Archive for the ‘Iran talks’ Category

Iran, keeping to the deal

18/12/2016

Iran has shipped 11 tonnes of heavy water abroad to bring its stock back under a limit set by its landmark nuclear deal with major powers, according to a diplomat citing a confidential U.N. nuclear watchdog report. The shipment is a step toward resolving a dispute with Western powers including the United States that are keen to prevent Iran from testing the deal’s terms. The report substantiated an Iranian statement last month about a transfer to Oman but does not identify the destination, the diplomat said. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is policing the restrictions placed on Iran’s atomic activities under the July 2015 deal, said in a report last month that Iran’s stock of heavy water had for the second time exceeded a soft limit of 130 tonnes, and the IAEA expressed its concerns to Tehran. “On 6 December the agency verified the quantity of 11 metric tonnes of the nuclear-grade heavy water at its destination outside Iran,” the diplomat quoted the five-paragraph report by the IAEA to member states as saying. “This transfer of heavy water out of Iran brings Iran’s stock of heavy water to below 130 tonnes,” it said, adding that Iran had told the agency that the shipment left the country on Nov. 19.

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Bibi tries to influence Trump

16/12/2016

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he would discuss with Donald Trump the West’s “bad” nuclear deal with Iran after the U.S. president-elect enters the White House. Speaking separately to a conference in Washington, Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry clashed over the Iran deal and Israel’s settlement construction on the occupied West Bank, which Kerry depicted as an obstacle to peace. During the U.S. election campaign, Trump, a Republican, called last year’s nuclear pact a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated”. He has also said it would be hard to overturn an agreement enshrined in a U.N. resolution. “Israel is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That has not changed and will not change. As far as President-elect Trump, I look forward to speaking to him about what to do about this bad deal,” Netanyahu told the Saban Forum, a conference on the Middle East, in Washington, via satellite from Jerusalem. Trump takes office on Jan. 20″.

 

Brennan warns Trump on Iran deal

10/12/2016

The director of the CIA has warned US President-elect Donald Trump that ending the Iran nuclear deal would be “disastrous” and “the height of folly”. In a BBC interview, John Brennan also advised the new president to be wary of Russia’s promises, blaming Moscow for much of the suffering in Syria. In his campaign, Mr Trump threatened to scrap the Iran deal and also hinted at working more closely with Russia. Mr Brennan will step down in January after four years leading the CIA. In the first interview by a CIA director with the British media, John Brennan outlined a number of areas where he said the new administration needed to act with “prudence and discipline” – these included the language used regarding terrorism, relations with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal and the way in which the CIA’s own covert capabilities were employed”.

“The result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”

04/12/2016

Max Boot, echoing William Inboden, writes about the similarities between Trump and Obama, “It is hard to imagine two presidents more dissimilar than Barack Obama, the cerebral and elegant liberal law professor, and Donald Trump, the brash populist and reality TV star. But if Trump’s campaign pronouncements are anything to judge by, his foreign policy may be more in sync with President Obama’s than either man would care to admit. And not in a good way: Trump shares with Obama a desire to pull back from the world but lacks Obama’s calm, deliberative style and respect for international institutions. A Trump presidency is inherently unpredictable — no one knows how much of his overblown rhetoric to take seriously — but if he does even half the things he suggested on the campaign trail, the result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”.

Boot goes on to note “One of Trump’s top priorities is to improve relations with Vladimir Putin. In a post-election phone call, Trump told the Russian dictator that “he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.” Sound familiar? Obama spoke in virtually identical terms when he took office in 2009. Hence his failed “reset” of relations with Moscow. This was part of Obama’s larger rejection of what he saw as the moralizing, interventionist approach of the George W. Bush administration. (Obama also thought that Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, would be a more accommodating partner than Putin, who remained as prime minister.) During the 2008 campaign, Obama made a big point of saying that he would talk to any foreign leaders without any preconditions — a stance that his primary challenger, Hillary Clinton, criticized as naive. In office, Obama has re-established relations with the Castros in Cuba and Myanmar’s junta, reached a nuclear deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran, and did little to back up his calls for Bashar al-Assad to leave office. Instead of enforcing his “red line” with Syria, Obama agreed to a Russian-orchestrated deal under which Assad was supposed to give up his chemical weapons (a pledge the Syrian despot has not fully carried out). Obama has also refused to take any military action to stop Assad’s assaults on civilians, notwithstanding his creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board. Obama has often expressed his admiration for George H.W. Bush, and he has largely governed as an amoral realpolitiker who has put American interests, as he defines them, above the promotion of American values. Far from proselytizing for freedom and democracy, Obama has given a series of speeches in venues including Cairo and the Laotian capital of Vientiane — speeches that, to critics, have sounded like apologies for past American misconduct. (Obama’s aides have claimed he was merely “reckoning with history.”) When Iranian protesters took to the streets in the 2009 Green Revolution, Obama did not express support because he feared that doing so would interfere with his attempts to engage with the Iranian regime”.

Boot contends that “On only a few occasions has Obama allowed idealistic considerations to gain the upper hand in his cold-blooded foreign policy — and never for long. He did intervene in Libya to help topple Muammar al-Qaddafi — an intervention Trump supported at the time but now criticizes — but he did little to try to shape post-Qaddafi Libya and gives every indication of regretting his initial intervention. He also called for Hosni Mubarak to step down as Egypt’s ruler during the Arab Spring but did not oppose the subsequent military coup that ousted an elected Muslim Brotherhood government and installed the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It is obvious that human rights promotion, while not dismissed entirely, has not been an animating principle of the president’s foreign policy. More broadly, Obama has given every indication that he does not see America as an exemplar but rather a deeply flawed nation whose forays abroad often have harmful consequences. In a 2009 press conference, Obama dismissed the idea that America is “uniquely qualified to lead the world,” saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That doesn’t mean that Obama hates America, as the cruder right-wing attacks have had it. In the very same press conference, he went on to say: “Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.” Thus Obama sees the United States as imperfect but virtuous as long as it acts in concert with others — something that it has not always done”.

The piece argues that “Trump, who has a far more jaundiced view of America than Obama does. In a revealing July 20 interview with the New York Times, Trump dismissed concerns about the massive violations of civil liberties being committed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in Turkey: “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.” In a similar vein, Trump dismissed concerns that Putin kills journalists: “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.” This is the kind of moral relativism that Republicans once denounced but now accept from the president-elect. As with Obama, Trump’s refusal to see America as a country with a mission leads him to look askance upon interventions abroad. Like Obama, he eschews nation-building and expresses a preference to work with foreign rulers regardless of their lack of democratic legitimacy. Trump reiterated to the Wall Street Journal after his election that he plans to end support for Syrian rebels and align with Russia in Syria: “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS.” And never mind that Iran, Russia, and Assad are all committing war crimes. Trump’s approach is quite different from what Clinton advocated during the campaign; she called for no-fly zones and safe zones. But it’s not so different from Obama’s current policy, which provides a modicum of aid to the Syrian rebels but tacitly concedes that Assad will stay in power”.

It concludes “This is not to suggest that Trump’s worldview is identical to Obama’s. One of their big divisions is over international institutions. Obama negotiated an international accord to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases; Trump has said global warming is a Chinese hoax and called for pulling out of the Paris agreement. Obama negotiated a nuclear accord with Iran; Trump promises to renegotiate it, calling it a “disgraceful deal” and an “embarrassment to our country.” Obama is a free-trader who negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); Trump is a protectionist who vows to withdraw from the TPP, rip up NAFTA, and impose tariffs. Obama has been supportive of NATO, working to expand the forces that the alliance deploys in Eastern Europe and the Baltics to guard against Russian aggression; Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and questioned the need to station U.S. troops to defend countries that don’t pay enough for the privilege. In sum, Obama is a believer in international organizations and international law; Trump is not. It is hard to imagine Trump saying, as Obama did: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” In turn, it is hard to imagine Obama ever threatening to bomb the “shit” out of another country, to steal its oil, or to torture detainees — all of which would constitute war crimes”.

He ends “In the terms coined by Walter Russell Mead, Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian: The former believes that the United States should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” whereas the latter believes that “the United States should not seek out foreign quarrels” but that it should clobber anyone who messes with it. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in spite of their substantial differences, is that both support quasi-isolationism — or, if you prefer, noninterventionism — unless severely provoked. Obama has been intent on pulling the United States back from the Middle East. The result of his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his failure to get more actively involved in ending the Syrian civil war has been to create a vacuum of power that has been filled by the likes of the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Undaunted, Trump has said he wants not only to continue the pullback from the Middle East (he wants to subcontract American policy in Syria to Putin) but also to retreat from Europe and East Asia. He has suggested that he may lift sanctions on Russia and pull U.S. troops out of countries (from Germany to Japan) if he feels they are not paying enough for American protection. It is quite possible, then, that Trump’s foreign policy would represent an intensification rather than a repudiation of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach. American power survived eight years of an Obama presidency, albeit in diminished form. If the president-elect governs the way he campaigned (which, admittedly, is not necessarily a safe assumption), there is good cause to wonder whether U.S. ascendancy will survive four to eight years of Trumpism. The post-American age may be arriving sooner than imagined, ushered in by a president with an “America First” foreign policy”.

Mattis at DoD?

02/12/2016

An article profiles James Mattis who could be the next defence secretary, “If President-elect Donald Trump picks Gen. James Mattis to be his secretary of defense, the retired Marine and combat veteran may be a moderating influence on the impulsive incoming commander in chief. But Mattis shares a hawkish view of Iran echoed by others in Trump’s national security team, raising the potential specter of a conflict with Tehran. The president-elect’s hints that he will nominate Mattis for the job have raised hopes among conservative policy experts and some lawmakers in Congress that the former commander could add strategic perspective and prudence to a Trump White House sorely in need of both. Revered as a war-fighting legend in the Marine Corps, the “warrior monk” is also well-steeped in history and strategy and carries around a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations.” Trump, a novice in foreign affairs, has often relied on his instincts and his shoot-from-the-hip style throughout his career in real estate and, more recently, as a presidential candidate. And given Trump’s isolationist campaign trail rhetoric and trashing of U.S. alliances, some former defense officials and lawmakers believe Mattis could steer the president-elect and his national security team away from hasty action or a radical break with America’s traditional foreign policy”.

The piece adds “Nominating Mattis, who only retired from active military service three years ago, also will test a long-established principle of civilian control of the armed forces. Trump has already appointed a retired three-star Army lieutenant general — Mike Flynn — as his national security advisor. At least two other retired generals have met with Trump as possible candidates for secretary of state or other top positions: Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly and Army Gen. David Petraeus. Only Mattis would require a congressional exemption to serve as a civilian secretary of defense. It’s unclear if Mattis’s forceful personality will ultimately gain Trump’s ear and shape his decisions. Yet his moderating influence is already on display: Trump told the New York Times last week that after a conversation with Mattis, the president-elect re-examined his views on waterboarding and torturing terrorist suspects, a stump speech staple. Trump said he was “surprised” Mattis didn’t think such tactics were useful and that the president-elect came away “impressed by that answer.” Mattis is famous for his blunt, salty language when speaking to troops preparing for battle. But the retired four-star general has often displayed a nuanced understanding of geopolitics that contrasts with Trump’s black-and-white view of the world, say officials and officers who have worked with Mattis. His nomination would also serve to reassure prospective Republican appointees to the Pentagon, many of whom are ambivalent about signing up to work for the Trump administration, given the president-elect’s off-the-cuff remarks and nativist “America First” rhetoric during the campaign”.

The article adds “When it comes to the threat posed by Iran, however, Mattis seems closer to other Trump advisors and most Republican lawmakers. In a speech last April, Mattis ranked Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East” and cited Tehran’s hostile rhetoric toward Israel and Persian Gulf states. Mattis sharply criticised President Barack Obama over the nuclear deal negotiated with Tehran last year. His view of the danger posed by Iran, coupled with the hawkish outlook shared by Flynn and Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), could pave the way for heightened U.S. tensions with Tehran. Mattis led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, overseeing U.S. forces across the Middle East. He later said his first three questions every day during those years were “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” A former Centcom official told FP that Mattis spent much of his time there focused on Iran and the potential threats it poses”.

It adds that “Mattis would eventually be forced out of his job at Centcom in 2013 after a series of disagreements with the White House over Iran. He argued — unsuccessfully — for a tougher military posture designed to deter Tehran from backing its proxies in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, a view shared by many others at Centcom. But unlike other hawks advising Trump, Mattis is more realistic about U.S. options in the Middle East, former colleagues said. He recognizes that a unilateral bid to dump the Iran nuclear deal — which was negotiated between major powers and Tehran — might harm American interests. Instead, the colleagues said, Mattis probably would argue for enforcing every provision of the nuclear deal, insisting that Iran abide by the agreement “to the letter.” “He’s not a rash guy. He’s not looking to tear the lid of this thing and just duke it out,” the congressional staffer said. The former Centcom official agreed. “You have a number of people who are coming onto the [Trump] team who are going to take a strong line on Iran,” but “Mattis really brings an enormous range of experience on these issues that would be very important and that requires you, frankly, to be very realistic in understanding the vast capabilities and limitations of American power.” In his April speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Mattis questioned the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal but said “there’s no going back” on it and the next president would have to live with it”.

It mentions that “Yet he also is a voracious reader, fond of quoting Marcus Aurelius and comfortably fluent in ancient history and geopolitics. He has a relentless work ethic and is a demanding boss, with no patience for shoddy work or missed deadlines. Widely respected across the government, Mattis likely would win broad and swift support from both parties in Congress if he is nominated as the next Pentagon chief. But lawmakers would have to make an exception for Mattis. By law, a defense secretary must have retired from active military service at least seven years before taking the job. His nomination would require amending current legislation, thereby expending some of the new administration’s already shaky political capital. Congress has granted such an exception only once before, in 1950, for retired Gen. George Marshall, when he served as President Harry Truman’s defense secretary to manage the Korean War. But Marshall was a staff officer and a diplomat. And although Mattis has a breadth of experience from his 44 years in uniform, he may struggle as a civilian administrator of the sprawling Defense Department bureaucracy and its $600 billion budget. Some senior defense officials are wary of Mattis possibly taking over the Pentagon and applying military-style leadership to a largely civilian workforce”.

It adds that “Having several recently retired military officers serving in top administration positions would mark an unprecedented break with convention. It could send a charged symbolic message that the top brass favour one political party over another and that civilian leadership has failed and only former generals can repair the damage. “They are all independently extremely capable as individuals, but appointing them all creates an optics problem,” said Edelman, now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Trump reportedly mulled naming Flynn to the Pentagon job. But unlike Mattis, the retired Army intelligence chief would have faced stiff opposition in Congress to amending the law and allowing him to take the post. Whoever gets the job, one of the first big issues the incoming defense secretary will face is the Pentagon’s budget, which is currently funded through a stopgap measure slated to expire next March. Trump has promised to dramatically increase defense spending by roughly $100 billion over the course of his first term to pay for dozens of new warships, hundreds of planes, and tens of thousands of additional troops — increases that have not come along with any proposed change in U.S. strategy. But it’s unclear how the massive arms buildup would be funded, as Trump has also promised a big tax cut and a major investment in infrastructure projects across the country. The battle over military spending could spark feuds not only between Republican and Democratic lawmakers but among different factions inside the GOP — with some fiscal conservatives reluctant to raise federal spending even for defense”.

Obama, attempting to secure his legacy

29/11/2016

A report discusses the legacy building attempts of President Obama, “With less than three months left in office, President Barack Obama will soon relinquish his foreign-policy legacy to the gimlet-eyed gaze of historians and presidential scholars. But before that happens, the White House is hellbent on completing an ambitious to-do list that will face a considerable head wind in Congress.  Eight years ago, the energetic senator from Illinois came to power on a promise to end the bloody wars and counterterrorism policies of former President George W. Bush, a Republican. But the 8,400 troops currently in Afghanistan and 5,000 in Iraq — not to mention regular airstrikes on Islamist fighters in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia — demonstrate the intractability of America’s post-9/11 conflicts. And though Obama closed the book on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, the lasting presence of the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is a stinging reminder of unfulfilled campaign promises to do away with the excesses of the Bush era”.

It goes on to mention how “Other widely touted achievements, such as the Iran nuclear deal or the rapprochement with Cuba, could be rolled back by Obama’s successor or Congress. Just last week, days before Secretary of State John Kerry received a peace award in Ireland for securing the Iran deal, House Republicans announced plans to pass a 10-year reauthorization of sanctions on Tehran that could undermine the landmark accord. For the president’s critics, that deal is the most vulnerable part of his foreign-policy legacy. “The Iran deal will be in trouble no matter who is elected,” said James Carafano, a conservative foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. Obama’s supporters say an underappreciated aspect of his legacy — the successful restoration of America’s standing in the world after Bush’s presidency — may be the most in danger”.

The author adds that “Another major part of Obama’s legacy relies on galvanizing Congress in the dying days of his presidency. On trade, Congress has yet to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive pact involving 11 Pacific Rim countries and the United States that the White House views as essential to boosting U.S. exports and checking China’s influence in the region. And on Syria, U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire have failed in a conflict that has killed at least 400,000 people and displaced millions more”.

The article notes the list of items Obama will try to protect “In his final months in office, Obama will be keen to prevent any attempt by Congress to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement reached in July 2015 between Tehran and world powers. The president maintains that he already has all the authority he needs to reimpose economic penalties if Tehran violates the deal and is seeking to stave off growing bipartisan support for renewing the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires in December. However, hawkish Democrats want to send a clear message to Iran that the United States stands ready to resume economic sanctions if needed. And some Republicans want to introduce additional measures that could broaden possible sanctions. Some of those new sanctions could amount to poison pills that effectively sabotage the Iran deal, possibly prompting Tehran to renounce the agreement”.

He adds that “Congressional Republicans could also forgo tinkering with sanctions in exchange for promises to pursue another bill that imposes economic penalties against Iran for its ballistic missile testing. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, adamantly wants both bills approved, which could prevent Republicans from using either legislation as a political messaging tool”.

The piece notes that he will also try to cement counterterrorism policies, “In July, Obama released policy guidance outlining in unprecedented detail his extensive rules on drone strikes, “kill or capture” missions, and detention. But because little of Obama’s so-called counterterrorism playbook is enshrined in law, a future commander in chief could reverse key parts of it. Brookings Institution legal scholar Benjamin Wittes said laws regarding the use of force and armed conflict are “frankly pretty permissive” and the next president will have “wiggle room” to change the way U.S. counterterrorism missions operate. “If we’re going to kill people — and, by the way, we’re going to kill people — you have to have a process for it,” Wittes told FP. “Otherwise, it becomes sort of Putin-esque. If you don’t know the rules, then you’re in a very scary world.” Obama has steadily loosened the rules of engagement for American troops and aircraft in places like Afghanistan and Somalia, where U.S. special operations forces are accompanying local forces on the ground. In Afghanistan, U.S. special ops commandos have been given the green light to fight the Islamic State and the Taliban — in loosely defined self-defense missions — as American troops accompany Afghan army units in the field. In June, Obama allowed U.S. aircraft to target both extremist groups in Afghanistan”.

Rightly the piece admits that “Obama has already all but lost the fight on another early campaign promise — to shutter the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Though the Obama administration has steadily whittled down the inmate population since 2009, 60 men remain detained there”.

Revising the 9/11 terrorism bill

It ends that he hopes to revise a terrorism bill, “The first and only veto override of Obama’s presidency came in September when Congress voted overwhelmingly to allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the terrorist attack. But less than 24 hours later, Congress’s top Republican leaders announced they might rewrite the legislation “so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan said after the 348-77 vote. That was the same argument cited by Obama when he vetoed the legislation. But the president might be blocked from reversing the law from within his own Democratic Party. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is expected to become the next Senate Democratic leader, remains opposed to any changes. And no lawmaker — either in the House or Senate — has yet offered to rally support for revising the law, a congressional aide told FP on condition of anonymity”.

Rouhani, Trump and the deal

09/11/2016

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that the U.S. election results would have no effect on Tehran’s policies, state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying, noting that Iran’s expanding economic ties with the world were irreversible. “The results of the U.S. election have no effect on the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Rouhani said. “Iran’s policy for constructive engagement with the world and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions have made our economic relations with all countries expanding and irreversible.” He added that Iran’s nuclear deal with six world powers has been reflected in a United Nation Security Council resolution and cannot be dismissed by one government”.

Dems, 2016 and Iran

03/11/2016

An interesting article argues that Democrats are getting a “pass” on the Iran deal during these elections, “Democrats in Congress found themselves squeezed in a political vise over the Iran nuclear deal. President Barack Obama leaned heavily on fellow Democrats to back the agreement in the biggest lobbying effort of his administration. And pro-Israel groups launched a full-court press against the deal, spending tens of millions of dollars on adswarning lawmakers they would have “blood on their hands” if they endorsed the accord. In the end, the White House won the heated political battle, securing just enough support among Democrats in the Senate to stave off a bid to block the deal. But many Jewish groups and donors at the time warned Democratic lawmakers who supported the Iran agreement that they would pay a steep political price in the 2016 election”.

Pointedly, the writer argues “Yet more than a year later, no Democrat has been kicked out of office over the nuclear deal in a primary and it’s unlikely that any Democratic incumbent will lose their seat in the Nov. 8 election because of it. The much-anticipated blowback has yet to materialise, despite opinion polls that show a majority of Americans oppose the agreement. Although the Republican Party is hitting the issue hard in Senate and House races across the country, conservative Jewish organizations and activists have mostly pulled their punches and resisted funding rivals of lawmakers who voted for the Iran agreement. Both opponents and supporters of the deal agree the main reason the issue has not become a political spoiler is the man at the top of the Republican ticket, Donald Trump. The toxic nature of Trump’s candidacy, from his comments denigrating women to his refusal to accept the election result if he loses, has dominated the campaign and pushed aside policy debates that normally occur in presidential contests. He has turned off swaths of conservative Jewish and pro-Israel activists by trafficking in anti-Semitic rhetoric, as well bashing immigrants and U.S. allies, while praising Russian President Vladimir Putin”.

The author mentions “In last week’s presidential debate, Trump called the Iran agreement “the stupidest deal of all time, a deal that’s going to give Iran absolutely (sic)nuclear weapons.” But the Iran agreement barely featured in post-debate media coverage, largely because of Trump’s jaw-dropping comment that he was not sure if he would accept the results of the election. “This hasn’t exactly been a policy-oriented campaign season,” said Jeff Ballabon, a former media executive who runs a conservative pro-Israel super PAC called Iron Dome Alliance. “Like pretty much every substantive issue, Israel and the Iran deal have taken a back-burner to matters of personality, conduct, and style.” With Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton consistently ahead in national polls and widening her lead in key states, pro-Israel hawks are mostly resigned to a Clinton victory and see no reason to antagonise the next administration — as well as a possible Democratic majority in the Senate”.

Naturally he notes how “Sheldon Adelson, the conservative Jewish megadonor known for his hawkish stance on Israel, spent at least $98 million on Republican candidates in the 2012 elections. This year, the Las Vegas billionaire and his wife have spent only about $40 million on campaigns nationwide. And generally, Jewish donors have shunned Trump in a dramatic way. Of all funds contributed to major party candidates this year by Jewish donors, 95 percent went to Clinton and only 5 percent to Trump, according to an analysis published last month on FiveThirtyEight. That’s a sharp contrast to the 2012 presidential campaign, when about 71 percent of the $160 million given to major party candidates went to Obama’s reelection campaign and 29 percent went to the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The funding four years ago roughly reflected the breakdown of the Jewish vote in that election. Until it became clear Trump would be the nominee, organizations and donors on both sides of the Iran nuclear issue were bracing for a no-holds-barred brawl in the election season. To national security hawks and conservative Jewish groups in Washington, Democrats — particularly incumbents who openly endorsed the deal — looked vulnerable and ripe for defeat at the ballot box”.

The report notes “Advocates of the deal, however, say Trump’s antics and insults are not the only reason the issue is not gaining more traction. They argue the agreement is working, and that there is no smoking gun that shows Iran is violating the deal and secretly building nuclear weapons. The agreement offers “a way to defang Iran’s weapons program without firing a shot,” said Jessica Rosenblum of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that supports the agreement.  “It’s good policy and it’s good politics.” The agreement clinched in July 2015 between Iran and major powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, imposed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions that were choking the Iranian economy. The White House says the agreement blocks Iran’s potential path to a nuclear weapon as it imposed extensive international inspections and forced Tehran to dismantle a heavy water reactor, remove thousands of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and ship out stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium. But opponents maintain that easing sanctions enables Iran to bankroll its militant proxies across the Middle East, and opens the door to Tehran acquiring a nuclear arsenal in 15 years when certain provisions of the agreement expire. Critics also object to how the deal was implemented. Republicans were outraged over a $400 million cash payment that Washington sent Iran on the same day last January that several American prisoners were released by Tehran. The United States sent the funds to settle a longstanding claim by Iran before an international tribunal. The money had been set aside to pay for weapons that were never delivered because the pro-U.S. monarchy fell following the Iranian revolution of 1979”.

Interestingly it notes “Throughout her campaign, Clinton has never shied away from expressing her support of the deal, even though a majority of Americans say they oppose it. She has argued the agreement “lowers the threat” posed by Iran and has vowed to hold Tehran accountable for other activities that fall outside the deal. Americans disapprove of the deal, 57 percent to 30 percent, according to a February poll by Gallup. And surveys have shown Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose the accord. Yet some polls indicate a majority of Jewish voters support the deal, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition. Anxious to retain a GOP majority in the Senate, Republican candidates and conservative political action committees see the issue as a winner. The Iran nuclear deal is a frequent talking point in pivotal Senate races in Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Illinois, with Republicans seeking to portray their opponents as naive and weak on national security. In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is gambling that her opposition to the nuclear deal can help her fend off a serious challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte made the issue a key part of a $4.2 million advertising buy for her campaign”.

Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East

17/09/2016

A piece discusses how Saudi Arabia is dealing with the new Middle East, “Those concerned about the fallout from President Barack Obama and his administration’s nuclear deal with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — the hits just keep on coming. The recent revelation that the United States handed over $400 million in cash to Iran on the same day that it was releasing four American captives is but the latest disturbing detail in the saga that has become Obama’s extended experiment in appeasing the mullahs. Add it to the long list of other threatening post-deal developments, including the intensification of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the continuation of its efforts to illicitly procure nuclear materials, and the expansion of its aggressive and destabilising activities across the Middle East. Oh, and don’t forget thedetention of three new American hostages, of course. Somewhat less noticed in the JCPOA’s aftermath, but potentially no less consequential for regional security, has been the steadily escalating confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was not a wholly unexpected development. Many analysts warned that the Saudis would not look kindly on a U.S.-Iranian agreement, negotiated largely behind their backs, that ended up leaving the country’s arch-enemy, the Shiite theocracy across the Gulf, with a large nuclear infrastructure, hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and a more or less open field to indulge its quest for regional hegemony. The Saudis, inevitably, would read it as America abandoning its historical role as the guarantor of Gulf security in favor of some new dispensation with an unreconstructed Iran — one that threatened to irreversibly alter the region’s correlation of forces in Iran’s favour”.

The article goes on in a similarly sweeping terms to argue “Obama’s penchant for stoking Saudi paranoia and fears has no doubt made matters much worse: Declaring, for example, that his aim was to establish an “equilibrium” between the Saudis, a longstanding U.S. ally, and Iran, a revolutionary power that has systematically attacked U.S. interests for four decades. Or publicly complaining about the fact that he’s“compelled” to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally at all. Instead, Obama has opted to diss the Saudis repeatedly as free-riders who seek to exploit American muscle for their own narrow, sectarian purposes. In Obama’s telling, the Iranians — handmaidens to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s multi-year campaign of war crimes and mass murder — have legitimate “equities” in places like Syria that deserve to be protected (Could he mean the land bridge via Damascus by which Iran supplies its Lebanese client, the terrorist group Hezbollah, with tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that will be used in its next war with Israel?). Rather than seeking to counter Iran’s revisionist agenda, Obama’s view is that the Saudis need to accommodate themselves to “sharing” the Gulf with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”.

The writer goes on to add “Confronted with a newly empowered Iran and a retrenching America, the kingdom is striking back, not rolling over. It believes Obama’s policies have purposefully created a dangerous vacuum in the region, one that is primarily being filled by an Iran bent on sowing chaos and destruction, ultimately targeting the downfall of the House of Saud itself. No longer able to rely on Pax Americana, and unwilling to watch passively as the mullahs slip the noose over their collective neck, the Saudis have increasingly taken matters into their own hands, especially since the ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2015, adopting a much more assertive and high-risk, even provocative, national security posture with a single-minded mission to challenge and confront Iran. The opening shot (literally) in Salman’s new anti-Iran campaign was fired even before the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015. In March of last year, the Saudis intervened in Yemen to stop Iran-backed Houthi rebels from taking control of the country. The Obama administration subsequently supported the effort, reluctantly, by supplying intelligence and military equipment. Though the Saudis — and a handful of Sunni allies, led by the United Arab Emirates — succeeded in rolling back rebel gains in southern Yemen, the war has been bogged down for months”.

Thankfully he does notice the obvious point that “The Saudis have also been active participants in Syria’s civil war, supplying weapons to Sunni rebels seeking to topple the Iranian-backed Assad regime. While the Saudis have worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in this effort, the kingdom has persistently pushed for a more aggressive strategy to remove Assad from power and sever Iranian influence in Syria — including by supporting a number of radical jihadist groups, some with close links to al Qaeda. Following the large-scale intervention by Russia’s air force to bolster the Syrian regime in the fall of 2015, the Saudis, with CIA cooperation, increased the flow of weaponry to the rebels, helping to inflict significant casualties on pro-regime units — including leading elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that, together with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, have served as the vanguard of Assad’s army. And even as the Russian/Iranian-led offensive has turned the tide of battle decisively in the regime’s favor, the Saudis have not eased their pressure. In February 2016, the kingdom even announced that it was willing to commit its own ground troops to an international force should the U.S.-led coalition decide it was useful. The offer allegedly remains on the table. More recently, a surge of Saudi weapons to a jihadist-led rebel coalition helped foil, at least for now, the Syrian government’s efforts to reconquer the strategic city of Aleppo”.

More worrying for global order and the future nations acceptance of the Pax Americana, he correctly writes that “the Saudis increasingly seeking to flex their muscle across the security, diplomatic, economic, and even religious spheres. To recount the highlights in some detail helps to underscore the sustained and comprehensive nature of the current Saudi campaign:

— In August 2015, in an unprecedented operation for Saudi intelligence, Saudi agents captured the planner of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shiite with deep links to Iran and Hezbollah, was detained in Beirut as he was exiting a flight from Tehran and immediately rendered to the kingdom for interrogation. At the time, the United States had a longstanding bounty of $5 million for any information leading to Mughassil’s arrest.

— Last December, King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, announced the formation of an anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Sunni states that would be headquartered in Saudi Arabia and focused in particular on thwarting Iranian-backed aggression throughout the region. Only a few months later, more than 20 of the coalition’s members conducted large-scale military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia, near the Iraqi border — coincident with the kingdom’s public offer to commit ground forces to Syria.

— In early March, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) formally designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In its statement, the GCC accused Hezbollah of “hostile acts” to undermine the sovereignty, security, and stability of GCC members. It also charged the group with responsibility for “terror and incitement” in Yemen and Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the Arab League followed suit, also declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

—The next month, the Saudis ramped up their diplomatic offensive at the April summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. With more than 30 leaders in attendance, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the kingdom not only succeeded in passing a final statement that denounced Hezbollah for conducting terrorist attacks across the region; it also got an explicit condemnation of Iran for its “continued support for terrorism” and its interference in the internal affairs of member states, including Bahrain, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen”.

He goes on to make the point that “The burgeoning Israeli-Saudi ties are clearly unnerving the Iranians. After the Eshki trip to Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a harsh rebuke, tweeting: “Revelation of Saudi government’s relations with Zionist regime was stab in the back of [the] Islamic [community].” Days earlier, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, launched an extended attack on the kingdom, focusing in particular on Prince Turki’s activities and the Eshki visit. Nasrallah insisted that “None of this could have happened without the Saudi government’s approval.” He lamented that Israel is no longer viewed as an enemy by the Arab states, and claimed that “the worst and most important development in this matter is Saudi Arabia taking its relationship with Israel from a clandestine connection to a public one.” Nasrallah warned, “Saudi Arabia is set to recognize Israel,” and was ready to normalize relations “for free, without receiving anything in return” on the Palestinian issue. A particular Iranian worry when it comes to deepening Saudi-Israeli coordination could well concern Iran’s internal stability. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has long viewed Iran’s large, disparate, and disgruntled minority communities as potentially a major vulnerability for the regime. This view was articulated most forcefully by Meir Dagan, the late Mossad chief, who regularly made the case to U.S. officials that promoting the downfall of Iran should be an essential element of any strategy, short of war, to end the Iranian nuclear threat. Dagan was convinced that more could be done to appeal to the Iranian people, in particular by working with dissatisfied minority populations who comprise an estimated 40 to 50 percent of Iran’s population. He also believed that the Arab Gulf states might participate in such a strategy, especially if the United States played a coordinating role”.

He ends “To be fair, the Obama administration can rightly claim a degree of credit for encouraging the Saudis to step up to this larger role. Obama has made clear that part of his “mission” as president has been to spur traditional U.S. allies, like the Saudis, to take action for themselves, rather than always waiting for the United States to lead and then “holding our coat.” The president has called this his “anti-free rider campaign.” The problem, of course, is that the administration’s effort to promote greater burden sharing has not been pursued by way of revitalising alliances with a new sense of common purpose and cooperation, but by leaving traditional partners feeling abandoned and betrayed. Obama seems to have been under the illusion that the abrupt retrenchment of U.S. power and leadership from the Middle East would result in the organic rise of a new regional equilibrium as local actors were forced to play larger roles in ensuring peace and stability. Instead, the policy has created a dangerous vacuum that’s been filled not only by predatory enemies like Russia and Iran, but by frightened partners such as the Saudis, who increasingly may seek to remedy their security dilemma through acts of self-preservation that not only fail to take U.S. interests into account, but could actually run counter to them”.

The Iran deal, working

22/08/2016

An important piece in FA argues that Iran deal has worked, “A year has passed since diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) defied conventional wisdom and struck a deal aimed at both preventing Iran from getting the bomb and preventing it from getting bombed. At the time, the deal’s detractors were apoplectic; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake” that would pave the way for Iran to obtain a bomb. But the world has not come to an end. Iran is not the hegemon of the Middle East, Israel can still be found on the map, and Washington and Tehran still define each other as enemies. These days, voices such as Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, criticize the deal for having changed too little. But a closer examination shows that it has had a profound impact on the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Only four years ago, the Iranian nuclear program was consistently referred to as the United States’ number one national security threat. Senior U.S. officials put the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran at 50–50, a confrontation that the United States would quickly get dragged into. A war that was even more destabilizing than the Iraq invasion was not just a possibility; it seemed likely. Today, however, the talk of war is gone. Even the hawkish government of Netanyahu has gone silent on the matter. Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a hawk in his own right, announced a few weeks ago that “at this point, and in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat facing Israel. Thus it is fitting that the leadership of the country stop scaring the citizenry and stop giving them the feeling that we are standing before a second Holocaust.” Moreover, members of the U.S. Congress who have recently visited Israel have also noted that Israelis are no longer shifting every conversation to a discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat”.

The piece adds “The nuclear deal has thus halted the march toward war and Iran’s progress toward a bomb. And that certainly qualifies as significant change. To continue to argue that Israel and the region are not safer as a result of the deal would be to contend that Iran’s nuclear program was never a threat to begin with. That is a not a position that the Likud government in Israel can argue with a straight face. Other criticisms of the deal centered on predictions that Iran would not honour the agreement. Yet the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran is abiding by its obligations under the deal. Also not borne out have been prophecies that Iran’s regional policies would radicalise, that the deal would, as The Heritage Foundation’s James Phillips wrote, “project [American] weakness that could further encourage Iranian hardliners.” To be sure, Washington continues to view many of Iran’s regional activities as unhelpful and destabilising, but those activities have not increased as a result of the nuclear deal”.

The piece goes on to mention “If anything, as the European Union’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, told me last December, the deal paved the way for renewed dialogue on Syria, which offers a glimmer of hope to end the carnage there. “What we have now in Syria—talks bringing together all the different actors (and we have it now and not last year)—is because we had the [nuclear] deal,” she told me. And last month, U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry stated that Iran has been “helpful” in Iraq, where both the United States and Iran are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). It is undisputable that outside of the nuclear deal, the relationship between the United States and Iran has shifted significantly since the breakthrough. That became abundantly clear in January, when ten American sailors drifted into Iranian waters and were apprehended by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—and were then promptly released. An incident that in the pre-deal era likely would have taken months, if not years, to resolve was now settled in 16 hours. Direct diplomacy between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif combined with a mutual desire to resolve the matter quickly made all the difference”.

He points out that “for relations to improve beyond the nuclear deal, moderate elements on both sides need to be strengthened by the deal. That is one area where the skepticism of the critics may have been justified. Rather than seeing the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gain momentum after the deal, the pushback from Iranian hardliners has been fierce. Those officials couldn’t prevent Iran from signing the agreement, but they could create enough problems to halt any effort to translate the nuclear deal into a broader opening to the United States. A swift crackdown against individuals and entities seeking to build bridges between Iran and the West had its intended effect: Confidence that the nuclear deal would usher in a new era for U.S.-Iranian relations quickly plummeted. Moreover, challenges to sanctions relief has given hardline opponents of the deal in Iran a boost. Their critique of the agreement—that the United States is not trustworthy—seems to ring true since no major banks have been willing to enter the Iranian market. The banks’ hesitation, in turn, is mainly rooted in the fear that after the U.S. presidential elections, Washington’s political commitment to the deal will wane”.

Correctly the writer argues “Neither Republican candidate Donald Trump nor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have signaled any desire to continue down the Obama administration’s path with Iran in general. Clinton has vowed to uphold the deal, but neither she nor Trump have made it crystal clear that they will protect the agreement from new congressional sanctions or other measures that would cause the deal’s collapse. Clinton’s team has signaled that its priority will be to rebuild relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia and restore those allies’ confidence that the United States will counter Iran in the region. Meanwhile, the uncertainty around a Trump presidency needs no explaining. As a result, many banks deem the risk of entering the Iranian market too high due to the political challenges on the U.S. side. That has left Iranians without much in the way of sanctions relief, which is in turn costing Rouhani politically”.

He ends, “In other words, although the deal has been remarkably successful in achieving its explicit goals—halting, and even reversing, Iran’s nuclear advances while avoiding a costly and risky war with Tehran—its true value in rebalancing U.S. relationships in the Persian Gulf and creating a broader opening with Iran may be squandered once Obama leaves office. If Obama’s successor returns to the United States’ old ways in the Middle East while hardliners in Tehran stymie outreach to the West, these unique and historic opportunities will be wasted”.

Clinton and Kaine, preparing to govern

27/07/2016

A report from the New York Times notes that Clinton’s pick of Kaine means that she is looking to govern rather than campaign.

It opens “In selecting Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate, Hillary Clinton is sending the clearest signal yet that she is confident she will win the presidential election. If she were worried, she would have chosen Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who could have helped her win that critical Midwestern state — where she is now tied with Donald J. Trump. And Mr. Brown could have energized progressives nationally, who were far more enthusiastic about Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont than they have been about Mrs. Clinton. Other picks could have helped her more on Election Day. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, for instance, would have turned out Democrats and independents in his swing state. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey would have galvanized fellow African-Americans in key cities like Philadelphia and Detroit. Tom Perez, labour secretary, and Julian Castro, housing secretary, might have boosted Hispanic voting in Florida and the West. Mr. Kaine, by contrast, doesn’t bring obvious political rewards. Mrs. Clinton is likely to win his home state of Virginia in any case. The members of his natural demographic — white men — aren’t going to forget their problems with Mrs. Clinton just because Mr. Kaine is on the ticket. And he isn’t a break-up-the-big-banks liberal who will bring home the left wing of the party”.

Crucially the piece notes that “His value is almost entirely about governing — about what he can do for Mrs. Clinton in the White House rather than at the ballot box. To that end, the pick is deeply revealing about how she sees the general election and how she would govern as president. Mrs. Clinton is showing her cards: In her view, she already has a straight flush heading into the fall with President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts ready to campaign for her. She doesn’t think she needs an ace in the hole in November, according to Clinton advisers. Mr. Kaine’s chief job in the general election is to win the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 4 — it happens to be in Virginia — against his Republican counterpart, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana. Mr. Kaine and Mr. Pence are both solid debaters, but Mr. Kaine is more natural as an attack dog, a quality that Mrs. Clinton prizes. And as a member of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee, he is well suited to highlighting Mr. Trump’s knowledge deficits on world affairs”.

Naturally it notes that “Clinton herself is more popular than Mr. Trump with women, Hispanics, African-Americans and immigrants, which gives her some assurance that she can carry these voters without any particular help from her running mate, her advisers say. She is optimistic that because Mr. Trump is so divisive, she has no reason to fear him in traditionally Democratic states. She is investing far more money than the Trump campaign in voter turnout operations in battleground states, as well as spending far more on television commercials”.

The article goes on to discuss how Clinton and Kaine hold similar views on policy and style, “Kaine is a strong advocate of gun control, opposes the death penalty and favoured the Iran nuclear deal. He has also backed some restrictions on abortion and is a strong supporter of Israel. While he holds many progressive views, the fact that he does not come across as a fire-breathing partisan has helped give him a reputation as a moderate. He comes across like the nuts-and-bolts governor and mayor he once was — perhaps even a little boring — but it’s a style and approach to governing that won’t upstage Mrs. Clinton. “Tim is a sensible and pragmatic guy whose presence on the ticket will be very reassuring to centrist Democrats,” said Steven Rattner, a Wall Street financier and longtime ally of the Clintons. That won’t be so reassuring for supporters of Mr. Sanders, however. Mr. Kaine has supported free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton’s top rival for the Democratic nomination, and other liberals regard as job and wage killers. Mr. Kaine hasn’t been an outspoken champion for the extensive overhauls of banking and Wall Street regulations that Mr. Sanders wants, nor has he been an advocate for sharply raising taxes on the wealthy”.

The report goes on to mention how “Democrats close to Mr. Sanders, who has already endorsed Mrs. Clinton, say they do not expect him to lead a revolt against Mr. Kaine, who the Vermont senator has called “a very decent guy.” Clinton advisers say they are hopeful that Mr. Kaine will win over more progressives with his stand on guns and his lines of attack against Mr. Trump. They also say that picking Mr. Brown, or even Ms. Warren, was problematic because Republican governors would have filled those seats, hurting Democratic chances of retaking the Senate. Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, will replace Mr. Kaine if he and Mrs. Clinton win”.

Interestingly the piece goes onto note how Kaine does not have a significant ego, “Among Democrats who know him well, Mr. Kaine is considered a self-effacing workhorse who shuns the spotlight and prefers digging into domestic policy and national security rather than showboating on Sunday news programs. Mrs. Clinton sees herself in much the same way. Unlike some of his rivals for the ticket, he is widely viewed by colleagues as fully capable of being president — Mrs. Clinton’s top criterion for a running mate. Mrs. Clinton also wants a vice president who acts as a sounding board for her, as Mr. Biden did for Mr. Obama and Al Gore for her husband, and can handle any task, domestic or foreign. Given his decades of experience in government and politics, Mr. Kaine wouldn’t face much of a learning curve as No. 2 to Mrs. Clinton, who is itching to dive into work after Inauguration Day. He is a strong advocate of comprehensive immigration reform and a fluent Spanish speaker, which she thinks could make him a valuable emissary on the issue with voters and former Senate colleagues. Mr. Kaine has a down-to-earth style, and drew praise for his response to the mass shooting on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. He also received high marks when he delivered strongly bipartisan message in response to President Bush’s State of the Union address in 2006. Mrs. Clinton, with her reputation for partisanship and unpopularity with Republicans, was eager for a governing partner who would help reach out to the other party”.

The piece goes on to mention how Kaine and Bill Clinton get on well together, “Mrs. Clinton also wants a vice president who would have a good relationship with Mr. Clinton, especially since the two-term president would likely have some sort of policy role and be an outside presence in the White House. Mrs. Clinton remembers her rivalry with Mr. Gore during the first two years of the Clinton administration and wants to avoid distractions like tension between Mr. Kaine and Mr. Clinton. So far the signs are good: Mr. Clinton strongly supported the choice of Mr. Kaine, Clinton advisers say, and the two share similar policy views and were governors of Southern states”.

US and Russia both criticise UN

27/07/2016

The United States and Russia both criticized United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday for overstepping his mandate in a report on the implementation of a Security Council resolution backing a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Most U.N. sanctions on Iran were lifted in January when the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Tehran fulfilled commitments under its nuclear deal with Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the United States. But Iran is still subject to a U.N. arms embargo and other restrictions. U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman briefed the 15-member Security Council on Monday on Ban’s first bi-annual report on the implementation of the remaining sanctions and restrictions on Iran. “The United States disagrees strongly with elements of this report, including that its content goes beyond the appropriate scope. We understand that Iran also disagrees strongly with parts of the report,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the council. Power said “while some have argued that to be balanced, the report should give Iran a chance to express complaints about sanctions relief under the deal,” the Security Council did not mandate Ban to report on such issues.

“Iranians are disappointed by lacklustre economic progress”

19/07/2016

A year after their government signed a landmark nuclear agreement, many Iranians are disappointed by lackluster economic progress, doubt that the United States will fulfill its part of the bargain and are more favourably disposed toward a controversial former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a new poll shows. The survey of 1,007 Iranians — conducted by telephone from June 17-27 by IranPoll.com, an independent Toronto-based firm, for the University of Maryland — confirms anecdotal information that Iranians had overly high expectations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and failed to appreciate the obstacles Iran would still face in attracting foreign investment, reconnecting with foreign banks and increasing employment.

Rouhani threatens restarting nuclear programme

19/07/2016

Iran’s president says the Islamic Republic could restore elements of its nuclear program that were halted under its landmark deal if world powers that backed the agreement don’t live up to their end of the bargain. President Hassan Rouhani made the remarks televised on state TV on Wednesday, a day ahead of the one-year anniversary of the deal between Tehran and the United States and other world powers. The agreement called for caps on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Rouhani hailed the nuclear deal as widely beneficial, saying it promotes peace and stability and that violating it “will harm everyone.” But he also assured Iranians that Iran is “completely ready” and able to restore its nuclear program quickly if other parties violate the deal.

Kerry and Zarif meet over sanctions

25/06/2016

The Obama administration has met its sanctions relief obligations to Iran under last year’s landmark nuclear deal but is willing to further clarify what is and isn’t allowed in response to renewed Iranian complaints that it’s not getting all the benefits it deserves, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday. Speaking after meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Oslo, Kerry said the administration had lived up to both the letter and the spirit of the agreement and had gone the extra mile to explain to foreign firms what they are now permitted to do. “We have lifted the sanctions we said we would lift and we have completely kept faith with both the black-and-white print as well as the spirit of this effort,” Kerry said. “In fact, I have personally gone beyond the absolute requirements of the lifting of sanctions to personally engage with banks and businesses and others who have a natural reluctance after several years of sanctions to move without fully understanding what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do.” The meeting, at which Kerry also raised the importance of Iran influencing Syria’s government to ensure humanitarian aid deliveries and respect a fragile truce, came just a day after Iran’s supreme leader and Zarif renewed accusations that the U.S. is not living up to its commitment to ease sanctions under the agreement that gave Iran the relief in exchange for curbing its nuclear program”.

“Rhodes is portrayed in the profile as the master of reducing issues to tweets”

15/06/2016

An article from the World Today notes the role of Ben Rhodes, “On May 5 The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Such an article might have attracted little interest but Rhodes’s condescending remarks have made him the focus of much negative attention. His comments not only call into question the honesty of policy statements from the White House, but they also display a fundamental disregard for the news media’s role in informing the public about what its government is doing. Performing that role requires that the relationship between press and government, although characterized by dynamic tension, be built on a foundation of mutual respect”.

The piece adds “Rhodes told the article’s author, David Samuels, that journalists who cover international affairs from Washington ‘literally know nothing’ and are part of a foreign policy establishment he dismisses as an irrelevant ‘Blob’. Samuels reports that Rhodes has ‘a healthy contempt’ for the Blob and its members – including Hillary Clinton and former Defence Secretary Robert Gates – who ‘whine incessantly’. Rhodes is portrayed in the profile as the master of reducing issues to tweets and having few scruples about twisting public opinion in ways that advance the White House’s political agenda. Other administrations have similarly embraced ‘messaging’, but few have had a high-ranking staff member be so foolish as to brag publicly about his skill as a manipulator”.

The author goes on to write that “Even more unsettling in this article is the total absence of evidence that Rhodes understands the purposes or history of American foreign policy. Rhodes, who is 38, left university wanting to become a novelist. The 9/11 attacks led him to venture into international affairs, and his writing skill carried him through a series of Washington jobs that took him to the White House. He comes across in the Samuels article as a slick salesman, someone who would be just as comfortable spinning the attributes of a used car as he is in convincing the public to follow the White House lead on global affairs”.

Correctly, the writer mentions “This article, along with Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent essay The Obama Doctrine in The Atlantic, point to a fundamental shallowness in the Obama administration’s worldview. These reports are in line with cautionary words from Gates, who in his 2014 memoir, Duty, noted his concerns about the Obama national security staff, writing that they had no ‘firsthand knowledge of real-world governing’ and ‘lack an awareness of the world they had just entered’ Rhodes is part of this; well-meaning, perhaps, but not possessing the knowledge someone in his position should have. Although Rhodes’s claim that journalists ‘know nothing’ is wrong as well as insulting, they could know more”.

The piece ends “Rhodes and his White House colleagues have disproportionate influence over US foreign policy because of significant shifts of authority away from State, Defence, and other cabinet departments, with the White House enjoying mission creep. The National Security Council (NSC) was created in 1947 to bring together top-level foreign policy advisers and provide greater coherence to foreign policy planning. Its director, the national security adviser, has sometimes wielded considerable power, visibly, by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration, for example, and less visibly but more effectively by Brent Scowcroft during the George HW Bush presidency. The NSC staff has grown enormously. During Scowcroft’s tenure, it comprised 50 people. It has doubled with each successive presidency: 100 during Bill Clinton’s tenure; 200 under George W Bush; and during the Obama presidency it has reached 400 (and it is most definitely not eight times more efficient that it was during Scowcroft’s time). Senator John McCain has introduced legislation to cap the NSC staff at 150, but managing the White House is not the business of Congress. Obama and his aides have opened themselves to such pressure by allowing the NSC to become so bloated, although the current national security adviser, Susan Rice, has promised substantial shrinkage by the time Obama’s term ends”.

He concludes “The fragility of the balance of power between the White House and other parts of the executive branch was apparent during the efforts to secure congressional approval of the Iran nuclear agreement, during which Rhodes’s messaging skills were heavily relied upon by the administration. This episode is closely examined in Samuels’ article, and this is where Rhodes opened himself to much of the criticism he has since received. Rhodes and his team recruited friendly arms control experts to speak at think-tanks, post material on social media sites, and brief reporters. Rhodes told Samuels: ‘We created an echo chamber … They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.’ He added: ‘We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively,’ and said of the agreement’s opponents, ‘We drove them crazy.’ There is something vaguely Nixonian about those comments. Rhodes has since defended himself, writing ‘the objective of that kind of effort is to build as much public support as you can – that’s a function of White House communications.’ But when does an effort to build public support cross the line into manipulation of the public? Ben Rhodes is now paying for his hubristic encounter with The New York Times. As Barack Obama wraps up his presidency with trips to Europe, Asia and elsewhere, Obama cannot be pleased that his presumed alter ego has become the focus of so much negative attention”.

It finishes “Despite Washington’s perennial fascination with personalities, larger issues are involved. The National Security Council staff is enormously powerful, and it has a duty to knowledgeably craft America’s global agenda and to provide honest information about that process to American and global publics. As the Ben Rhodes episode illustrates, that duty is not being carried out as it should be”.

 

“Iran is close to regaining normal oil export volumes”

07/06/2016

OPEC’s thorniest dilemma of the past year – at least from a purely oil standpoint – is about to disappear. Less than six months after the lifting of Western sanctions, Iran is close to regaining normal oil export volumes, adding extra barrels to the market in an unexpectedly smooth way and helped by supply disruptions from Canada to Nigeria. But the development will do little to repair dialogue, let alone help clinch a production deal, when OPEC meets next week amid rising political tensions between arch-rivals Iran and oil superpower Saudi Arabia, OPEC sources and delegates say. Earlier this year, Tehran refused to join an initiative to boost prices by freezing output but signaled it would be part of a future effort once its production had recovered sufficiently. OPEC has no supply limit, having at its last meeting in December scrapped its production target”.

Iran, suing America?

01/06/2016

Iran is preparing international legal action to recover nearly $2 billion that the US Supreme Court has ordered be paid as compensation to American victims of terror attacks, President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday. “We will soon take the case of the $2 billion to the international court,” Rouhani said in a televised speech. “We will not allow the United States to swallow this money so easily,” the president said to a crowd of thousands in the southeastern city of Kerman. The US Supreme Court ruled on April 20 that Iran must hand nearly $2 billion in frozen central bank assets to the survivors and relatives of those killed in attacks it has been accused of organising. The attacks include the 1983 bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. The Supreme Court ruling affects some 1,000 Americans. It came despite hopes for better relations between Tehran and Washington, after a landmark nuclear deal last July between Iran and major powers led by the United States.

“Obama’s deeply flawed realism”

19/04/2016

An excellent piece in the New York Times argues that Obama has a flawed sense of realism, “For any believer in the trans-Atlantic alliance, liberal interventionism and the overall beneficence of American power, President Obama’s long exposition of his foreign policy to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic made for pretty depressing reading. In all the thousands of words, the fate of the troubled European Union and NATO merit zero reflection. Allies are mostly portrayed as freeloaders. We learn that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is “one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects” (a sentiment only partially reciprocated, at best, if my Berlin soundings are correct). Through several interviews with Goldberg, Obama emerges as a realist and an internationalist, in that order, dismissive of the notion that he has undermined American credibility in the world, resolute in defence of his inaction in Syria, skeptical of interventionism, unsentimental about Europe (and most things), and more inclined to view climate change as an existential threat than terrorism. Obama tells Goldberg, “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening.” There is truth to these words. Yet, coming from an American president, they are unusual. Reference to American-backed coups serving strongmen in far-flung lands is not the usual Oval Office fare of America-as-beacon”.

The author goes on to argue “In electing Obama, a chastened United States chose a left-leaning intellectual. It chose a man sobered by history, childhood years in Indonesia and African-American suffering, disinclined by temperament and experience to beat the drum of American patriotism. This was a radical departure. The chest-thumping American irredentism symbolized by Donald Trump is in part a reaction to Obama’s 21st-century realism. Trump is theater to Obama’s theory, saber rattling to sobriety, America-first to America-in-the-world. After two unsuccessful post 9/11 wars, Obama’s restraint was needed. But did he take it too far in Syria, where close to half-a-million people are now dead and nearly 5 million have fled — horrific unmentioned numbers? Above all, did his decision in August 2013 not to uphold with force his “red line” on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons sound the death knell of American credibility, consolidate President Bashar al-Assad and empower President Putin? “I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama insists”.

The writer asks pointedly, “Proud? It is possible to believe that the situation in Syria would be worse if Obama had followed through with punitive strikes. It is possible to believe that ISIS would have emerged, seized vast territory, beheaded Americans, rattled Paris and struck through sympathizers in San Bernardino anyway. It is possible to believe that Putin would have annexed Crimea anyway. It is possible to believe that Putin would have started a war in eastern Ukraine anyway. It is possible to believe that Assad would be stronger as a result of Russia’s military intervention anyway. It is possible to believe that Saudi “Obama-is-a-Shiite-in-the-pocket-of-Iran” derangement syndrome and Saudi war in Yemen would have occurred anyway. It is possible to believe that more than a million Syrian refugees would have shaken Europe anyway. It is possible to believe the moon is a balloon. But the weight of evidence is that Obama’s Syrian wobble was a terrible error. The president is portrayed mocking the foreign policy establishment’s “fetish of ‘credibility.”’ But it’s American military credibility that, over decades, stopped Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap. It is American credibility that has underwritten the “less violent, more tolerant” world to which Obama alludes. His dismissal of credibility is ahistorical and dangerous. Secretary of State John Kerry was right when he said that actors around the word were “watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.” Syria got away with it. The world was put at greater risk”.

The piece continues “Goldberg writes that Obama believes Churchill’s “eloquently rendered bellicosity” was “justified by Hitler’s rise.” Good to know. Even if Assad did not meet the do-something test. The thing about pendulums is they swing too far. Obama is right on many fronts. He’s right that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to “institute some sort of cold peace.” Right to conclude the Iran nuclear deal, open to Cuba, clinch the Paris climate accord and back free trade with Asia. But his cool realism has been disastrous in Syria and damaging to Europe. It also failed to seize tantalizing opportunities for liberty and democracy in Iran and Egypt. The greatest liberation movement since 1989 — the Arab Awakening — withered on his watch”.

He concludes “Obama concedes that he has not been attentive enough to “emotions” in politics. He thinks the best argument against his foreign policy is that he has failed to “exploit ambiguity enough,” the kind of ambiguity that allows people to believe “this guy might be a little crazy.” That, of course, would not be a problem with a President Trump — who would also make Americans and the world deeply nostalgic for Obama’s deeply flawed realism”.

Rouhani vs IRGC?

26/03/2016

A piece argues that the coming months will be the real test for Hassan Rouhani, “Ever since he defied Iran’s deep state in last month’s elections, it was only a matter of time until President Hassan Rouhani would be publicly reminded of his limitations. The moment came on the morning of March 8, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired several ballistic missiles in a military drill, displaying wanton disregard for U.N. Security Council resolutions. The missile tests confirmed two things: First, Iran’s president, despite his proven ability to manipulate domestic politics to his advantage and win over public opinion, cannot curb the activities of the country’s most powerful military force. And second, there are organs of Iran’s revolutionary state that will do whatever they can to sabotage Rouhani’s nascent rapprochement with the West”.

The article goes on to note that “During the Feb. 26 election, Iranians opted for the optimistic message of mutual respect, outreach, and global trade offered by Rouhani and his reformist allies. They rejected the overly rehearsed, downbeat talk of American infiltration that is the mainstay of hard-line conservatives. Most crucially of all, however, the elections showed that the political war unfolding in Iran goes beyond parliament and other contested political institutions. The struggle now involves the very highest authority in the land”.

The piece mentions “The elections were not kind to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had issued dire warnings about American attempts to influence the outcome. (Among Friday prayer leaders, all of whom follow sermon instructions that come from Khamenei’s office, one ayatollah even urged worshippers to elect MPs who have “Death to America” written on their foreheads.) It’s not just that the public voted out two of Khamenei’s top counselors from the Assembly of Experts, the body nominally charged with supervising the leader’s work. They also voted for reformists, a political movement whose leaders Khamenei has accused of seditious attempts to topple the regime during street protests in 2009. After years in isolation, the group has formed a coalition with so-called moderate conservatives sympathetic to Rouhani, boosting the president’s heft. After the election, the IRGC, which reports only to Khamenei, decided to strike back. By reportedly writing “Israel Must Be Wiped Out” on two missiles used in a second day of tests on March 9, they moved to show that Iran’s regional security policies, controlled by the supreme leader, are not going to change”.

The writer argues that by conducting the missile tests the IRGC was attempting to remind Rouhani of their power, “Rouhani has yet to comment on the latest tests. When the United States first threatened sanctions in December over Iran’s ballistic missile program, he wrote to his defence minister urging him to intensify the program — a step seen as necessary to show he was not being bullied by the United States. Far from ending Rouhani’s momentum following the election, this week’s projection of force by the IRGC has only highlighted the Islamic Republic’s precarious method of balancing the interests of rival factions. Iran’s president was unequivocal on the need for compromise when speaking on March 1, after it had become clear that reformists and moderates had gained almost as many parliamentary seats as their main opponents had lost. “I hope we all learn a lesson. The era of confrontation is over. If there are some who think that the country must be in confrontation with others, they still haven’t got the message of 2013,” Rouhani said”.

Crucially he goes on to note that “Rouhani’s aim is to give Iranians greater access to the jobs and economic opportunities they say they want. His gradual approach of securing the nuclear deal and eliminating its opponents from parliament will now be followed by a push on the economy. Privatization of state industries, starting with car production, a major industry in Iran before sanctions, is likely the next item on his agenda. Broader political and economic reform will be impossible so long as Khamenei stands in the way. But Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014, is reportedly ailing — and there’s a good chance his successor will be sympathetic to Rouhani’s broader agenda. The president’s allies were victorious in the recent election for the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for replacing the supreme leader in the event of his death”.

Importantly the piece adds that “the parliamentary faction most sympathetic to the IRGC’s views is weaker than ever, having lost about 90 seats compared with the previous election. Perhaps its best chance of maintaining influence will be if Ali Larijani, an independent conservative from the holy city of Qom, maintains his post as speaker of parliament. As a former commander in the IRGC who has held key posts across the Islamic Republic’s vast superstructure – he can boast of impeccable regime credentials. He won an endorsement on the eve of last month’s election from the country’s best-known military commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s Quds Force, the branch dedicated to foreign operations. Larijani may face a challenge from Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami who headed the reformist list in the elections. Although it would be a prestigious appointment for Aref, Larijani showed during debates over the nuclear deal that he can build bridges across different factions. Aref, and his mostly unknown new MPs, cannot say that”.

He goes on to make the point that “Ultimately though, last month’s election showed that the establishment’s efforts to marginalize reformists have their own limitations. About 11 years after he left office, Khatami – who is banned from being quoted in newspapers or having his picture published — used social media to urge voters to back the pro-Rouhani List of Hope, showing he cannot be silenced. His YouTube video, released five days before polling day, was seen by many as the turning point that persuaded doubters to cast a ballot. Rouhani returned the favour following the election, referring to Khatami as “my dear brother” in public remarks carried live by state television, in seeming defiance of the official ban on mentioning the former president. A day later, the IRGC announced its missile tests. As the IRGC’s latest provocation shows, the president will have his work cut out in delivering the change Iranians want. One of his top rivals will be the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani — a hard-liner who years ago opposed Khatami’s reforms and issued the strongest attack on the pro-Rouhani ticket after the election results were published, accusing its leaders of colluding with foreign media to persuade the public to vote ultraconservatives off the Assembly of Experts”.

The piece ends “There is good reason, however, to think that Rouhani will be more adept at countering his rivals than Khatami ever was. Unlike the former reformist president, the incumbent has held some of the most senior security posts in the Islamic Republic. His recent election victory, on the heels of the nuclear deal, helps him prove that he is not a one-trick pony, but a canny operator whose deeper links within the elite can yield results. It won’t be easy to change how the Islamic Republic operates, but Rouhani is better positioned than any of his predecessors to give it a shot”.

 

“Resolve in Congress to renew and boost U.S. sanctions on Tehran”

16/03/2016

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told VOA that Iran’s missile launches are sparking stronger resolve in Congress to renew and boost U.S. sanctions on Tehran. “There are three categories [of sanctions] that can be looked at in a bipartisan way, and we are attempting to do that now,” Republican Senator Bob Corker said. In particular, Corker said he is working to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, which was suspended as part of last year’s landmark international nuclear accord with Tehran. The law targets international investment in Iran. It remains on the books but will expire at the end of the year unless Congress extends it. Responding to congressional developments on Iran, a senior administration official told VOA, “It’s not necessary to extend the Iran Sanctions Act at this time since it does not expire until the end of the year. Right now our focus is on implementing the deal, and verifying that Iran completes its key nuclear steps.” President Barack Obama has stated repeatedly that sanctions will “snap back” if Iran violates the nuclear accord. Such leverage will be lost if the Iran Sanctions Act expires, according to Corker”.

“Iranians don’t trust the United States to implement the agreement”

14/03/2016

After the elections in Iran a piece notes Iranian moderates mistrust of America, “In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement, the debates in the United States and Iran have become a mirror image of each other. As some officials in Washington worry that the Iranian government will use the deal to secretly develop nuclear weapons, in Tehran, Americans are the nefarious party – intent on slapping sanctions back on Iran at the first opportunity”.

The report mentions that “Although Iranians generally remain wary of the deal, outright opposition remains a minority view. The Iranian hardliners who opposed the nuclear deal lost decisively in parliamentary elections last Friday. Reformists, centrists, and independent conservatives won all 30 parliamentary seats in Tehran, and several hardline opponents of the deal also lost their seats in the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with selecting the next supreme leader if 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies or resigns”.

The piece goes on, “Some hardliners are warily watching the U.S. presidential election play out, and are making the case that a new administration in Washington could reimpose sanctions. Hardliners “are waiting for the U.S. elections so that if a Republican with a harsh view comes to power, they could also talk tough,” Khadir said. Most Iranians are concerned about who will come to power in the United States next year, according to Izadi. A phone poll conducted by the University of Maryland showed 62 percent of Iranians don’t trust the United States to implement the agreement. Iranian fears that the U.S. government will renege on the deal, Izadi says, are rooted in the fact that political support for the agreement in the United States is tenuous. He points out that while Iran’s parliament favoured the agreement, a majority of the U.S. Senate opposed it. Obama was able to implement the accord because the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed to override a presidential veto“.

Yet while this is true, the deal does not have GOP support, the view is also problematic as it assumes what is said on the campaign trail will be turned into policy. Just look at Obama. Secondly, whoever is elected in November will be bound be the previous administration, unless its Trump, so the Iranians have far less to far then they think.

The piece goes on to report, “Popular opinion in both countries reflects the same disparity. The University of Maryland poll showed 72 percent of Iranians support the agreement. A Gallup poll released in February showed only 30 percent of Americans favour the deal, with 57 percent opposed. Yet Iranian analysts express cautious optimism that both sides will continue to implement the agreement. For Iran, the nuclear deal has eliminated the most damaging sanctions and allowed it to concentrate on improving its battered economy. For the United States, it eliminated the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons and generally lowered tensions with the country”.

The piece concludes “the electoral defeat of hardliners has opened a wider discussion in Iran about the merits of nuclear power. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continually expanded Iran’s enrichment facilities, making development of nuclear power an issue of national pride. As a right-wing populist, Ahmadinejad used the nuclear issue to stoke Iranian nationalism and call for self-reliance. That idea has been discredited in the eyes of many reformists. Farzad Yazdoneh, a 25-year-old student, said he supports President Hassan Rouhani’s policies and would like to see an end to nuclear power, which is both expensive and unsafe”.

Iranian reformists blocked

29/02/2016

An important article discusses the elections in Iran noting that reformists might be blocked “In a Jan. 9 speech to commemorate a 1978 uprising in Qom, Iran’s religious center, in which the country’s then-royal regime killed protesters opposed to its rule, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei extolled the event as an example of Islamic exceptionalism. The deadly incident, known as the 19th of Dey, its date in the Persian calendar, is widely considered a prelude to the revolution that one year later established the clerical theocracy that rules Iran today. Khamenei boasted that the flame of Iran’s revolution, unlike its French and Russian forebears, has never been extinguished. And he pledged to keep it that way. “It is very important that a revolution manages to survive, keep itself alive, and confront its enemies and defeat them,” he said. “Our revolution is the only revolution that has managed to achieve these things, and these achievements will continue.” The tribute served as a warning that, regardless of the outcome of the elections this Friday, Iran’s path is unlikely to change”.

Pointedly the writer notes that “This mocking of Iran’s reformists and the tragic fate they met in 2009 presaged what took place a few weeks later, when Khamenei’s allies excluded thousands of reformist candidates from this week’s elections. The only reformist candidates who survived the cull were those whom most voters had never heard of. Paradoxically, the reformist list’s best-known candidate is Ali Motahari, parliament’s most outspoken member. A lifetime conservative scion of a famous cleric, his recent realignment with the reformists is testament to the country’s changing political landscape. While the regime wants 2009 to be forgotten, Motahari has criticized the detention of Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, simultaneously winning respect from centrists and moderates as well as reformists”.

Interestingly he mentions that “The reformists have also toned down their ideological aims markedly in this election — a step backward from President Mohammad Khatami’s administration of the early 2000s, when they openly aimed to alter the Islamic Republic’s rigid ideology and pass new laws to tackle gender inequality and promote personal freedoms. This was due to the crackdown that followed the 2009 vote: The judiciary locked up so many activists and shut down so many newspapers that, right now, their goals are far more modest, including avoiding being outlawed as a political force entirely. In the present election, they have formed an ad hoc coalition with political factions supporting the country’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, who has tended to seek more gradual change”.

The writer notes that two elections take place, one for the parliament the other for the Assembly of Experts, “Its biggest potential task has long lay dormant: In a manner similar to how the Roman Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals selects a new pope, the 88 clerics who will comprise the next Assembly of Experts will pick the 76-year-old Khamenei’s successor should he die during its eight-year term. While Khamenei and other officials have urged a high turnout in the run-up to election day, they have also taken steps to show that Iran’s elections will happen on the regime’s terms. The Guardian Council, a 12-member constitutional watchdog, in addition to excluding parliamentary candidates deemed insufficiently loyal to the clergy, has sought to neuter Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s revolutionary brother turned foe”.

The report adds “For the country’s reformists, the contradictions of the orchestrated selection process and the predominantly octogenarian makeup of Iran’s highest clerical body make a mockery of claims that the polls are democratic. This dissonance is increasingly hard for a young population to stomach. (Iran’s median age is 30, and around 60 percent of its population of roughly 80 million is younger than that.) It is, according to Khamenei, the duty of all citizens to vote. But the underlying meaning of his pronouncements is that the purpose of doing so is to enshrine the system’s legitimacy, rather than allow people to register disapproval”.

Worryingly for the future of Iran the piece notes that “The wounds that were opened by the suppression of the 2009 protests show no sign of healing. At the first rally of the pro-Rouhani Alliance of Reformists and Government Supporters, which aims to topple hard-line conservatives on Friday, thousands chanted “no more house arrest” and “free the prisoners.” The chants were a reference to Mousavi, Karroubi and the countless others deprived of liberty. The thousands who convened in the sports hall rally also held up a modified version of a poster of the reform movement’s éminence grise, Khatami, from the presidential campaign that saw him elected in 1997. The original shows his face in studied concentration, chin resting on hands. But the 2016version shows only the hands, due to censorship under a media ban on Khatami’s face being published or his words used. The moderate alliance’s logo fills the blank space”.

 

The piece ends “Despite such hopes, it is hard to see past the biggest influence over the elections so far: Khamenei and who will be his successor. While members of parliament come and go, the office of the supreme leader is, for all intents and purposes, for life. In his 19th of Dey speech, the supreme leader not only took potshots at his Green Movement enemies — he raised the subject of his own death, highlighting the overarching significance of the Assembly of Experts election. “When the current leader is not in this world, the day we do not have a leader, it is the responsibility of the Assembly of Experts to choose a leader … who holds the key to this revolution,” he said, urging even those who do not approve of him to cast a ballot. But to many, the overt action of his officials to influence the vote and counter Rouhani’s momentum and popularity after the nuclear deal has grossly undermined the prospect of a huge turnout”.

 

Iran gets its money but pays off debts

21/02/2016

Iran gained access to about $100 billion in frozen assets when an international nuclear agreement was implemented last month, but $50 billion of it already was tied up because of debts and other commitments, a U.S. official said on Thursday. Stephen Mull, the State Department’s coordinator for implementing the agreement, also told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee there was no evidence Iran had cheated in the first few weeks since the deal was implemented. Mull and John Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department office that oversees sanctions, faced heated questioning from some members of the committee, where some Democrats joined Republican lawmakers in opposing the nuclear pact reached in July.

Still dealing with Bibi

11/02/2016

An article argues that whichever president is elected they will have to deal with Bibi.

The piece begins, “To hear the presidential candidates tell it — regardless of their political party — you’d think we’re on the verge of a new and glorious age in U.S.-Israeli relations no matter who succeeds President Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton asserted in December that she would take the U.S.-Israeli relationship “to the next level.’” On his work with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marco Rubio trumpeted that it is “only the beginning of what I will do as president in support of Israel.” Jeb Bush said that the Obama administration has gone “behind Israel’s back,” and promised to “rebuild the trust that has been badly eroded during this administration.” Donald Trump swears that he will do more for the country than anyone else: “I’ve devoted so much time over my life to Israel,” he said recently. “The other politicians, they can talk, but believe me, they haven’t done what I’ve done.” And Ted Cruz has made it clear he is on the side of the Jewish state, saying, “The Palestinians have turned down every reasonable offer of peace. And I believe America should stand unshakably alongside the nation of Israel. If I am elected president, that is exactly what we will do.” Some of this pro-Israel campaign love fest is of course to be expected in an election year, particularly on the Republican side where candidates are already exploiting the bad relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to own the Israel issue and hopefully use it against the Democratic nominee, particularly if it’s Hillary Clinton”.

The author goes on to mention “Much of the pro-Israeli tropes are driven too by genuine upset over the Iran deal — another issue on which the Republicans are trying to hammer the administration and Hillary. Indeed, the already accepted conventional wisdom seems to be this idea that no matter who sits in the White House in 2017 — whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz — there will be a profound change for the better in relations with the Netanyahu government. But this, of course, is wrong”.

Pointedly he writes “Here’s a news flash for those pro-Israel voters who think that getting rid of Obama is going to return U.S.-Israeli ties to the good old days. Despite the pro-Israel rhetoric of the campaign, the next president isn’t going to enter the promised land of tension-free U.S.-Israeli relations. It won’t be Obamaland anymore. But my guess is that within six months — a year tops — the next president and Netanyahu will be annoying the hell out of one another.

The first reason he writes is that an imagined time when relations were good between the nations are gone, if they ever existed at all, “the special character of the bond doesn’t mean it will remain free of conflict, tension, or a variety of irritants. Indeed, on the substance of the issues, particularly on the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu is Mars, and the Americans are much closer to Venus. Anyone looking for the kind of closeness that played out in the 1990s when then President Bill Clinton and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin bonded in a way that has not been seen before or since, or even for the reasonably good Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush days, ought to get a grip and realize that those times really were the exception, not the rule”.

The second reason the writer argues is that Bibi is still prime minister, “In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion as the longest-governing prime minister in Israel’s history. And through most of his political life he’s been suspicious of the United States and worried that Washington was either too naive or self-interested to truly understand Israel’s needs and requirements. Obama may be gone next year, but Netanyahu’s suspicions of Washington will remain as will the issues that reinforced them — the Iran agreement and an unresolved Palestinian issue. At Davos, John Kerry proclaimed that the war with Israel over the Iran agreement is over. But the struggle over its implementation isn’t. And as Netanyahu warned on “implementation day” and afterward, Israel will be Iran’s watchdog and will press the international community to hold its feet to the fire. But even if Washington and Jerusalem manage to manage the Iran issue, there’s still the Palestinian issue to aggravate relations”.

The third reason he gives is that when the next president is elected he/she will have to govern with all the nuance and details that that entails, “On the Republican side, even the most pro-Israeli campaign rhetoric usually gives way to the realities of governance. Ronald Reagan — perhaps the most instinctively pro-Israeli Republican president ever — wrestled with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over a peace plan that bore his name and over Lebanon. In 1981, the Reagan administration actually placed a hold on delivery of F-16s to protest Israel’s extension of administrative law to the Golan Heights. The George W. Bush administration would fight with the Israelis publicly over Sharon’s West Bank policies, including settlements. And despite repeated campaign promises by both the Republicans and Democrats alike to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, no administration has ever followed through. This time around, assuming the Jerusalem language is in either platform, the same thing is certain to happen. But isn’t this batch of Republicans different than most traditional candidates? And isn’t there a strong desire within the Republican Party to send a strong signal that the Republicans, not the Democrats, have Israel’s back? Wouldn’t you expect a consistently pro-Israel right or wrong position from the likes of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump? Or even from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio, who has taken to calling the West Bank and Gaza “Judea and Samaria” and has threatened to tear up the Iran agreement on his first day in office? All of this may be fine during the campaign. But once the governing starts, the poetry, as the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo believed, turns to prose. There are European and Arab allies to be managed and previous administration commitments to be maintained”.

Correctly he writes that “Sooner or later, all will have to react to some Israeli action that will make the Europeans or Arabs unhappy, or contradict U.S. policy. And like the last Republican who ran on a strong pro-Israeli position, George W. Bush, a new president will react: Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2004 while hammering Israeli actions, Bush 43 sounded very much like President Obama. “Israel should impose a settlement freeze, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and avoid any actions that prejudice final negotiations,” he said. Bush had an Iraq war coalition to maintain and pretending to act on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and criticizing Israel was a way to keep Europeans and Arabs on board”.

The final section discusses Clinton, “Like President Obama she feels strongly about a two-state solution, and is probably more knowledgeable about the issues given both her and her husband’s involvement; she also knows Netanyahu, and had her run ins with him but also seems better positioned to manage Israel too. After all, she’s a Clinton; someone who has a natural pro-Israeli sensibility and is wary of alienating Israel by asking for things she knows Israel can’t deliver, such as a comprehensive settlements freeze. As president, Clinton would likely avoid the drama of the Obama administration. She readily admits in her book Hard Choices she was never comfortable backing Bibi into a corner on settlements; and I doubt if you would have had the backbiting array of chickenshit comments from her White House meetings. In other words, her approach would likely be to try to find a way to work with Netanyahu before considering confronting him. She’ll do the necessaries on protesting Israeli settlements and occupation practices, but will try to avoid the tensions with Bibi that turned the U.S.-Israeli relationship into one long roller coaster ride — mostly downhill”.

He ends “Even though the next president will undoubtedly have a less contentious relationship with Bibi, whatever honeymoon a fresh start provides will likely be short-lived. Where you stand in life has a lot to do with where you sit; and Washington and Jerusalem are in very different places, these days especially. Indeed, don’t let the campaign talking points fool you. There won’t be a transformation in U.S.-Israeli ties, a change in the unresolved Palestinian issue, a resolution over Israeli settlement construction, and U.S.-Iran policy will ensure an agenda full of problems. A newly installed American president and an old Israeli prime minister will be wrestling and struggling to manage these issues for a long time to come”.

 

“Consider new sanctions against Iran”

05/02/2016

France has asked the European Union to consider new sanctions against Iran over recent missile tests, in a request made shortly after the EU ended sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, officials have told The Associated Press. Two officials from European Union nations said the French proposal is under EU review but most other EU members view it as counterproductive to efforts to revive political and economic ties with Iran after the protracted chill over the nuclear dispute. The officials, who were briefed by people who attended the meeting, spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly”.

 

“Sources as saying the reactor had been decommissioned”

29/01/2016

Iran’s deputy nuclear chief has denied a report that the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor has been removed and filled with concrete. Ali Asghar Zarean told state TV that Iran would sign an agreement with China to modify the reactor before doing so. On Monday, the semi-official Fars news agency cited unnamed sources as saying the reactor had been decommissioned. It would represent a final step towards the implementation of July’s nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Iran has agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions”.

Sanctions lifted on Iran

27/01/2016

A report from the Washington Post notes the lifting of sanctions on Iran “Iran reentered the global economy Saturday, as years of crippling international sanctions were lifted in exchange for the verified disabling of much of its nuclear infrastructure. For Iran, implementation of the landmark deal it finalized with six world powers last summer means immediate access to more than $50 billion in long-frozen assets, and freedom to sell its oil and purchase goods in the international marketplace. Tehran has hailed the deal as vindication of its power and influence in the world. “Today marks the moment that the Iran nuclear agreement transitions from promises on paper to measurable progress,” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry”.

The report goes on to mention that “The removal of sanctions comes as President Obama begins his last year in office, and almost seven years to the day since he called on Iran to “unclench your fist” and take steps toward rapprochement with the United States and the world. As a result of the agreement, he said in his last State of the Union speech this week, a “nuclear-armed Iran” has been prevented, and “the world has avoided another war.” The triggering event for implementation was certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency Saturday that Iran had successfully completed all the nuclear steps it agreed to in July: sending the bulk of its enriched uranium outside the country, mothballing most of its centrifuges, and disabling its Arak nuclear reactor, capable of yielding plutonium. The IAEA is also charged with monitoring and verifying Iran’s continued compliance”.

Interestingly the piece goes on to note “IAEA certification of compliance opened the door to announcements and speeches by high-level officials from the negotiating parties. A new U.N. resolution codifying the deal immediately goes into effect. The IAEA begins strict monitoring provisions on the ground in Iran. White House executive orders and implementation guidance issued by the European Union and the U.S. Treasury, along with waivers of certain restrictions signed here by Kerry, will start the wheels of international business and finance turning. To the consternation of critics in the United States — including Republican presidential hopefuls who have called it a dangerous sellout by Obama and vowed to dismantle it — the deal is now done”.

The Obama administration hopes that “In the long term, the agreement is a major milestone in the Iranian revolution, with the potential for far-reaching economic, political and cultural ramifications. The end of Iran’s near-total economic isolation could drive more modernization and open the country to moderating outside influences. More money spent at home to upgrade failing infrastructure and jump-start the economy would allow pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani to showcase the sanctions relief he pledged in his 2013 campaign. U.S. and international opponents, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies see the agreement as a dangerous gift to an aggressive and duplicitous regime, and have warned that Tehran will use the money to increase spending on terrorist groups that serve as its proxies in a fight for regional dominance”.

Crucially the author notes that “Although Iran has more than $100 billion in available frozen assets — most of it in banks in China, Japan and South Korea — slightly less than half will more or less automatically go to preexisting debts. How the rest is spent will reveal the direction of internal power battles between Iranian hard-liners and pragmatists. That kind of money is too much to be transferred in one fell swoop. Richard Nephew, a former sanctions chief of the U.S. negotiating team, said the Iranians will likely transfer it out in chunks, and may even leave it in place while they decide how to spend it”.

The piece notes the context for the lifting of sanctions, “Despite official rejoicing by the negotiating partners, implementation comes at a particularly inauspicious time for Iran and the United States. Oil is at its lowest price in more than a decade, in part because of expectations Iranian crude will flood the market, and Iran’s currency has declined precipitously. Tehran will be getting far less income than it anticipated when the negotiations took hold in late 2013, making it difficult for the government to deliver the jobs and economic boom Iranians have been told will ensue. Many think it will take years to repair the country’s decrepit energy infrastructure in order for oil to flow at its pre-sanctions rate”.

 

“Tehran should remain wary of its old enemy the United States”

25/01/2016

“Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday welcomed the lifting of international sanctions against Iran, but warned that Tehran should remain wary of its old enemy the United States. State television reported that Khamenei wrote to President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on implementing the nuclear deal, which resulted in U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions being lifted over the weekend. In his first comments since the deal took effect, Iran’s highest authority made clear that Washington should still be treated with suspicion. He made no mention of a surprise prisoner exchange that also took place this weekend”.

Sanctions on Iran lifted

21/01/2016

The United Nations Security Council received on Saturday a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirming Iran fulfilled commitments under a nuclear deal with world powers, triggering an automatic end to most U.N. sanctions, diplomats said. The receipt of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report by the 15-member council terminates seven previous U.N. resolutions, which are now replaced by a resolution adopted on July 20 that carries over some U.N. restrictions. In a note to council members, seen by Reuters, Uruguay’s U.N. Ambassador Elbio Rosselli, council president for January, circulated the report to members on Saturday evening. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. “This achievement demonstrates that international proliferation concerns are best addressed through dialogue and patient diplomacy,” Ban’s spokesman said in a statement. Under the July 20 resolution, Iran is now “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years. Critics of the deal say the language does not make it obligatory”.

Remaking the Saudi state?

17/01/2016

A report from the Economist discusses the radical changes planned in Saudi Arabia in the Deputy Crown Prince Muhammd bin Salman, “THE Al Sauds once again hold court in Diriya, their ancestral capital that was laid waste by the Ottoman empire and is being lovingly restored as a national tourist attraction. This is where the Al Sauds forged their alliance in the 18th century with a Muslim revivalist preacher, Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab—a pact that to this day fuses the modern Saudi state with the puritanism of Wahhabi Islam. And this is where Muhammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince who is the power behind the throne of his elderly father, King Salman, receives foreign guests in a walled complex. One side of his reception room is decorated with the spears, swords and daggers of tradition. The other is dominated by a large television, showing the casual horrors of the Middle East and the repercussions of his own actions play out on rolling news: the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, (and 46 others accused of terrorism and sedition, mostly linked to al-Qaeda jihadists) led to a mob ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and, in retaliation, to the kingdom severing diplomatic relations with Iran”.

The report goes on to mention “Talking late into the night with the news left on throughout, Prince Muhammad discusses his country’s interventionist foreign policy and its uncompromising response to terrorism and sedition. Asked whether the kingdom’s actions were stoking regional tensions, he said that things were already so bad they could scarcely get any worse. “We try as hard as we can not to escalate anything further,” he says; and he certainly does not expect war. But for his entourage, Saudi Arabia has no choice but to stop Iran from trying to carve out a new Persian empire”.

The article notes that “If his defence of Saudi foreign policy was unrepentant, even more striking was his ambition to remake the entire Saudi state by harnessing the power of markets. No economic reform is taboo, say his officials: not the shedding of do-nothing public-sector workers, not the abolition of subsidies that Saudis have come to see as their birthright, not the privatisation of basic services such as education and health care. And not even the sale of shares in the crown jewel: Saudi Aramco, the secretive national oil and gas producer that is the world’s biggest company”.

The writer continues, “At 80, the newish King Salman is part of the same gerontocracy that has run the country for decades. But he has entrusted much of his realm to Prince Muhammad, who is in a hurry to awaken it from its torpor. He knows that, for all its ostentatious luxury, the country faces huge problems. The oil price has plunged. Arab states all around have collapsed. In the vacuum, Iran, the Shia power that has long alarmed Sunni Arabs, has spread its influence across the region, particularly through the militias it grooms—in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and most recently in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s underbelly. The Arab world is confronted not just by a Shia Crescent, “but by a Shia full moon”, says one confidant of the prince. As well as Shia militants, Saudi Arabia also faces resurgent Sunni jihadists: a revived al-Qaeda in Yemen to the south, and Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria to the north. Both seek to lure young Saudis raised on the same textbooks and homilies that the jihadists use. The Al Sauds have survived by making three compacts: with the Wahhabis to burnish their Islamic credentials as the custodians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina; with the population by providing munificence in exchange for acquiescence to absolutist rule; and with America to defend Saudi Arabia in exchange for stability in oil markets”.

Interestingly the piece mentions “Yet he knows that change must come, and fast. He has injected new energy into government, and is taking huge gambles. What he lacks in experience and foreign travel, he compensates for with confidence, focus and a battery of consultants’ reports. He reels off numbers and policies with ease, pausing only to take a call from John Kerry, America’s secretary of state. He speaks in the first person, as if he were already king even though he is only second in line. Over five hours King Salman is mentioned once; his cousin, the crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, does not figure at all, though he is in charge of internal security and may be biding his time”.

The writer goes on to mention that “Such is Prince Muhammad’s frenetic activity that officials reel and outsiders regard him as a bullock in a china shop. Just weeks after his father made him defence minister, fighter jets from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s richest state, led a coalition into action against the Houthi militias of its poorest, Yemen. To critics who say he was rash to intervene in a land that has bloodied foreign armies before, Prince Muhammad says the action, if anything, came too late: the Shia Houthis, with Iran’s help, had taken the country and sophisticated weapons, such as jets and Scud missiles. Scuds are occasionally fired at Saudi targets; thousands of Saudis living near Yemen have been evacuated to avoid rockets and artillery fire. In Syria he plans to send special forces against IS”.

Crucially he author adds “Prince Muhammad’s most dramatic moves may be at home. He seems determined to use the collapse in the price of oil, from $115 a barrel in 2014 to below $35, to enact radical economic reforms. This begins with fiscal retrenchment. Even after initial budget cuts last year, Saudi Arabia recorded a whopping budget deficit of 15% of GDP. Its pile of foreign reserves has fallen by $100 billion, to $650 billion. Even with its minimal debt of 5% of GDP, Saudi Arabia’s public finances are unsustainable for more than a few years. His budget, unveiled in December, cuts subsidies on water, electricity and fuel. These were aimed mostly at big consumers, including the myriad royal princes. “I don’t deserve these subsidies,” he says. Even so, Saudis witnessed the rare sight of people queuing to buy petrol before the prices rose by 50% on January 1st. This month Saudis accustomed to leaving on the air-conditioner when going on holiday will receive dearer electricity and water bills. Within five years, the plan is that Saudis should be paying market prices, probably with compensation in the form of direct payments for poorer citizens. Ministries have halted expenditure on cars, furniture and showcase projects. The government is scrutinising allowances and overtime claims to save money. Soon Saudis will for the first time pay value-added tax of 5% on non-essentials, in a move co-ordinated with other members of the six-country Gulf Co-operation Council. Prince Muhammad is adamant that there will be no income or wealth taxes, but he plans to balance the budget in five years”.

Importantly it notes that “Under his “Transformation Plan 2020”, set for publication by the end of the month, the prince wants to develop alternatives to oil and drastically to cut the public payroll, which acts as a form of unemployment benefit. To do so he wants to create jobs for a workforce that will double by 2030. Ministers speak of doubling private education to cover 30% of students, establishing charter schools and transforming public health care into an insurance-based system with expanded private provision. In addition to Aramco, the prince wants to sell stakes in state assets from telecoms to power stations and the national airline. The government is to sell land to developers, such as the 4m square metres it owns around Mecca, the most expensive real estate in the world. The prince sees huge promise in developing Islamic tourism to the holy sites; he hopes to boost the 18m annual visitors to 35m-45m in five years. Sceptics abound. Reform has long been talked about but never implemented. Prince Muhammad’s ministers are astute, have PhDs from Western universities and speak the jargon of key performance indicators, but much of the government is deadweight. Even the unemployment figures are subject to doubt. “Few bits of the bureaucracy actually function at a high level,” says a Western diplomat. Even senior advisers question the kingdom’s capacity to find and absorb the trillions of dollars on which the plan is predicated”.

The piece presents problems when it mentions that “In Jeddah, the commercial capital on the Red Sea, some businessmen remain sceptical, and speak more of exporting their wealth than investing it in the country. There is also suspicion of hidden motives. With each new elderly monarch, they say, favoured sons have indulged in self-aggrandisement, leaving courtiers to disguise their acquisitions as privatisations and economic reforms. Media reports of Prince Muhammad’s lavish parties in the Maldives and the crown prince’s house-hunting for a Sardinian villa worth half a billion euros are fodder for social media, of which Saudis are keen users. As the man who ultimately controls the Public Investment Fund, the destination for many assets to be sold, and who has taken direct oversight of Aramco, the prince is already the subject of some muttering. What is true is that, for all his talk of transparency, his government continues to treat royal and state expenses as one and same; the royal component is a state secret”.

The political ramifications for this are noted when “A bigger challenge for the reformers is the fact that the prince’s dizzying changes amount to, in effect, a rewriting of the Saudi social contract. Why, mutter some Saudis, should we tighten our belts when the princes continue to enjoy untold riches? And for all his boldness in economic matters, he remains obtuse when it comes to political liberalisation that might help secure consent for the economic revolution. A tiny number of women have recently campaigned for and won seats in municipal elections, under changes brought in by the late King Abdullah; who more than a decade ago had promised Saudis “true democracy” in 20 years. It is nowhere in sight”.

Further to this the plan to transform the country come across internal problems, “In a country where concerts, public movies and female performances are banned, the prince talks of the “entertainment crisis”, and about his own children lacking things to do. Here and there, he seems ready to try to loosen the grip of the clerics. His latest education minister, Ahmed al-Eissa, is an academic whose book on the dreadful state of Saudi schools, which he blames in part on the restrictions placed by “religious culture”, remains banned in the kingdom. Private schools, still barred from teaching evolution, would have a freer hand to set their curriculum and choose pedagogic materials beyond those designed by the clerics”.

It ends noting the importance of the United States, “for a Saudi royal with no Western education, Prince Muhammad speaks about America passionately. “The United States has to realise that they are the Number One in the world, and they have to act like it,” he says; the sooner America steps back into the region—even with boots on the ground—the better. Prince Muhammad’s schemes do not appear to be inspired by ideology. Many of the ideas he is pursuing have lurked in ministers’ drawers for years. Others follow examples from elsewhere, be it charter schools in America, public-private partnerships in Britain or the abolition of fuel subsidies in Egypt (and Iran). Instead they are born of necessity. The conjunction of a fall in oil prices, a geopolitical crisis and a hyperactive prince afford a once-in-a-generation chance to modernise the country. The Arab spring has shown time and again that post-colonial Arab states are singularly dysfunctional (see page 41). That raises serious doubts about Saudi Arabia’s ability to reform. But the regime has little choice: its survival may depend on it”.

 

“Removed the core of its plutonium reactor and filled it with concrete”

15/01/2016

Iran removed the core of its plutonium reactor and filled it with concrete Monday, paving the way for economic and financial sanctions to be lifted soon. The work that effectively rendered the reactor at Arak harmless was the last major hurdle for Iran to fulfill its commitments under a landmark deal reached just shy of six months ago in Vienna. The International Atomic Energy Agency must verify that everything was done satisfactorily before U.S. and international sanctions can be lifted. But that is expected to take days, not weeks. “In a few days, we will see the end of the cruel sanctions against Iran,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech in southern Iran. “When sanctions end, I will explain to people how great of an accomplishment this is.” The lifting of sanctions will unlock Iran’s access to about $100 billion in its own assets that has been frozen in foreign banks. The United States and the United Nations have prepared the legal steps necessary for sanctions relief to take effect. That should give Rouhani a significant political boost before parliamentary elections in late February. He won election in 2013 promising to end sanctions that have undercut the economy. He returned to that theme in his speech Monday, when he predicted the upcoming new year, which is marked in Iran in March, would be a one of “economic revival” despite oil prices slumping to an 11-year low”.

Trying to stop the pivot to Iran

11/01/2016

An unusual article argues that the excution of Nimr al-Nimr was an attempt by Saudi Arabia to halt its supposed “pivot” to Iran.

It opens, “Saudi Arabia’s escalating diplomatic war with Iran is part of a new attempt to derail what Riyadh sees as a clear American shift towards Tehran. Unfortunately for the kingdom, it probably won’t work. That’s because the Obama administration has effectively decided that upholding the nuclear accord with Iran is more important to U.S. interests — and to the president’s historical legacy —  than safeguarding a decades-old alliance with Saudi Arabia. From holding off on imposing new sanctions after Iran violated U.N. resolutions recently to all but turning a blind eye to Tehran’s military role in Iraq, the Obama administration has alarmed Riyadh and other Persian Gulf powers that fear being left on the sidelines”.

The report goes on to mention “The kingdom may have reason to worry. The United States sharply criticized Riyadh over the execution last week of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, voicing concern it could fuel sectarian tensions in the region. But when a mob torched the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in outrage over the cleric’s death, Washington and other Western governments offered a more muted response, calling on the Iranian authorities to ensure the security of diplomatic missions. That’s a sharp contrast from how the White House reacted in 2011 when the British Embassy in Tehran was overrun after Western governments tightened sanctions on Iran. President Barack Obama himself publicly accused the Iranian government of permitting the attack”.

Interestingly the author notes that “In another sign of what the Saudis see as evidence of a conciliatory approach to Iran, Washington has yet to impose sanctions against Tehran even after the regime conducted two ballistic missile tests since the nuclear deal was agreed in July. The U.S. administration said it would impose sanctions on Iran over the missile launches — which violated U.N. resolutions — but has since pulled back from taking action. The delay has drawn criticism from lawmakers and critics of the deal”.

He goes on to posit that “Since tensions spiked over the weekend between Riyadh and Tehran, the United States has appealed for calm and urged both sides to take steps to defuse the crisis — without publicly siding with either country in the dispute. Since Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at least twice and also talked to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday”.

The extent of the shift to Iran is noted when he writes that “In years past, it would have been unthinkable for the U.S. government to take an even-handed approach in the case of an argument between the Saudis and their Iranian rivals. The rapport that developed between Kerry and other American diplomats and their Iranian counterparts during the course of the nuclear negotiations has dismayed Riyadh”.

The consequence of the Obama policy is noted when he writes, “Angered over Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria, his withdrawal of support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after popular protests in 2011, and his readiness to turn a new page in Washington’s relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia has come to believe that the United States can no longer be counted on as a rock solid ally ready to come to the aid of its Arab friends, Nasr and other analysts said. Increasingly, the Saudis are striking out on their own, staging a major military intervention last year in neighbouring Yemen against Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran. The campaign has failed to achieve a quick victory and threatens to turn into a quagmire for Riyadh, with U.S. officials privately urging the Saudis to cut their losses and negotiate a peace deal. For its part, Washington has been disappointed with Saudi Arabia’s lackluster efforts fighting the Islamic State, as Riyadh has devoted most of its energy in recent months to the faltering campaign in Yemen. U.S. officials, and their counterparts in Europe and the Middle East, worry about the future stability of the Saudi monarchy given a growing succession crisis and other domestic problems. And Western governments were particularly disturbed by the execution of Nimr, as well as its provocative timing — which came after months of painstaking diplomacy to persuade Iran and other powers on both sides of the Syrian war to enter into a peace process”.

Perhaps optimistically the author notes “Brett McGurk, the U.S. pointman for the anti-ISIS effort, told reporters Tuesday he expects both governments to overcome their differences and work toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria, citing encouraging signs from Riyadh”.

Needless to say, “Iran voiced incandescent rage over the execution of Nimr but will likely calibrate its reaction to Saudi Arabia’s actions, according to analysts and former officials who said Tehran is anxious to avoid jeopardising the planned lifting of economic sanctions promised under the nuclear deal. Iran’s economy has suffered under the weight of the sanctions coupled with falling oil prices, and Tehran stands to gain access to roughly $100 billion in impounded funds. The easing of sanctions also could allow Iran to increase its oil exports from 1 million barrels a day currently to a pre-sanctions level of up to 2.5 million barrels a day”.

Interestingly he writes “After the nuclear deal was clinched last year, the Obama administration tried to repair its frayed ties with the Saudis, with little success. The White House chose not to publicly warn Riyadh against executing Nimr, and instead conveyed its concerns in private. But Washington may soon face a day of reckoning with the Saudis, as the two countries interests diverge, according to Nasr”.

He ends “The perception that the United States has pulled back from a once dominant role in the Middle East has prompted Arab governments to entertain overtures from Russia, which has waded into the Syrian conflict to prop up the regime in Damascus. While the Saudis and Iran engaged in a war of words this week, Russia offered to serve as an intermediary. Moscow’s foreign ministry said Monday that Russia was ready to help both sides pursue “a path of dialogue.”

UN closes investigation into Iran

05/01/2016

The U.N. nuclear agency closed the books Tuesday on its decade-long probe of allegations that Iran worked on atomic arms, and Tehran proclaimed that within weeks, it would finish cutbacks on present nuclear programs that the U.S. fears could be turned into making such weapons. The probe had to be formally ended as part of a July 14 deal between Iran and six nations that involves the removal of economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for its commitment to crimp its nuclear program. A resolution was approved by consensus of the 35-nation board of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. The move means that some questions about the alleged weapons work may never be resolved. Before the resolution’s adoption, agency head Yukiya Amano told the board that his investigation couldn’t “reconstruct all the details of activities conducted by Iran in the past.”

“Only violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, not the Iran deal itself”

01/01/2016

A report notes the problems of the Iran deal implementation, “Iran has shipped more than 25,000 pounds of nuclear material to Russia, a major milestone that leaves the Islamic Republic without enough low-enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon. But the development comes as tensions over the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran emerge from a variety of quarters in the United States and Iran, raising concerns about the deal’s long-term viability”.

The article mentions continuing GOP opposition, “In Congress, Republicans and some Democrats are hammering the Obama administration for not responding more aggressively after a United Nations panel said earlier this month that Iran had violated a U.N. Security Council resolution by testing a ballistic missile in October. After the U.N. panel’s findings, Senate Republicans introduced legislation to bar the Obama administration from lifting sanctions on Iran, as agreed to in the nuclear deal, until it certifies that Iran has ended any military-related activity in connection to its nuclear program, among other things. The Obama administration opposes the legislation”.

Yet the balance is tricky. If the Obama administration does nothing Iran will think it has free reign but if it does too much that is not directly covered by the agreement then the whole agreement could collapse.

It goes on to state, “In Iran, the Foreign Ministry is furious over new U.S. visa rules it says violate the nuclear deal by impeding Iranian business. (A spokesman for the ministry said on Monday that Iran may take “its own steps in response.”) The moves demonstrate the delicate nature of the deal and its vulnerabilities to political shifts in both the United States and Iran. The two sides are looking ahead to “implementation day,” when the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies that Tehran has complied with all its nuclear commitments and stretched out the length of time Iran would need to develop enough nuclear material to build a bomb to one year. Despite recent tensions surrounding the deal, the White House is confident in its durability and says few would have envisioned the progress made thus far even a year ago”.

The writer argues that “critics charge that the administration’s lack of firm response to the Iranian ballistic missile tests give Tehran a green light to develop its missile program while staying in compliance with its nuclear-related commitments”.

Yet this is the whole point. Conventional weapons are not covered by the agreement and there is little America can do short of war, which is perhaps the point, that would stop Iran from developing these weapons. Besides already exists sanctions on Iran for its human rights record and other offensives.

Crucially the piece adds “Since the signing of the nuclear accord in July, experts say Iran has complied surprisingly quickly with its obligations under the deal but point to a number of obstacles that remain. Under the agreement, Iran committed to exporting all except 300 kilograms, or about 660 pounds, of its low-enriched uranium. For uranium enriched to near 20 percent, it agreed to either process it into low-enriched uranium, export it, or transform it into fuel plates for a research reactor. It also agreed to accept inspections in exchange for the lifting of a raft of economic sanctions and the release of about $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets”.

The piece goes on to mention “On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said a Russian ship, the Mikhail Dudin, transported 25,000 pounds of Iranian nuclear material, including its uranium enriched to almost 20 percent, or close to bomb grade. Besides the stockpiles, Iran has redesigned its Arak reactor, taken steps to reduce its uranium enrichment program, and put in place additional monitoring and verification controls. But experts say the shipment of uranium is by far its most significant step”.

Importantly it adds “The other major boxes Iran still needs to check are the full dismantling of its 13,000 centrifuges, the disabling of the core of the Arak reactor, and taking steps to increase international monitoring and surveillance. Those steps could occur as quickly as late January, say officials, but that doesn’t mean implementation of the deal has been a smooth ride. The anger on Capitol Hill over the Iranian ballistic missile test poses one major challenge. The Obama administration says it’s considering ways to punish Iran for its missile test, but it maintains that Tehran’s launch only violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, not the Iran deal itself. As such, the administration is opposed to the GOP proposals that would put the United States in violation of the agreement”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “Next month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to make his first trip to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. The self-declared moderate was supposed to visit the tiny city-state in November as part of his European tour of Italy and France, but the trip was nixed following the terrorist attacks in Paris. On the financial front, the governments of Germany, France, and Italy have already sent delegations to Iran to scope out the possibilities for new commercial opportunities, and an uptick in business from China and Russia is widely expected. Still many Western firms remain wary of falling prey to many of the existing sanctions in place against Iran”.

Iran’s February elections

26/12/2015

An important article discusses the upcoming elections in Iran for the future of the country.

It begins “In late February 2016, Iran will see two important elections. One is for the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body. The other is for the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. As Iran prepares for the vote, the power struggle between the hardliners and the moderates and reformists is intensifying. This showdown, even more than the discussions about the Iran deal, will shape Iranian politics in the years and decades to come. According to Articles 107 and 111 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the Assembly of Experts is in charge of the appointment (and dismissal) of the Supreme Leader. Its members are elected by popular vote. But over the years, hardliners within the government have used all sorts of maneuvers to essentially neutralise the body. It is now completely obedient to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and meets only twice a year. After each meeting, the Assembly issues a statement praising the “wise leadership” of Khamenei followed by tough rhetoric about Israel, the United States, and those who oppose the rule of the hardliners”.

The piece goes on to note “The election of the Majlis, meanwhile, is governed by Article 99 of the Iranian constitution, which stipulates that “the Guardian Council will monitor the elections for the Majlis, the President, the Assembly of Experts, and any national referendum that may be put to people’s vote.” But right from its inception, the Guardian Council’s monitoring became a point of contention between Iran’s various factions. The main point of dispute was whether the “monitor” clause should be interpreted as giving the council responsibility for vetting candidates in addition to overseeing the elections, a battle that only intensified during the rule of Khamenei. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council, which is also tasked with interpreting the constitution, has determined that the clause gives it power to certify the qualifications of all the candidates for each election. The council, historically controlled by ultra-conservatives, has rejected many candidates that it considers critics”.

Importantly the author notes how the deck has been stacked, “The Guardian Council has 12 members: six of them must be clerics and are appointed by Khamenei; the other six must be legal scholars, who are proposed by the judiciary chief to the Majlis to receive parliamentary approval. The judiciary chief, of course, is also a Khamenei appointee. In effect, by controlling the makeup of the Guardian Council, which in turns approves the candidacy of a limited number of trusted candidates for the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei controls the constitutional body that is supposed to monitor and control him. The same goes for the Majlis. It is due to this closed cycle that elected government bodies have become tools for Khamenei to do as he pleases. For example, by pressuring members of the assembly, Khamenei forced the body to sack his rival, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the chairmanship of the body. In subsequent elections to choose a new chair for the assembly, Khamenei’s office intervened again, and Rafsanjani lost the election to Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a reactionary cleric and ally of Khamenei”.

The article adds that Rafsanjani was unable to control Khamenei and so “has started to oppose many of Khamenei’s policies, and is now closer to the reformists. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also opposes many of Khamenei’s positions, particularly in the cultural arena, including freedom of the press, censorship of books, music, cinema, theater, and the role of women in the society”.

Perhaps in a sweeping statement the author writes that “Rafsanjani and Rouhani are determined to change, to the fullest extent possible, the composition of the Assembly of Experts. The conservatives are well aware of this, and have already linked such plans to pro-American and “seditionist” groups (sedition is the term that Khamenei used to describe the Green Movement). Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the powerful and conservative secretary-general of the Guardian Council, has repeatedly warned that the council will reject all pro-Rafsanjani/Rouhani candidates. That hasn’t stopped Rafsanjani from encouraging reformist candidates, including Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to run in the Assembly of Experts elections. It would be difficult for the Guardian Council to question the credentials of a member of Khomeini’s family, particularly his grandson. Even so, the Guardian Council is likely to bite the bullet and declare that Khomeini is not mojtahed—an Islamic scholar that can issue a fatwa—and will reject his candidacy. But Rafsanjani believes that if a large number of people run, then at least some of them will be elected”.

In the same vein he notes “The same goes for the Majlis elections. The Guardian Council will probably drastically cull any roster that Rouhani and Rafsanjani put forward, but Rouhani has forcefully declared that neither of the two important political factions, the fundamentalists or reformists, can eliminate the other. He has pointed out that rejecting the candidates is illegal and that certifying the qualifications of the candidates is the government’s task, not the Guardian Council’s. He even went so far as to say that holding the elections is the government’s job, and that the Guardian Council must only monitor things to prevent any illegal activities. In all this, Rouhani’s positions are in accordance with the constitution”.

Pointedly the author writes “For all his talk, however, Rouhani does not have the power to enforce his interpretations. He might also be wrong about his ability to speak freely. Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, chief deputy to the judiciary chief and its spokesman, responded to Rouhani’s remarks by declaring that what the president said was “his personal opinion” and that it would weaken and destroy the Guardian Council, which is responsible for interpreting the constitution”.

He ends the piece “So what can the world do? If Iran carries out all of its obligations under the nuclear agreement, the international sanctions on Iran will gradually ease starting in the spring of 2016. Perhaps ironically, the timing will benefit the hardliners and hurt the reformists, because the upcoming elections will be held before the end of sanctions have had an effect on Iran’s economy. In turn, the West might seriously consider speeding up the timetable. The next five months will witness a fierce power struggle in Iran. Although the elections have always been limited to the political forces that the state accepts, votes generally lead to a more open political environment. There will be fierce competition, and maybe some unpredicted outcomes. At the very least, democratic groups in Iran must take advantage of the opportunity to expand their own networks. Little by little, those forces could find themselves with more power than they expected”.

He concludes “Whether we like it or not, the United States will have an instrumental role to play in Iran’s democratisation process. Jettisoning the military option, even from the rhetoric of U.S. politicians, the removal of crippling sanctions that amount to nothing more than the collective punishment of the Iranian people, must give way to enhanced negotiations that go beyond the nuclear issue and extend to matters of critical interest to both sides, including the fight against the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and other militant groups. Such talks will benefit global peace and justice, and are bound to work in favor of the democratization process and its advocates in Iran”.

“Iran had an active program to develop a nuclear weapon”

14/12/2015

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Wednesday that Iran had an active program to develop a nuclear weapon until the end of 2003, and it said some uncoordinated activities continued until as late as 2009. “The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009,” the IAEA said in a report. The report will be presented to the IAEA board on Dec. 15 to determine whether it adequately deals with all outstanding questions about the prior program. Completion of the report is a requirement of the Iran nuclear agreement reached this year, although the accord does not specify any particularly outcome of the agency’s investigation ­beyond assessing “ambiguities” about past nuclear efforts”.

Khamenei vs Rouhani?

08/12/2015

An important article in Foreign Affairs notes how Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, is preventing reform in Iran.

It opens, “the three centers of power in Iran—the Supreme Leader, the president, and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)—are embroiled in a historic contest to shape the course of Iranian foreign policy. This clash, long seen as inevitable, was finally sparked by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1 negotiating partners in July. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fears that the deal was just the first step in the Rouhani’s government’s grand designs for deeper economic integration with the world, which could irrevocably alter the balance of power in Tehran. In turn, Khamenei has given the IRGC’s hardline generals the green light to fight back”.

The piece goes on to argue “Ironically enough, it was Khamenei himself who set Rouhani on the course to power. Through his control of Iran’s voting process, Khamenei first sanctioned Rouhani’s candidacy and then his victory in the 2013 presidential elections. He then proceeded to back the president’s nuclear negotiating team until a deal was reached in July 2015. Khamenei badly needed some sort of agreement to escape intense international sanctions that peaked in 2012, which threatened to unravel the nation’s economic framework”.

However this image of Khamenei as all powerful is slightly overstated. The 2009 revolutions shook the regime to the core and if Rouhani did not win, and another candidate was chosen to win the election the consequences for the regime may have been terminal. Thus, Khamenei had no choice but to allow Rouhani to win.

The writer continues “Throughout the negotiations, Rouhani and his inner circle argued for a principled détente with the West. That made Khamenei distinctly uncomfortable. Iran’s Supreme Leader was never interested in an open-ended détente, and certainly not with the United States. Anti-Americanism is, after all, Khamenei’s main claim to domestic legitimacy. Better relations with Washington would thus be a net political loss for him. Still, Khamenei stayed on board with the negotiations because he too could see that the country badly needed sanctions relief, and calculated he could prevent a nuclear diplomatic settlement from turning into a pretext for détente with Washington. In turn, he delivered Rouhani the political backing the president needed to conclude negotiations. For example, on September 17, 2013, the day after Rouhani urged IRGC generals to be open to compromises both at home and abroad on issues ranging from not playing an excessive role in Iran’s economy to acquiescing to more regional cooperation, Khamenei echoed the president’s words in front of those same generals”.

He adds “In August 2013, shortly after the Rouhani government was installed, Khamenei had agreed to let the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which reports to the president, conduct the nuclear negotiations, instead of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Even so, Khamenei also made it clear that the IRGC generals would still run foreign policy as it related to militarised conflicts, such as those in Syria and Iraq. For this task, Khamenei gave the nod to General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its foreign operations branch. As late as October 2015, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif openly admitted that, even as the foreign ministry handled nuclear negotiations, Iran’s Syria policy was “not in the hands of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran.” This division of labour worked out well: Iran’s diplomats possessed the credentials and ethos that resonated with the West. They stood in stark contrast to former Iranian President’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provincialism. Iran’s hardliners in the IRGC, meanwhile, were acting with near impunity in the region’s conflict zones”.

The author notes that Khamenei hoped to block Rouhani’s agenda of greater dialogue with the US. Yet the author correctly notes that “Khamenei’s displeasure toward potential rapprochement with the United States reveals his own insecurity. According to the Supreme Leader, Washington both intends to and is capable of bringing down the Islamic Republic, with nuclear negotiations serving as the Trojan horse. In this conception of U.S. grand strategy, Rouhani is at best cast as a naive enabler and, at worst, a willing agent of the Washington, as some of Rouhani’s most hardened critics, such as IRGC head Mohammad Ali Jafari, and Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati and Ahmad Khatami, two hardliners close to Khamenei that have openly argued with him at times”.

Interestingly the piece adds “in clamping down on Rouhani, Khamenei may have jumped the gun. If anything, he may have forced the president to up the ante as well. The half sentence admonishing U.S.–Iranian trade in Khamenei’s letter to Rouhani has taken on a life of its own; since its publication, IRGC generals and their resources—media outlets, their minions in the Iranian parliament, and other lackeys in the state machinery—have all ripped into Rouhani’s government. Everything it stands for is now a fair target. Khamenei has provided the IRGC with a blank check to “identify threats to the political order” and address them as it sees fit. This measure is bound to receive pushback from Rouhani’s faction. Not only does the Iranian president believe he has an electoral mandate to pursue domestic and foreign policy reform, he also sees a profound appetite among Iran’s population for a transition to a much milder version of the Islamic Republic. By publicly mandating unelected IRGC generals to act as a check on a popularly elected president, Khamenei has crudely pitted two centers of Iranian power against one another. But in doing so, the 76-year old Khamenei has merely raised the stakes in an intra-regime power struggle—one that might cause the Supreme Leader to lose control within Tehran’s political decision-making process”.

However matters are complicated further by Khamenei’s failing health. He is said to have cancer and the next supreme leader will be crucial in Rouhani’s reforms are to continue. Equally, if a hardliner is elected to the top job Rouhani may have to appeal directly to the people which may begin a civil war.

The piece ends “The Iranian people had hoped that the nuclear deal would be the beginning of broader Iranian reforms at home and improved relations abroad. Unless Khamenei opts to stop the IRGC’s onslaught on Rouhani, the president’s camp will have to decide whether it can push back against Khamenei. If Rouhani does choose to react, Iranian politics will enter uncharted waters in the years to come”.

“Iran has disconnected almost a quarter of its uranium-enriching centrifuges”

29/11/2015

Iran has disconnected almost a quarter of its uranium-enriching centrifuges in less than a month, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday, suggesting it is racing to implement an agreement restricting its nuclear activities.  Under the July deal, sanctions against Iran will be lifted in exchange for measures including slashing the number of centrifuges in operation and reducing its stockpile of uranium. Officials have been speculating about the speed at which Iran can dismantle the centrifuges, sensitive machines that spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium to levels at which it can be used as fuel in power stations or, potentially, weapons. Disconnecting and moving the machines is a time-consuming process if it is to be done without damaging the equipment, making it one of the steps most likely to delay implementation of the deal, and therefore the lifting of sanctions”.

“Stopped dismantling centrifuges”

23/11/2015

Iran has stopped dismantling centrifuges in two uranium enrichment plants, state media reported on Tuesday, days after conservative lawmakers complained to President Hassan Rouhani that the process was too rushed. Last week, Iran announced it had begun shutting down inactive centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordow plants under the terms of a deal struck with world powers in July that limits its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions. Iran’s hardliners continue to resist and undermine the nuclear deal, which was forged by moderates they oppose and which they see as a capitulation to the West. “The (dismantling) process stopped with a warning,” Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the National Security Council, was quoted as saying by the ISNA student news agency. Only decommissioned centrifuges were being dismantled to begin with, of which there were about 10,000 at Natanz and Fordow, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran has said”.

“Iran has begun shutting down uranium enrichment centrifuges”

13/11/2015

Iran has begun shutting down uranium enrichment centrifuges under the terms of a deal struck with six world powers in July on limiting its nuclear program, Tehran’s atomic energy chief said on Monday during a visit to Tokyo. “We have already started to take our measures vis-a-vis the removal of the centrifuge machines – the extra centrifuge machines. We hope in two months time we are able to exhaust our commitment,” Ali Akbar Salehi told public broadcaster NHK. NHK’s website also quoted Salehi as saying it was important that there be “balance” in implementing the deal, signaling Tehran’s stance that all sanctions against Iran should be lifted promptly in step with its dismantling of nuclear infrastructure. Under the July 14 agreement, Iran is to curb its nuclear program under United Nations supervision to ensure it cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the removal of sanctions that have isolated Tehran and hobbled its economy”.

 

“United States approved conditional sanctions waivers for Iran”

28/10/2015

The United States approved conditional sanctions waivers for Iran on Sunday, though it cautioned they would not take effect until Tehran has curbed its nuclear program as required under a historic nuclear deal reached in Vienna on July 14. “Today marks an important milestone toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ensuring its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a White House statement. In a memo, he directed the secretaries of state, treasury, commerce and energy “to take all necessary steps to give effect to the U.S. commitments with respect to sanctions described in (the Iran deal).” Several senior U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said actual sanctions relief for Iran was at least two months away. Sunday was “adoption day” for the deal, which came 90 days after the U.N. Security Council endorsed the agreement reached by Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China under which most sanctions on Iran would be lifted in exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities”.

Iran meets a UN deadline

28/10/2015

Iran has met a deadline to give the U.N. nuclear watchdog information it needs to assess whether Tehran sought to develop nuclear weapons in the past, the agency said on Thursday, a step towards carrying out a deal between Tehran and world powers. The apparent progress reported in the longstanding U.N. investigation coincided with increasing Western disquiet over Iran’s test of a ballistic missile this week in defiance of a U.N. ban, a move France said sent a disconcerting message. It also followed an unusual broadcast by Iranian state television of footage of an underground tunnel crammed with missiles and launchers that appeared to signal Tehran’s determination to expand its large missile inventory. The Islamic Republic’s missiles are viewed with concern by its Western-allied Gulf Arab neighbors given what they see as the risk of Tehran tipping missiles with nuclear weapons, should it ever develop any in future. Iran has long denied that its enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel has any military ends, saying it is for civilian energy only. But its restrictions on U.N. inspections and intelligence suggesting it has researched nuclear bombs in the past raised concern and led to international sanctions.

Iran approves the deal

16/10/2015

Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament passed a bill on Tuesday approving its nuclear deal with world powers, signaling victory for the government over hardline opponents who worry the accord opens a door to wider rapprochement with the West. Many conservative lawmakers opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that President Hassan Rouhani’s government agreed with the six powers on July 14, and the vote — which followed a bad-tempered, rowdy debate on Sunday — lifts a significant hurdle to putting the deal into effect. With strong parliamentary backing, the bill is likely to be ratified by a clerical body called the Guardian Council. The exact stance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all matters of state, is not known. To date, he has neither approved nor rejected the agreement, but has commended the work of Rouhani’s negotiating team. Provided Khamenei does not openly oppose it, many expect Iran will begin shutting down parts of its nuclear program in coming weeks. When completed, that process will result in most international sanctions, imposed on Iran since 2006 over concerns it was covertly seeking atomic bombs, being lifted”.

Iran’s identity crisis

10/10/2015

After the completion of the Iran deal and its subsequent ongoing implementation some have argued that Iran has an identity crisis, “The flight from Istanbul to Imam Khomeini International Airport, I was struck by how few of the women were veiled. There were barely a handful of scarves amidst the stylish young women in tight jeans and high heels or sneakers and the older women wearing an array of everyday city clothes. By the time the plane landed, all the women, myself included, had donned the veil and the manteau, the long-sleeved, knee-length jacket that has been part of the mandatory attire for women in Iran since the revolution. This may seem like a superficial observation based on a scan of people’s appearances, but it’s a reflection of the gulf between the image Iran projects abroad and its diverse identity, the gap between the lives Iranians must lead inside their country and the life many of them would like to have”.

The writer goes on to note “For now, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been incessantly repeating that Iran will continue to counter U.S. influence in the region at every turn. No surprise there. But more interestingly last week he tweeted that the “[enemy’s] infiltration today is a great threat to Iran. Economic, security infiltration is less vital than mental, cultural & political ones” and that “[enemies] promise that #Iran will be totally different in 10 years; we must not allow such evil prospects and thoughts [to take] shape in enemy’s mind.” That’s the real concern: how to let the outside world in without undermining a system underpinned by the strictures of an Islamic theocracy”.

Ultimately, there is little evidence that this can be done. Iran with either remain a staunch theocracy, or as the author has already alluded to, will slip into a rightfully uneasy relationship with modernity.

The piece adds “In August, I traveled to Iran for the first time, on a weeklong assignment for the BBC, the longest the organization has been allowed to report from inside the country since 2009. Access to Iran for Western media is tightly controlled by the authorities, and visas are doled out carefully. There are only a couple of Western reporters based in Tehran full time; most media organizations rely on Iranians or dual Iranian citizens. One of them, the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, has spent the last 14 months in jail facing charges of spying. I have spent most of my career reporting on the Arab world, and, of course, Iran’s influence in countries like Lebanon or Iraq is part of the beat. I know Iran’s politics and post-revolutionary Islamic culture through my encounters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, Iran’s first revolutionary export, which keeps a tight lid on the Shiite community and exercises outsize control over Lebanon’s fate”.

She notes “Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the religious police were out inforce, even fining women for each painted fingernail. Men with long hair or sporting bracelets were also targets. But after he was elected in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani promised to rein in the morality police, and their presence has become much less noticeable, though they are still there in the shadows. But now they can also be the butt of jokes. At the Parsi movie theater, I sat in on Nahang-e Anbar, a comedy about life and love through the years since the revolution. A turbaned cleric showed up on the screen to the theme song of Mission: Impossible, walking down the street in slow motion with his bodyguards pushing people out of the way, sending the pomegranates of a fruit vendor rolling over the sidewalk. Irreverence toward the clergy is unlikely in most other Muslim countries”.

Of most relevance she mentions “For a country that has been under layers of sanctions since 1979, Iran, or at least Tehran, feels less isolated, more modern than Iraq under Saddam Hussein. On my visits there before the 2003 fall of Baghdad, the decay under the embargo and the burden of life under the most ruthless dictatorship in the region were blatantly obvious. You couldn’t even fly to Iraq, so traveling there involved a mind-numbing 12-hour drive through the desert from Jordan; it was a trip back to the 1970s, a drab city with poor infrastructure, open sewers in some parts, and a people often too afraid to even speak out the names of Saddam’s two ruthless sons, Uday and Qusay. I know Iranians have been crushed by sanctions, their spending power slashed and their thirst for innovation blunted, but their capital reminded me of Istanbul: mostly low-rise buildings, bustling and very pedestrian, but built on the side of a mountain, at more than 3,000 feet in altitude. Surprisingly green, dotted with gardens and parks, and trees lining the streets, its notorious traffic jams were even worse than I expected. The ski slopes are only 20 minutes away, and, in the summer, young Iranians take to the hills for paragliding, hiking, or motorbike obstacle racing”.

She notes the lack of the call to prayer and that “With politics so inherently tied to the duty of prayer, showing up at the mosque is seen as an endorsement of the regime — another possible explanation for why mosque attendance is so low in Iran. In Tehran, a city of 12 million, there are only roughly 10,000 loyalists who show up on Friday. Everyone else seems to be out at lunch judging from the waiting lines at the restaurant I went to that day a short drive away from the university. But it’s at Tehran University that you find the voices supporting Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. “Syria’s President Assad was our ally and supported Iran during the war with Iraq,” a retired government employee told me. “And Hezbollah, who is [fighting] against Israel, is also our friend. Our policy for the time being is to protect and support these two allies, especially Syria.” But Iran needs the money being spent to support Syria, I pressed. “Yes, of course, our country needs it even more, but they also need us,” he said. “This is not just foreign policy, but it is also our religious duty to protect the oppressed wherever they might be.” And, yes, it’s here that the faithful chant “Marg Bar Amrika” — “Death to America” — a somewhat tired ritual. Instead, today it seems that Iranians, certainly those who are conservative and who follow politics, are a lot more preoccupied with enmity toward one neighbour”.

She goes on to note “Every conversation I had that touched on Iran’s regional role immediately brought fierce, derogatory comments about Saudi Arabia. Outside Friday prayers, I spoke to conservative cleric Sheikh Mohsen Mahmoudi. When I asked him how Tehran and Riyadh could overcome current tensions between them, he just said, “Saudi Arabia is not a democratic state because it has no elections,” as though it meant Iran didn’t have to stoop so low as to think about how to deal with Riyadh”.

Correctly she writes that “From dissidents jailed and harassed to a staggering wave of executions without due process, Iran’s own record is far from pristine — but it does have elections and women do serve in high office. To its credit, Iran is also the only country in the region where the leadership seems to have understood a lesson that Arab leaders have ignored with devastating consequences. When Iran’s uprising warning came in 2009, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection, the demonstrations were violently repressed; prominent leaders of the Green Movement, including Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, still remain under house arrest. But the events shook the leadership and awoke everyone to the dangers of having the whole system brought down by unrest. When ordinary Iranians look to Syria, or Libya further away, they see the outcome of a civil protest movement against leaders that refuse to leave power and have nowhere else to go. When Iran’s leaders look at those countries, they are reminded of the dangers of refusing even a modicum of change and openness”.

She continues arguing that “So this is the gamble that Iran’s leadership took when it decided to go ahead with the nuclear negotiations: to offer hope and the prospect of economic prosperity so it can keep Iran’s restless youth on board, in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old. More crucially, it coincided with the interests of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most powerful branch of Iran’s military, which also presides over lucrative businesses and was feeling the bite of sanctions. If Iran has learned the hard way that violent change can take the country into volatile directions, this is also a country that has a surprising ability to reflect on the past and preserve it”.

She ends “Time has stood still for Iran in many ways since the day the shah made his exit and the country entered into isolation. Despite the new cars, the sprinkling of Western shops, Tehran feels in a bit of a time warp, reminiscent of Turkey in the early 1990s, its bottled-up entrepreneurial spirit ready to emerge”.

Kerry and Zarif meet since the deal

02/10/2015

The top U.S. and Iranian diplomats met on Saturday for the first time since their countries reached a historic nuclear deal in Vienna. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sat down in New York at the United Nations to discuss the path forward for the implementation of the agreement, which lifts sanctions against the Iranians in exchange for their pledge to not pursue nuclear weaponry. Congressional Republicans have tried to stop the deal, which they say would aid U.S. enemies. The pair also discussed regional instability in Syria and Yemen, State Department spokesman John Kirby said, along with the status of detained and missing U.S. citizens in Iran”.

Obama: Implementing the Iran deal

25/09/2015

The Obama administration began carrying out the Iran nuclear deal Thursday as time expired on Republican efforts to derail it, appointing a senior diplomat to ensure that Tehran moves further away from bomb-making capability and outlining a months-long process before Western nations will start easing economic sanctions. Senators failed to reach the threshold for a measure to keep all sanctions in place on Iran until it recognizes Israel and releases all imprisoned Americans, and then on a resolution expressing disapproval of the nuclear agreement. Two previous votes in recent days against the Iran deal also failed, and a 60-day window in the Republican-controlled Congress to prevent President Barack Obama from implementing the seven-nation pact was set to close Thursday night. Shortly after the votes, the State Department named Stephen Mull as “lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation.” Mull, who has served as ambassador to Poland and in other top diplomatic posts, takes on the “crucial” responsibility of shepherding an agreement “which will make the United States, our friends and allies in the Middle East, and the entire world safer,” Secretary of State John Kerry said”.

Saudi Arabia, terrorism and counterterrorism

17/09/2015

An report discusses the relationship between King Salman and ISIS, it opens, “When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman made his first visit to Washington since ascending the throne in January, his goals were simple. The 79-year-old ruler wanted to paper over the disputes that have eroded the U.S.-Saudi relationship for years and extract from President Barack Obama’s administration a payoff for Riyadh’s tepid support of the nuclear deal with Iran. With the White House eager to maintain momentum on the nuclear agreement after securing the Senate votes to block the Republican rejection of the deal, King Salman’s timing was excellent — all but erasing memories of his no-show at a Camp David conference of Gulf leaders in May. Papering over differences is one of diplomacy’s finer and more useful arts. With the Saudis anxious about a possible warming in the U.S. relationship with Iran and sharp disagreements regarding Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and the broader sectarian blood bath in the Middle East, the visit was a solid piece of work in the service of Washington’s ever more schizophrenic partnership with Riyadh — perhaps the most convoluted bilateral relationship the United States has had with any country. The atmospherics around the visit were sufficiently positive that few mentioned the contradictions that seem to be fraying ties between the United States and its longtime friend in the Gulf”.

He goes on to mention that “One commentator who did dwell on the deep dissonance in the relationship was Thomas Friedman, in a New York Times column published just before King Salman’s arrival. Teeing off on some benighted retired Air Force general who opposed the nuclear deal on the grounds that Iran was the leading sponsor of Islamic radicalism in the world, Friedman exclaimed: “Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam … and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam.” Friedman is on target in arguing that Saudi Arabia’s contribution to Islamist extremism has far outstripped Iran’s. Indeed, Tehran’s effort to transcend sect and become the leader of the Muslim world’s radical rejectionist stream has been in tatters since the Arab Spring and the heightening of sectarian tensions because of the Syrian civil war”.

He correctly argues that “Wahhabism has been a devastating invasive species in Islam’s enormous ecosystem — it’s the zebra mussel, the Asian Tiger mosquito, and the emerald ash borerwrapped into one. The consequences have been fateful: A solid line of causation from the slaughter in Islamic State-controlled Iraq and the tragedy of 9/11 traces back directly to Saudi evangelisation and the many radical mosques and extremist NGOs it spawned”.

He does on to make the point that “This is too easy; if oil were the only vital U.S. interest binding it to the kingdom, dealing with the export of extremism would be vastly easier. What Friedman and almost everyone else misses is the increasingly pivotal importance of counterterrorism cooperation in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. That may set heads spinning, but when it comes to tactical counterterrorism — uncovering conspiracies and disrupting them — Saudi Arabia has become an invaluable partner, one of the very best Washington has. Following Saudi Arabia’s apparent epiphany after the May 2003 bombings in Riyadh, which killed 39 people, ties between U.S. counterterrorism authorities and their Saudi counterparts have grown close, collegial, and effective. There is a reason why Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, now second in line to the throne and the architect of Saudi counterterrorism strategy, is far and away Washington’s favorite leader in Riyadh”.

He notes importantly that “The golden age of this cooperation began in 2009, when the terrorist threat was developing most dangerously in the kingdom’s backyard: Yemen. Saudi counterterrorism cooperation at the time prevented hundreds of American deaths, possibly more. Some of the cases are well-known, like the plot to hide bombs in printer cartridges aboard U.S.-bound planes. Without these tips, one or more aircraft would have gone down. Other operations have helped the United States defend against a new class of undetectable bombsthat might also be used against aviation. Wherever else one might find fault with them, the Saudis did superb work in these cases. The cooperation extends beyond the cloak and dagger stuff. Since 2003, the Saudi government’s work on counterterrorism finance has improved considerably, and its efforts in the area of rehabilitating extremists have been recognised internationally”.

Crucially he writes that “there is an extraordinary paradox here. Because of the large sums that flow from the country’s religious establishment and huge NGOs to institutions that promote Wahhabi-style Islam — with its malignant views of Shiites, Jews, Christians, and the West — Saudi Arabia remains the fountainhead for Islamist extremism. These funds, together with curricular materials, preachers, television broadcasters, religious literature, and the like stoke radicalism in scores of countries, even if they are typically not directly implicated in violent acts. At the same time, Saudi intelligence services are active around the world trying to prevent the terrorism that grows from this activity”.

He mentions that “So why hasn’t the United States pressed Riyadh more effectively to dial back the support for extremism that so clearly affects our security and global interests? There are several reasons. To begin with, counterterrorism cooperation of the kind that Riyadh has supplied is hard to argue with. No president wants to risk alienating a government that is helping safeguard American lives. While some officials have pushed for engaging the Saudis on the export of extremism, many others are averse to starting a tough discussion that could go nowhere. The Saudis, after all, are unlikely to reconceive their polity on our account. Further complicating matters has been what might be called the “Politburo syndrome.” As with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the small handful of Saudi gerontocrats who are authorized to do anything — either the king or a few of the senior-most princes — are either dying or too intellectually ossified to persuade anyone to adopt a radically different approach”.

He makes the point that “So for all the advances after 9/11 and the kiss-and-make-up atmosphere of the moment, the prognosis for the U.S.-Saudi relationship is not encouraging. The two countries’ priorities are simply too far apart. For the United States, the imperatives are to implement the nuclear deal with Iran and halt the rise of Islamist extremism — above all, contain and diminish the Islamic State without dispatching American combat troops to the region. For the Saudis, the paramount goal is to check and roll back what they see as Iranian advances, especially in Yemen and Syria”.

He concludes “But behind the scenes, Washington has gnawing concerns about the Saudi war effort. The bombing runs are killing civilians in appalling numbers, and a country that hovers on desperation has been plunged into a humanitarian disaster. The United States is trying to refine Saudi targeting, but the carnage remains ghastly, and the Saudi claim that the Houthis are nothing more than an Iranian proxy has also worn thin. This isn’t just bad for the Yemenis. It’s also bad for the United States because terrorist groups thrive in conflict zones and Yemen’s jihadis — especially al Qaeda — are gaining territory and influence, since they face no pressure except from the occasional U.S. drone shot”.

He finishes “Can any of this be fixed? Will our partners of seven decades, as U.S. officials like to refer to the Saudis, join in the fight against extremism and not just its terrorist end-product? Don’t count on it: Saudi Arabia has avoided taking such steps for decades, and there is no reason to think the kingdom can’t stay on its current course for decades more. As for the United States, it will remain saddled with tactical imperatives that prevent it from addressing the bigger mess. And so Washington will muddle forward against the jihadi threat”.

Iran gives up Khobar bomber?

15/09/2015

An article posits that Iran has given up a terror suspect, “The capture of Ahmed al-Mughassil, the prime suspect in the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, was particularly and personally gratifying for me, a former FBI agent who spent years investigating and disrupting other terrorist attacks. But it’s unlikely that a lucky intelligence break alone led to Mughassil’s apparent capture in Hezbollah territory. That’s not to take anything away from the impressive ability of intelligence agencies around the world to coordinate and track those like Mughassil, who’ve successfully evaded detection for years. Indeed, the “how” of his capture, which involved the intelligence and security services of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, is the stuff of spy novels. But the question of why Hezbollah allowed Mughassil to be plucked from its own backyard — without any retaliation or even a tangible response — may be even more fascinating”.

He goes on to write “That “why” likely stems from the shifting self-interests of both Iran and Saudi Arabia — specifically, from the realities posed by the soon-to-be-enacted Iranian nuclear deal. With the historic accord now in Tehran’s back pocket, it will make less and less sense for the regime going forward to offer safe havens to wanted terrorist suspects (with American blood on their hands, no less), who present glaring political and diplomatic liabilities. To prove its skeptics wrong, Iran must continue to show a willingness to change its stance on harboring terrorists”.

He posits that “Mughassil’s capture fits squarely into this equation. A Shiite born in al-Qatif, Saudi Arabia, in 1967, he was a state-sponsored and then state-sheltered terrorist — the “state,” in each case, being Iran, working with its proxy Hezbollah. The bombing of Khobar Towers, which killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of Iraq and wounded hundreds of others, involved actors in four countries — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria — working with the Iranian-supported Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian-supported, but Saudi Arabia-based, Hezbollah al-Hejaz (a separate group from the Lebanese Hezbollah but still ideologically aligned with them and Iran). After parking a massive truck bomb near the tower’s housing complex, Mughassil left the scene, remotely detonated the bomb with an explosive yield of 20,000 pounds of TNT-equivalent explosives, and fled to Iran, beyond the reach of U.S. and Saudi security and intelligence services”.

The writer adds that “Riyadh feared retaliation from Tehran if the United States attacked Iran based on information gathered from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom also feared being embarrassed by the revelation that fully capable terrorist cells, funded and trained by foreign powers, were operating within its borders. Even as new terrorism cases took the spotlight, Khobar remained an FBI priority. During the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 and the USS Cole attack in 2000, cases in which I was directly and deeply involved, the bureau never stopped collecting evidence or cajoling Saudi officials to turn over evidence in their possession. That the United States finally secured indictments in June 2001 — five years after the attacks — was a testament both to the geopolitical roadblocks and the determination to find a way around them. Mughassil was one of those indicted, yet he remained at large. Then, three months after the indictments, al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center and crashed a plane into the Pentagon”.

He goes on to make the point later that “After all, life for a state-sheltered terrorist can be pretty good — until politics change dramatically, that is. Historic regional rivalries and entrenched power dynamics rarely shift significantly in one’s lifetime, affording someone like Mughassil relative security and freedom within certain geographic and geopolitical boundaries. Yet such shifts do happen. Sabri Khalil al-Banna, the feared Palestinian terrorist also known as Abu Nidal implicated in hundreds of deaths across the globe, found relative sanctuary in Libya in 1987 after his expulsion from Syria. Only after Libyan operatives were extradited in 1999 to the Hague and convened before a Scottish court as part of a deal over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 did then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi decide Abu Nidal was no longer worth his trouble. He was kicked out in 1999 and ended up in Iraq, where he was shot and killed in 2002″.

He concludes “The challenges facing this case — from a reluctant Saudi Arabia to subsequent terrorist attacks of a far greater scale — made it a perfect one to remain perpetually “under investigation.” The combination of shifting regional dynamics and the FBI’s unwavering focus likely brought about the capture of a terrorist who believed he had gotten away with his murders. Mughassil’s capture and arrest should be a lesson to state-sponsored terrorists everywhere: They are being played as pawns and are only safe as long as they are useful. Whether or not Iran will shift away from using state-sponsored terrorism as a tactic remains to be seen. But the country must be ready to pivot in its relationship with longtime foes like the Saudis. The nuclear deal has forced Tehran to confront the obvious: Its sponsorship and arming of proxies like Hezbollah and its meddling across the Middle East — from Lebanon, to Iraq, to Syria — will increasingly come at cross-purposes with its mission to reengage with the world. As history shows, once the liability of harboring a state-sponsored terrorist like Mughassil outweighs the utility, the state will gladly turn him out. Just ask Carlos the Jackal”.

 

Kerry and the myth of a better deal

07/09/2015

Rejecting critics who say the United States should simply re-negotiate a “better deal” with Iran over its nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday such a proposal is naive and based on a misreading of the last decade of diplomatic efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. “There isn’t a, quote, ‘better deal’ to be gotten,” said Kerry, speaking at an event hosted by Thomson Reuters in New York. Barack Obama’s administration is currently promoting its nuclear accord to the public and Congress, which is expected to vote on the deal in September after the August recess. President Obama has promised to veto legislation rejecting the pact. With Republicans almost uniformly opposed to the agreement, the GOP would need support from at least 13 Democrats in the Senate and 44 in the House to override a veto. A trio of Democratic senators have indicated that they would side with the White House in recent days, but one of the most powerful Democratic lawmakers, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, has announced vocal opposition to the pact. On Monday, in his first remarks following the publication of his blog post announcing his opposition to the deal, Schumer said “I believe we should go back and try to get a better deal,” adding “the nations of the world should join us in that.” In his speech Tuesday, Kerry pushed back hard against Schumer and other critics. The nation’s top diplomat noted that two previous efforts by the George W. Bush administration to negotiate the complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in 2003 and 2008 failed to secure an agreement. Instead, he said, Iran kept advancing its nuclear enrichment capabilities”.