News on Iran


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.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Shifting paradigms? US sanctions policy in the Persian Gulf

Now we may actually be within sight of a diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and the West, the political salience of sanctions has never been greater. Currently, they are being heralded as the tool that brought the Iranians to the table. However, we should not be too hasty in hailing them as the panacea of international relations.
Economic sanctions – that is, measures imposed by one or more states against another entity that withdraw or change normal economic relations in order to achieve policy objectives – are an oft-misunderstood mechanism of statecraft, one which leaders misleadingly portray as a peaceful, humanitarian alternative to war. However, behind the noble causes espoused by a sanctioning government, the core objectives of a sanctions regime are often depressingly realist.
To demonstrate this, a comparison of the respective sanctions experiences of Hussein’s Iraq and Khamenei’s Iran is a good place to start. While each set differs in terms of its severity and the mechanism by which it operated, it seems that (until recently, at least) they were both motivated by one overarching goal: the perpetuation of US hegemony in the Persian Gulf. On the back of such an analysis, one is better able to understand just how significant last month’s Geneva deal is. Indeed, it could symbolise the beginning of what would be a profound shift in US-Persian Gulf relations, hitherto unthinkable.
I need not go into specifics, but Washington’s relationship with Baghdad and Tehran has long been rocky. However, it was not until after the Cold War ended that the US de factoand de jure labelled Hussein and Khamenei as the new bogeymen of the world – its foremost “backlash” states – and set about ensuring their strategic limitation. Step in, sanctions.
We were (and are) told that sanctions are a means of bringing about behaviour change, but when behaviour change came about in both Iraq and Iran, the goalposts were moved and the sanctions remained in place. Clearly, other objectives were at work here.
First among them is symbolism, something that is an intrinsic value of sanctions. By enforcing them on a multilateral level against Iraq through the United Nations, the United States was able to pull a red card on Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait. Their implementation signalled that any state engaging in a war of aggression (in particular one that threatens United States interests) will be punished, and severely.
With Iran, the symbolic value of sanctions is also present. Indeed, throughout the 1990s, the sanctions enforced by Washington were ineffective tools, more of a feel-good policy than anything else. But after 9/11 and 2002’s nuclear revelation, everything began to change. In subsequent years, no longer were sanctions just a means of showing that the US government was “doing something” – by the mid-2000s they had become a means of buoying up the confidence of US allies, making sure that no one started a war against Iran that Washington would inevitably be drawn into.
Reaping their symbolic value, though, is by no means the Holy Grail of any sanctions policy. Sure, it is a benefit, but what is infinitely more attractive is their ability to strategically contain a threat.
This can clearly be seen in both Iraq and Iran’s cases. From the outset, the sanctions had the official aim of deterring objectionable policies. However, for both Iraq and Iran these same policies were based on a perceived need to guarantee the existence of both the nation. Both Baghdad and Tehran felt they faced an existential threat – be it from the U.S. or Israel – that could only be deterred through the acquisition of a strong W.M.D capability. And, in a case like this, when a state feels it faces an existential threat, it will not yield to even the most immense levels of pressure.
The sanctioners did know this (as stated in the Iraq Survey Group’s Final Report and thisleaked diplomatic cable about Iran), so it follows that the reason they implemented these measures must be something other than as coercive instruments. Most likely, it is all aboutcontainment.
By enforcing economic paralysis upon its rivals, the US hobbles them without having to drop a bomb or fire a torpedo. This is exactly what we saw with Hussein’s Iraq, which transitioned from a formidable military opponent into little more than a paper tiger over the course of the 1990s. While the Iran sanctions are a different kettle of fish, recently in particular, the impact they have had is worryingly similar.
Some years ago, a Clinton official said that sanctions put Hussein in a strategic box. In the last decade, that is exactly what they have been attempting to do with Iran, though with markedly more obstacles.
What it all seems to boil down to is that sanctions, as the principle bedrock of containment, are an alternative to war (and an un-humanitarian one at that). Just as with war, a containment policy is simply a means of political engineering. This is nothing too controversial. However, in certain cases, Iraq one of them, sanctions can morph into being a precursor to war, a means of preparing the target state for military action.
When the Iraq Liberation Act was passed in 1998, regime change became the overarching ambition of the United States and, thus, the only conclusion to the sanctions became war. That is, unless ILA was repealed (which it wouldn’t be) or Saddam Hussein packed up his government and ceded power to (friendly) democratic forces (which he certainly wouldn’t do). From 1998, then, the sanctions were principally aimed at paving the way for what was intended to be a cakewalk of a war.
Now, with Iran, this is not the case, at least for now. In the last couple of years, it could easily have become so. But, as the recent diplomatic success in Geneva demonstrates more than anything, despite Congress’ calls for regime change and pre-emptive strikes, Washington’s heart’s desire is not the total transformation of the Iranian political status quo, as it was with Iraq. Rather, at present, Washington’s heart’s desire is simply to inhibit Iran’s ability to project its regional influence and stop Israel from starting a war.
A study of the Iraqi experience gives one the tools they need to navigate the murky waters of the Iran sanctions, and suggests some useful paradigms as to what future direction Washington might travel in. After last week’s success in Geneva, though, it seems that perhaps these paradigms are shifting for the better.
One can only hope that we are right and that failure is not a foregone conclusion for the next six months worth of talks, that these are not sham negotiations held in an attempt to prove that all the alternatives to military action have been exhausted. It has, after all, been done before.

Friday, November 29, 2013

One week on - where do we stand?

Last Saturday a deal was struck – a deal that may well transform beyond recognition some of the most familiar paradigms of Middle Eastern power politics.

Feeling rebuffed by the United States, a furious Israel now has more in common with Saudi Arabia than anywhere else and is hailing France as its new preferred partner in crime. Only time will tell if we’ll see a return to the old status quo but, in the meantime, it is worth re-examining the current state of play.

Disappointingly, but inevitably, the interim agreement – under which Iran pledged that it would freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for measured sanctions relief and recognition of its right to enrich uranium – has been greeted with as much anger as it has applause.

No one has been more outspoken about this than Bibi Netanyahu (no surprises there). Indeed, Tel Aviv was quick to condemn the agreement immediately after it was reached. 

The following day, Netanyahu called it an “historic mistake” and announced that he had plans to dispatch a team – headed up by his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen – to Washington this week to exercise damage limitation in the negotiations to come.

It is important to keep this all in perspective for, while the agreement does change things, it by doesn’t present a permanent solution and, as one Israeli official announced this week, “the ball is still in play”: there are six long months of further discussions to go.

So, while it may have started on its way, Iran is not out of the red yet and, to a large extent, the real hard work has only just begun. Now, the United States and the rest of the world need to placate and appease a very angry Israel, an Israel that is sure to obstruct at every step of the way in the upcoming negotiations.

According to Netanyahu, Tel Aviv will not accept anything but its maximum, unrealistic demand that Iran’s nuclear programme is totally dismantled. In his warped worldview, this deal is actually a step back – because of it, “the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world”. Does anyone else shiver at Bibi’s almost nostalgic reference to Bush Jr?

It is remarkable how the Israeli PM can create something out of nothing, for well-known is the fact that the core of a nuclear bomb requires 90% enriched uranium. Under this new deal, though, the Islamic Republic will be able to haltingly enrich to a mere 5%.

Clearly, the usual scaremongers are acting as normal, doing what they do best and trying as hard as they can to derail the process of reconciliation, sparing, in Mohammad Zarif’s words, “no pretext and device to bring the deal to nothing”. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

The unthinkable implications of a Geneva failure

I am surprised: a detente between Iran and the rest of the world might actually be on the horizon.

Though it goes against my gut instinct given the players involved, tomorrow we could be looking at an interim agreement between Tehran, Washington and the rest of the P5+1 states, a first step on the way towards a true softening of relations.

For the first time in many years, the two most important figures in the discussion, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Zarif, seem to be ready to improvise, adapt and, if need be, compromise (a word hitherto unknown to both Iran and the United States) – the combination of both has given a much needed breath of fresh air to the diplomatic track, and it seems like their new approach could, against all the odds, actually pay off.

Needless to say, the road ahead isn’t clear. Not in the slightest. Though it would be wonderfully simple to do so, one simply cannot ignore Benjamin Netanyahu’s – or, for that matter, Ali Khamenei’s – petty, bellicose rhetoric. Nor can one dismiss as a paper tiger Congress’ latest threat that it will impose new sanctions, something that would surely be the next step in the United States’ march to war. And, while Khamenei has clearly ceded substantial diplomatic power to Iran’s elected officials, it is safe to say that this is be a temporary lease of authority rather than something permanent.

Not only do both sides have conflicting red lines, they are drawn amidst many obstacles that litter the way forward and there is also only a finite period within which real progress may be made.

So, amidst all this optimism, it is important that we anticipate the worst – if only to keep in mind what the alternative to a successful outcome is for, if this week concludes in failure – on the part of the Iranians or otherwise – we will be back to much worse than square one:
Iran will once again be on the defensive, enriching uranium with more urgency than ever, thus Tel Aviv’s tenuous justification for a pre-emptive strike will be much reinforced and Congress will likely succeed in piling on new sanctions (which, as always, will not work). If these talks fail, Washington’s warmongers will be able to gleefully rejoice in the fact that the diplomatic track – which, for the first time in an age seemed to have had wind in its sails – has unambiguously failed.

It is imperative that this hypothetical scenario does not become reality. Let’s hope that those participating agree.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bibi’s done it again.

Israel's Prime Minister has once again demonstrated to the world that the wool remains firmly pulled over his eyes. Either that, or he has a fundamentally flawed understanding of contemporary international politics. Or, he’s just lying, plain and simple.

Quite astonishingly, he claimed that this weekend’s (failed) Geneva negotiations offered the “deal of the century” to Tehran. For the rest of the world, it was a “very bad” one. Did the Iranians really “get everything and pay nothing” to be where they are today? What is he on about?

It is just yet more of the usual political posturing. Israel does not want to be seen as accommodating to a potentially nuclear Iran, in any capacity whatsoever (“potentially” and “nuclear” are to be interpreted with as much poetic license as possible).

In standing firm, resolutely ignoring any morsels of diplomatic progress that the rest of the world appears to be making with Tehran, Tel Aviv seems willing to sacrifice its intellectual reputation and exaggerate almost anything that comes its way – even going as far as to suggest that Iran has made no concessions and paid no price for its past actions, and that a diplomatic means of working out this nuclear quagmire is not a feasible option. It is political rhetoric gone mad.

Whether the sanctions are the thing that brought Iran to the negotiating table or not, they are most certainly making the Islamic Republic pay a price, and a big one at that.

For over three decades now, the United States has been trailblazing for the rest of the world, enforcing diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic and slowly but surely asphyxiating its economy. Across those same three decades, Iran has emerged as an international pariah, facing severe military threats from many of the countries that surround it, not to mention those many thousands of miles away as well. Granted, Tehran (rhetorically, at least) has given as good as it’s got, but never has it packed anywhere near as much of a military punch as any of its principle opponents.

So, to say at this stage, in this state of economic and political affairs, that Iran has given nothing is absolute tosh. If you believe the Hagues and Kerrys of this world, we are closer now than ever to seeing a resolution to this untenable stalemate. It follows, then, that the inflammatory bile pouring forth from a certain few, a very few few, should be brought to the fore and understood for what it really is. People need to call Bibi out on this particular tune - it is getting boring.