know it was going under – the United States would not take this huge risk and then leave it in power – so it would take as many of its enemies as possible down with it.

North America would probably not be hit, because Western intelligence services do not believe that Pyongyang has ballistic missiles that can reach that far yet. (But “intelligence” is not the same as knowing for sure, and they could be wrong.) At worst, the victims would be one or two cities in the Pacific north-west of the United States.

This would be a very bad outcome for people living in Seattle or Portland, but it would not actually be a “nuclear holocaust”. The kind of war that the super-powers would have fought at the height of the Cold War, with thousands of nuclear weapons used by each side, would have killed hundreds of millions, and might even have triggered a “nuclear winter”.

A nuclear war over Korea would be a much smaller catastrophe, perhaps involving a few million deaths – unless China got drawn in. Unfortunately, that is not inconceivable, because China, much as it dislikes and mistrusts the North Korean regime, is determined not to see it destroyed.

Many people are uncomfortable with this kind of analysis, especially when it draws comparisons between “bad” and “less bad” nuclear wars. Herman Kahn, the dean of nuclear strategists in the 1960s and 70s, was frequently the target of this kind of criticism: how could he talk about potential mass death in such a cold-blooded way?

His response was always the same: “Would you prefer a nice, warm mistake?” “Thinking About the Unthinkable”, as he put it in one of his books, is absolutely necessary if the Unthinkable is not happen. In this case, that means taking the possibility that China might be drawn into the conflict seriously.

The destruction of the North Korean regime would bring American military power right to China’s own border. You might reasonably ask: So what? This is the 21st century, and what matters strategically is the big, lethal long-range weapons (like nukes), not the whereabouts of a few American infantry battalions. Quite right in theory. Not necessarily right in practice.

During the Korean War, when American troops were operating very close to the Chinese frontier in late 1950, the Chinese regime sent troops in to save the North Korean regime – and succeeded. The scenario this time, with nuclear weapons already being used on both sides of the North Korea-South Korea frontier, would be different, but it could be even more dangerous. China has lots of nuclear weapons, and delivery vehicles too.

Donald Trump is the fourth American president to be faced with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons, and none of them has found a safe and effective way of dealing with it. But all the others avoided making open threats of violence, because that would probably just make matters worse.

Of course, Trump may just be bluffing. In fact, he almost certainly is. But if your bluff is called, you have to go through with your threat or accept being humiliated. The Donald doesn’t do humiliation.
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To shrten to 725 words, omit paragraphs10 and 11. (“Many…seriously”)