Tuesday, 24 November 2015

EU labelling and the Arab Peace Plan

        If there’s one thing you cannot fault the European Union on, it’s consistency. For the last forty years the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), have maintained that the territory occupied by the Arab armies on the day the armistice between them and Israel was signed – July 20, 1949 – are the borders of a putative sovereign state of Palestine.

        Of course, Israel was not fighting Palestinians in 1949. There was no such Arab entity. It was facing the armies of Egypt and Jordan, and it was with those sovereign nations that Israel signed the armistice. Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specifies that the cease-fire agreement had been “dictated exclusively by military considerations,” and did not “prejudice the rights, claims and positions of the parties”. The EU and its predecessors, however, have never acknowledged that the ceasefire lines were not to be regarded as permanent borders.

        What happened after 1949? On April 24, 1950 King Abdullah of Jordan annexed the West Bank together with east Jerusalem, areas the Jordanian army had overrun and occupied during their attack on the new-born state of Israel, and formally incorporated them into the Hashemite Kingdom. In June 1967 Jordan still held this territory – illegally, according to most of world opinion – when it joined with Egypt and Syria in planning a three-pronged attack on Israel.

        In the Six-Day War of June 5-10, 1967 Israel chased the Jordanian army out of the west bank of the Jordan and Jerusalem, pushed the Egyptian army out of Gaza and pursued it across the Sinai peninsula, and captured the Golan Heights from Syrian forces.

        Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out that after the Six-Day War the architects of UN Security Council Resolution 242 insisted that the old armistice line had to be replaced with a new border. “Which is why,” Dr Gold writes, “Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; the 1949 armistice lines were no longer to be a reference point for a future peace process.”

        In championing Palestinian sovereignty the EU has consistently ignored the fact that in 1967 the West Bank did not, according to international law, belong to Jordan, or indeed to any sovereign state. This became even more obvious in 1988, when Jordan renounced its annexation. Subsequently, however, a general consensus arose that if or when the Israel-Palestinian conflict is resolved by way of a two-state solution, the majority of the area will form part of a sovereign Palestine.

        In 1999, at a meeting held in Berlin, the EU announced: ”The European Union declares its readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian State in due course.” This the European parliament duly did, although only in principle, on December 17, 2014.

        The corollary emerged on November 12, 2015. In a “Notice on indication of origin of goods from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”, the European Commission stated that the EU does not consider the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be part of sovereign Israel. So the notice advises that all products originating from these areas and being sold in the EU should be labelled to indicate they are not from Israel proper.

        “For products from Palestine that do not originate from settlements,” states the notice, “an indication … could be 'product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)' ‘product from Gaza’ or 'product from Palestine'.

        The EU seems blissfully unaware of the anomaly it is promulgating. Bending over backwards to ensure that certain goods are labelled as not emanating from the Israel that the EU recognizes, it recommends they are labelled as coming from a state of Palestine that does not exist.

        What is this “Palestine”? In effect the EU has determined it consists of the territory occupied by Jordanian forces on July 20, 1949, together with Gaza, where the PA’s writ does not run, and where the de facto rulers, Hamas, are designated a terrorist organisation by the EU.

        “A lasting solution,” runs the EU’s official policy statement, “must be achieved on the basis of the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, the Madrid principles including land for peace, the Roadmap, agreements previously reached by the parties and of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

        The Arab Peace Initiative was promulgated in March 2002 by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, when he was still Crown Prince. Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of “right of return” or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). The plan was discussed for a week and adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions.

        The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.

        Early in President Obama’s first term the plan was incorporated into US foreign policy and, just prior to the start of the 2014 peace negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry achieved something of a triumph in discussions with Arab League delegates. “The Arab League delegation affirmed…the two-state solution,” he announced, “on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line [note “line” not “border”], with the (possibility) of comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land.”

        On 12 November 2015 Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal called for the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative. In a pre-recorded message to the Israel Conference for Peace in Tel-Aviv, he urged Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to declare that he was “ willing to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative,” adding that he believed the plan could jump-start a new peace process. “What better time … for Israel to say, ‘Let us have peace with our neighbours’ and come from a position of strength to the table.”

        This time, to ensure that Palestinian hardliners do not sabotage delicate negotiations, and perhaps to exert some pressure on the PA delegation, the table should include Arab League representatives. Something of the sort was actually suggested by Netanyahu, in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2014.

        “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace,” he said. To achieve that peace, he asserted, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere. In short, Israel’s prime minister backs the idea of a broadly-based peace conference. 

        As for the EU, for once he could be assured of its support.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 November 2015:

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Russo-Iranian missile deal

          Russia’s S-300 family of surface-to-air missiles is generally acknowledged to include the most sophisticated and effective air-defence systems in the world. There are nearly 30 variations of S-300 in existence, and the PS and PM versions are, it is believed, fitted with nuclear warheads. It was more than mildly disturbing, therefore, to learn on November 9 that Russia has lifted its embargo on supplying Iran with the S-300, and that a firm contract to provide four systems is signed and sealed. What is not yet clear is when they will be delivered.

          Speaking at the Dubai Airshow-2015, which ran from November 8-12, Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russia’s Rostec Corporation, the conglomerate that includes arms exporter Rosobornexport, said: “The contract for the delivery of the S-300 to Iran…has already entered into force.”

         This deal has had a long gestation. The contract under which Russia agreed to supply Iran with S-300 missile systems was signed back in 2007. Three years later, following the imposition of sanctions by the UN on Iran, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stepped in to prohibit the deal from going ahead. Iran hit back by filing a lawsuit with a Geneva arbitration tribunal against Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms company, claiming nearly $4 billion in damages.

          In April, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin repealed his predecessor’s ban on fulfilling the contract. Following the conclusion of the US-led nuclear deal with Iran on July 14, Putin decided that, since international sanctions on Iran were about to be lifted, Russia would give the S-300 contract the go-ahead. As a result Iranian and Russian officials are negotiating about the withdrawal of the lawsuit.

          But Russia has jumped the gun. The official timeline for implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran allows sanctions to be lifted only when the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verifies that Iran has implemented key nuclear-related measures, such as reducing its stockpiles of fissile materials and centrifuges.

          But on October 21 Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, published a document laying down nine new requirements before Iran would agree to implement the JCPOA. These unilateral conditions fundamentally change what was agreed on July 14, and virtually declare the JCPOA a dead letter.

          For example, under the JCPOA Iran is obligated to start changing the function of its nuclear reactor at Arak and shipping out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium as a precondition for the lifting of sanctions. In his document Khamenei declares that Iran will not carry out these actions until after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) closes its dossier on Iran, targeted for December 15. But how can the IAEA report by the target date about Iran meeting its obligations, when Iran is not even going to begin doing so by then? In short, the JCPOA has been thwarted from the very start.

            So far the US and the EU appear to have turned a blind eye to Iran’s new position on the nuclear deal, but if Khameini means what he says and acts on it, they will surely have to defer the lifting of sanctions. Russia too, as one of the negotiating parties to the nuclear deal, will have to decide whether to hold off providing Iran with the S-300 missile systems.

          Providing the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with the world’s most sophisticated surface-to-air missile system might be a lucrative business deal for the Russian arms industry, but it represents a considerable risk for the world in general, and the Middle East in particular. It seems to have little relevance to the joint Russo-Iranian operation in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Neither the Free Syrian Army nor Islamic State have air power at their disposal. The only air combatant besides Russia itself is the US-led alliance, and there could surely be no intention in Tehran to use S-300 surface–to-air missiles against them – although, if Syria’s civil conflict were to be prolonged, Iran’s mere possession of them might act as some sort of deterrent.

          No, Iran is seeking, and Russia is supplying, S-300s as part of a system of defence against aerial attack on one or more of three possible targets: Iran’s nuclear facilities; the military installations of its stooge army, Hezbollah, in the event of a new conflict with Israel; or the Iranian-supported Houthi forces in Yemen, currently under aerial bombardment by the Saudi Arabian coalition.

          No wonder that the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel are all opposed to the missile contract that Russia has signed with Iran. The one saving grace is that no date has been set for delivery of the S-300 systems. Long may it be delayed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 November 2015:

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Iran reneges on the nuclear deal

          Iran’s body politic is far from tension-free. Not only does the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keep the tightest of reins on the political process and the politicians who administer it, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also regard it as their bounden duty to protect the principles of the revolution by stamping on any politician with too-liberal tendencies.

          Back in 2013, Khamanei had lost faith in the then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not least because the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on Iran since 2005 were biting hard, and Ahmadinejad had no policy for easing them. So Khamenei backed the more accommodating Hassan Rouhani in the new presidential elections, and charged him with negotiating Iran’s way out of the sanctions.

          Rouhani succeeded, but in his very success lie the seeds of his failure. On November 3 the New York Times reported that Rouhani’s hard-line adversaries in the government were promoting an internal backlash against the nuclear deal. In addition, the Revolutionary Guards Corps had started arresting pro-deal journalists, activists and cultural figures.

          The development reflects the current views of the Supreme Leader. Yes, Khamenei heartily approves of the fact that the US and the EU are prepared to lift sanctions on Iran, but no, the Supreme Leader does not like the conditions they have laid down, and that Rouhani has agreed to. Perhaps reckoning that the US president and world leaders are so anxious for a deal with Iran that he has more leeway than the signed document apparently allows, Khamenei has virtually stated in black and white that Iran has no intention whatsoever of adhering to the terms of the agreement reached on July 14, 2015.

          July 14 was the day that world powers, led by the US, reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Under its terms, sanctions will be lifted only when the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verifies that Iran has implemented key nuclear-related measures, such as reducing its stockpiles of fissile materials and centrifuges.

          “Adoption Day”– the day participants would start the process of implementing their JCPOA commitments – was set for October 18. On that day, therefore, the US and the EU began preparatory measures for lifting the multiple sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy since they were first imposed in 2005. Only three days later, on October 21, Ayatollah Khamenei published a letter of guidelines to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the JCPOA.

          This letter, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported, was posted on Khamenei’s website in Persian, tweeted from his Twitter account, posted on his Facebook page in English, and published in English by the Iran Broadcasting Authority. In this document, clearly the definitive statement of the conditions under which Iran would be willing to execute the JCPOA, Iran’s Supreme Leader sets nine new and unilateral conditions that fundamentally change what was agreed on July 14. In short, he has virtually declared the JCPOA a dead letter.

          What are these nine new conditions?

          First Khamenei demands that sanctions are lifted fully, not suspended, before Iran takes steps to meet its obligations under the agreement. In addition he asserts that any endorsement by the West of the “snapback” option (the reintroduction of sanctions should Iran fail to meet the terms of the agreement) will be considered “non-compliance with the JCPOA”.

          Secondly: Any future sanctions against Iran for whatever reason, including terrorism or human rights violations, will “constitute a violation of the JCPOA,” and a reason for Iran to stop executing the agreement.

          Thirdly: Under the JCPOA Iran is obligated to start changing the function of its nuclear reactor at Arak and shipping out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium. In his letter Khamenei declares that Iran will not carry out these actions until after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) closes its dossier on Iran, targeted for December 15. But the IAEA will not be able to report about Iran meeting its obligations regarding the Arak reactor and shipping out its enriched uranium by the target date, because Iran is not going to do so by then. In short, the JCPOA has been thwarted from the very start.

          Fourth: Iran will change the purpose of the Arak reactor only after there is a signed agreement on an “alternative plan” and “sufficient guarantee” that it will be implemented. In other words, Iran intends to postpone fulfilling its obligations under the JCPOA regarding the Arak reactor to some unknown future date.

          Fifth: Iran intends to postpone indefinitely the date set by the JCPOA for shipping out its enriched uranium to another country in exchange for yellowcake. Moreover Khamenei is demanding that Iran receive in exchange for the enriched uranium not raw uranium as per the JCPOA, but instead uranium that has been enriched, albeit to a lower level than the uranium it ships out.

          Sixth: Khamenei instructs President Rouhani, while reducing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium under the JCPOA, immediately to expand Iran’s ability to enrich uranium on a 15-year long-term plan for 190,000 centrifuges. In short, he is nullifying the declared goal of the JCPOA, which is to reduce Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities.

          Seventh: The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization must ensure continued nuclear research and development, in its various dimensions, so that in eight years’ time, Iran will not be lacking in enrichment technology.

          Eighth: Khamenei declares that Iran must be involved in resolving queries about the JCPOA – a recipe for unending dispute and the ability to paralyze the execution of the agreement.

          Ninth: A new committee tasked with monitoring the execution of the agreement is to be established – nominally to obviate any attempt by the US or the West to cheat, but in effect, a mechanism for creating perpetual obstacles to carrying out the agreement.

          So far world opinion has turned a blind eye to Khamenei’s virtual rejection of the nuclear agreement. The US and the EU are proceeding enthusiastically with the first stages of dismantling their multiple sanctions regimes. Government officials and businessmen from around the globe are making a beeline for Tehran, eager to share in the vast commercial opportunities they see awaiting.

          The nuclear agreement is the basis for Iran’s re-entry into the comity of nations, and Khamenei seems to be setting the stage for a battle of wills between Iran and the West. Will the West’s desire to come to terms with Iran outweigh Iran’s determination to give away less than their president has actually signed up to? Will the West delay the lifting of sanctions? Who will blink first?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 November 2015:

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The US and Russia in Syria and Iraq – foes or allies?

        Battlefields are chaotic. In the turmoil created by forces in conflict, it is often difficult to discern a clear pattern until the smoke of battle has cleared. The battlefields that are Syria and Iraq are especially difficult to evaluate. Are the US and Russia foes or allies? Implausible though it may seem, they are actually both simultaneously, at least on a tactical level. Strategically, they are poles apart.

        Long-standing Russo-Syrian accords have provided Russia with invaluable naval and military assets inside Syria. Protecting them means supporting President Bashar al-Assad, at least in the short term. Assad is fighting two main opponents – his domestic enemies represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and Islamic State (IS), the Sunni jihadist organization intent on overrunning the whole of Syria and Iraq. On entering the fray Russia undertook to strike both, though so far it has rather concentrated its firepower against the FSA. According to a survey compiled by the Institute for the Study of War, out of 64 targets attacked in air strikes by Russia during the first three weeks of its campaign, a maximum of 15 were in areas held by IS.

        The US, however, entered the Syrian conflict in order to boost the FSA, fight IS in conjunction with them, and overthrow Assad. The US coalition has been supporting FSA military operations with air strikes although, it must be said, to no great effect as yet. With Russia attacking FSA and the US supporting them, the two outside protagonists seem at daggers drawn.

        Russia’s clear aim of establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East is certainly not to America’s liking, and doubtless played a part in the recent accord between the US and Saudi Arabia, both concerned about the growing number of Russian air-strikes in support of the Assad regime. On October 25, they announced a joint agreement to boost their military and diplomatic effort in aid of the Syrian rebels.

        “They pledged to continue and intensify support to the moderate Syrian opposition while the political track is being pursued," announced the State Department.

        The “moderate Syrian opposition” are precisely the forces being attacked by Russia and Iranian-backed fighters. This enhanced US-Saudi activity must be co-ordinated with the Russians in some way, or the two sides, if only by proxy, could find themselves in active combat against each other.

        If they are on opposite sides in this aspect of the conflict, the US and Russia are at one in their opposition to IS and its ruthless drive to extend its power over the region and wider. Even so, Russia’s latest move in this struggle is unlikely to meet with US approval.

        On October 26 Russian officials were reported to have been discussing with senior Taliban warlords in Afghanistan the possibility of an alliance aimed at defeating IS in Syria and Iraq. In return Russia’s President Putin would supply the Taliban with heavy weapons and promise to support it internationally should it overthrow the Afghan government and retake control of the country. Pure self-interest on Russia’s part dictates the move. Bringing Taliban fighters into the conflict on its side could avoid the need to deploy Russian boots on the ground.

        The Taliban and IS would be well-matched as opponents. They are as fanatical, vicious and inhumane as each other. The record of Taliban rule over Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s is every bit as barbarous as that of IS in Syria and Iraq. Public executions and amputations flourished; men were required to grow beards; women had to wear the all-covering burka; girls were banned from going to school. Television, music and cinema were proscribed.

        The Taliban record, however, counts for nothing in Russian eyes, when set against the realpolitik advantages of a Russo-Taliban alliance, although how Russia intends to square this move with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, both committed to overthrowing the Taliban, is anybody’s guess.

        The Iranian dimension to Syria’s civil conflict adds a further complication. Iran regards Syria as its client state – an essential building block in the Shi’ite axis it has assembled across the Middle East – and it has supported Assad with money, arms and fighting forces, both its own Revolutionary Guards and scores of thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. It considers Sunni IS its implacable enemy, and directs considerable military effort to countering IS attempts to expand its territorial advances in both Syria and Iraq.

        As regards Iran’s role, the US, unlike Russia, is in a morally ambiguous position. It disapproves of Iran’s pro-Assad activities in Syria, but favours its anti-IS activities in Iraq.

        In September 2014, while Iran was in the midst of negotiating the future of its nuclear programme, the BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamenei had authorised his top commander fighting IS in Iraq to co-ordinate military operations with the US, Iraqi and Kurdish forces. By March 2015, with the delicate nuclear negotiations still under way, the American-led coalition in Iraq launched airstrikes to support Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi troops fighting IS for the key city of Tikrit, which they eventually won back.

        And then, on October 24, the Iraqi government announced that it is authorizing the Russian military to use the Al Taqaddum airbase that is also being used by US troops for operations against IS. So it looks as though Russia and the US have become allies of a sort in Iraq.

        Iran and Russia appear to be in close accord, but everything in the Russo-Iranian garden is far from perfect. A variety of observers believe that the military alliance between Christian Russia and Shi’ite Iran aimed at keeping Assad in power is fraught with underlying tension. For example, Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, believes that Russian and Iranian long-term interests diverge.

        “Russia does not trust Iran,” he says. “Russia doesn’t want Iran to be an equal partner in Syria. Russia wants to rule the roost.” He believes Russia has no wish to see an Iranian-led Shi’ite bloc dominating the Middle East.

       If Russia’s strategic interests are indeed out of kilter with Iran’s, the way might be open for the US to seek some kind of deal with Russia aimed at limiting the Shi’ite axis. This possibility, running counter to the whole Middle East approach of the Obama administration, may lie hidden within the present political maelstrom – a prize to be won by a future US president.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 November 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 November 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 November 2015:

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Countering Islamism

          On October 19 the British government announced a raft of new security measures designed to counter the domestic Islamist threat. They were the outcome of an intensive exercise undertaken by the UK civil service over the summer, while parliament was in adjournment.

          The new measures, among other things, enable parents of children under 16 to request the cancellation of their passports; there is to be a ban on radical preachers posting material online; new extremism disruption orders will prevent individuals from engaging in extremist behaviour; law enforcement and local authorities will be given powers to close down premises used to support extremism.

          Together these and other steps add up to the UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, the first effort by a world power to tackle domestic Islamism head-on. There is to be no shilly-shallying around the nature of the danger facing Britain – and, by extension, the civilized world – nor the multi-faceted effort that needs to be taken to counter and conquer it.

          The groundwork for this initiative was laid in a seminal speech delivered on July 20 by the UK prime minister, David Cameron. Uniquely among world leaders who have spoken on this issue, Cameron addressed his Muslim co-citizens candidly. Without beating about the bush, he asserted that condemning violence was not enough. Too many ordinary decent Muslim citizens, he maintained, while thoroughly disapproving of violence, allowed themselves to be seduced by Islamism to the extent of subscribing to intolerant ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation, thus fostering the very climate in which extremists can flourish. It was clear from what he said that Cameron places high on his list of “intolerant ideas” the mindless anti-Semitism that is endemic to extremist Islamism.

          Cameron also singled out ideas “based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached – that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.”

          Cameron pointed out that the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences often reveal that they were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.

          “It may begin,” he said, “with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy, and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death. Put another way, the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.”

          The adherents of this ideology, he claimed, are overpowering other voices within the Muslim debate, especially those trying to challenge it.

          To counter this threat, he asserted, Britain intends to confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins Islamism – the cultish worldview, the conspiracy theories, and its malevolent appeal to the young and impressionable. The new strategy will involve exposing Islamist extremism for what it is – a belief system that glorifies violence and subjugates its people, not least Muslim people – and will contrast the bigotry, aggression and theocracy of Islamism with the liberal, democratic values that underlie the Western way of life.

          A key part of the action programme will be to tackle both the violent and the non-violent aspects of the creed. Cameron was clear that this would mean confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence, but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.

          “We’ve got to show that if you say ‘violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter’, then you too are part of the problem. Unwittingly or not,” he said, “and in a lot of cases it’s not unwittingly, you are providing succour to those who want to commit, or get others to commit to, violence.”

          He insisted that condemning a mass-murdering, child-raping organisation was not enough to prove that a person was challenging the extremists. The new strategy would demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism.

          Acknowledging the religious aspect of Islamist extremism has proved a stumbling block for many previous attempts to combat the problem. Britain’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will face the issue fairly and squarely. As Cameron pointed out, simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims.

          “They all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith. It is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous.”

          To deny that Islamism has anything to do with Islam, claimed Cameron, means that the critical reforming voices from within the faith are disempowered – religious heads who can challenge the scriptural basis on which extremists claim to be acting, and respected leaders who can provide an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide down the spectrum of extremism. The UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will empower, support and fund those individuals and organisations from within the Muslim community that are dedicated to countering extreme Islamism and its nihilistic philosophy.

          Although an independent Counter-Extremist Project has been running in the US for the past year, and a European counterpart, CEP Europe, was launched in Brussels on June 29, the only government to have grasped the nettle is the UK’s. Britain alone seems to have taken on board the extent of the threat facing the civilized world, to have analysed the issues coolly and hard-headedly, and to be in the process of devising a comprehensive strategy for countering it. In short, the UK is seizing the initiative in the major struggle of our times – a war to the death between a liberal way of life, rooted in parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and those intent on destroying those values and substituting their own narrow and extremist version of sharia, not shared by the majority of the world’s Muslims.

          It is a war the world can, must, and surely will, win.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 October 2015:

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Time for moderate Muslims to bite the bullet

        It is time moderate Islam recognized who its real enemies are, where its real interests lie, and take action accordingly.

        While Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic Republic of Iran – the powers that rival each other in seeking religious and political domination in the Middle East and beyond – have been forging ahead, intent on imposing their own versions of extremist Islam on a reluctant world, moderate Arab and other Muslim states have equivocated. Other considerations have been given priority over confronting them.

        For instance Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, procrastinated for a long time before attacking IS in Syria, fearing to boost Kurdish forces which were successfully combatting the extremist organization. It was only when IS itself mounted terrorist attacks within Turkey that Erdogan took action – although, even now, he seems to be striking IS and Kurdish forces indiscriminately, in a morally ambiguous strategy dictated by the imperatives of the forthcoming elections in Turkey.

        In Yemen it took an Iranian-backed takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and the imminent likelihood of a takeover of the government itself, to move Saudi Arabia to take action. The growing involvement of IS-affiliated Yemeni extremists, and a power struggle between them and the terrorist group “al-Qaeda in Yemen” combined to produce a state in meltdown. A contributory factor leading to Saudi action was perhaps the bombs that exploded outside two mosques in Sana’a after Friday prayers on March 20. Nearly 140 people were killed and 350 wounded, while shortly afterwards responsibility for the outrage was claimed by the group “Islamic State in Yemen”.

        Six days later, on March 26, taking the world by surprise, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthis, with the intention of restoring the legitimate government in Yemen. Within only a few days Saudi had welded together a coalition of Arab states in support of the assault, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

        By the last days of March the Houthi advance had been halted. During the summer Saudi and coalition forces drove the rebels out of Aden, enabling the Yemeni prime minister, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to return from exile on September 16. And now the Houthis – together with Yemen’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been supporting them – have agreed to a seven-point plan, brokered by the UN, which includes a ceasefire and the return of the government to Sana’a. Saleh told the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen TV station on October 12 that he was ready to quit his position as head of the country's largest party, the General People's Congress (GPC), to facilitate an end to the fighting that has killed more than 5,000 people.

        Saudi Arabia’s resolute action is a template for how moderate Muslim nations can, and should, face up to Islamist extremists elsewhere in the Middle East – IS in particular, but Iran too, should its overweening ambition, especially if eventually backed by nuclear weaponry, ever get out of hand. Iran has been supporting terrorist attempts to undermine Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states for decades. Armed with nuclear weapons, Iranian-supported jihadists would constitute a threat that could not be ignored. A nuclear arms race is the last thing the Middle East needs, but nuclear deterrence may eventually be the best road to security for moderate Islam, and an effective counter also if Russia were tempted to support Iranian adventurism.

        Just like Iran, IS has an inherent strategic need to keep expanding its influence. The only way to defeat it is to halt it in its tracks, crush it militarily, and chase it out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, where it has overrun, and now controls, vast swathes of territory. The task is no mean one, and requires exactly the kind of united front that has challenged, and is overcoming, the Iranian-backed rebellion in Yemen. Russia’s pro-Iranian involvement in Syria is a hazard, but not insurmountable.

        Declaring himself the caliph of the entire Muslim world, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, demands the allegiance of all Muslims in his self-appointed task of overturning existing states and substituting the rule of IS. To perpetuate its image of invincibility, IS’s influence simply has to continue growing. To stand still is to decline.

        At first glance, al-Baghdadi has succeeded beyond all measure. By the middle of 2015 no less than 35 jihadist groups in some 14 countries, including Pakistan and Nigeria, had pledged allegiance to IS. As a symbol of its alleged authority, it also announced the establishment of wilayat (governorates) in a number of these countries.

        Barak Mendelsohn, Professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a Research Fellow at Harvard, has analysed IS’s apparent growth and believes that, notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding these announcements, in reality IS's presence and power outside Iraq and Syria is very limited. The stronger groups who joined IS, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai and Boko Haram in Nigeria, are in decline, and where Boko Haram is concerned, it is unclear to what extent it accepts al-Baghdadi's authority.

        Mendelsohn maintains that IS’s early victories, astonishing as they were, reflected the poor state and morale of its opponents in the Iraqi army, and the lack of advanced armament by the Syrian rebels, more than the prowess of its own forces. Moreover, when it pursued the genocide of the Yazidis, threatened Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, and beheaded American hostages, it forced the United States to intervene.

        By doing so, it may have initiated the start of its own decline, for ineffective as the US airstrike policy may have been, it opened the way for Russia’s intervention on behalf of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s military might may be mainly focused on Assad’s domestic Syrian opponents, but IS is also in its sights.

        The question remains – why has the moderate Muslim world left so much of the running to non-Muslims? Russia indeed faces the risk of homeland terrorism from IS, and the West from both IS and Iran, but the Muslim states of the Middle East and beyond face even more direct religious and political threats, namely their own subversion and overthrow.

        Terrorism, extremism, and power-crazed ambitions to conquer the world must be confronted. It is time for the moderate Muslim world to commit wholeheartedly to the battle.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 October 2015:

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Hope for South Sudan

          To begin at the beginning, South Sudan – Africa’s youngest state – was born in the flames of civil conflict. Its achievement of independent status in July 2011 was the culmination of more than a century of armed struggle by autonomy-seeking southern Sudanese activists. But taking up arms to achieve one’s ends is a difficult habit to break. Only four years after its birth, the infant state of South Sudan is itself engaged in a bloody civil war.

          The original cause of conflict between northern and southern Sudan is largely explicable in terms of demography. Most inhabitants in the northern parts of the country are Arab by descent, and Muslim by religion. The south is home to most of the 570-plus Sudanese tribes, very few of whom are either Arab or Muslim. A fair proportion were converted to Christianity by western missionaries. 

          Conquered by Britain in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Sudan was subsequently administered by Egypt, under Britain’s watchful eye, in an arrangement known as the Condominium Agreement. It lasted from 1899 to 1955, but tensions were present from the start between the northern part of the country and the south, which soon began demanding autonomy if not outright independence. The taut situation erupted in 1955 into what became known as the first Sudanese civil war. During the 17 years of conflict that followed, half a million people died, but the 1972 agreement which ended the fighting did not solve the underlying tensions.

          So 1983 saw the start of a further 22 years of internal conflict between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army of the south. The conflict officially ended with the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005.

          Six years later, in January 2011, an overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted in a referendum to secede from Sudan and establish an independent state. On July 9, 2011 South Sudan became Africa’s 54th nation state, and the 193rd country recognised by the United Nations. The country was formed from the 10 southernmost states of Sudan.

          It is not, perhaps, surprising that the first nation to recognise the new state was Sudan, followed by the US and the EU. An eyebrow might, however, be raised on the news that, within 24 hours, the very next nation to grant it formal recognition was Israel.

          Israel’s ties to Sudan’s southern region go back to the 1960s, when it offered aid and training to the rebels fighting the northern government. Prior to South Sudan’s declaration of independence, discreet relations between its government-in-waiting and Israel had been conducted for many months. They culminated in a meeting in September 2011 in UN headquarters between Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. An official visit to Israel by President Kiir followed in December.

          Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network, explains these close yet discreet relationships as an Israeli effort “to build a Christian alliance in Africa to fend off Arab influence and the growing Islamic trends there.” The relationship has certainly flourished. Israel and South Sudan have exchanged ambassadors, though Kiir’s repeated declaration that he intends to establish the South Sudanese embassy in Jerusalem, the one location studiously avoided by all other countries with diplomatic ties with Israel, has not yet been realised. He has had other things on his mind.

          In December 2013 the young state was plunged into a power struggle between Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar, whom he had sacked. Machar put himself at the head of an armed rebel movement, and the fighting became an ethnic conflict between the president’s Dinka people and Machar’s Nuers. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, and some 2.2 million people driven from their homes

          An internationally-mediated peace agreement, signed by the two sides in August 2015, was almost immediately rendered inoperative. The agreement included a power-sharing arrangement allowing Machar’s rebels to choose the governors of two states, Unity and Upper Nile. However on October 4, Kiir suddenly announced that South Sudan’s 10 existing states would immediately be divided into 28. Inevitably Machar declared that the decree amounted to a “violation of the peace agreement and a clear message to the world that President Kiir is not committed to peace”.

          As Kiir signed the decree in the capital, Juba, more fighting was already taking place in Unity and Upper Nile, the rebels and the government accusing each other of starting the bloodshed.

          In the midst of all this turmoil is there any spark of hope for South Sudan?

          Well yes actually, there is, and it comes from a most unexpected source.

          On the day that South Sudan came into being – July 9, 2011 – a football player named Richard Justin Lado left Sudan and headed for the land of his ancestors. “My family came from South Sudan,” he told a FIFA journalist, “so it wasn’t a difficult choice for me. I just followed my heart.”

          Lado immediately became his country’s first football captain, and it was not long before he became a national idol. Just minutes into South Sudan’s maiden international match against Uganda in the capital of Juba on July 10, 2012, he sent the 22,000 crowd delirious by scoring the Bright Stars’ first ever goal.

         And then just a few weeks ago, at their 13th attempt, the Bright Stars scored their debut win, when they unexpectedly beat Equatorial Guinea, the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations semi-finalists, 1-0 in the September qualifier for the 2017 continental finals.

          South Sudan had the chance to build on this success when they faced Mauritania, ranked 55 places higher than them, in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifier played on 7 and 8 October (spread over two days because of the weather). To their great credit they drew 1-1, scoring their first World Cup goal, The honour went to Dominic Abui Pretino. The sides met for the second leg on October 13, and although South Sudan went down 4-0, nothing can detract from their success in reaching the qualifier.

          A united country – that is the dream of the South Sudanese. “The national team is a great example of unity,” said Lado. “The players come from every ethnic group, from all over the country, and we play in harmony… we’ve tried to make football a force for ending all the damage caused by war.”

          If anything is likely to put an end to the endless political rivalries and pull the nation together, it is the continued success on the football field of South Sudan’s Bright Stars.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 October 2015:

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Getting to the bottom of the Temple Mount

          Arab-Israeli tension over the Temple Mount is again at boiling point – a depressingly recurrent phenomenon, but scarcely surprising given the fragile arrangements under which the area is administered. These rules, or understandings, are frequently referred to as the “status quo”, and charges by both sides of infringing them, or harbouring the intention of infringing them, are legion.

          “Status quo” is a phrase with a comforting air of permanence to it. Where the Temple Mount is concerned, permanent is the last thing they are. Based on rules formulated just after the Six Day War in 1967 by Israel’s then Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and Muslim religious authorities, the so-called status quo has proved surprisingly inconstant over the years.

          The Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif in Arabic, Har Ha-Bayit in Hebrew) is an elevated walled area the size of 27 football pitches within the old walled city of Jerusalem. The Mount is dominated by three major Islamic edifices ­– the gold-covered Dome of the Rock, the al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Chain. Originally the site of the biblical Jewish temples, the Mount lay derelict for six hundred years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock was constructed around 690 by order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, to be followed by the Dome of the Chain, and a few years later by the al-Aksa mosque.

          The whole Temple Mount area, and especially the Roman retaining wall running along the Western side, which is all that remains of the Second Temple, is the holiest site in Judaism. Sunni Muslims consider the Mount the third holiest site in Islam and the place from where Mohammed ascended to heaven.

          Before Israel’s war of independence in 1948, the Mount, the Dome and the mosques were administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a religious foundation, under a status quo agreement dating back to 1757, and confirmed in 1919. Two basic principles of this later understanding, known as the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, were that Muslim holy places should be under Muslim control, but that nothing should ever interfere with the free exercise of religion in the holy places of Jerusalem. Under this long-standing status quo not only the Temple Mount, but also its religious structures, were open to non-Muslim visitors for four hours each day, except Fridays.

          When Jordan captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948 during Israel’s war of independence, this status quo arrangement was abandoned. Under Jordanian control all Jews were expelled from the Jewish Quarter which was then destroyed, many religious sites were defiled, the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated and the whole Western Wall area became a slum.

          A few days after Israeli troops captured the Old City during the Six-Day War in June 1967, a meeting was held at al-Aksa between Moshe Dayan and the Muslim religious authorities of Jerusalem with the aim of reformulating a status quo. It recognised the Waqf as an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, and handed it the responsibility for managing the site. Under the new arrangements Jews would be able to visit the Temple Mount, but they would not be allowed to pray on it. Israeli sovereignty would be applied to the Mount as to the rest of Jerusalem, and Israel would assume responsibility for security.

          The prohibition against Jews actually praying on the Mount became the cause of much resentment among right-wing Jewish groups. From time to time attempts were made, both politically and by way of direct action, to permit Jewish prayer. All were unsuccessful. Each attempt, however, was seized on by Islamist extremists as a cause célèbre, and an excuse for riot.

          In 2010 rumours, vigorously promulgated by Islamist elements, that Israel was either about to destroy the al-Aksa mosque, or to permit Jewish prayers on the Mount, led to enraged Muslims pelting visitors and the police with stones, firebombs and fireworks.

          During riots on the Mount in November 2014, dialogue with the leaders of the Waqf and the rioters failed, and for the first time Israeli police entered the al-Aksa Mosque, which was being used as the base for the violence. Peace was restored, and the Israeli government stated repeatedly that no change to the status quo was contemplated, but in fact this episode resulted in further revisions which are still in force. Non-Islamic visitors cannot visit the Mount on Fridays or Saturdays, visiting is restricted to four hours, entering the mosques is forbidden, and Jews with a religious appearance must visit in groups monitored by Waqf guards and the police.

          Despite these efforts, in the middle of September violence once again engulfed the sacred compound. Murabitun and Murabatat (male and female Islamist activist groups) had taken to gathering daily on the Mount to intimidate tourists in general and Jewish visitors in particular. A Defense Ministry decree outlawed them from entering the holy site. Three days of violence ensued. Visitors and police officers were showered with rocks, firecrackers and pipe bombs.

         The Palestinian Authority (PA) strongly condemned Israel for allowing Jewish “extremists” to “storm” the Temple Mount, and designated Israel’s decision to ban Muslim women and girls – presumably the Murabatat – as a “flagrant assault on freedom of worship.” The PLO Executive Committee held an emergency meeting and called for “confronting Israeli terror schemes” against the Islamic holy sites. PA President Mahmoud Abbas liaised with Jordan’s King Abdullah, who declared Israeli actions provocative.

          “If this continues to happen...Jordan will have no choice but to take action,” said Abdullah.

          Nothing and nobody seems capable of dissipating the suspicion and mistrust – not even Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech at the UN on October 1, calling on the PA president to start working with Israel to advance peace and reconciliation, he said: “President Abbas, here’s a good place to begin. Stop spreading lies about Israel’s alleged intentions on the Temple Mount. Israel is fully committed to maintaining the status quo there.”

          But the status quo, even in its current attenuated form, is a step too far for extremists like the Israeli-Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, MK Jamal Zahalka. During the last week of September he positioned himself at the Mugrabi gateway entrance to the Temple Mount (the only one of the eleven gates in its walled enclosure allowed to non-Muslim visitors) and bellowed at those entering: “Get out of here. By what right are you here?”

          The answer, if any of the visitors had chosen to shout back, is “By right of the status quo.”

          The Temple Mount issue is a microcosm of the Arab-Israel dispute, and as intractable. Solve the one, and you solve the other.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 October 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 October 2013:

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Russia's game in Syria

          Alexander Golts knows what he is talking about. As deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal and a columnist for the Moscow Times, he is perhaps Russia's most respected journalist on military and security matters. How does he view President Vladimir Putin’s substantial military intervention on the Syrian battlefield?

           For substantial it undoubtedly is. A senior US official confirmed on September 18 that in the previous 10 days more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment, and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria. This was followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, along with 12 close support aircraft, 4 large Hip troop-transport helicopters and 4 Hind helicopter gunships.

          Russia’s military build-up in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft, and by the end of September it had started flying drone aircraft on surveillance missions. On September 24, Moscow announced that over 40 naval “combat exercises” were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets.

          Putin maintains that his sole motive is to fight IS. "We support the Syrian government in fighting the terrorist aggression,” he recently asserted. However, more than one defence analyst has pointed out that Islamic State (IS) has no air capability. The only logical explanation for the range of sophisticated aerial and military hardware being poured into Syria is that Putin has a deeper purpose than simply fighting IS – namely to establish a significant military presence in the Middle East.

          In short, Russia's support for Syria has become the latest front in a wider battle being fought by the Kremlin for influence on the international stage. As Alexander Golts has it: "All Russian policy in Syria is very clearly directed at overcoming international isolation because of Ukraine." Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and his subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine, led to sanctions and the diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers. It is this that he is countering in his Syrian adventure. He is bulldozing his way to a position of influence and power in the region, a position in which the West simply has to take account of him.

          Putin’s initiative is a clever, multi-faceted manoeuvre. He is killing three or four birds with one stone. For example, any Syrian regime change could seriously prejudice Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost, of course, is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, but also at stake would be billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.

          Then, he is worried about the effect on domestic security if IS were to take over more of Syria than is already in its possession. IS already exercises a malign influence on young Muslims across the world, and Russia has an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Some of IS’s top military commanders are of Chechen origin. Further IS successes could pose serious security risks within Mother Russia.

          Putin recently said something of especial significance. Speaking at a regional security conference in mid-September in Tajikistan, he not only defended his support for the Assad régime, but encouraged other countries to do the same.

          "We have been, and will be, providing all necessary military-technical assistance [to Syria] and we call on other countries to join us."

          His actions, no less than his words, have won grudging admiration in a number of quarters, together with recognition by the US administration that he must now be taken seriously as a major player on the Middle East scene – to the extent that Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that President Bashar al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period, and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said that the West will have to engage with Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war. Britain is already indicating a similar shift in policy.

          Fortune favours the bold, and Putin has stepped in where others have feared to tread – on the very ground of Syria, Fighting IS at long distance and without boots on the ground, the preferred method so far of the US, the UK and the West generally, has proved an abject failure. According to the assessments of American intelligence agencies IS is as strong today as it was when the US launched its allied air strikes against the organization in August 2014. “We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," said a defence official, citing estimates that put the group's strength at 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, the same as when the strikes began.

          The time has come for some clear thinking. Which poses the greater threat to the world – the despotic Bashar al-Assad, responsible though he undoubtedly is for horrific war crimes against his own people during his desperate effort to retain power; or the monstrous, barbaric, inhumane and philistine IS and its power-crazed leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of all Muslims, determined to subject first the Middle East, and then the whole world, to his rule?

          UK Middle East expert, Con Coughlin, believes that deep-rooted confusion lies within the highest ranks of both the American and British governments over what should be the main objective in Syria – overthrowing the Assad regime, or destroying IS.

          “Whatever his sins – and they are many,” asserts Coughlin, “Assad does not constitute a threat to the outside world… it is the terrorist fanatics associated with IS who pose the greater threat.” He might have added that chasing IS out of Syria and restoring stability is the most effective way to halt the massive outflow of civilians from that war-scarred nation, and to ease the migration crisis that is nearly overwhelming Europe.

          The logical conclusion sticks out a mile. If Putin wants to wage total war against IS, the West should be prepared to give him total backing. If part of his strategy is also to defeat other enemies of Assad, the West should negotiate a deal under which it keeps its eye on the IS ball. The prospect of a “grand alliance” to defeat IS is becoming a possibility. In short, as Alexander Golts so astutely asserts in a piece for the Moscow Times on September 21: “By raising the stakes in Syria, the Kremlin has achieved the status of a major player that is indispensable to the West.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 October 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 October 2015:
In English:

in Arabic:

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Iran's business

        Tuesday, July 14, 2015 is a date with double significance. Not only is it the day on which world powers, led by the United States, signed the deal with Iran that nominally limits its nuclear programme, but it also marks the re-emergence of Iran into world markets after decades of crippling sanctions. In truth the consequential commercial and economic benefits of the deal will be as vital to Iran’s ambitions as the nuclear.

        As for Iran’s ambitions, its leaders have never concealed them. The Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East. As the prime exponent of the Shi’ite tradition of Islam, Iran views as its main rival the leading Sunni state, Saudi Arabia. Iran seeks to impose its own version of Islam on the world, just like its Sunni mirror image, Islamic State (IS). And just like IS, it regards Western democracy with contempt. It dubs its leading exponent, the United States, the “Great Satan”. and has for decades initiated and supported terrorist attacks on US targets, many of them deadly. Iran abhors Israel in particular, and it makes no secret of its intention eventually to eliminate the State of Israel from the map of the Middle East.

        It is to this rogue state that the much-vaunted nuclear deal has handed the keys to an eventual nuclear arsenal, and the means to enjoy a mushrooming economy and commercial growth on a previously unimaginable scale. Starved of economic development, and with a population of some 80 million, Iran is replete with juicy commercial plums simply waiting to be plucked.

        “The early bird catches the worm.” The ink was barely dry on the nuclear agreement, before a German government plane filled with some of the nation’s top economic and commercial interests touched down in Tehran.

        The German delegation was led by vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, who declared that the nuclear deal “has laid the foundations for a normalisation of economic relations with Iran.” He led a team which included the chief executive of Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate, and leading figures from Daimler, Volkswagon and ThyssenKrupp.

        “A lot of companies at the moment are preparing agreements to be signed the moment sanctions are lifted,” said Michael Tockuss, head of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce. He said that his association was organising a trip every week for companies interested in doing deals in Iran.

        Germany is far from alone. Newspaper reports speak of European ministers and business people flocking to the country: “Upscale Tehran hotels are packed and tables at trendy restaurants are scarce, as foreigners jostle for bargains.” There are reports of businessmen across Europe packing conference halls to discover how to unlock Iran’s vast potential after three decades of isolation. On August 27 four hundred of them piled into a hotel in Zurich for a day of briefings. Austria’s president is planning to take 240 businessmen with him when he visits later in September.

        Meanwhile, major deals are in the making, while some have already been signed. Italian bank Mediobanca signed a memorandum of understanding in Tehran earlier this month to finance deals between Italian and Iranian businesses. The loans would be guaranteed by Italy’s state-run export credit company.

        On September 15 the Iranian firm Aria Ziggurat Tourism Development Company signed an agreement with the major French hotel chain, AccorHotels. Under the contract, the Iranian company will use the Novotel and Ibis brands, both owned by AccorHotels, for 15 years. Iran hopes to increase tourist arrivals from the current 4.5 million to 20 million over the next 10 years, the head of Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, Masoud Soltanifar, said during the signing ceremony.

         But there are even bigger fish to fry on Iran’s giant cooker. Towards the end of August Iran’s Tasnim News reported that two Russian companies had signed a deal with an Iranian firm to develop a remote-sensing satellite observation system based on the Russian Kanopus-V1. Satellite observation systems can be used to gather information about the Earth's atmosphere, surface, and oceans. What else they can be used for was not specified in the Iranian news report, leaving the imagination to run riot.

        Under the terms of the deal, NPK BARL of Russia will build the ground infrastructure, while another Russian firm VNIIEM will be responsible for building and launching the satellites. Bonyan Danesh Shargh of Iran will operate the observation system. The launch is scheduled for 2018 aboard a Soyuz carrier rocket.

        Scientific cooperation between Tehran and Moscow is nothing new – it is well known that Russia had helped Iran build its Bushehr nuclear power plant. Now reports indicate that Russia has agreed to cooperate with Iran in the fields of aviation and shipbuilding, and plans to supply Iran with commercial airplanes in the future. In addition a deal is close to being finalized for the sale by Russia of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Tehran. Soon after the nuclear deal was signed, Moscow lifted the ban on the potential sale of the advanced surface-to-air missile systems, and Iran increased the order from three to four systems.

        As a matter of interest, the nuclear agreement explicitly prioritizes "the sale of commercial passenger aircraft and related parts and services to Iran." In consequence Iran has started negotiations aimed at upgrading its commercial air transport system. Transport Minister Abbas Akhoundi estimates that 400 new planes could be needed. Negotiations with Airbus and Boeing are under way to rebuild the fleet and finalize leasing arrangements for short-term cover. In addition to fleet upgrades, Iran's infrastructure will see massive investment in areas like radar, air traffic management, the 300 domestic airports and passenger experience. All are key opportunity areas for international firms. Already organized for March 2016 is the first Aviation Iran trade show, to be hosted in Dubai.

        Underneath all this frenetic commercial activity lies something not quite so appetising. A major beneficiary will be Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, thanks to his close control of one of the most powerful and secretive organizations in Iran -- "Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam," or Setad, a multi-billion dollar operation at the heart of Iran’s economy.

        The nuclear deal lifts US secondary sanctions on Setad and about 40 firms it owns or has a stake in. With a finger in nearly every sector of Iran's economic pie, Setad built its empire by confiscating thousands of properties belonging to religious minorities, business people, and Iranians living abroad. According to a 2013 Reuters investigation, which estimated the network's holdings at about $95 billion, Khamenei exerts exclusive control over Setad's economic empire.

        Do the government officials and businessmen, falling over each other to grab the business opportunities now opened up, know or care what nefarious activities their commercial deals will be facilitating? Probably not. “Business is business” they are likely to declare. “Let the politics take care of themselves.” 

        A dangerous philosophy.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 September 2015:

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Kurds, Turkey, oil and Israel

        One picture dominated the world’s TV and press on September 4 – a Turkish coastguard bearing the lifeless body of a little boy, drowned with his mother and elder brother in a doomed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos. The dead child epitomized the humanitarian catastrophe that is overwhelming the world in general and Europe in particular. Like literally millions before them, the family were fleeing from a war-ravaged region of the Middle East.

        Virtually every report about the incident described the youngster and his family as Syrians. Few mentioned the fact that Aylan, his 5-year-old brother Galip, and their mother Rehan were Kurds (indeed their family name is Kurdi). The home they were abandoning was situated in Kobane, the town captured by Islamic State (IS) in October 2014, fought over for months, and finally recaptured in January by the gallant Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force. Their personal tragedy brings the Kurds and their problems into the forefront of the unfolding disaster.

        The Kurds are not Arabs but an ethnic group who historically inhabited a distinct geographical area referred to as Kurdistan. No such location is depicted on current maps, for after the first world war the old Kurdistan, together with its 30-plus million inhabitants, was divided between four states – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Modern Kurdish history is replete with uprisings against one or other of them in a continuous battle for independence. The near-century of struggle has not been in vain. The Kurds have slowly but surely been gaining political clout.

        With Kurds forming some 20 percent of its population, Turkey has always been intolerant of the Kurdish independence movement, regarding it as a threat to national unity. In 2014, prior to national elections, then-prime minister – soon to be president – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking the Kurdish vote, promised some relaxation of the restrictions placed on them. The result was a dramatic reversal in Kurdish political fortunes. In the June 2015 elections, much to Erdogan’s chagrin, his Justice and Progress Party (AKP) lost its overall majority, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 percent of the vote and gained parliamentary representation for the first time.

        For one reason or another, the Turkish electoral system failed to deliver an effective government out of this result, and Erdogan doubtless hopes that new elections, to be held in November, will enable his AKP to regain a majority, thus ensuring the sweeping constitutional changes he is seeking in order to transform the Turkish presidency into an autocracy.

        Erdogan’s policy towards the Kurds is contradictory. Domestically, he is opposed root and branch to any hint of separatism, autonomy, or independence, and in this he has the support of the majority of Turkey’s establishment. Kurdish demands run counter to the national unification achieved by Kemal Ataturk’s revolution in the 1920s. Repeated offensives by successive Turkish governments, aimed at crushing the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). have however left the so-called “Kurdish problem” unresolved.

        The PKK are strong in the Kurdish area just across Turkey’s border with Syria. If anything like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, it would feed demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way. “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in Istanbul on June 26. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it."

        This explains why Erdogan, on joining the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria in July, began air-strikes against IS and the Kurds indiscriminately, tarring both with the terrorist brush. But wherever they are sited the PKK remain prime targets for Turkey. On September 6 Turkish warplanes bombed PKK targets in Iraq, in retaliation for an assault on the army in which dozens of Turkish troops were killed.

        The PKK is one thing, oil revenues are another. Take Erdogan’s policy in respect of the Kurdish autonomous administration in Iraq – to say nothing of his duplicitous stance towards Israel. The authoritative Financial Times reported on August 23 that roughly 77 percent of Israel’s oil is currently being imported from Kurdistan via the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. In short, while Turkey maintains its strong anti-Israel stance for public consumption, it is daily providing Israel with thousands of barrels of oil, and reaping the consequential rewards. “Diplomatic hypocrisy at its finest,” was the verdict of the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Arabiya on August 30.

        This oil traffic reflects a weakening of the Iraqi government’s authority over its Kurdish component, which it certainly suspects of eventually planning to bid for complete independence. Meanwhile the oil sales to Israel have provided a revenue lifeline for the Kurdistan authorities, strapped as they are for the cash required to fund the Peshmerga military operations against IS. The emergence of Israel as one of the biggest buyers of Kurdish oil, comments the Financial Times, illustrates the widening gap between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government on fundamental policy. Baghdad, like many Middle Eastern capitals, refuses to recognise Israel and has no official ties with the country. On the other hand, relations between the Kurds and Israel, both small non-Arab entities battling against discrimination, have historically been close.

        A recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan left two Israeli journalists with no doubt of the genuine empathy felt by many Kurds towards Israel: “Old Peshmerga fighters cradling AK-47s reminisced about the 1960s, when Israel helped them in the war against Saddam Hussein.” Bookshops in the capital, Erbil, sold history books about the Jews of Kurdistan with a Star of David on them – an impossibility in much of the Middle East.

        What they found accords with statements by Kurdish leaders reported in June 2014. In a letter to Israel’s then President-elect Reuven Rivlin, the leader of the Kurdish Left, Mahsum Simo said plainly: “Israel isn’t our enemy.” Amir Abdi, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdish Party, when asked what kind of relationship his party envisages with Israel, responded: “We share a strong relationship with the friendly State of Israel.” 

        It seems clear that if Iraqi Kurdistan eventually emerges as a sovereign state, Israel will be among the first to recognize it. And if any sort of united or autonomous Kurdistan straddling Syria, Iraq and Iran emanates from the current turmoil, Israel might find itself with a valuable friend and ally within the very heartland of the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 6 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 September 2015: