Foreign Interventions in the Middle East: More Havoc, Nuclear Weapons, Less Order
OCTOBER 9, 2015
By Frank Thomas
U.S. foreign regime change interventions – by military engagement, funding, training insurgency groups, supporting coups d’etats, protecting regional dictatorships – have boosted instability and mayhem in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, etc. Emerging unscathed in these interventions, the U.S. departs leaving the wreckage behind to go on to the next trouble-spot.
The common enemy is ISIS. If Syria falls, ISIS will take it over. Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Europe will be the next targets. The question arises, should both Assad’s regime and ISIS be removed to restore Middle East stability? How to do this? Russia and Iran would have to agree to Assad’s removal. Capitalizing on Obama Administration’s hesitating, ineffective removal of ISIS and latter’s proxies, Russia is now inserting itself into the civil war taking no prisoners including anti-Assad rebels such as the Al Nusra /Al Qaeda alliance. Putin’s support for Assad’s government was never restricted to attacks on just ISIS
But Israel favors the Sunni ISIS and Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in fight to seek over-throw of Assad’s regime backed by Iran and Hezbollah. Israel prefers the Sunni evil over Assad. Obama has gotten himself in a corner with two stark options: continue trying to remove Assad with help of ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists or join Russia, Iran, and the Syrian military to defeat the Sunni jihadists. This shows how complex the Syrian and regional sectarian conflict is.
Russia militarily supports the amoral dictator, Assad, in bombing ISIS and anti-Assad forces. America bombs ISIS and attacks Assad’s forces to get rid of Assad. How complicated can it get? What is the lesser evil? It’s the dilemma faced at the onset of WWII – do we join Russia in a coalition to fight with Stalin (Assad) against Hitler (ISIS) in Syria and with Russia to fight ISIS elsewhere? America did just that back then. The Syrian mayhem is so catastrophic for everyone in the region and the world, that question should be asked.
Putin’s recent words are on the mark : “Healthy common sense and responsibility for global and regional safety demand a united effort from the international community against the threat posed by ISIS.” What’s critically vital is to spark debate of counter-arguments that force engagement of constructive alternatives to quell the unending Middle East civil wars.
NUCLEAR CONSIDERATIONS COMPLICATE THINGS EVEN FURTHER
Proliferation of advanced nuclear weapons in the Middle East is another ominous complication that could end up igniting a nuclear-armed confrontation between U.S. and Russia. Distrust of Iran’s nuclear intentions is also triggering Arab states and Saudis to adapt existing and new civilian nuclear power plants with “latent” nuclear weapon capability for clandestine military nuclear program as the ultimate guarantee of existence.
Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment program started in the 1980s. A facility in Natanz was built to install 50,000 centrifuges. This clandestine facility was exposed in 2002. Under the Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran was legally bound to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about this program but did not do so. In the past, Iran often lied about its nuclear weapons work and was not forthcoming about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.
This started Arab states and Saudis on a path of soliciting bids from U.S. and France for nuclear power facilities. Gulf states could live with Israel’s concealed nuclear weapon capability but were fearful of nuclear weapons coming into Iran’s hands and disturbing the balance of power. Since 2002, Washington and Paris have been providing nuclear power plant infrastructure know-how and aid to Arab states and Saudis. Nuclear power technical assistance has also been sought from China and Russia and provided.
Increasing Arab investments in nuclear power is telling Iran that Arab states and Saudis can also convert civilian nuclear power technology to nuclear weapons – thereby holding Iran at risk should it be caught enriching uranium in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accord. The accord reduces Iran’s installed centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000. For 15 years, it limits uranium enrichment to 3.67% and ceases enrichment at the Fordow facility. Changes at several Iranian facilities will be made to prevent them from being used to create nuclear weapons.
If this “cap and constrain” deal had not been reached, Iran might well be emboldened to risk development of a nuclear weapon arsenal. Are there still some weak conditions in the JCPOA accord? Yes. These include:
Iran can continue running nuclear centrifuges at an underground site once suspected of housing illicit activities.
Iran says inspectors will be removed if they try to enter sites Iran considers “sensitive.”
Iran is permitted to keep many of its controversial military sites closed to inspections.
Iran can delay inspections of disputed facilities for at least 24 hours which gives time to sanitize the site.
Iran can only use IR-1 centrifuges but has begun using IR-8 centrifuges that enrich uranium 20 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges.
Can Iran still cheat? Yes. Will it inevitably be detected in time? Yes. Why? Unlike North Korea which China now reports has 20 nuclear warheads – a tough regime of IAEA inspections plus close observations of U.S. and Israel make it highly improbable any cheating by Iran is not timely spotted. Will the repercussions for cheating be severe? Yes. To avoid (or greatly limit) a regional nuclear arms race, is it worth the risk to test whether Iran will abide by the JCPOA accord, restricting Iranians to civilian nuclear power and conventional weapons capabilities? Yes.
Why is it that Iran is inciting a major counteraction of Arab civilian nuclear power proliferation when Israel – the arch enemy of Arab states in two major wars – started developing nuclear weapons and an atomic bomb 40 years ago and has since had an active military posture without inciting a counteraction?
Arab states are accelerating investments in nuclear power plants and modern, longer-range ballistic missiles. This is creating a latent nuclear weapon capability – coming from the spread of plutonium produced by civilian nuclear power reactors, easing the ability to technically transition to deliverable nuclear weapons fast. The more nuclear power plants and plutonium produced, the more latent nuclear weapon proliferation – enhancing the risk of future small nuclear wars and nuclear terrorism.
So again, why is Iran’s civilian nuclear power program seen as a more acute future threat than Israel’s advanced nuclear weapons program and atomic bomb capability?
Israel’s nuclear weapon capability was initially seen and is still seen as being a deterrent strategy, for defense only and not for aggressive expansion of its territory. So bombing Iran’s nuclear power facilities, ongoing occupation of West Bank, wars of 2008-09 and 2012, the Gaza slaughter, buying of U.S. Arrow ballistic missiles and Iron Dome anti-rocket systems (and possibly cruise missile submarines) qualify as self-defense for Israel. On other hand, Arab States and Saudis automatically see the JCPOA accord as inherently dangerous, opening the door for Iranian territorial aggression and regional hegemony.
Iran’s support of Shiite factions in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq adds to Saudi Arabia’s grossly overstated fears of being permanently encircled by Iran. As most experts agree, Iran is not controlling events in the region. It is mostly reacting to them. Like the U.S., it is filling trouble spot holes but not with the intention of taking over land territory.
Nevertheless, Arab states, Saudis and Israel view Iran as a potential military and nuclear weapons adversary despite following deterrents :
JCPOA accord forbidding Iran under strict protocols and inspections from embarking on uranium enrichment or reprocessing technology.added security measure of Arab states and Saudis to match the dual-use feature of Iran’s civilian nuclear power capability enabling a possible conversion to producing nuclear weapons in distant future
The civilian nuclear power push by Iran’s Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, is a security hedge to provide a means for nuclear weapons if Iran does not cease its uranium enrichment activities. Given these this deterrent force, why would Iran be so recklessly stupid as to invite unfathomable military destructive retaliation by getting aggressive territorially or by being caught covertly developing nuclear weaponry or an atomic bomb capability?
Iran’s priorities are to renew its infrastructure and spur broad economic growth. But eventual resurgent Iranian competition, wealth and economic progress helped by vast oil reserves sparks fears of Iran’s growing regional influence. This bolsters the Gulf States to match Iran’s latent nuclear capability and thus reinforce their own security and influence.
Nuclear plant equipment and weapon sales are booming, profitable businesses. American, French, Russian, Chinese and others have long been selling their nuclear power wares and technical assistance for billions of dollars annually to Middle Eastern states. The West, notably U.S., has been aggressive in selling high-performance aircraft that can be adapted to carry nuclear warheads. The Pentagon has just completed a $1 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. China and Russia are capable of offering modern ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Russia’s military presence in Syria might lead to the setting up of missile defense systems against Western aircraft missions.
U.S. failed regime change policies, huge weapon inflows have affected the falling apart process in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Egypt. Such policies and the vacuums created have advanced ISIS’s rise. Middle East violence has forced 11 million Syrians to flee their homes, over 4 million of whom have fled their country to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and in huge waves to Europe. Refugees are not admitted into Saudi Arabia and Qatar – countries that funded ISIS’s birth, oblivious to the ‘evil incarnate’ they were creating for the world. One has to question also Israel’s choice of ISIS and Al Nusra over Assad.
EinsteinUpgraded military weapon flows and contiguous civil wars are bringing the Gulf States closer to seeing nuclear weapons as the ultimate security guarantee of their existence – Israel’s long-held position. Ever more sophisticated military weaponry in the Middle East capable of having nuclear warheads risks touching off a human Holocaust of calamitous global dimensions. Einstein warned, “I know not with what weapons WW III will be fought, but WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Hopefully, a subtle, slow wave of nuclear weapons proliferation and a widening arms race can be contained. China, India, and U.S. know the importance and their dependence on Middle East stability to ensure the free flow of oil. Good things could happen if an east-west coalition powers could come together on securing regional security by other means than ‘scorched earth’ military bombing that’s exterminating, mutilating innocent families, children and inciting the most massive refugee flight since WWII.
Will the U.S. follow Russia’s lead to work together in a broad coalition to resolve the Syrian conflict? If not, Russia will go its own way with all the cold war paranoia and concerns that will bring.
Is Iran Really Conquering the Middle East?
The rise of the Houthi movement in Yemen, the militias of Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and even the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad are being configured by many analysts as evidence of a wide-ranging Iranian Shiite incursion into the Middle East. The Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, Israel’s recent bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Syria, and Gulf Cooperation Council unease about Iraq’s Tikrit campaign are all a result of this theory of “the Shiite Crescent,” a phrase coined by King Abdallah II of Jordan. But is Iran really the aggressor state here, and are developments on the ground in the Middle East really being plotted out or impelled from Tehran?
It is an old fallacy to interpret local politics through the lens of geopolitics, and it is a way of thinking among foreign policy elites that has led to unnecessary conflicts and even wars. Polarized analysis is only good for the military-industrial complex. The United States invaded Lebanon in 1958, ostensibly on the grounds that Druse shepherds protesting the government of Camille Chamoun were Communist agents. A retired State Department official once confessed to me that many in Washington were sure that the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini was planned out in Moscow. On the other hand, I met a Soviet diplomat at a conference in Washington, DC, in 1981 who confessed to me that his country simply could not understand the Islamic Republic of Iran and was convinced that the CIA must be behind it. I would argue that Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and many Saudi and Gulf analysts have fallen victim to this “geopolitics fallacy.”
Iraqi Shiite militias can’t be read off as Iranian instruments. The Peace Brigades (formerly Mahdi Army) of Muqtada al-Sadr are mostly made up of Arab slum youth who are often suspicious of foreign, Persian influences. They became militant and were made slum-dwellers as a result of US and UN sanctions in the 1990s that destroyed the Iraqi middle classes and then of the US occupation after 2003. The ruling Dawa Party of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi does not accept Iran’s theory of clerical rule, and in the 1980s and ’90s many Dawa Party stalwarts chose to live in exile in London or Damascus rather than accept Iranian suzerainty. At the moment, Iraq’s Shiite parties and militias have been thrown into Iran’s arms by the rise of ISIL, which massacres Shiites. But the alliance is one of convenience and can’t just be read off from common Shiism.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah is strongly aligned with Iran. But it was formed around 1984 under the tutelage of the Iraqi Dawa Party in exile, and its main project was ending the Israeli occupation of 10 percent of Lebanon’s territory, which began in 1982. Its rival, the Amal Party, was more middle-class and less connected to Iran, even though it was also made up of Shiites. Exit polling suggests that some half of voters who vote for Hezbollah among Lebanese Shiites are nonreligious; they are supporting it for nationalist reasons and seeking self-defense against Israeli incursions. Lebanon is a country of only 4 million, and the Twelver Shiites are only about a third of the population, some 1.3 million, most of whom are children. The way in which Hezbollah has been built up in the Western imagination as a major force is a little bizarre, given that they have only a few thousand fighters. At the moment, they have a strong alliance with Lebanese Christians and Druze because all three generally support the government of Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. But Lebanese politics are kaleidoscopic, and that political dominance could change abruptly. Lebanese Shiites are no more cat’s paws of Iran than are Lebanese Christians, many of them now allied with the Shiites and Alawites as well.
In the case of Syria, the Baath regime of Assad is a coalition of Alawite Shiites, secular Sunnis, Christians and other religious minorities. It has no ideological affinity with Iran’s right-wing theocracy. Even religious Alawites bear little resemblance to Iranian Twelver Shiites, having no mosques or ayatollahs and holding gnostic beliefs viewed as heretical in Tehran. But the question is moot, since those high in the regime are secular-minded. Iran has sent trainers and strategists to help Damascus against hard-line Salafi Sunni rebels, and is accused of rounding up some Afghan and other mercenaries for Damascus. Syria’s geopolitical alliance with Iran came about because of Syria’s isolation in the Arab world and need for an ally against nearby threats from Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
In neither Iraq nor Syria has Iran invaded or even sent infantry, rather supplying some special operations forces in aid of local Iraqi and Syrian initiatives, at government request. In both countries, Iran has Sunni clients as well as Shiite ones. In both countries, local forces reached out to Iran for patronage in the face of local challenges, not the other way around.
In Yemen, as well, the Zaydi Shiites, about a third of the population, bear no resemblance to Iran’s Twelvers. It is like assuming that Scottish Presbyterians will always support Southern Baptists because both are forms of Protestantism. The rise of the Houthi movement among Yemeni Zaydis involved a rural, tribal revolt against an authoritarian nationalist government and against the attempts by Saudi Arabia to proselytize Zaydis and make them into hard-line Sunnis, called Salafis. The Houthi family led a militant counter-reformation in favor of renewed Zaydi identity. Since the nationalist government of deposed president for life Ali Abdullah Saleh got crucial foreign aid from the Saudis, he gave the Saudis carte blanche to influence Yemeni religious culture in the direction of an intolerant form of Sunnism. The nationalist government also neglected the Zaydi Saada region in the north with regard to services and development projects. Yemeni tribes in any case do not necessarily foreground religion when making alliances; many Sunni tribes have joined the Houthis politically. While Netanyahu and the Saudis, along with deposed president number-two Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, accuse Iran of fomenting the Houthis, they are a local movement with local roots, and there is no reason to think that that their successes owe anything to Iran. Indeed, most of their success since last summer apparently derives from a decision by former president Saleh to ally with them and direct elements of the Yemeni army to support them or stand down in the face of their advances. To turn around and blame these developments on distant Iran is absurd.
The motley crew of heterodox forms of Shiite Islam, Arab socialist nationalists of the old school, rural tribal good ol’ boys and slum-dwelling youth that are shaking the Middle East status quo are not evidences of Iranian influence, or, in Netanyahu’s words, “conquest.” In each case, these local forces have reached out to Iran for patronage, and perhaps there was some broad, vague, Shiite soft power involved. As noted, however, Iran also has many Sunni clients, from the Iraqi Kurds to Hamas in Gaza.
From the 1970s forward, the Egyptian nationalist regime under Anwar El Sadat turned conservative and allied with the United States and Saudi Arabia, promoting political Islam culturally and unregulated markets economically. Thereafter, a status quo prevailed in the Arab world of nationalist presidents for life and monarchs and emirs, most of them US clients and amenable to neoliberal economic policies stressing the market and distributing wealth upward from the working classes. Either explicitly or implicitly, they gave up opposition to Israeli expansionism. They crushed formerly powerful socialist, Communist and labor movements, and used oil money to bribe the public into quiescence or deployed secret police to torture them into going along. That status quo was latently Sunni, in that most elites were drawn from that branch of Islam, including the president of Iraq and the prime minister of Lebanon—neither of which are Sunni-majority societies.
In the past decade, that cozy order has broken down, in part at the hands of a new generation of Arab millennials unwilling to put up with it, but also at the hands of working-class grassroots movements. It also broke down internally. On the one hand, the nationalists in the Arab world are increasingly suspicious of the Saudi fondness for promoting Salafi fundamentalism. Thus, the Algerian and Egyptian officers are not as enthusiastic about the rebellion in Syria as are the sheikhs. And even the Americans, big champions of anti-Communist fundamentalism from Eisenhower to Reagan, have now drawn a line at Al Qaeda and ISIL, finding even Iran preferable. On the other hand, disadvantaged insurgents have risen up from below. The most important thing about these challengers is probably not that many have a Shiite coloration but that they reject the condominium of the Egyptian officer corps and the Saudi monarchs, with their American security umbrella, their free-market policies and their complaisance toward Israeli militarism (though, not all the pro-Iran movements have all of these concerns—Syria went neoliberal in the past two decades, for example). Iran is being entrepreneurial in supporting these insurgents against the prevailing order. It hasn’t conquered anything. If it has become more influential, that is an indictment of the old Sadat status quo.
“It’s precisely because Iran is destabilizing in so many places that we don’t want them to get nuclear weapons,” Harf said. “If you imagine the kinds of influence they have today, they would have even more influence in the region if they were able to do that backed up by nuclear weapons.”
And yet even as Western attention has focused all around Jordan—and especially on the nuclear negotiations with Iran—in a little-noticed series of moves, the Kingdom’s been edging closer to going nuclear itself. In fact, the Kingdom of Jordan, Washington’s most reliable Arab partner, is the latest Middle Eastern state considering nuclear energy that is refusing to relinquish its right to enrich.
That “right to enrich” uranium has proved to be one of the key sticking points in the Iran nuclear talks and was at the top of the list of why Washington and Tehran missed and subsequently extended their late November deadline to reach an agreement regulating the theocracy’s nuclear program.
To prevent proliferation, the US has long held that Middle Eastern states seeking nuclear energy must forego the right to enrich nuclear material. The principle of no-enrichment has underpinned the so-called “gold standard” of US-bilateral nuclear agreements. While this standard does not uniformly apply outside the region—Washington’s 2014 Agreement on Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation with Hanoi included no such stipulation—in its December 2009 agreement with the US, the United Arab Emirates acquiesced to forego enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
Jordan and Washington have been discussing nuclear cooperation for some time, but the conversation gained urgency following the 2011 Egyptian revolution—and the subsequent and repeated destruction of the Sinai natural gas pipeline—when the Kingdom lost its most consistent source of energy. In 2013, these disruptions resulted in a $2 billion, or nearly 20 percent, budget deficit.
Over the past four years, the Kingdom has increasingly focused on nuclear energy, in particular the construction of two 1000-megawatt power plants, to fill this gap. By 2030, Jordanian officials estimate nuclear power will provide 30 percent of the state’s electricity.
Amman’s proposed nuclear facilities have met with opposition both at home and abroad. Washington’s stated opposition to the program revolves around enrichment. Jordan’s resolve to maintain this right has stymied efforts to reach a “123 agreement” governing US international nuclear cooperation. The Kingdom, which has no oil, has significant deposits of uranium ore—reportedly 35,000 tons or enough to last Jordan 100 years—and is hoping to commercially exploit the resource.
Israel, too, has taken issue with Jordan’s nuclear ambitions, primarily due to concerns about safety. One of Jordan’s proposed nuclear plants, at least initially, was slated to be built in the Jordan River Valley, a major earthquake fault line. According to a US diplomatic cable disclosed by WIKILEAKS, Israel highlighted these apprehensions during a meeting with their Jordanian counterparts in 2009—two years before the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe—only to have the Jordanian officials respond by citing Japan as an earthquake-prone country that builds safe nuclear reactors.
The biggest opposition to Jordan’s nuclear project, however, is domestic. It’s not difficult to see why. To start, one of the proposed plants is slated to be built in the heartland of the Bani Sakr, Jordan’s largest tribe. A charismatic young parliamentarian named Hind al Fayez—who hails from the tribe and happens to be married to a prominent local environmental activist—has adopted the no nukes agenda as her cause celebre. In May 2012, she spearheaded a successful vote in parliament to suspend the program.
Among other concerns, Al Fayez questions how a state with such little water will be able to cool a reactor situated more than 200 miles from the shoreline, and whether Jordan has sufficient human capital (i.e., enough nuclear physicists) to safely operate the facilities. She has also expressed dismay with the $10 billion price tag, a sum roughly equivalent to Jordan’s total 2013 annual budget.
Refuting the critics is Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission Chair Khaled Toukan, who holds a Ph.D in Nuclear Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Toukan is an impressive government advocate for the project.
No access to water, Toukan says, no problem. Like the three nuclear power plants in Palo Verde, Arizona, Jordan will use wastewater from the nearby Khirbat al Samra sewage treatment plant to cool the blistering reactors. The second reactor, closer to the port of Aqaba, will utilize water pumped from the Red Sea—easing Jordan’s water crisis through desalinization.
A dearth of local nuclear technicians? Not for long, says Toukan. The Kingdom is building a research and training reactor, recently established an undergraduate nuclear engineering program, and has sixty-one nationals currently enrolled in graduate programs in nuclear engineering and related fields abroad. As for the financing challenge, according to Toukan, Russia—which is presently slated to build the reactors—will fund and own 49.9 percent, leaving Government of Jordan to finance the remaining and controlling share.
While Toukan’s answers are authoritative, they have not yet succeeded in convincing Jordanian skeptics. Perhaps that’s because serious safety problems emerged at Palo Verde in 2013. Or maybe Toukan’s unsubstantiated 2014 claims before parliament—that radiation leaks from the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona were resulting in increased incidences of cancer in the Kingdom—have further soured Jordanians on nuclear energy. It’s also possible that heightened fears of terrorism fueled by the recent territorial gains by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or ISIS, are dampening enthusiasm for the project.
Last year, Hind Al Fayez said “They’ll build that plant over my dead body.” A year on, her hostility toward the program has not noticeably diminished.
To be sure, Jordan needs energy. Indeed, the requirement is so acute that months ago the palace ignored significant domestic disapproval and signed up to a 15-year $15 billion deal to procure natural gas from Israel. (Amman has temporarily frozen negotiations as Israel deals with anti-trust concerns in its offshore gas sector). While important, however, the agreement is insufficient to meet the Kingdom’s requirements in the decades to come.
In the face of continued foreign and domestic opposition, it isn’t clear that Jordan will actually proceed with the nuclear option. Today the Atomic Energy Commission is calling nuclear power “a strategic choice,” but with nearly a million Syrian refugees in the Kingdom, a stumbling economy, a rising threat of terrorism on the home front, and with a downed Jordanian pilot currently held captive by ISIL, King Abdullah could punt, delaying a decision—and avoiding confrontation with Washington—for the indefinite future. Given the ongoing challenges, for the time being at least, no nukes should be a no-brainer for the Kingdom.
By Greg Botelho, CNN
Updated 9:44 AM ET, Sat January 24, 2015
(CNN)The Middle East has never been a simple place.
Yet nowadays, this region is especially turbulent — with waves rocking several countries, so big that their effects are being felt worldwide, including the West.
It’s not like this uneasiness is concentrated only in one country, or all for a common reason. There’s Islamic extremism, political turnover, faltering oil prices and, let’s not forget, age-old sectarian tensions that are contributing in different ways in different places to the tumult.
Many countries in the region have issues, such as Egypt’s delicate political and human rights situation and Turkey’s dealing with the impact of the war raging right over its border in Syria. Still, a few stand out because of the unique — some might say intractable — challenges they face.
What’s going on
Chaos is one way to describe it.
The country’s government is in a shambles. Violence — some of it sectarian, some of it thanks to militancy from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — has been raging nationwide for months, if not years. And it’s far and away the poorest nation in the region, with a per capita GDP of $1,473, according to the World Bank. (Compare that with Saudi Arabia’s $25,962.)
Let’s start with the still unfolding political crisis. Yemen’s President and Prime Minister abruptly resigned Thursday after Houthi rebels moved on the capital, Sana’a.
How Yemen’s new government will look is still unclear, if it’s going to have a functioning government at all. If the Houthis take the lead, that would mean Shiites ruling a country that’s mostly Sunni. While the Houthis and previous government both fought against al Qaeda, this instability can only help that terror group. And none of this is helping the average Yemeni stuck in poverty, with little time, money or effort seemingly focused on improving their straits or the economy as a whole.
Why it matters to the West and beyond
For the rest of the world, political stability is a good thing for any country in this region; on the flip side, instability is always a concern. There’s also the fact that Yemen has enough oil and natural gas for its people and export, though unrest makes it challenging to tap into these resources, the U.S. Energy Information Administration notes.
All those worries and impacts are real. But, for the West, it’s about AQAP.
Ever since Osama bin Laden was flushed out of Afghanistan, the terrorist organization he founded has spread out and evolved. Rather than one overarching entity, al Qaeda is now more of an association of groups — each with its own goals, even if they all share a philosophy of lashing out at the West and promoting their extreme brand of Islam.
And of those, AQAP is widely considered the most dangerous to the West.
It’s the only al Qaeda affiliate to send terrorists from Yemen to the United States. There was Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, better known as “the underwear bomber” for his attempt to blow up a commercial airliner on a Detroit-bound flight in December 2009. Then there are the suspects in the deadly Boston Marathon bombings and Nidal Hassan, who reportedly were inspired by American-born cleric and top AQAP figure Anwar al-Awlaki.
The United States isn’t the only place affected. AQAP has claimed to be behind the January 7 Charlie Hebdo massacre, and one of the brothers involved — Cherif Kouachi — told CNN affiliate BFM that he trained in Yemen on a trip financed by al-Awlaki.
Al-Awlaki is dead, but his organization is not. With both Yemen’s government and the Houthis focused on each other, AQAP has more space to recruit and train terrorists, as well as devise ways for them to strike.
Yemen’s political upheaval is especially unsettling for countries like the United States, which had a strong, working alliance with now-departed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his government. As of Thursday, U.S. officials haven’t held any talks with the Houthis, nor did they know their intentions.
What’s going on
Since its founding in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been one of the most stable, not to mention richest, countries in not just the Middle East, but the world. It had a new new leader Friday, and let’s just say the timing could have been better.
Saudi Arabia has had political transition before, with six kings (from the same family) in its modern-day history — the latest being King Salman, who took power Friday following the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. The new leader has already signaled that he won’t diverge much from his predecessor’s policies, saying “we will, with God’s will and power, adhere to the straight path this country has followed since its establishment.”
Still, change is change, and King Salman will be challenged from the get-go.
Riyadh has long played a part in stabilizing the region, a role that is needed as much as ever. Iraq is battling ISIS militants, who already control much of the country and are threatening to take the rest. The Sunni-led government in neighboring Yemen is out, with uncertainty of what comes next or whether some of its violence will spill over into Saudi. And there’s the threat from across the Persian Gulf in Iran.
On top of all this, the price of the Arab nation’s economic driver — oil — has plummeted over 50% since the summer to less than $50 a barrel. That’s key, because oil revenues are a bit part of Saudi government’s revenues, and a big reason it’s so important on the world stage.
Why it matters to the West and beyond
The Middle East is unstable enough, especially since the Arab Spring. The Saudi government was one a few regional governments to weather that storm smoothly. But now, there’s even more need for stability — something that having a new leader may not help with.
It is very possible that Saudi policy doesn’t change much under King Salman. Even if that’s true, it’s much too early to tell whether or not he can be a leader throughout the region. Can or will he try to help broker peace between Palestinians and Israel, as did King Abdullah (who was praised by past and present Israeli presidents after his death)? Can or will he be able to have any influence keeping Yemen under control?
Likewise, it’s not yet clear how the transition will affect the Saudi government’s relationship with the United States, whose leaders have long been able to count on Riyadh for counsel and support.
Another possible impact of King Salman’s ascension has nothing to do with geopolitics, but rather how much you pay at the gas pump. The new King could decrease the amount of oil pumped in Saudi Arabia, which would decrease supply and increase prices.
Even without any Saudi action, the price of oil has already started climbing after King Abdullah’s death.
What’s going on
Syria’s upheaval began in spring 2011, with protests in the nation’s streets. President Bashar al-Assad’s government responded with a deadly crackdown, an act that only seemed to fuel the unrest.
And it only got worse from there.
Eventually, the dissension and violence devolved into a full-fledged civil war. It’s been a bloody war, with the United Nations estimating nearly 200,000 killed as of last August. It’s been a disruptive war, with more than 3 million Syrians now refugees and at least 6.5 million more displaced inside the country. And it hasn’t been a simple war, given all the warring parties involved.
That’s because there isn’t just one united opposition group fighting against al-Assad, who is still in power and entrenched in Damascus. There are more moderate fighting groups, some of which have gotten support from Washington and beyond. And there are extremists who have been able to attract new recruits, gain more influence and take over territory amid the chaos.
One of them is al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization that’s taken over territory in northwestern Syria.
Another is ISIS, which first emerged in Iraq but got a second life in Syria thanks to the ongoing war. It has terrorized many in both countries in recent months, a time in which its taken over vast swaths of territory, established a de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqaa and rebranded itself the Islamic State in accordance with its quest to be a caliphate governed under its strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Why it matters to the West and beyond
Even before ISIS made daily headlines, the horrors of what’s been happening in Syria was enough to get the world’s attention. With large numbers of civilians dying, with the alleged use of chemical weapons, with neighboring countries like Turkey and Jordan finding themselves swarmed by refugees, it couldn’t be avoided from a practical and personal standpoint.
None of those concerns have gone away. Syria borders Turkey, a NATO member, as well as Jordan and Israel, two staunch U.S. allies. Besides the refugee issue, there is a constant threat that the violence will spill over the Syrian border. Even without that, a seemingly endless civil war in this part of the world is never good for most anyone, the West included.
It’s not just that there’s violence, it’s who is behind it and, in many ways, thriving because of it. ISIS wouldn’t be what it is without the Syrian civil war. That means it wouldn’t be a focal point for U.S. President Barack Obama and his government.
Already, ISIS has beheaded a number of U.S. and British hostages — all of them civilians — and threatened more. There’s also the real threat that the group may take its campaign out of the Middle East to strike in the West. That may have happened this month in France. One of the three terrorists there, Amedy Coulibaly, proclaimed his allegiance to ISIS in a video, and investigators discovered ISIS flags along with automatic weapons, detonators and cash in an apartment he rented, France’s RTL Radio reported Sunday, citing authorities.
The West and some of its Middle Eastern allies are striking back with targeted airstrikes not only in Iraq, where the coalition has a willing partner, but in Syria, where it is not working with al-Assad. (In fact, Obama and others have said they want the Syrian President out of power.)
U.S. diplomatic officials said Thursday that estimates are that this coalition has killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters. Yet their work is far from done. The group boasts upwards of 31,000 fighters, not to mention fresh recruits seemingly coming in regularly.
What’s going on
Iraq is no stranger to war in recent decades, from its war with Iran in the 1980s, to the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, to a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. And it has seen plenty of bad actors in that stretch, like late leader Saddam Hussein — who used chemical weapons against his enemies, including the 1988 attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja.
Even then, ISIS stands out.
The group began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq, a particularly destructive arm of bin Laden’s terror network with an affinity for attacking coalition forces as well as those (particularly Shiite) locals who didn’t accept this Sunni group’s extreme Islamic beliefs. International military efforts helped to beat back the group, but it never totally went away.
Rebranded as the Islamic State, the terror group came back stronger and seemingly more brazen than ever. It killed and kidnapped, including many civilians, using tactics so extreme that even al Qaeda disowned it. Members of the minority Yazidi group reported being “treated like cattle” as their men were slaughtered and their women and girls were raped and sold. It distributed a pamphlet in Mosul justifying its enslaving and having sex with “unbelieving” women and girls.
It’s not just that ISIS is despicable. It’s been successful. The terror group has taken over large tracts of territory in Iraq, including oil fields and the key city of Mosul, and even threatened its capital of Baghdad.
Why it matters to the West and beyond
Iraq matters because it has been a place where Islamist extremists can strike the West. For years, that meant attacking coalition military forces based there. Now that they are gone, the fear is that Iraq will become a training ground for ISIS militants to prepare for strikes outside the Middle East.
That’s why, in August, Obama authorized the first of what have come to be hundreds of “targeted airstrikes” — conducted with international allies — to counter militants in Iraq as well as Syria.
It appears to have made a difference, not only in killing the estimated 6,000 ISIS fighters but in helping Iraqi forces reclaim territory. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that Iraq has taken back more than 270 square miles (700 square kilometers). Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this week he expects ISIS — even if it is not eliminated entirely — should be gone from his country within months, claiming the group’s “onslaught … has been reversed.”
“I think we have the capability now, with enough support from the international coalition,” al-Abadi said.
Any such predictions need to be taken with a grain of salt. That’s especially true in Iraq, where terrorists have been reportedly ousted before only to return.
Plus, it is not as though the end of ISIS necessarily will signal an end to Iraq’s problems. Like Saudi Arabia, this big-time oil producer has to cope with the impact of lower prices. And there was violence before ISIS’ surge — including a good number of terrorist attacks — so it seems unrealistic to expect that will go away.
What’s going on
The Islamic Revolution happened in 1979. There has been occasional protests since then, but none have amounted to anything. In some ways, politically, Iran has been the picture of stability with two overarching leaders in the past 36 years, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei.
Yet Iran’s relations with the rest of the world haven’t been so calm.
Part of it has to do with Iranian leaders’ hard-line stance against Israel, as illustrated in Ayatollah Khamenei’s nine-point explanation last November for why Israel should be “annihilated.” The Ayatollah and his supporters haven’t been much kinder to the United States, with spirited anti-American rallies and harsh criticisms of Washington common.
Then there’s Iran’s nuclear program, one that since 2003 has fueled concern worldwide that Tehran’s plans are not simply energy development, as Iranian officials have said, but may be to develop nuclear warheads that could strike Israel and beyond.
This dispute has led to major sanctions on Iran, hurting that nation’s economy and isolating it from much of the world.
But there’s been some signs of hope since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani. Since then, the rhetoric has notably calmed. And while there’s been no conclusive deal, at least Iran has engaged in “constructive” talks with Western officials on the nuclear issue.
Why it matters to the West and beyond
Think of it this way: Would you want leaders of a country known for “Death to America” chants to have a nuclear weapon?
The United States sure does not. Nor do its European allies. And certainly, neither does Israel.
One concern is that all of these recent negotiations are simply smokescreens. Iran, some skeptics say, may be inching closer to producing nuclear weapons behind everyone’s backs while they talk peace.
And it’s not as though every leader in Iran is embracing peaceful rhetoric. Nuclear weapons or not, seemingly anything could tip the scales toward war. The latest point of contention relates to an Israeli attack in Syria’s Golan Heights that killed a senior Iranian commander and six Hezbollah members.
Speaking about that incident Thursday, according to state-run Press TV, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami said: “(Israel) should be waiting for crushing responses.”
What’s going on
Israel is one of most modern, progressive, prosperous countries. But ever since its founding in 1948 it has also been one of the most challenged when it comes to security — and that hasn’t changed.
Hamas and Israeli forces fought for seven weeks this summer in Gaza, a conflict that killed more than 2,130 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Sixty-seven Israelis — 64 of them soldiers — have been killed, the U.N. reported. A foreign worker in Israel was killed as well.
The violence has died down since then, but it hasn’t gone away. There was a November attack at a Jerusalem synagogue that killed four worshipers and a police officer. An Israeli soldier was stabbed to death on a Tel Aviv street, with another killed at a West Bank hitchhiking post. Many Palestinians have been caught up in everything as well, like a senior Palestinian Authority official who died after a confrontation with Israeli troops.
No 3rd intifada yet — but few signs of hope, either
Meanwhile, there’s an election coming up in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is contending to stay in the office he’s held since 2009, hoping to convince voters that he’s the right person to address a faltering economy, recent attacks against Israelis in Jerusalem and this summer’s inconclusive war against Hamas.
In fact, he’s taking his appeal on the road to the United States. House Speaker John Boehner has invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress on March 3.
But he won’t be meeting with Obama then, a fact that some see as the latest evidence of the reportedly frosty relationship between the two leaders.
Why it matters to the West and beyond
Israel is important to the United States for a few reasons.
Some of that has to do with the countries’ common democratic ideals. There is also the shared strategic and security interests, as it is no coincidence that many of Israel’s foes (like ISIS or Iran) are also U.S. enemies. And there’s a political component as well, with many in the United States valuing the country’s relationship with Israel — and sometimes poking their political opponents claiming they’re not sufficiently supportive.
If the leaders of these two longtime allies aren’t on the same page, that could be a problem.
Obama won’t personally meet with Netanyahu during his next visit, because, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “we want to avoid even the appearance of any kind of interference with a democratic election” on March 17.
Then there’s the prospect that Netanyahu will press for stronger sanctions on Iran. This thrusts him into the U.S. political fray, since the Iran talks have pitted Obama against Republicans and Democrats alike.
This visit certainly won’t help mend what Aaron David Miller, a former U.S.-Middle East peace negotiator, has described as “a dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.”
As a senior official with a prominent pro-Israel policy organization in Washington said last fall: “These guys don’t like each other. They don’t pretend to like each other.”
The end of nuclear deterrence
Since the end of the Cold War, the public mind has pretty much forgotten about the existence of nuclear weapons, except in the Middle East. And yet, they still exist — thousands and thousands of them, ready to destroy all of human civilization several times over. In response, a new nuclear disarmament movement is getting underway.
This week, I attended the Vienna conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. (Full disclosure: one of the sponsoring organizations, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, invited me all expenses paid.) The conference was striking in describing the utter, absolute destruction that can be caused by nuclear weapons.
I came in as a supporter of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which says that the world’s major power-brokers should have nuclear weapons as a way of preventing a new world war. Advocates of this doctrine point to the Cold War, which never went hot, as a success for deterrence.
But supporters of disarmament — including the Red Cross, Pope Francis, and, believe it or not, Henry Kissinger — say that’s wrong. These are serious, sober-minded people, not just pie-in-the-sky activists, and they say that deterrence doesn’t work in a multipolar world. Instead, the presence of nuclear weapons just creates an incentive for more proliferation, as small countries try to one-up their regional adversaries.
What’s more — and this was the most striking thing at the conference — they point to the risks inherent in the existence of nuclear weapons. History has recorded many close calls in which nuclear weapons were almost fired. (This, in turn, could have led to a nightmare scenario where an accidental strike is met with a riposte, triggering Armageddon.) For example, in 2007, six U.S. nuclear warheads went missing because of a bureaucratic mistake. Then there’s the story of the U.S. nuclear missile launch officer with the drug problem.
If this stuff can happen in the U.S., which has the oldest, best-funded, and most sophisticated nuclear force, one shudders to think about what might be going on in Russia or Pakistan. Given the way human nature and technology works, advocates warn, it is not a matter of if, but when a catastrophic accicent will occur. The only solution is simply to ban nuclear weapons for good.
This is where I started rethinking my position. A lot of research has shown that human brains are wired in such a way that it is very difficult for us to rationally process risks that have a very low probability but a very high cost. This is essentially what caused the 2008 financial crisis: a very low risk was treated as non-existent, so that when the event occurred, the system collapsed. This is exactly the kind of risk we are talking about with nuclear weapons.
The problem with getting rid of nuclear weapons, of course, is that it seems impossible. Almost no country seems to want to voluntarily give them up — at least as long as anyone else has any. But a former U.S. national security official told me that “within your lifetime” it could happen: countries don’t need hundreds (let alone thousands) of nukes to deter adversaries. But if the global stockpile is in the hundreds, then full disarmament starts to become conceivable.
Maybe. But in the meantime, the long-tail risks inherent in nuclear weapons seem significant enough that we should all get behind an agenda for very significantly reducing their number — or at the very least pay more attention to nuclear issues. The Cold War may be over, but the nukes, unfortunately, are still with us.
Khamenei’s advisor: US must recognise Iran is the strongest power in the region
Posted on Jul 29, 2014
By Juan Cole
This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.
The United Nations Security Council is theoretically a sort of sovereign in international law. If it designates a regime like that of Gaddafi in Libya as a threat to international peace, it can deputize the nations of the world to remove it. One major exception to UNSC authority is Israel, which routinely thumbs its nose at the world body while suffering no sanctions or other punishment.
Defying the UNSC can be extremely dangerous and costly. It demanded that Iraq dismantle its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and destroy any stockpiles of such unconventional weapons, in a series of resolutions after the Gulf War. The Bush administration alleged that Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein had declined completely to destroy those stockpiles and so was in violation of international law, and therefore claimed a sort of indirect sanction from the UNSC to invade and occupy Iraq in order to finish the job. (Unfortunately for Bush, the Baath regime in Iraq had in fact destroyed the stockpiles; this had not stopped Bush propagandists from continuing to this day to cite Saddam Hussein’s alleged defiance of the UNSC as a justification for the US war on Iraq.) Saddam Hussein was hanged in December 2006.
The UNSC demanded a decade or so ago that Iran mothball its civilian, peaceful nuclear enrichment program, aimed at gaining the capacity to fuel nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Iran refused, citing the pledge in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that guarantees all countries the right to close the fuel cycle. (Note that Israel went for broke to develop a nuclear warhead, of which it has several hundred, and never suffered any sanctions at all.)
As a result of the UNSC resolutions against Iran, the Obama administration was emboldened to impose a financial boycott on Iran, having it kicked off all the major banking exchanges and making it difficult or impossible for Iran to get paid for its petroleum. Then the US went around strong-arming countries like South Korea in a bid to force them to stop importing Iranian petroleum. A simple US congressional resolution would probably not have given the US the legitimacy to pursue this financial blockade against Iran, but the UNSC resolutions were much more persuasive, combined with US threats to sanction companies that traded with Iran.
Iran’s oil export earnings fell to $61.92 billion in 2013, “down 46% from $114.75 billion in 2011.” That was an over $50 bn annual fine for defying the UNSC, even when it wasn’t clear that international law justified the UNSC stance.
UNSC resolutions against the North Korean nuclear weapons program (a kind of military program Iran does not even have) imposed an arms embargo and even permitted other countries to board North Korean vessels at will on the high seas if they suspected that weapons were aboard– a severe attack on the country’s national sovereignty.
So when the UNSC calls on Israel and on Hamas in Gaza to institute an immediate ceasefire, and they refuse, they will attract sanctions, right? These demands, everyone knows, would be full-fledged resolutions if they weren’t watered down by the US. (And let us face it, Israel is the one with the firepower here; it has killed over a thousand in this round of fighting, 80% of them non-combatants; Hamas has killed four dozen or so Israelis, all but three soldiers). I mean, Saddam Hussein was hanged merely for being falsely accused of violating UNSC resolutions! And what if, as with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel not only refuses the demand for an immediate ceasefire but actually accuses the world’s major powers of being accomplices to terrorism? Doesn’t that sound a little bit like Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking of “global arrogance”?
Wouldn’t the UNSC do something to Netanyahu for sassing them that way? Wouldn’t they devastate the Israeli economy the way they did the Iranian? Wouldn’t they authorize military action to protect civilians in Gaza from Israeli war crimes, as they did in Libya?
And that is one of the reasons for the mess in the Mideast. The Israeli leadership is completely fearless because it knows that the US will protect it no matter what it does, up to and including calling high American officials terrorist sympathizers.
The truth is that Mr. Obama could end the madness fairly easily. He could just abstain when the UNSC votes sanctions on Israel for its violations of international law.
The European Union has forwarded the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the US, as an American sphere of influence. The US congress and government more generally, in turn, has been bought and paid for by the Israel lobbies, including the “Christian Zionists.” Unless and until counter-lobbies are formed that effectively contest with AIPAC for influence over US representatives, the problems in the Mideast are unsolvable.