Friday, 19 December 2014

The non-Arab Middle East: Iran, Turkey and Israel

A certain TV art critic, when discussing familiar masterpieces, used to insist on turning them upside down. He maintained that viewing a work of art from an unfamiliar perspective added greatly to one’s understanding. The same can apply in other spheres – for example, the geopolitics of the Middle East.

   The Arab world is located fairly and squarely within that area of the globe now designated the Middle East (it has borne other names), but the Middle East is not exclusively Arab.  In addition to the numerous non-Arab minorities that inhabit the region, three major non-Arab states straddle it – Iran, Turkey and Israel.  In today’s world there is little love lost between them. It was not always so.

   The three differ in several basic respects, the most obvious being size.  Iran consists of some one-and–a-half million square kilometres, Turkey is about half that, while Israel is tiny by comparison at 21,000 square kilometres.  Iran and Turkey both have populations pushing some 80 million; Israel barely achieves 8 million. In geopolitical influence, however, the three probably stand shoulder to shoulder.

Another basic difference is religion.  While Israel is a Jewish state – the national home of the Jewish people – Iran and Turkey represent the conflicting branches of Islam. Iran is the leading exponent of the Shi-ite tradition; Turkey is a committed Sunni Muslim state.  Accordingly Iran and Turkey are actively engaged, though from opposing points of view, in the turmoil that has engulfed the Arab world.

   In the Syrian civil war, Iran supports the Shia-associated regime of President Bashar Assad; Turkey regards Assad as its mortal enemy – partly because of his support for Kurdish independence. Many believe Turkey even goes as far as providing aid and comfort to the brutal, but Sunni, Islamic State (IS), which is intent on spreading its control over as much of Syria and Iraq as possible, before advancing even further into the Islamic world.

   Underlying Iranian-Turkish antagonism lies the Iranian bid for political hegemony in the Middle East, to be underpinned by its acquisition of nuclear military capability – a bid that runs counter to the aspirations of Turkey’s new president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also seeks to dominate the region.  The ambitions of both, of course, conflict with those of the leading state of the Arab world – Egypt. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has two major enemies:  the Muslim Brotherhood and its satellite, Hamas in Gaza.  The former is heavily supported by Turkey; the latter, despite its Sunni adherence, by Iran as part of its anti-Israel policy.

For if anything unites the political philosophies of these two non-Arab states, it is their opposition to the third – Israel.  Both Iran and Turkey seek to boost their popularity in the Arab world by unrestrained hostility towards Israel.  Iran not only engages in terrorist activities against Israeli targets worldwide, but finances and supports anti-Israel terrorist action from wherever it emanates, in particular Shi-ite Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also Sunni Hamas in Gaza.  Turkey under Erdogan, first as prime minister from 2003, now as president, has sought to enhance its credentials in the Muslim world by adopting a consistently anti-Israel stance.

It was not always so.  Once the three non-Arab states stood side by side. Back in March 1949 Turkey was the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel; a year later Iran followed suit.  Following Turkish recognition, cooperation between Turkey and Israel flourished, particularly in the military, strategic, and diplomatic spheres. Trade and tourism boomed, the Israel Air Force practised manoeuvres in Turkish airspace and Israeli technicians modernized Turkish combat jets. There were also plans for high-tech cooperation and water sharing.

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey in 2003, he initially maintained a “business as usual” approach, and indeed paid an official visit to Israel in 2005.  However his sympathies, shaped by his Muslim Brotherhood background, very quickly resulted in his realigning Turkish policy in favour of an Islamist pro-Arab stance. Relations with Israel deteriorated rapidly, reaching their nadir in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when an attempt, backed by the Turkish government, to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza led to an armed encounter on the high seas, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish nationals. 

As for Iran, from the establishment of the State of Israel up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, the two countries maintained close ties. Israel viewed Iran as a natural ally, and fostered the relationship as part of the strategy favoured by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, of an “alliance of the periphery”. After the Six Day War in 1967, Iran supplied Israel with a significant portion of its oil needs, and Iranian oil was shipped to European markets via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. Israeli construction firms and engineers were active in Iran, and military projects are believed to have been wide-ranging, including an Iranian-Israeli attempt to develop a new missile.

       In December 1979 the Islamist Ayatollah Khomenei became Supreme Leader of Iran. Before the end of the year, Iran had severed diplomatic relations with Israel, and withdrawn its recognition.

   How extraordinary, therefore, that the leading Arab media organization, Al-Arabiya, on its website on December 16, 2014, should run a long article by Turkish political analyst, Ceylan Ozbudak, headed: “Old Friends Can’t be Foes”.  In it she maintains that “a new warmth is in the air for Turkey-Israel relations,” citing Israel’s offer of $20 to $23 million in compensation for the families of the nine Turkish nationals killed during the Mavi Marmara incident as “a major step forward to secure a normalization process with Turkey”. This, she says, can lead to further positive developments for both countries, and the region, in terms of security, economy and foreign policy.  “Today,” she maintains, “with the latest situation in the Middle East and the ongoing Syrian situation, the countries need the partnership of each other maybe more than ever.”

In support of this, she claims that a Turkey-bound pipeline is the most feasible option for exporting the natural gas being developed in Israel’s offshore exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that four Turkish companies are currently involved in negotiations to begin importing Israeli gas starting in 2017.

Ozbudak points out that Turkey is the only regional country to which both Iranian and Israeli citizens can travel without a visa.  Turkey, she maintains, is moving towards a closer diplomatic relationship with Iran. “It’s also high time,” she asserts, “to come closer to Israel to be able to mediate between the two countries when the need emerges.”

Turkey as honest broker between Israel and Iran?   That would indeed be an upside-down world a re-aligned Turkey and a radically different Iran. But we’ve been there before, and what goes around, comes around. It’s a thought.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 December 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/20122014-non-arab-middle-east-iran-turkey-israel-oped/

Friday, 12 December 2014

Turkey and the Islamic State

No-one quite knows where Turkey stands in relation to the brutal and bloodthirsty Islamic State (IS), but there are reasons for fearing the worst.  The worst, from the point of view of the West generally, as well as much of the Middle East, is that Turkey’s antagonism towards Syria’s President Bashar Assad outweighs any opposition it may have to IS, and that its current foreign strategy is postulated on that premise. 

Underlying this position is the long-standing aim of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to deny Kurdish aspirations for full independence, and crush the militant Kurdish organisation, the PKK - a stance which has the full support of Ankara’s political establishment.  As demonstrated last autumn in the fight for Kobane, the town on the Syrian-Turkish border, rather than have the Kurds prevail the Turks would have preferred to see it overrun by IS. In the event, due to determined efforts by the US-led anti-IS alliance, Kobane has not fallen, but the Turks have sat on their hands while the battle raged,

The Western powers can perfectly well see what game Turkey is playing – standing by while IS slogs it out with its traditional Kurdish enemies, and using the humanitarian disaster thus created to pressure the US into helping remove Assad and his Shia-supported Islamic government.  In pursuit of replacing the Assad regime with one in the Sunni tradition, many fear that the Turks are actually supporting IS fighters with arms and training, as well as facilitating the flow of foreign fighters across its borders to join IS – something that Turkey strongly denies.

Perhaps this explains the recent influx of foreign visitors to the court of Turkey’s new president.  First to arrive early in December was Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.  He was followed by a high-powered delegation of top officials from the European Union.  Hard on their heels came the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron.  Each was seeking to pull Turkey closer to its own political interests.

Putin's visit highlighted a major disagreement between Russia and the EU involving the supply of gas to southern Europe.  The South Stream pipeline project, announced in 2007, was a plan to transport natural gas from the Russian Federation through the Black Sea to Bulgaria, then through Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia to Austria. The project fell foul of EU competition and energy legislation, and the difficulties could not be resolved.  Putin made his trip to Turkey in order to announce that Russia was scrapping South Stream, and to name Turkey as its preferred partner for an alternative pipeline. The proposed undersea pipeline to Turkey, with an annual capacity of 63 billion cubic metres, would face no EU competition problems, since Turkey remains outside the EU.

No doubt Putin hoped that Turkey would respond by agreeing to retain its neutral stance as regards Russia’s activities in Ukraine, and continue to refrain from imposing  Western-style sanctions.

Facing the prospect of a new Russo-Turkish entente, and clearly fearing the worst as regards Turkish intentions in the anti-IS battle, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, together with other top EU officials, flew to Turkey on December 8 to urge its full participation in the fight against IS militants in Syria, and to persuade Turkey to stop the flow of foreign fighters across its borders.

Underlying the visit was Turkey’s long-standing application, dating back to 1987, to join the EU. The visit by these top EU officials was one of the highest-profile in years and, said Mogherini, is a symbol of: “…our desire to step up the engagement.”

The EU apparently hopes that the coincidence of a new president and prime minister in Turkey, and a new European Commission in Brussels, can mark a fresh start in EU-Turkey relations.  This could at least pave the way for regular high-level talks to discuss common strategic interests, if not lead to granting Turkey’s long-standing wish to join the EU.

One issue up for discussion during the visit was surely the fact that Turkey has not joined in with the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia over Ukraine.  The proposed Russian-Turkish gas project clearly renders such a possibility even more remote, though EU officials doubtless pressed Turkey to join in sanctions, or at least not to take advantage of the situation by exporting affected products to Russia. 

The EU officials had barely left Turkish soil before the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, flew into Ankara to try to persuade Erdogan to bend his policies in Britain’s direction. In particular IS poses a direct threat to Britain’s national security, both through its brutal beheadings of Western hostages and because of the growing number of British jihadists who are seeking to return home from fighting in Syria to carry out acts of terrorism.

Cameron hoped to persuade Erdogan to help track the movements of British and other foreign jihadists crossing Turkey’s border with Syria. At a joint press conference with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Prime Minister, Cameron was able to announce: “The prime minister and I have agreed that we should exchange even more information, we should cooperate more in terms of intelligence.”  This is understood to include requiring all Turkey’s airlines to share timely and accurate information about airline passengers flying from Turkish airports direct to the UK.

As for Turkey’s EU aspirations, Cameron said that he discussed Turkey’s accession to the EU during talks in Ankara on December 10 with Davutoglu.  “In terms of Turkish membership of the EU,” he said, “I very much support that. That’s a longstanding position of British foreign policy.”

Cameron’s difficulty is that Turkey, though a member of Nato, has a very different take on the Syrian conflict, and persuading Turkey’s leaders to alter their focus from overthrowing Assad to defeating IS is a task probably beyond Cameron, let alone the high-powered EU delegation that preceded him in Ankara. 

In fact, Erdogan has already announced the terms on which he might be persuaded to be more active in supporting the anti-IS alliance. His most specific demand is the creation of a buffer and no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, protected from Assad’s troops and aircraft.  This would represent a serious escalation of the conflict, since establishing a no-fly zone could involve destroying a good chunk of Assad’s air defence system. Moreover, artillery within the range of the buffer zone might also have to be targeted.

There is also the implication for relations with Iran. Creating a buffer zone would be seen by Iran as an invasion of a key ally, and it might well scupper any hope the US may have of linking the on-going nuclear talks with securing Iran’s support for a managed political transition that removes Assad but preserves much of the Syrian state.

All in all, the chances of persuading Turkey to abandon its somewhat equivocal approach to the Syrian conflict seem somewhat remote.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 December 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 December 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/13122014-turkey-islamic-state-oped/

Friday, 28 November 2014

Who killed Rafik Hariri?

Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small...
                  - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
                                                                                  
            The wheels of justice, like the mills of God, are known to grind slowly, but the judicial process to determine who was guilty of the assassination of Lebanon’s one-time Prime Minister, and to bring the culprits to justice, seems interminable.

            Just before noon on St Valentine’s day 2005 – February 14 – a motorcade swept along the Beirut seafront.  In one of cars sat Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, returning home from a parliamentary session in central Beirut.  As the line of vehicles reached the Hotel Saint Georges, a security camera captured a white Mitsubishi truck alongside the convoy.  Seconds later a massive explosion shook the city.  In the midst of the carnage Rafik Hariri, along with 22 other people, lay dead.  Some 200 were injured.  The blast left a crater on the street at least 10-metres wide and two metres deep and, as Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star, the country's chief English-language newspaper, later recounted, he felt the impact in his apartment two miles away.

Ten days later UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible for the attack.  In doing so he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process.  Now in its tenth year, it is currently under the aegis of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the STL), a body voted into existence by the UN Security Council in 2007, formally established in 2009, and now, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, comparable to some large commercial enterprise.

Operating on a budget of over $150 million, half of which is provided by the Lebanese government, the STL court, which consists of 11 judges – seven international and four Lebanese – sits in The Hague.  Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office, which arranges briefings and interviews for journalists, providing them with press releases, court papers, photographs, audio-visual material, fact sheets and basic legal documents. In addition, located within the STL building is a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.

How ­– and more important perhaps, why did this complex judicial operation emerge from Kofi Annan’s decision, immediately following the assassination, to send a small investigative team to Beirut?

That team spent a month attempting to get at the truth, but in the end, recognising the logistical and political difficulties, submitted a report recommending an independent international enquiry.  Kofi Annan followed the group’s advice.  He assembled another, more highly-powered, team of Investigators and sent them to Lebanon.  Six months later a second UN report concluded that the white truck seen on the security camera outside the Hotel Saint Georges had carried some 1,000 kilograms of explosive.  Since Hariri's convoy contained jamming devices intended to block remote control signals, they concluded that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber. The report cited a witness who said the bomber was an Iraqi, who had been led to believe that his target was Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The report concluded that top Syrian and Lebanese officials had been planning the assassination from as far back as mid-2004. Its findings were based on key witnesses and a variety of evidence, including patterns of telephone calls between specific prepaid phone cards that connected prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials to events surrounding the crime.

So already in 2005 the finger was pointing at Syria and its Hezbollah supporters inside Lebanon.  In fact, Lebanese public opinion pre-empted this conclusion.  Lebanon’s powerful neighbour Syria had been enforcing Big Brother control over Lebanese affairs for decades.  Rafik Hariri had been actively seeking to loosen Syria’s oppressive grip, and had become something of a thorn in the side of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.  Following Hariri’s assassination a massive protest was organized in Martyrs’ Square in the heart of downtown Beirut, denouncing the atrocity and demanding that Syrian troops be expelled from the country.  This so-called Cedar Revolution caught the world's attention. A diplomatic coalition was formed, with the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia at its helm. On April 26, 2005, after some three months of civil agitation, the last Syrian troops left Lebanon.

It took another four years of fact-finding by the United Nations International Investigation Commission (UNIIC) before sufficient additional and convincing evidence had been collected to enable the STL to be set up.  Even so, largely because of blocking tactics employed by Hezbollah officials inside Lebanon, the five identified defendants have not been apprehended and the trial is being held in their absence.  They are named as: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassab Oneissi, Sassad Hassan Sabra, and Hassan Habib Merhi.

The trial of Ayyash et al. began on 16 January 2014.  In preparing the case the prosecution had carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria, trying to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with President  Bashar Assad and Syria’s supporters. Suddenly, on Friday November 14, the STL executed a major and controversial U-turn.  It decided to allow prosecutors to present new evidence against Assad, focusing on the breakdown of relations between him and Hariri.  The Tribunal may have felt emboldened to do so by Assad’s considerable loss standing in much of the world during the Syrian civil war. Beirut’s Daily Star reported that prosecutors will seek to expose Assad’s role in Hariri’s assassination.

 “Let’s call a spade a spade, your honor,” said Iain Edwards, a defense lawyer for a senior Hezbollah operative accused of complicity in the attack. “The prosecutor is now basing his case on Syria being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri” – in other words that Assad wanted the Lebanese prime minister killed, and used his security apparatus to achieve his objective.  In effect the Tribunal is raising the possibility that the answer to the question “Who killed Rafik Hariri?” is President Bashar Assad of Syria.

Whether this dramatic development will have the effect of clarifying the issues and speeding the judicial process is dubious in the extreme.  The probable result will be to introduce new complications into the trial proceedings, widen their scope and further protract the hearings into an indefinite future.

“The task of the STL.” said its President, Judge Sir David Baragwanath recently and somewhat redundantly, “is to increase its efforts to complete the task given to it by the Security Council on behalf of the people of Lebanon" a pious pronouncement to which we could all, though without much conviction, say “Amen”.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 December 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Who-killed-Rafik-Hariri-383454?prmusr=439bvbP0Ql2Rkra7OHtTKf%2bk8EGnksVeVI5%2bWfj5Y0jEjVU4ezZ879yAlGXZecXk

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/28112014-killed-rafik-hariri-oped/

Friday, 21 November 2014

Recognizing Palestine - anomalies and ambiguities

The interminable Israel-Palestine dispute is replete with paradoxes. 

At the most basic level, there is no doubt that Arab opinion as a whole resents the presence of the state of Israel in its midst.  Palestinians regard Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as a disaster, and mark it annually with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”).  Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (the PA), leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people.  Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.

A first glaring anomaly, therefore, is the fact that Abbas has spent the past ten years nominally supporting the “two-state solution”, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War.  Given the founding beliefs of his party, this tactic – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, an objective explicit in what he says in the Arabic media, but which he never expresses in his statements to the world.

This underlying reality of the Israel-Palestine dispute explains why every attempt to negotiate a resolution has failed.  No Palestinian leader, whatever position he adopts to placate world opinion, dare sign up finally to a two-state solution, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. 

This is why the plethora of dates strewn across the recent history of the Middle East mark well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed, efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Road Map for Peace in 2003, the Annapolis process in 2007, the Obama administration’s direct peace talks of September 2010 followed by its second, intensive effort, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, over 2013-2014.

However close the Palestinian leadership may have reached over the years in negotiating a two-state solution – and some deals offered them virtually all they asked for – in the final analysis they always baulk at signing on the dotted line, because to do so would be to acknowledge Israel’s place, as of right, in Mandate Palestine, thus betraying the core principle they have inculcated into the Palestinian narrative.

As a matter of historical fact, all those abortive initiatives might have been superfluous. A sovereign Palestine could have been up and running alongside Israel some twenty-five years ago, before the PLO gained control of Palestinian policy.  For preceding them was the top-secret accord reached between Israel and Jordan in 1987, at a time when Jordan controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem, having annexed them in 1950, and was in a position to negotiate a binding peace agreement. 

Top-secret at the time, today the deal is a matter of public record. Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign affairs minister, negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan what became known as the “London Agreement” − signed on 11 April 1987 during a secret meeting held at the residence of Lord Mishcon, a leading UK lawyer and a prominent member of the Jewish community. Also present were Jordan’s prime minister, Zaid al-Rifai, and the director general of Israel’s foreign affairs ministry, Yossi Beilin. When it was signed on behalf of Jordan and Israel, it can confidently be assumed that the terms of a comprehensive peace deal had been virtually agreed between them. 

The sting was in the tail of the document.  “The above understanding is subject to the approval of the respective governments of Israel and Jordan.”  With the king as signatory, the approval of the Jordanian government was a foregone conclusion.  The problem was that in 1987 Israel was ruled by a fragile and uncertain “national unity government” in which ministers were attempting – often unsuccessfully – to suppress diametrically opposite political beliefs in the interests of providing the nation with effective government.  The prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the right-wing Likud party; Shimon Peres represented the left-wing Labor party in the cabinet.  Chalk and cheese.  Although Shamir permitted his foreign minister to undertake the secret negotiations and travel to London, he did not approve of the outcome, fearing that Israel would be forced into a solution that would be unacceptable to his party and prove divisive in the country.

Consequently he opposed the agreement, and Peres failed to get the cabinet’s endorsement. King Hussein, disappointed, disengaged from the peace process, and Yassir Arafat, then Chairman of the PLO, launched the first intifada in December 1987.  In July 1988 Hussein withdrew Jordan’s claim to sovereignty over the West Bank, and the course of the next quarter-century was set a course which saw the PA nominally engage in numerous attempts to reach a two-state solution, while ensuring that each and every attempt ended in failure.

It was before the conclusion of the latest futile attempt at peace negotiations, in April 2014, that Mahmoud Abbas decided on a new tactic. While never renouncing his nominal adherence to the two-state solution, he determined to by-pass peace negotiations in favour of seeking international recognition of the State of Palestine and international de-legitimization of the State of Israel.  So far he has not been unsuccessful.  During October 2014 not only was the State of Palestine formally recognized by 135 of the 193 UN member states, but Sweden became the first EU state officially to do so, while a non-binding vote in the British parliament recognized “the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution." The Spanish government did something similar last week, and the French government plans to do the same later in November.

Ambiguities lie at the heart of this profusion of recognitions.  First, do these well-meaning parliamentarians appreciate that a two-state solution cuts across core Palestinian beliefs?  Then, with well over a million Palestinians living in the Gaza strip, the “Palestine” that is being recognized should include Gaza. Although Abbas is heading what is nominally a “national unity government”, in fact Fatah and Hamas are at daggers drawn and his writ does not run in Gaza.  Hamas, which governs Gaza and could well emerge victorious in any future Palestinian elections, rejects the two-state solution and is intent on defeating and eliminating Israel through terror and armed conflict.  How do the well-meaning states intent on recognizing a State of Palestine “as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution” square those particular circles?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 November 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Recognizing-Palestine-anomalies-and-ambiguities-382598
Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 November 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/22112014-recognizing-palestine-anomalies-ambiguities-oped/

Friday, 14 November 2014

Iran and the West - how big a gap?

         The signals are mixed.  As the November 24 deadline for reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program approaches, signs of premature triumphalism are emerging from Tehran.  At the same time expressions of caution, if not downright pessimism, emanate from Washington - but are they genuine?  There is a growing belief in the media that a dishonourable deal is in the making. 

This final round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, UK, Russia, China, France – plus Germany) is nearly upon us.  Last week Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, declared that the "Great Satan's" (ie the US's) attempt to bring Iran to its knees had failed.

“Only after the West consented to Iran’s enrichment program,” he said, “did we decide to negotiate with them, and in this battle of wills, the will of the Islamic Republic came out victorious.”

This ratcheting up of the war of words by Tehran is taken by some commentators to indicate growing Iranian confidence about the outcome.

Certain that the Obama administration has discounted any sort of military confrontation aimed at preventing Iran achieving its goal of nuclear weapons capability, Iran’s leadership seems convinced that finally the P5+1 will accept a deal allowing it to produce nuclear weapons at the drop of a hat. Veteran US Middle East observer Eric Mandel believes that while the West has been lauding Iran for downgrading much of its 20% enriched uranium, Iran’s state-of-the-art centrifuges can convert 3% non-enriched uranium to 90% nuclear grade uranium in six to eight weeks. Right now, Mandel asserts, Iran has enough 3% uranium to produce between six to eight nuclear bombs.  And in return for simply talking, Iran has been rewarded with the progressive lifting of financial sanctions to the tune of $7 billion.

So the charm offensive instituted in June 2013 by Iran’s then newly-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has paid off.  Iran’s new strategy had three aims: to deflect the possibility of an armed strike against its nuclear facilities, to lift the burden of the crippling sanctions that had been imposed on the country, and above all to win as much time as possible to ensure that the centrifuges kept spinning and Iran was able to move ever closer to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. 

Rouhani, the self-styled “moderate”, took an early opportunity to indicate that he was willing to reopen discussions about Iran’s nuclear program.  Immediately a number of powerful voices in the West, entranced by Iran’s apparent change of direction, began pressing to readmit Iran into the comity of nations and start negotiating. 

A new Iranian team, led by its president, met the P5+1 in October 2013. The teams reached an interim agreement, which actually permitted Iran to continue enriching uranium, and agreed to meet again in January 2014.  In January the teams decided that they would reach an agreement by July.  There was, it goes without saying, no agreement by July, so the P5+1 agreed to extend the deadline until November 24. And all the time Iran was moving inexorably closer to nuclear weapons capability. So far it has won a precious additional 17 months, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the November 24 deadline will itself be extended.
   
Arab states across the Middle East have come to regard Iran, its obvious nuclear ambitions, and its long-term objective to become the dominant power in the region, both politically and religiously, as the major threat to their régimes.  Perhaps the fact that Washington has recruited many of them to its anti-Islamic State alliance explains why the US’s attitude has apparently hardened as the November 24 deadline approaches.

In a “Face the Nation” television interview for CBS last week, President Obama was asked about the strong rumours that he had recently sent a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, trying to engage Iran directly in the conflict against the Islamic State.  Obama refused to reply specifically, but he spelled out the US’s big interests in Iran.
 
“Our number one priority with respect to Iran,” he said, “is making sure they don't get nuclear weapons.”  He was, moreover, far from reassuring about the prospects of reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. “There's still a big gap,” he told interviewer Bob Schieffer. “We may not be able to get there.”

The second big interest, he acknowledged, was the fact that the US and Iran have a shared enemy in IS. “But I've been very clear, publicly and privately, we are not … coordinating with Iran on ISIL. There's … no coordination or common battle plan and there will not be because, and this brings me to the third issue, we still have big differences with Iran's behaviour vis-à-vis our allies… poking and prodding and creating unrest and sponsoring terrorism in the region, around the world, their anti-Israeli rhetoric and behavior, so that's a whole other set of issues which prevents us from ever being true allies…”

Last week Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, provided one explanation for the gap in the nuclear negotiations:  “The reports that we continue to get from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show that Iran continues to lie and deceive the world with respect to its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Back in 2013 Iran had promised real cooperation with the IAEA, but has barely answered any of the key questions that could explain whether Iran’s program involves nuclear weapons development or not. Western governments have repeatedly warned Iran they need to see more progress in the IAEA talks to make a deal possible. That deal would involve major constraints on Iran’s future nuclear program in exchange for lifting most sanctions on Tehran.

The IAEA has just issued its quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program.  While acknowledging that Tehran had continued to stand by its pledges to the P5+1 to scale back some of its nuclear activities, the IAEA said that it had provided no real answers on aspects of its past nuclear work that it had promised to provide by August 25. “Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the Agency to clarify the outstanding issues.”

The IAEA also said that in October, a member of the IAEA technical team was refused a visa to enter Iran for the fourth time, and that technical talks with Iran are now on hold until after November 24. Middle East observer Kenneth Bandler fears that the P5+1 will bend over backwards to conclude an agreement by the deadline, and that the IAEA may not finally be able to fulfil its mandate on monitoring for a nuclear weapons capability.

The gap between Iran’s ultimate ambitions and what the West will tolerate are certainly out in the open. Will Iran’s tenacious defiance finally triumph over the pusillanimity of the US administration, apparently anxious to reach an accommodation with Iran but protesting right up to the wire that it is not?  It is far from certain that November 24 will provide an answer.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 November 2012:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Iran-and-the-West-how-big-a-gap-382019?prmusr=vlB6LAHZrtD8HfNQpZ909AiRyYoWUkxTUkif9fcUqiIX5wDAFD5%2boXlsY5fU%2fvJj

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 November 2013:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/15112014-iran-west-big-gap-oped/

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Egypt's war on terrorism

        The tentacles of Islamic State (IS), already coiled around large areas of northern Iraq and Syria, are now reaching out as far as northern Sinai.  Egypt's most active militant group is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, and whether or not it is formally allied with IS and its leader, the self-styled caliph of all Muslims contradictory reports about that have recently appeared in the press it is certainly closely aligned to IS, whose objectives it backs, and whose methods it copies. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which attempted to kill the interior minister in Cairo in 2013 in a car bomb attack, has issued videos of the beheading of captives.  It claimed responsibility for the bomb attack in Sinai in September, when at least 11 policemen were killed in a convoy travelling through village of Wefaq, near the Gaza border. 

Based on intercepted phone calls and text messages, Egyptian security officials recently claimed to have uncovered requests for aid from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis to IS.  According to this intelligence, the Sinai-based terror group requested the IS senior leadership to send trained members to Sinai to help carry out terrorist attacks.

On Friday, October 24, two attacks in the Sinai peninsula killed 33 Egyptian security personnel.  In the first, in the al-Kharouba area northwest of al-Arish, near the Gaza Strip, 30 people were killed and more than 25 wounded. Among them were several senior officers from Egypt’s Second Field Army based in Ismailia.  One Sinai-based official said a rocket-propelled grenade was used to target two armored vehicles loaded with ammunition and heavy weapons, at a checkpoint near an army installation. Later, gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint in al-Arish, killing three members of the security forces.

Together the two attacks produced the biggest loss of life in decades for Egypt's army, which has been carrying out an offensive against jihadists in northern Sinai. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared three days of national mourning, during which state television displayed black ribbons on screen.  Following a meeting of the National Defence Council, he also imposed a three-month state of emergency in the north and centre of the Sinai peninsula where the violence took place, and closed Egypt's Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip.

In short, Egypt now acknowledges that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has become one of the region's main exporters of terrorism, and is mounting a major offensive aimed at overcoming the threat and re-establishing effective control. Its aim is to establish a security buffer zone along its shared border with Gaza in order to prevent terrorists from using smuggling tunnels to launch attacks on Egyptian soldiers and civilians. The Egyptian army's security crackdown includes imposing a curfew on the region, closing the Rafah crossing into Gaza, demolishing hundreds of houses along the border with the Gaza Strip and transferring thousands of people to new locations.  In other words – words familiar from their frequent use in castigating Israel – the Egyptians are tightening their blockade on Gaza and collectively punishing not only Hamas, but the Palestinians living there.

But, as Middle East journalist Khaled Abu Toamen wryly observes, though all this is happening before the eyes of the international community and media, the UN Security Council has not been asked to hold an emergency meeting to condemn what some Egyptian human rights activists describe as the "transfer" and "displacement" of hundreds of families in Sinai.

“Needless to say,” writes Abu Toamen, “the international community will continue to ignore Egypt's bulldozing hundreds of houses and the forcible eviction of hundreds of people in Sinai.  Egypt's war does not seem to worry the international community and human rights organizations, at least not as much as Israel's operation to stop rockets and missiles from being fired into it from the Gaza Strip.”

He believes that the Egyptians, who once thought that the tunnels along their shared border with Gaza were being used only to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip, now think they are also being used to smuggle weapons and terrorists out.  Accordingly they have sealed off their border with Gaza, insulating themselves from Hamas. 

Meanwhile, following the firing of a rocket from Gaza into southern Israel on November 2 the second since the end of Operation Protective Edge on August 26 Israel has also closed the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings to Gaza “until the security situation allows their reopening”, according to a Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson, who added that the closure was not meant as a punitive measure, but to protect people working at or passing through the crossings. Emergency humanitarian goods would continue to be allowed through.

Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzouk declared that the Israeli closure of the crossings violates the cease-fire agreement which ended Operation Protective Edge, and called the decision “a childish and irresponsible act. This is collective punishment that is being imposed on the Gaza Strip.”  But Hamas leaders like the Egyptian actions even less.  On November 2 they appealed to the Egyptian authorities to reopen the Rafah border crossing, warning that the continued blockade on the Gaza Strip was in violation of the Egyptian-engineered cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.  Eyad al-Bazam, spokesman for Hamas’s Interior Ministry, pointed out that the closure of the Rafah terminal was preventing Palestinians with humanitarian cases from leaving the Gaza Strip.

However Egypt is convinced that the two-pronged attack on October 24 that killed 33 soldiers was the work of Palestinian militants based in Gaza.  Egypt’s Major General Sameeh Beshadi told the Arab newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, that there was “no doubt that Palestinian elements had taken part in the attacks."  According to Beshadi, the militants, who infiltrated Sinai via tunnels linking the peninsula to the Gaza Strip, prepared the booby-trapped vehicle used to attack the army checkpoint near El Arish. The use of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, he asserted, was proof that this attack, like all the large-scale attacks in the area in recent years "involved well-trained Palestinian elements."

Just at the moment Hamas needs Egypt much more than Egypt needs Hamas.  Hamas’s ability to emerge with any credit from its latest conflict with Israel is dependent on the outcome of the indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks on the Gaza truce, being brokered by Egypt in Cairo. It must therefore feel very uncomfortable with the result of the recent terrorist outrage in Sinai – namely, Egypt’s postponement of the latest round of talks until late-November.  This may explain why Hamas has denied that its operatives were responsible for firing the rocket that hit the Eshkol region of southern Israel last week, and has arrested five men it accuses of the attack.

Perhaps Egypt can succeed where Israel has notably failed – in convincing the leaders of Hamas that terrorism is a two-edged weapon that can bring an unwelcome retribution down on its perpetrators.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 November 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Egypts-war-on-terrorism-381002

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 November 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/08112014-egypts-war-terrorism-oped/