Israel-Palestine peace talks, this time it’s (not) different


    One would consider it a very peculiar time to try to re-ignite the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, since not only is the issue so complex and there are some irreconcilable differences, but there is also turmoil in the region, which makes things even more complicated. So why is Obama pushing this now?

    In the relatively short span of time the conflict in Syria, it has accumulated more deaths than the entire Israeli Palestinian conflict, compared with the tactics, duration versus body count and likelihood to continue there should be no doubt, which of the two conflicts should be dealt with first. Also, not too far from there Egypt, a country of approximately 80 million people, is facing bankruptcy and instability, there are already deaths in the streets as they struggle for some form of democracy and there is no sign of a slow down, if anything, the animosity is growing and the Islamists fighting in the Sinai peninsula is increasing. If those conflicts are not dealt with, it will continue to spill to neighbouring countries and many Muslims will die as well as suffer poverty and displacement. Yet if you try to find the official American policy on these conflicts, you would struggle, as there is very little said and even less done (at least publicly).

    Many Americans welcome a president that is not keen to jump into another foreign war, which would no doubt cost billions of dollars, result in American casualties and may damage further the American reputation around the world. However, a lack of an American response leaves the space open for intervention by other players, which is why  Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Russia and even China getting involved in the Syrian conflict. The involvement of foreign powers and lack of the US’s participation, is undoubtedly damaging the American reputation, since they are seen as a weak country that has abandoned its policy of supporting democracy around the world. Another damage to the reputation was no doubt a rookie mistake of defining a red line for the intervention in Syria, i.e. use of chemical weapons, and then not following through it. It is already bad practice to publicly define a red line, since essentially you are revealing your position as well as committing yourself to an action determined by the other side, but to then falter and find excuses is a much worse outcome then keeping quiet all along

    Yet with all that going on in the Middle East, Obama has decided to get his Secretary of State to concentrate his efforts on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by getting the sides to sit down at the table again.

    One of the reasons for the timing could be the assumption that because of the Syrian war, which has caused a disconnect between Hamas and  Iran and Syria and following the fall of Morsi, which to an extent supported Hamas, the organization is at its lowest point and this could be the best time to reach an agreement and drive Hamas out of the picture.

    It is true that this is a good reason and the timing is crucial, however, the external circumstances bring with them more complications than opportunity. For example one of the burning topics, which is the right for Palestinian refugees and their offsprings to return to the land. Until the situation in Syria stabilizes, there is little chance that anyone would agree their fate. There is no guarantee that Assad’s regime wouldn’t simply commit massacres in the refugee camps (as have been reported to be done already) or for the Sunnis to fully accept them. Until their situation is resolved, the conflict cannot be truly resolved, as until they are accepted as full-fledged citizens in the different countries there would always be a yearning to return (or in most cases move) to the land. 

    The other issues is the security of Israel, while Islamists are taking positions in both Egypt and Syria there is no guarantee for Israel’s security. Defining the borders and letting the Palestinians guard them is not an acceptable option for Israel. Israel is already dealing with a situation in Gaza, in which, even if Hamas tries to avoid conflict, it claims it cannot control the rogue groups who continue firing rockets. Learning from that dynamics between small groups and government, means that allowing the replication of this situation on the 67 borders is not something Israel could ever accept.

    The instability in the area is also a factor in the sense that whatever agreement is reached it would have to be backed by the neighbouring states. They would have to first accept the deal and then guarantee that they would not act against it. For example it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Egypt, Jordan and Syria would agree to any movement of people into or out of their territory as a result of sorting out the refugee problem. Nor should it be assumed that the resource allocation such as water and land is automatically accepted either. The question of Jerusalem is also an issue that needs to be approached carefully with the neighbours, who consider it a holy Muslim site and may worry how their consent to an agreement determining its fate, might be perceived in the Arab world.

    One of the other external influences is the intervention of the EU, which was extremely unwelcome by Israel. The new EU policy was an attempt to push Israel into the negotiations, by trying to wither any attempt to grow a business outside of the 67 borders. On the face of it, it looks like a reasonable demand, however, when one looks carefully one would understand the irrelevance and damage this policy is doing. The irrelevance is because the borders have not been determined yet, so they would potentially be boycotting and therefore destroying businesses, which might sit in legitimate future Israeli land. The damaging effect is even greater, since while the owners of these places are Israeli, the workers tend to be Palestinians, so as these factories close more Palestinians would go unemployed and it was done in such a way that Israel is not obliged in any way to increase the working visas of Palestinians inside of Israel, therefore leaving Palestinians worse off. The other damage this policy is doing is destroying the only islands of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no love between the two groups, but a shared goal and reliance on each other does contribute to stability.

    One more factor which has been pushed a side for now in both initiating the talks and unfortunately by the mainstream media is the strong opposition of Hamas to any talks. Hamas is still in control in Gaza and gaining popularity in the West Bank. It is true that it is going through a difficult financial crisis, but it is not down yet and reports have already come out of Hamas is reconciling with Iran, which would mean more financial support and no agreement to any deal reached unless Iran agrees to it too (not very likely prospect under any condition). It must also be remembered that the Fatah leadership involved in the talks are mainly old men in their 70’s and do not necessarily represent the entire Palestinian people, certainly not the more religious groups.

    So, while the motives to kickstart the peace talks are dubious, the timing is difficult and there is really no breakthrough in any of the core issues that have caused the failure of all other talks, it is still a positive move to get the sides talking, which would hopefully get both sides one step closer towards a future agreement. One notable difference this time though is that these talks are not taking center stage, in the news broadcasts around the Western world for example, this hardly made it into the headlines, whereas a decade ago, not a single reputable broadcasting company would have dared not start the news with such developments possibly overshadowed only by a local disaster.

    It will be interesting to see what the news will bring 9 months from now, however, I don’t think that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe that the conflict is really going to be resolved that quickly

Not The Usual Mess In The Middle East


    The recent events in the Middle East at a glance looks like one big mess. One could think that not much in the region  makes any sense anymore. It seems that everyone is fighting everyone and historic alliances have suddenly been broken. Moreover any involvement or prediction by the West, such as the positive effects on Arab countries establishing free democractic regimes have proved to be completely wrong.

    However, if one looks at the events and the background, one could see that it was up until now that things did not make sense and now there is finally a more logical explanation to some of the oddities that were prevalent before.

    The most extreme example would be the alliance between Sunni Hamas, Shia Hezbollah, Shia Iran and Alawaite Syria. The alliance that makes sense is Shia Iran with the Shia group Hezbollah, they share the same values and sect of Islam and Iran has helped set up Hezbollah and has been its main sponsor ever since. It is perhaps slightly less obvious that the Syrian Alawaite regime is also part of this alliance. However, despite the different roots and other fundamental differences the Shias consider that sect to belong to the same stream and therefore sees it as an ally opposing the Sunni sect.

    While those alliances, even if not perfectly, could somehow be explained, what really hasn’t made sense so far has been the alliance between the Sunni group Hamas and the other Shia players. Despite the media’s obsession with the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is naive to think that the animosity towards Israel surpasses the age-long Shia-Sunni divide. Considering the longevity (since ancient times), number of people(1.5 billion Muslims with 10%-20% being Shia) and the religious background (fundamental difference in belief). One could be forgiven for thinking that hating Israel is no more than an excuse to rally the Muslim world around a common cause. After all, before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Shias saw themselves as a natural ally to the Jewish state of Israel, in its struggle against the threat of Sunni Muslims.

    In order to understand how this “small-scale” conflict could bring together two major players, it is important to look at the relations between countries in the Middle East leading up to the time.

    Before the Western intervention in the Middle East, the region was divided to tribes.There was no division of “countries”, rather everyone was Arab and there was a belonging to a tribe and/or a group of people. For example the Hashemite’s, which make up Jordan today, the Assyrians, which make up Syria…etc. After World War I, the Western intervention divided the region up and created the basis of the countries today. However, while creating countries, they bundled together some of the groups (Druze, Sunnis, Shia, Kurdish, Christian…etc.) and they did not create democracies. The intervention has left the region with countries with dictators. Over the years there have been “free elections”, however, they have not been real, as control was passed down in the family and even in cases, n which the countries went through the motions of “voting”, it cannot be considered a democracy without the other institutions such as freedom of speech, free press, separation of law and government…etc. .

    While in the West dictators are viewed as a wholly negative feature, in the Middle East there was one noticeable benefit. Since the countries that were formed were not always homogenous, the dictator had the job of keeping the people united. This of course was done via oppression of the masses, however it provided stability to those countries (many would argue it still not worth the price of oppression, however one might look at Iraq and Syria and perhaps not feel quite as strongly about it anymore).

    In many ways the “Arab Spring”  has let the cat out of the bag. The wall of fear between the rulers and the people has been broken, which made the dictators’ job of keeping the stability nearly impossible. The individuals have realized their power and conditions have been so bad that they often feel like they have nothing else to lose and are now couragously fighting for what they believe (in some cases the fighting has been kidnapped by Jihhadist groups, but this is again a matter of convinient alliances to reach a goal). A catalyst for the uprisings has of course been social media and other technical advances, which have contributed to the exposure of the masses to the outside world as well as provided a safer platform to organize and communicate.

    The tensions between the sects have been felt and somewhat exposed in the wikileaks reports. While the authenticity and sincerity in the cables should always be questioned, it was surprising to read statements such as Asad calling Hamas an unwanted guest in his country, or the eagerness the Sunni Arab nations showed in wanting the Iranian nuclear facilities to be bombed. However the events in the Arab world, namely the Arab uprisings since then have confirmed these reports, as Hamas is no longer wanted in Syria and the Sunni countries have increased their oil production to allow the West to execute the sanctions on Iran.

    In the last couple of years the situation in the Middle East changed so much that the false pretence has been broken down and the real dirty politics have come out. The Shia – Sunni conflict is in full swing and  affecting many countries. Ironically all the ethnic groups that were able to play nicely for all these years under an oppressive dictator and sympathize with, what they called, human rights violations of the Palestinians, are now mercilessly slaughtering each other not sparing women and children and seeing millions being displaced. Even Turkey that once declared a zero conflict policy is now bombing Syria as well as trying to manage the internal Kurdish conflict, involving also occasionally bombing areas in North Iraq.

    The group probably worse off from this turn of events is the Palestinians. On the one hand their plight has been pushed aside as a minor issue in light of everything else that is taking place. On the other hand, while the more pragmatic Fatah is losing its place at the top*, Hamas is gaining prestige. The visit to Gaza by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thaniof, the Emir of Qatar just shows how little the Arab countries are interested in a long viable solution in the Middle East and how much this is about alliances and politics (It is almost laughable how a minute after Syria and Iran favour the more radical groups in Gaza over Hamas, Qatar moves in and offers Hamas money and support).

    With the re-election of president Obama it’ll be interesting to see how things unfold. Whereas in his first term Obama was testing the waters and making some junior mistakes as to how to handle Iran and the various revolutions, this time around things might look a little different and every foreign policy decision would no doubt, ripple across the Middle East changing the dynamics between countries and temporary allies.

    It has been said before never to attempt to predict the future in the Middle East. That statement is perhaps more true now than ever.

 

 

 

* Fatah losing its place is one of the worst things for the Palestinians as it seems that as an act of desperation Abbas will be insisting on getting a UN General Assembly recognition for a Palestinian state, probably in order to leave his mark on history, before he is ousted. While a recognition will do nothing for the Palestinians, other than give them the ability to fight Israel legally in various UN organizations. It will mean an immediate economic collapse as the US will cease any aid and banish their representatives from Washington, as well as Israel potentially withdrawing the Oslo agreements, in which they collect tax money for them, as well allow workers into Israel.

The Heart of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


There is a conception amongst people, who learn about the Israeli Palestinian conflict from the media, that the negotiations are not going on because the Palestinians have set a condition to stop the expansion of the settlements in the West Bank and Israel would not or is unable to comply. This statement is partially true, however, anyone thinking that this is the heart of the conflict or that the ongoing settlement is the issue that needs to be tackled is missing the most important point altogether.

The conflict started well before the Second World War, when Jews started arriving to Israel from Europe. It is important to mention that there were already Jews in the land, however they were a minority at the time (The fact they were a minority was a result multiple expulsions from foreign rulers such Shalmaneser V,  Nebuchadnezzar II, the Greeks, the Romans, etc). Since historically there has always been  friction between Jews and Arabs,  due to the different faiths, manifesting itself in the violence and discrimination in the Arab lands where Jews lived, the Arabs were already wary of the immigration and the prospect of becoming a minority in the future.

Due to the Arab’s fear, in the beginning of the 1900’s the local Arabs fought both on the ground and politically trying to restrict the arrival of Jews to the land. Following the Balfour declaration of making the land the home of the Jews, they put great pressure on the British mandated ruler to stop the Jewish population growth by restricting Jewish immigration.

The British realising that this is a problem set up the Peel Commission to find ways to settle the dispute. The gist of the commission’s conclusions, after conducting a thorough investigation including interviewing leading figures on both sides, was that it is not likely that Jews and local Arabs would be able to live side by side. There is an animosity between them and as Arabs would not be happy living under a Jewish rule, the Jews would not be happy living under an Arab rule (the Zionist movement’s aim was to establish a Jewish leadership rather than returning to being a minority under a foreign rule). Therefore the most conceivable conclusion would be to divide the land to Jewish and Arab.

It would be unfair to history to claim that the Jews happily accepted the Peel Commission’s conclusions. It is reported that some of the Jewish leaders who came had big plans to turn the entire land to be their own. Backed up by European consent and their biblical and historical ties to the land, they believed that it was their  right to live on the land and turn it completely to a Jewish state, where Jews could return and be free. According to historians such as Ben Morris, it was the start of  WW II and other practical reasons that made the Jewish leadership realise that the ambition of owning the whole state is unachievable and therefore agree to a territorial division.

On the Palestinian side things were viewed quite differently. They did not want a Jewish state on the land. The Palestinian leadership wanted to maintain the Arab majority, which rules over the Jews, who were present prior to the European immigration. When Britain suggested the division, the Jews accepted it, while the Palestinians refused. When the UN voted on the partition plan in 29 of November 1947, the Jewish representatives accepted it and curbed the “Revisionists” groups, who claimed that land compromises should not be made. The Palestinians on the other hand rejected the vote and declared a war, described by some of their leaders as a war of extermination. Ultimately and possibly against all odds the Arab nations lost the war and Israel was founded.

Since the founding of Israel the Palestinians have rejected the idea of a Jewish rule. Even after their big defeat in the six days war in 1967 they were adamant to rule the whole land and accordingly they replied to peace talks with the conclusion of their conference in Khartoum in Sudan with the famous 3 no’s (No to peace, no to negotiation and no to recognition  of Israel).

The fear Israeli rulers have always had is that the Palestinians are adhering to what has become known as the “Phased Plan”. This plan is claimed to be the Palestinian pragmatic strategy, which is attributed by some historians to the “moderate” Palestinian leaders. This approach, as stated in the PLO resolution in 1974, involves accepting a settlement to establish a Palestinian Statehood, however then to continue an armed struggle, until the entire land is liberated. This resolution has been talked about and agreements have been made to change it (during the Oslo Accords), however it has never been modified.

The fear of Israel that making concessions would not lead to peace, rather give the Palestinians a better grounding to continue their struggle has dominated  several negotiations and peace conferences between Israel and Palestinians. In some of these talks some breakthroughs have been made, resulting in Israel handing over control over land and cooperation, however they always side-stepped two main issues: Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.

Jerusalem is a complex issue as a holy place to three religions, neither party wants to hand over control, there have already been suggestions on how to resolve it (for example an international rule or division of the city to East and West sections), however, no one has had the courage or deemed it is the right time to take this big step.

The second point about the refugees goes straight into the heart of the issue and is possibly never properly explained in the mainstream media. The Palestinians demand justice for their people by allowing them to return to their houses, which they fled as part of the conflict. Even though many of the people are already dead, they deem their descendants have the right to return. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable request, which would help the Palestinian feel that justice has been done and therefore accept a long-term settlement. However in reality this issue causes great concern to Israel and is much more complex.

In 1948 there were an estimated 7000,000 refugees that fled the land. In 2012 their descendants are estimated to be just under 5 million. If those 5 million return to Israel and therefore become citizens, the Arabs would immediately  become a political majority and Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish State. Therefore this request, which is often presented as a minor dispute over territory, in its current capacity trumps any talks, as land division would be meaningless, if Israel loses its Jewish majority and hence Jewish rule.

Once the Jews become a minority two scenarios are likely to occur. In the first scenario, the Arab rule will preside and Israel will become a country made of two major ethnic groups. Judging on the treatment of other religions such as Christianity in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries such as Egypt as well as the experience of the jews who have fled from Arab countries,  the future is looking very bleak. Especially with the recent re-birth of Islamic rule as a result of the Arab uprisings, which is sweeping the region.

The second scenario is that the Jews would maintain their rule and preserve their values. However, preserving their values and rules is compatible with being a minority in this situation, as one of the main values of Israel is a free democracy. In order for the Jews to preserve control, they would have to employ tactics of an Apartheid country, something which would find many opposers both internationally and at home.

The repercussions of the demographics on Israel may at times sound like a conspiracy theory, as there are some assumptions made such as all refugees would choose to return, all Arabs will vote the same…etc. However considering the military balance, whichgives Israel the upper hand inthe region, it is the Palestinians’ best prospect to regain control of the whole land. It is then no surprise that many of Israel’s harshest critics such as Norman Finkelstein, George Galloway and other Palestinian figures have abandoned the two state solution and are calling for a one state.

Since the Palestinian refugees right to return issue is far from being resolved, the prospect for an imminent peace is minimal if not non-existent. So, it is unlikely to be any progress, before the Palestinian leadership and the international community would address specifically what rights the Palestinian refugees should get, using as a basis the other refugees in the world, who have been settled after a conflict, possibly starting with the Jews who fled Arab countries.

Will Iran be another Iraq?


    Almost a decade after the West’s venture in the Middle East, the world finds itself in a similar position having to consider whether a pre-emptive military strike is the correct approach, in order ensure future global security and stability.

    Ten years following the decision to engage in military action in Iraq, the West’s armies are still committed (although slowly withdrawing) and the controversy is still alive and in many ways has redefined the people’s attitude to war and the trust in government. Therefore, in understanding Iran it is important to first look at the events in Iraq, without the media’s hysteria and sensational headlines (at times on the expense of accuracy).

    The biggest controversy is that fact that weapons of mass destructions have never been found. That claim strengthens the notion that the West was never under any threat and therefore there was no  interest for the West to get involved. The other controversy was that at the time a new UN resolution was not sought after, rather an older resolution was used, which some consider illegal. And finally the latest major point of contention is the aftermath of the war, which has seen about 110,000 deaths from military action, although mainly from sectorial violence, which followed the toppling of Saddam.

    The case to invade Iraq is argued very well in a few resources. Perhaps the most interesting and powerful argument is put forward in Tony Blair’s biographical book, where he dedicates a whole chapter to Iraq. Without repeating the argument, Tony argues that the life in Iraq before the war wasn’t much better than after the war. Different in that instead of suicide bombs and sectorial fighting, children were dying of malnutrition and lack of medicine and ethnic groups were deprived of human rights. Tony goes on to argue against Saddam’s history of violence in attacking Iran, Kuwait and more importantly using chemical warfare against his Kurdish population.

    However, many would find that all the argument against Saddam, still do not amount to a justification for war, especially since the Western world is routinely looking the other way in different regimes committing similar crimes. This then leads to an examination of the intelligence used to justify going to war.

    There is still a notion that Tony Blair lied to the people of Britain, fiddling with the intelligence to justify the move. However, the government has exposed the intelligence that was used and made it public (http://www.fas.org/irp/world/uk/iraqwmd0903.pdf). Anyone that cares to read the report would probably conclude that it was the intelligence that was wrong, not the British government’s decision. And therefore the big question is how could the intelligence get it so wrong and could it be trusted again?

    There is no reason to crucify and doubt the intelligence, as it is almost on a monthly basis that we hear that terrorist attacks are being foiled (one has to make the base assumption that the media is doing its job finding out information and would expose a situation in which the government is manufacturing these news). Evidently, the various global intelligence services have informants in the right places as well as the ability to intercept messages and collaborate, so what was so different in Iraq?

    This is where the views differ (please note these are ‘views’ not facts). One view is that Saddam saw admitting a lack of capability of WMD as a regional suicide. In a tough neighbourhood such as the Middle East it is important to have a military might, in order to affect regional policies, ensuring survival of the regime as well as economic prosperity (this would explain, why during years of sanctions and population starvation, Saddam still found the money to fund terrorist activity as well as pay bonuses to families of suicide bombers in Israel). The other view was that Saddam truly believed that the programs were progressing, however in effect he lost control of the army, who were feeding him wrong information. A third view is that the US were so eager to attack Iraq that while knowing of chemical and biological capabilities, they forged some of the intelligence on nuclear, in order to win public support. The most crucial case is that of Saddam’s attempt to purchase uranium from Niger, which seems very unreliable after Wilson’s Op-Ed (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/opinion/what-i-didn-t-find-in-africa.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm) claiming he was the one that filed the  report confirming the low likelihood of Iraq signing an agreement with Niger to buy ‘Yellow Cake’.

    The war in Iraq was a political disaster to both the US and Britain. Both leaders have been accused of lying to the people. However the blow would have not been so great had it not been for the longevity of the war and the high number of deaths. Had Saddam been toppled and Iraq stabilized within months, criticism would have probably been minimal.

    However, in politics as well as warfare, not only does one not have the benefit of hindsight, but one can’t accurately assess the outcome of the road untaken.  Arguably, the sectorial fighting that took place in Iraq would have taken place today as a result of the Arab Spring. Libya, Egypt and Syria all have a great deal in common with Iraq and are suffering or have suffered a similar consequence. Or even worse, perhaps not toppling Saddam would have meant that the Arab public wouldn’t have risen against their dictators. Furthermore, in defence of the decision to go into Iraq, one should not forget that it is not the army, which is killing civilians en masse, rather ethnic differences and foreign powers, which is dominated by the old Sunni – Shiite conflict.

    So now the world is faced with Iran. Similar to Iraq, Iran has decided not to cooperate with the UN, resulting in crippling sanctions, making their civilians’ lives more difficult than they should be. Furthermore, Iran is not taking any steps towards reassuring the world that their nuclear program is peaceful as it claims and while most information is hidden from the public eye, even the media catches a glimpse every now and then of disconcerting facts, such as Iran hiding the existence of the nuclear facility in Qom, the rejection of the compromise to enrich the fuel outside of Iran, advances in the development of long range missiles and most concerning the change of attitude since El-Baradei has been replaced by Amano as the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) representative.

    There is little doubt that unless the world waits for advanced stages of the nuclear program, once again it will be hard to produce a “smoking gun”. However, one would think that the governments would have learned from past mistakes and run a different campaign, if action in a foreign country were to be taken.

Here are some of the mistakes that have not been addressed in Iraq and should be addressed in Iran:

–          The support of terrorism. Saddam was a supporter of terrorism and so is Iran. It should not be difficult to invest in collecting proof that it is Iranian financed or Iran militia fighting in Iraq, Syria, Israel as well as abroad (mainly via Hezbollah)

–            Dictator regimes, while the West cannot take the high ground on intervening with every conflict, there is no reason, why they should not intervene in certain cases. Just as there was an intervention in Kosovo to save the Muslims, purely on a humanitarian basis.

–          The UN has proved to be affected by small time international politics, a campaign needs to be done to expose such countries playing international politics rather than fulfilling their humanitarian duties (such as currently China and Russia in the case of Syria)

–          Securing the parameters, if an action is taking place in Iran, the countries have to anticipate and address the involvement of foreign powers (such as limiting across the border movements from neighbouring countries)

    Experience has shown that Iran has already decided to sacrifice its people for the bigger purpose of continuing with their plan. For example sending two war ships through the Suez Canal to Syria is another way to show defiance and give a “Business As Usual” feeling both domestically and overseas.

    The timing is crucial, since the US is going to elections in November and is therefore reluctant to commit to another war, while Israel has hinted towards a ‘point of no return’, which is said to be this spring, in which if there is no evidence of the program stopping, they will attack, not allowing Iran to secure the nuclear facilities deep in the ground.

    In the meantime, Israel is practicing warplane manoeuvres as well as drills simulating rockets hitting the center of the country and there is much talk about who is behind the mysterious killings of personnel involved in the missile and nuclear program in Iran. On the other hand, Iran’s economy is suffering with the Rial, Iran’s currency, dropping by half (the unofficial rate, which is not regulated by the government), the sanctions on oil and commerce, which will see their export revenue declining and cost of commerce increasing and the most recent blow, disconnecting them from SWIFT, the international money transfer system.

    Only time will tell whether an attack will take place and if so whether this conflict would be perceived as justified or another Iraq. However one thing is almost certain, which is the Iranians will suffer like the Iraqis did, because of their dictatorship government’s reluctance to drop their last century aggressive mentality.

There is still venom in the West’s sting


    It is becoming increasingly popular to speculate that the West’s and in particular the US’s Golden Age is coming to an end. After years of dominating the financial system, giving the West disproportioned power over the rest of the world, the situation might be changing. This power has often attracted much criticism as it set the scene for imperialism as well as the ability to influence global events to fit with the Western view of the world.

    The surge in power for the West started centuries ago and could be explained by understanding the relationship between religion, government system and how that contributes to individual innovation (Brilliantly explained in Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization). The current narrative, however, is that while the Western countries are now sinking in debt, they are looking for countries such as China, Brazil, Russia and India to bail them out, ultimately handing over a great deal of power.

    This change in power, understandably, has a deep effect on the Middle East, since typically in politics, as some powers are rising and some declining, there is a consequential change in alliances and ideology.  A very direct effect of the current alignment could be seen for example with the result of the elections in Egypt. If not understanding the relationship, it would seem very odd that the Al-Nour (extreme Salafi Muslim party) and Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’ sponsor party from which it branched out) are calling to respect the peace agreement with Israel, while Hamas itself is calling to occupy all of Israel and rejects its existence (one would expect the movements to be aligned or the more extreme Salafis to oppose Israel at least as much as Hamas). It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that had the US not been supporting Egypt financially and influencing the Middle East, a war between Israel and Egypt would have broken out shortly after the election or toppling of the army rule.

    Considering the US and West’s power over the Middle East, this shift in power should be very concerning for Westerners, since a financial shift could change reality very quickly. For example a shortage of oil supply or increase in price could break the already fragile economy, which is still very much reliant on the combustion engine for mobility (and existence).

    One of the intriguing questions is how did this situation occur and how could the timing be explained. No doubt, plenty of books will be written about the topic offering different explanations as well as discussing the shortcomings and periodicity of the capitalist financial system. However, a simpler explanation would be the evolvement of the political systems in moving away from communism and towards capitalism and the time it takes them to readjust. The changing technology is also a major factor in the time and depth of this changes taking place (setting up a call center in India these days is arguably easier than it was to establish a new trading route for goods).

    Regarding the timing, there is no surprise that while the new economies have suddenly opened their trade routes and technology made their integration easier, many of the funding from the Western companies, were diverted to the countries that could offer comparable services cheaper. The result was Western companies increasing profit, while developing countries showing a massive growth to their economies. Ironically, the capitalist push to increase profits and stay competitive is what led to the banking systems taking irresponsible risks, which ultimately led to the economic crisis in the West. As a result the West is now going to those previously weaker economies, looking for funding.

    This shift of power is very apparent in politics as suddenly China, Russia and Brazil are rearing more economic power than ever before and affecting real outcomes. For example China and Russia have been voting against any actions to be taken as a response to the killings of protestors by the Syrian government, or against tougher sanctions against Iran. Turkey, which also showed great growth and economic stability in 2010, also defied the West and moved its ideology and investment towards the East. It should be noted, that this move coincided with some criticism by the Turkish government of the German handling of the Turkish population as well as the falling out with Israel (an event unimaginable, when Turkey had a dependent and weaker economy).

    However, despite the grim outlook for the Western world, at times one must balance the headlines in the media with the facts on the ground, in order to fully grasp the situation. 

    Despite being an oil rich country and the economic crisis in the West, tough sanctions on Iran are starting to bite and the Iranian economy is showing signs of collapse by the rapidly growing inflation and consequential an even higher unemployment rate (Iran does not release official statistics). Some argue that the sanctions are inefficient and liken the situation to North Korea, who continued its nuclear weapon program, despite the sanctions, however, this comparison ignores the big middle class in Iran (which didn’t exist in the same way in N. Korea), who are motivated to protect their financial assets.  The Iranians also do not have the same isolation from the Western world as the North Koreans.

    Perhaps not directly or wholly related, but since taking a hard-line in politics, Turkey has also seen a massive decrease in its currency (60% decrease against the dollar from 2007 to 2011, taking into account that the dollar has taken a tumble in those years as well). There are many reasons for this change, however no doubt that decrease in investment and tourists has had an impact. Also, since 2005 Turkey’s external debt (i.e. total public and private debt owed to non-residents and repayable in foreign currency, goods, or services), has been rising rapidly from $16 billion in 2005 to $270 billion in 2011. While Turkey is still considered an emerging economy with a forecast to grow, it is obvious that its economy is tied with the rest of the world and it has to acknowledge that and act accordingly both economically and politically.

    Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil and other countries around the world are in a similar situation, in which while they have more prospect for growth, their markets are, dominantly, the Western world. This situation is not likely to change, until there is enough critical mass and infrastructure from countries completely independent of the Western world to trade amongst themselves. There are speculations that this is already taking place, however, it will take time until “new” countries on the scene match the innovation and knowledge of the Western world (political change in those countries almost certainly has to happen first).

So, while the West is losing ground and the reality for its citizens is almost certain to change somewhat, one mustn’t jump to conclusions or lament fate prematurely, after all, the US had the same fear in the 80’s when Japan was gaining ground.

Arab Spring Turning into a Bitingly Cold Winter


 

    As the winter months are upon us and in the Northern Hemisphere we feel the cold weather, so do we start to realize the true error of what we called the “Arab Spring”. The term Arab Spring is based on the “Spring of the Nations”, which took place in 1848. It was in fact a series of revolutions which took place in the world, without any apparent central coordination and opposed the multi-national empires. The revolutions extended achievements are somewhat debated, but it was certainly a big step towards giving every country more power to rule itself.

    The Arab Spring started in a somewhat similar way, while there was no apparent central coordination; people in the street rose against their absolute leader and demanded more control. However, unfortunately, this is where most of the similarities end. Unlike Europe and the world at the time, the Middle East did not have a limited number of empires that ruled the region. In fact it was quite the opposite, each country in the Middle East has/had its own ruler and the revolution was never about breaking the rulings into smaller chunks, so that the leader truly represents the local interests.

     In the Middle East the countries already have local rulers, who were supposed to look after the local interests. The real dispute is whether they were actually doing it, as well as the fact that they could not be replaced by a democratic procedure, if they weren’t.

    When the Egyptians started gathering in Tahrir Square, many people criticized Obama for not responding quickly enough to the government crackdown. The “common wisdom” accused him for not doing so, because of Mubarak’s positive attitude towards the West. However, while that might be partly true, there is another bigger issue. Like many others, Obama didn’t know who would come next. While accepting that democracy is a positive process as a whole, Obama like many other leaders appreciated that true democracy is not something achieved overnight.

    Many people consider democracy the act of the people putting ballots into voting boxes and then giving the power to he/she with the most votes, however, this is where most people are mistaken. The action of voting is merely allowing people to participate, however democracy cannot exist without other institutions to support it. For example, how could people form their opinion with the absence of freedom of press? If no mass medium is reporting objectively on what is really happening how could people judge the candidates or their policy? Or even be aware that things could be different?

    Another institution, whose presence is essential, is the Court of Law. How could anyone seek justice or expect the country to be run fairly, when there isn’t a truly independent body that serves as a judge on matters that might be uncomfortable for the government to bear? In a way an objective media can exist only in a country where the law enforcement and courts are fair and independent and therefore can protect it from unfair censorship or retribution.

    While some institutions are missing from democracy, there are some whose presence is a hindrance, for example religion. When religion becomes a political power, democracy is damaged, since in some cases people are made to vote as religion dictates rather than what they truly believe in. Having religious involvement in politics is an issue that can be seen in Western democracies as well. In the Middle East for example, it is said that Israel is getting to a dangerous point, where the religious population is inclined to vote in accordance with the religious leaders, which is hampering the democratic process. It could be argued that it is the people’s choice to become religious, however there are plenty of examples to refute that and argue against its participation in the process of democratic elections. Another worrying example would be the US, which also has a large element of religious votes, however there it is also based on values and there is a true separation between religion and state.

    Returning to the concept of the 1848 Spring of Nations, while in 1848 the countries fought a separate local rule in the Arab Spring, it seems that the end result is turning out to be quite the opposite. In the Arab world, it seems that the religious parties are gaining more power and it is actually more likely that the Muslim Brotherhood movement would have a continuum of control across borders, as they win the majority in every country. Bizarrely this is very reminiscent of the Al-Qaeda goal to have a single Muslim Caliphate rule for region. So in some ways, the partial democracy taking place in the Middle East is pushing the region further away from the West in terms of ideology and consequently commerce and culture.

    However, while the revolutions are taking place and governments are changing, one must remember that in the Middle East many things are in play and therefore do not always seem logical to a Western eye.  As the US is ramping up its pressure on Iran, putting it under more economic constraint and possibly stopping its nuclear power, the result might invoke a regime change and possibly a decline as a key player for the foreseeable future. In the same breath it could be argued that despite the militant stance the Al-Nour  (Al Qaeda inspired Salafi party in Egypt) and the Muslim Brotherhood, have declared in their election campaign, once they start to govern they will find it difficult to give up the US financial aid ($1.5 billon a year according to Forbes magazine), as well as see tourism dithers as a result of their Muslim stance and Westen-phobia, so will become less radical.  Syria has not yet collapsed and the recent talk of a Hamas “kiss and make-up” deal, may harm Hamas and Hezbollah more than they think as Asad loses more legitimacy and sees his army taking more beatings from the rebel army.  This will no doubt have a ripple effect on Lebanon and the Israel/Palestine conflict, which may have a ripple effect on other aspects as well.

 

    So predicting which player will rise, which player will fall and what will the reality look like, once the dust has settled, is currently anyone’s guess.

UN Games: Iran, Russia, China and the Rest


This article was written nearly a month ago. It was not completed on time, so I decided not to post it. Having just re-read it, little progress has been made and it is still as relevant as always. So please disregard the time-bound events and hope you enjoy my analysis   

 

    This week Britain has seen some of the most horrific accidents on its roads. Slowly the news of a 34 car pileup with at least 7 dead started hitting the global news. From the initial reports it was hard to understand what had actually happened, however with this number of casualties, it did not matter, as this was already a tragedy.  From reports later it was assumed that the large scale accident was caused by a combination of heavy rain, poor visibility and a nearby firework display, which blew smoke onto the road.  Whether someone will actually be accused of negligence is yet to be seen, but it was through an apparently indirect event that this tragedy has happened and it is too late to undo it.

    In world politics and especially the Middle East, this chain of events is often observed. Almost always in politics a team of people could be found sitting in a back room running scenarios of cause-and-effect to ensure that decisions that are taken would serve certain interests, provided time allowing of course. However, despite this fact every now then an event transpires that sets off another. The Arab Spring is a great example of minor events taking place shaping others. The massive arms smuggled into Gaza from Libya, as a result of the instability of the Gaddafi regime is one. The severed Iran and Hamas relationship as a result of Syrian uprisings is another. Not only do those events destabilize the region with their unpredictability, but it is often hard to understand when they have finished, which makes an analysis impossible to do.

    While there are many of these indirect events taking place, there is currently one, which is possibly the most substantial. As expected, the most substantial event involve the most influential country in the Middle East, which in many respects is Iran. On the other side of this events are NATO countries headed by Israel and the USA. The surprising element (surprising to anyone who does not follow the events in the UN) is that the indirect cause of this major event is the actions of China and Russia.

    The background for this event has been in the headlines for some time, so it is no secret that Israel has been, somewhat unusually, trying out their long range missiles, running massive evacuation drills preparing for a missile attack as well as simulating, in Italy, fuelling in midair and attacking distant targets. To add to these events there has been much debate regarding whether attacking the nuclear plant in Iran should take place. The local reports in Israel give the impression of the government being in favour, while the previous heads of the Mossad and other security organization are against this assignment. Those who would have thought that the strong opposition of the security heads to this operation would mean this is a ‘no go’, should be reminded that a similar situation occurred in 1981, which resulted in the government pushing ahead and approving the execution of the bombing of the nuclear facility in Iraq.

    There are many sceptics doubting Israel’s true intention to attack. These sceptics are claiming that this is clever politics intended to bring the Iranian situation back to the center of the Middle East, after a long break, in which the Arab Spring and the struggling regimes have taken center stage, allowing Iran to continue work away from the spotlight. This theory goes on to couple this event with the low status of Iran following the exposed assassination plot. It is worth mentioning that some suspect a conspiracy theory, concocted by Israel and the USA, which puts the entire authenticity of the assassination plot in question*.

    On the other side of the sceptics, there are some opinions warning of the window of opportunity closing on a military action taken against Iran. Some reports indicate that Iran is more advanced than previously believed. There are analyses indicating that the stuxnet virus released in the nuclear facility has not significantly damaged Iran’s capability. Other speculations are that Iran has made progress developing missiles to mount and launch an atomic bomb. Once you factor in the possibility of Iran moving their sensitive facilities into safer locations (underground facilities carved under mountains), add to that the potential of the weather during winter delaying any actions and the window of opportunities does seem to close rather quickly. Some of these speculations have been confirmed by the damning IAEA report released this week, which has been doubt showed that Iran’s intentions are anything but pure.

    Needless to say that any attack on Iran could quickly escalate into a full blown regional conflict, or as former CIA analyst, Riedel, put it “attack on Iran would ignite regional conflict from Gaza to Afghanistan ….”  Therefore as stated before by most Western players, it is generally believed that an attack should be the last option used. The other option available to the Western world is tougher sanctions, which would suffocate Iran economically, leading to either a rebellion within, toppling the government, or draining the funds used for the nuclear program. In fact, this option is also the favourite option by the heads of the military mentioned previously. This method is less risky and if military action has to be taken later, it would be easier to fight an economically weak Iran.

So why is this option not being pursued?

    This is where the indirect effect comes into play. There have currently been three rounds of sanctions past in the UN against Iran. Those sanctions have been proposed by the US and significantly watered down by China and Russia in exchange for not vetoing them in the Security Council. So while these sanctions were passed, their scope has been very limited, targeting only specific organizations whose link to the nuclear program has been established. This did not exclude China from trading with Iran in other areas, mainly oil, which has been keeping it afloat. In the next round of proposed sanctions the USA wishes to tighten the rope and disallow any trading with Iran’s central bank, which would essentially stop all foreign trading with Iran. If these sanctions are passed, it is very likely that any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be abated, however, if those sanctions are watered down again and become ineffective, the current threat would remain on the cards.

    In the Middle East often things are said in the heat of the moment and are not followed through. For example, during the Palmer report leak and Israel’s refusal to apologize Erdogan made some game changing statements such as that Turkey would pursue to hound Israel down every UN route as well as send armed Turkish ships for any future flotilla heading to Gaza. So far there has been no significant impact in the UN and the 2 ships Flotilla, which arrived last week near the Israeli shore was not escorted and stopped as per the Navy procedure Israel said it would follow. Therefore, it is not unlikely to believe that Iran itself does not want a conflict and perhaps has now found itself in a difficult position. The Iranian regime could possibly be hoping to turn time back to a couple of years ago, when they had the option to accept the deal the US and Euro proposed, in which they would achieve their nuclear power aspirations by allowing the Uranium to be enriched in a different country. However that window has passed and perhaps explaining to their people that the dire economic situation in the past two years has been as a result of a badly calculated risk and could have been avoided all together, would have a worse impact on the longevity of the current regime than a well calculated military response.

     If Iran was indeed bluffing and would be looking to avoid an escalation of the situation, it should also lament the missed opportunity of the Obama administration’s initial policy revolving around reaching out and settling the differences, which for all intent and purposes has been rejected by Iran, by refusing to reach an agreement and continuing to advance its nuclear plan. It is clear that whichever way Iran chooses to take at this juncture would be harder than before and would require clever tactics as well as an element of risk taking.

    For the sake of the Iranian people it might be the lesser evil of two to have the Security Council impose tougher sanctions, as it might force the regime to do a complete policy change in regards to its nuclear program and make this whole episode go away until the conditions are in Iran’s favour again.

    Only time will tell whether Israel is serious regarding its intention to attack the Iranian nuclear sites, or whether Iran is willing to let this conflict escalate. Currently the most critical factor standing between a physical attack or not is the Russian and Chinese vote in the Security Council in the next few weeks. Hopefully the media will find the sense to dedicate enough attention to this event and therefore hold the entire Security Council and in particular China and Russia accountable for their vote and its direct and indirect consequences.

 

 

*I normally, do not include my own opinion in my blogs, however, it is worth mentioning that while I fully believe that timing is not a coincidence and governments are known to sit on bits of information until the right time to release them, I find it too farfetched that Israel and the USA would have this level of cooperation or that the US would fake an incident on this scale only to aide Israel, especially when Netanyahu’s government has not exactly been playing ball with the Obama administration.