Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Power Struggle for Yemen

Yemen provides the latest example of a clash of policy between two Middle-Eastern powerhouses. Iran is widely thought to be backing the Houthi rebels, who seized Sana’a and ousted President Hadi during a coup in September last year – although the Houthis have certainly not depended on Iran. This spread of Iranian influence has prompted a drastic response from Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf. On the 26th of March they began bombing Houthi-held areas to devastating effect; the UN human rights commission has already reported close to 400 civilian casualties with many more injured. On top of consistent bombing, Saudi Arabia has mobilised 150,000 ground troops, strengthened its border with Yemen and conducted talks with Egypt over the last few days about a ‘major strategic exercise’.

The instability that conflict in Yemen brings to the Gulf is part of the reason Saudi Arabia is showing such concern and they have stressed the need to back the legitimacy of Hadi’s government, but it is the influence of Iran that is the driving force behind the decision-making. Speeches at the Arab League last month, for example, consistently referenced the threat of foreign or outside parties in the Yemen conflict as a key issue and Hadi, who is now in Saudi Arabia, has often referred to the Houthis as ‘Iranian puppets’. Far from being the sectarian conflict that some see this as, it is just two states vying for power. Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Egypt, who continues to crack down on the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, best demonstrates this.

Iran has always denied any military involvement in Yemen and has condemned Saudi Arabia’s actions. Furthermore, Iranian foreign minister, Jared Zarif, today emphasised the need to ‘end this bombardment and all the bloodshed’ and stressed that Iranian influence will be used to ‘bring everybody to the negotiating table’. Iran had been seen as a cause of conflict in Yemen; now, suddenly, Saudi Arabia is fully committed to a military conflict that may prove very complicated and Iran is portraying itself as the peace-broker. Iranian involvement has been very hard to prove. Saudi Arabia’s obvious show of strength therefore leaves them outmanoeuvred, though not outgunned, as such transparent involvement means civilian casualties can now be pinned on them. Clearly, the prospect of US sanctions on Iran being lifted has created a fear of Iranian dominance in the region.

Through all the geopolitical blustering, the fate of the people of Yemen has too often been over-looked. In the Gulf’s poorest state, the death-toll is mounting (including increasing numbers of civilians) there are widespread food shortages, and unrelenting damage to infrastructure. As the chaos increases, so too does the disruptive presence of al-Qaeda. Although foreign involvement may be the only answer, the bombing campaign will only worsen the situation and leave the country more broken and fragmented than before. Geopolitics and the struggle for regional dominance, however, continues to overshadow humanitarian issues.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Iran nuclear Deal

The anxiety created by the potential nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, has been brought to the fore in the past 10 days. Netanyahu travelled to America and made an impassioned speech to congress about the dangers of the deal and recently 47 Republicans wrote a letter to the Iranian government stating that any deal would only last as long as Obama remains in office (until January 2017). Saudi Arabia has also been quietly strengthening its regional alliances – including those with Pakistan, the only Muslim nuclear weapons state.

Clearly, there are fears that the deal will increase the chances of Iran developing nuclear weapons at some point in the future. Are these fears justified? Is a nuclear deal with Iran really putting states such as Israel in more danger than they are at present? To answer this, the actual terms of the deal, and the alternatives to it, need to be analysed.  

Under the terms of the deal currently presented – and it must be stated that the deal is by no means any closer to being signed – questions have been raised, by Netanyahu and various senators and political commentators in the US, over a number of issues. Some of these include Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, the accuracy of the one year timeframe that it would take Iran to create a nuclear bomb, and the controversial ‘sunset’ clause.

The lack of any mention of Iran’s ballistic missiles – which are able to carry nuclear weapons – has been highlighted and to an extent represents a potential nuclear security threat. However there are other countries in the region with ballistic missiles, Saudi Arabia, for example, paraded their newest ballistic missile last year and Israel is also known to have them. Iran insists that its ballistic missiles are conventional weaponry and used only defensively as a “deterrent”, and it therefore has the sovereign right to produce them.

Despite doubts over whether the terms of the deal would worsen the situation, Iran is developing these ballistic missiles anyway under the current sanctions. The lifting of sanctions may give Iran the resources to increase research and production of the missiles but more sanctions are very unlikely to stop it altogether; Iran has continued production under heavy sanctions as it stands. Given Iran’s stance on their sovereign right to build the weapons, any inclusion of a clause preventing this in the nuclear deal would not be favourable.

The key feature of the deal is that under the current conditions set by the Obama administration, if maintained, it would take Iran at least a year to build nuclear weapons. With the monitoring that would be in place, it would provide ample time for a pre-emptive response before the weapon can be utilised.

This time frame has been disputed by Netanyahu, who has consistently over-exaggerated the extent of Iran’s nuclear development. Since 1992, the Israeli government has been warning the World that the Iranian regime is only a short step away from building a nuclear bomb. Likewise, his 2012 assertion that Iran was within a year of creating a nuclear bomb was contradicted by a leaked Mossad document that said Iran “does not appear to be ready” to build a nuclear bomb under current uranium enrichment levels. This casts a considerable shadow of doubt over the allegations that information being used in the deal is wrong.

The 10 year ‘sunset’ clause thought to be in the deal is of particular concern to some. Having a sunset clause effectively means that Iran could completely restart all nuclear activities at the end of the given time period. This is a concession that seems to contradict the nature of the deal and potentially increases future risk. A measure of compromise is needed in order to reach an agreement. However, the clause could negate all the positives. The very point of the deal is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, yet a sunset clause provides a window after which it can become a possibility.

It appears, from the US’s sudden willingness to concede ground on the deal, that the current administration is attempting to leave some kind of lasting legacy in its dealings in the Middle East. Iran’s activities in the Middle East have increased dramatically, with backing of Shiite forces in Yemen, Syria and particularly in Iraq where Iranian trained Shiite militia have made real headway against ISIS while the West has seemingly turned a blind eye. However, Iranian involvement could further exacerbate already high sectarian tensions in the country.

So, debate over the deal is neither wholly positive nor wholly negative, as is the nature of any deal. Compromise is always needed and furthermore, what other options are there? Iran’s nuclear development is likely to continue at some level if the deal is not signed, the only other options are to increase economic sanctions or military action.

Sanctions would increasingly incapacitate nuclear development but will not diminish Iran’s desire for further nuclear development. Similarly, military action would not incapacitate or nullify its desire, or knowledge of how, to build nuclear weapons.  In the long term it might only make nuclear development more likely. The sunset clause is of genuine concern but the rest of the deal should not increase insecurity. Despite fears, achieving a deal where there is a great deal of transparency and a monitoring system installed to react to any nuclear breakout in Iran seems to be the best solution. It is by no means the perfect solution and worries from regional actors such as Israel are inevitable but it is the most workable solution. It is offers a way forward and a degree of hope on the issue rather a return to the completely unsatisfactory status quo.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Iranian cooperation in the fight against ISIS

Iran has become more open about its cooperation with the Iraqi government. On his latest visit to Baghdad, Eshaq Jahangiri, the Iranian First Vice President, stated that “Iraq’s security equals Iran’s security”. He assured all concerned that Iran would continue backing the Iraq government in its fight against Islamist groups and militias.

In recent months Iran has not only provided economic assistance, it has also supplied military equipment. Although Iranian officials have never confirmed the exact quantity of arms that have crossed the border, Mehdi Tayeb, head of the Ammar base, suggested a figure close to $16 billion since June last year. Quds Force fighters have also been sent to Iraq to train local soldiers, and in late November last year, Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force Commander, led Iraqi Kurdish fighters, Shia militias and Iraqi Security Forces fighting in the Diyala region. Earlier that same month, Iranian fighter jets had carried out air strikes targeting the same area.

This increased support from the Iranian government stems in part from its fear of Islamist groups crossing over into its own territory. For Tehran, it is better to assist in fighting the militias now, than to wait for a potential spillover. Perhaps more importantly, Iran’s involvement in Iraq has the potential of strengthening the former's credibility within the international community. There is also hope that the military equipment and economic assistance provided will guarantee future bilateral cooperation between Iran and Iraq.

Some Iraqi officials have expressed concerns that Iran might overstay their welcome when ISIS is no longer a threat. The Iraq government is weak, and Tehran might take advantage of the situation. However, there are dangers far greater and more disturbing than Iran infringing on Iraq’s sovereignty. Instead of worrying about the potential actions of Iran, those concerned should be figuring out how to rebuild the country and work to ensure a peaceful environment.  

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Iran will do what it can to help stop this extremist group

Ayatollah Seyyed Safavi, founder of the Institute of Islamic Studies, wrote the following letter to the editor of the Financial Times, which was published on Monday 2nd 2015. Safavi has attended and spoken at various events hosted by the Next Century Foundation (NCF):

" All Iranians, and indeed most of our friends in the West, are concerned by the emergence of DAISH. Like both the Taleban and al-Qa’ida, DAISH was established with the support of outside players. However DAISH adds a new element to the mix in that it has the support of Turkey.

Of course Turkey had no role in the establishment of the Taleban. The Taleban was and is a local group in an isolated country in central Asia. And Al-Qa’ida is predominantly Arab. But DAISH is an international group. They have (according to our understanding) more than 35,000 members. What makes DAISH different from the Taleban and al-Qa’ida is that DAISH favours an Islamic caliphate, which is both reactionary and dangerous. DAISH ideology stands in direct contrast to democracy, peace, security, international stability and intellectual Islam. 

Some in the Western media call them IS (the Islamic State) giving them greater credibility than they deserve. Are they Muslims? The key figures are Ba’athists. Ba’athism is a combination of Marxism, socialism, and Arab nationalism. Ba’athists don’t believe in any religion, whether it be Islam, Christianity or Judaism. The soldiers think they are Muslim but their behaviour does not match any Islamic standard of law, ethics or morality. When Sunni Muslims refer to a caliphate, they refer to the political successors of the prophet Mohammed who was the last messenger of God; the kind of caliphate advocated by Daish is opposed by both Shia Islam and Sufism.

Following the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate (1258) at the hands of the Moguls, the Ottoman Empire established a new caliphate in Istanbul that lasted for around 600 years to the end of World War One. After the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the Islamic countries in the Middle East were divided by France and Britain. Secularism then collapsed and dictatorship was established in many parts of the Middle East. And now those dictatorships have been challenged and find we have DAISH to cope with. This group is an umbrella movement for many extremists from around the world, and they don’t believe in any human rights.

Who will DAISH attack next? After attacking Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, they will go for Egypt. They have the support of ignorant extremists in Europe and America.  In Europe and the US, they will start to pressure the Muslim community. This will lead to more support for DAISH and more will join them as soldiers. DAISH gives Muslims a bad name and this will lead to more clashes between Muslims and the West. This worries Iran the most. Their actions are against basic human rights, morality and Islam. They are definitely not representative of Muslim world and society. Their ugly behaviour towards women, and indeed towards the minorities, particularly the Christians, is utterly contrary to the Islamic values.

All peace activists, politicians and the media should be concerned about how to deal with DAISH. Now it is time. For the past five years Iran has advised the West and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf not to support these extremist groups. Now you see what is going on. Now you are calling for operation against them. Iran will do what it can to help stop this extremist group. Arab countries and Turkey should learn and follow our example. "

Friday, January 30, 2015

Saudi Arabia's uncertain future as Yemen burns

During King Abdullah’s reign (2005-2015), the Middle East faced its most turbulent period. So new King Salman has inherited the emerging threat of ISIS, the oil crisis and fending off eternal foe Iran and how he deals with these issues will provide insight into his policies. It would be the ideal opportunity for the world to see how much King Salman’s approach will differ from his late brother’s.

Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia constructed a dual-track regional policy of attempting to contain Iranian influence whilst opposing the growth of extreme Sunni political Islam which its sees as a threat to its rule. Turmoil ridden Yemen could prove to be King Salman’s biggest test.

The recent resignation of Yemen’s president, leaving the country at the mercy of the Houthis, has Saudi Arabia feeling anxious. Yemen is at risk of breaking up with the ascent of the Houthi movement, a group whose main strategic alliance is with Riyadh's foe Iran, in a country also home to Sunni al Qaeda's most active affiliate. The rise of Houthis’ Ansar Allah militia is a new danger threatening southern regions of Saudi Arabia, however Riyadh did not undertake any direct or active role to try to prevent the advance of the Houthis, and the political and material support it provided was limited to Yemeni President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi and his army, which has collapsed in the face of the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has been constructing a series of tough border defences to insulate itself from its turbulent neighbour and has cut off funding to Sanaa, hoping that will eventually persuade Yemen's new rulers to compromise.

After decades buying the support of tribes, politicians and clerics in Yemen, the royal family is losing its grip on Yemen and is falling back on a defensive security policy. Saudi Arabia will now need more proactive policies in regards to Yemen instead of increasing security and building more border fences and guarding it. It seems like this is the only strategy Saudi has for Yemen; no strategy.

US President Obama and King Salman met on 27th Jan (Tuesday) to discuss shared concerns about the turmoil in Yemen and the fight against Islamic State militants, their first formal meeting in Riyadh.  The tense regional security situation means Washington needs Saudi Arabia as much as ever.

Saudi Arabia has backed the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. The two countries are also concerned about Yemen, where the country's U.S.-backed government collapsed last week following the resignation of Yemen President Hadi.

The US embassy in Sanaa has been closed to the public however it will still be handling “emergency cases involving US citizens”.

The Houthis are members of a rebel group, also known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism and originate from Northern Yemen. A representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards compared the Shiite Houthi group, currently dominating Yemen to the Shiite movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah. 

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Iran nuclear agreement: A Train Wreck Coming?

One of the Board members of the NCF sent us this comment on the Iran nuclear talks:


Fareed Zakaria, the well-known CNN correspondent, raises a perplexing question in his recent interview with Iran's new president.  In short, he claims that the interpretation as to what has been agreed between Iran and the P5 plus 1 (and especially the United States) over Iran's nuclear facilities and capabilities is so great as to signify that a train wreck will eventually happen which might once more threaten the region with conflict. Herein is a shortened version of that interview.  End Introduction

Global Public Square Blog -- CNN
By Fareed Zakaria:
24 January 2014
CNN speaks with Fareed about his interview this week with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This is an edited version of the transcript.

CNN: Rouhani said that there would be no destruction of existing centrifuges "under any circumstances."  It seems he is going even going further than what his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told CNN's Jim Sciutto this week.

What's going on here? Because there could be, potentially, some sort of fundamental disagreement between Iran and the United States.

A: "That's exactly what I worry about. I think you're right. It's the first timean Iranian official - and this is the president - has laid out his vision,if you will, of the final agreement.

"And what he said to me, what Rouhani said was, look, we intend to have a robust civilian nuclear program. You can have as many inspections as you want, but we are not going to roll back that program. In fact, we're going to expand that program.

"Now, that's a very different vision from what the United States has laidout, where they expected significant rollback of the program. They talked about shuttering some of those centrifuges. They talked about dismantling the heavy water reactor at Arak.

"But he [Rouhani] made clear, categorically,specifically and unequivocally, none of that is going to happen. So I think we have a train wreck on its way here."

CNN:  You asked him about U.S.-Iranian relations, confidence building. So where is this U.S.-Iranian relationship heading?

A:  "You know, I'm struck by the fact that there is a commitment to negotiation.
He reiterated very strongly, we do not intend to have nuclear weapons, we have made it clear it is un-Islamic, it is forbidden, you can have as many inspections as you want.

"So there were some positive elements. But the bridge between the two positions, as I say, is so great that you would need a lot of trust. And we have very little.

"Remember, we've not talked to this country in 34 years. We're just beginning this process. We're not doing it one-on-one.

"And as a result, you know, these negotiations - and I've talked to people who have been in them - you don't build a lot of trust when you have so many people in the room.

"You've got six countries on one side, Iran on the other.It's difficult to imagine this one ending very happily.

CNN. -- What about Syria and the role which Iran is playing there?  They have a close relationship with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He did say something intriguing to you about elections in Syria and, potentially, some sort of end to the civil war. What did he say?

A:  "Well, he was very clear that he supported the al-Assad regime's conception of what's going on there, which is there are a lot of terrorists coming into this country from Saudi Arabia, from Turkey, from places like that.

"This has to stop. But then he said, we do believe that there should be free elections in Syria, and that is the best way to resolve this.

"Now, that is one glimmer of hope, because if there is going to be a political solution in Syria, that is one path by which you could imagine the al-Assad regime either having to share power or actually exiting altogether.

"It's a slender reed, but it's the first time we've heard any prospect of some kind of political solution which might involve a different political settlement other than al-Assad just staying in power.

CNN -- And on a totally unrelated matter, in a separate article you just wrote fort he new issue of TIME entitled "The Case for Snooping," you make the case that the U.S. has to continue the NSA surveillance program. What is your bottom line on this?

A:  "The bottom line is this: People don't realize we are under constant cyberattack from all over world. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees our civilian nuclear facilities, gets 10 million cyber attacks a day. That's 3.65 billion attacks a year.

"Now, how do you defend against that? You cannot defend against cyber terrorism, cyber theft, cyber warfare without allowing the U.S. government some access to the telecom and computer systems.

"We live in this cyber world and we think it's like a government-free zone. It ain't. If you want freedom, just like in the real world, you're going to have to have police. ###

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sir Richard Dalton on the way forward with Iran

If President Rouhani’s Davos speech is anything to go by, there is much reason for optimism regarding the possibility of a rapprochement between Iran and the rest of the world.

While he presented no new compromises, he re-affirmed his intention to follow through with the conditions asked of Iran by the P5+1 states, and emphasised his willingness to be flexible (to an extent, at least).

What, though, should we make of this? Are we actually going to witness an about turn for US-Iran relations and, if we do, how will it come about? Last week at Chatham House, these questions and more were addressed by Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to the Islamic Republic. I went along to find out what his take on things was.

More than anything else, he appeared hopeful, citing that tangible progress had been made to date. He’s not wrong – since the interim agreement was signed, Iran’s nuclear program has all but frozen and, particularly important, enrichment of uranium to 20% has been halted completely.

On the other side of the coin, there has been some sanctions relief, albeit limited. Whatever the case, according to Sir Richard Dalton, “Iran has delivered and so has the European Union and the United States”; we have much to commend all parties involved for.

Sir Richard Dalton was quick as any to warn that all was not plain sailing and what he had to say about the obstacles that might be faced was telling.

More troubling than the danger of Khamenei choosing to clip Rouhani’s wings before a lasting peace is established, the “greatest worry” is the “power of money in American politics”, a direct reference to the almighty clout of the Israel lobby, something which has the potential to hobble the entire process.

Clearly a touchy subject, as a cartoonist at The Economist found out last week, it was refreshing to hear a former FCO powerhouse explicitly state that this was a reality, not a conjecture.

So, while negotiating successfully will be “difficult but possible”, at least there is a way ahead at all. The interim agreement has changed the state of play infinitely for the better and is a solid foundation from which all can move forward.

If, as it seems may be the case, the road towards a more peaceful, stable Middle East region does lie “through the solving of the nuclear question", these next few months could define geopolitics in the region for many, many years to come.

Sir Richard Dalton was sixty-forty in favour of success for the negotiations. Let’s just hope his optimism is not misplaced.