This week in “A View from Afar” Selwyn Manning and I try to provide a conceptual/analytic backdrop to the protests in the PRC and Iran. The thrust is that although there are similarities as well as differences between them, each confrontation involves a strategic game between the protestors and regime elites, who in turn can be respectively divided into different camps based on their objectives and approaches (ideological versus material goals on the part of militants and moderates in the Opposition, reforms or repression on the part of soft-liners versus hard-liners in the regime). Hybrid strategies involving carrot and stick approaches and immediate versus longer-term objectives are also considered. The episode is here.
So, it turns out that Air New Zealand accepted a contract to service three gas turbine engines for the Saudi Arabian Navy through its wholly owned subsidiary, Air New Zealand Gas Turbines. It turns out that Air NZ has a side bar in the gas turbine maintenance business and even has dedicated service facilities for maintenance on military machines (of which the US and Australian navies are clients). Air NZ claims that the contract with the Saudi Navy was actually let by a third party but has not said who that is. Some have speculated that it might be the US Navy, using Air NZ Gas Turbines for what is known as “spillover” work.
This has just come to light via the dogged persistence of a TVNZ reporter who faced more than eight weeks of stone-walling from the company before he got an answer. When he did, he was told that the contract was “small” (worth $3 million), signed off by people well down the executive chain of command, and let in 2019, when current National MP Chris Luxon was CEO. Apparently MFAT and government ministers were not advised of the contract offer, which is doubly problematic because doing business with the Saudi military is controversial at the best of times and Air New Zealand is 52 percent owned by NZ taxpayers through the Crown (as Minister of State Owned Enterprises Grant Robertson being the minister responsible). The issue involves more than potentially bad PR. It has potential diplomatic implications.
Revelation of the business relationship has sparked a bit of a furore. With typical understatement, the Greens are calling for an investigation into Air NZ involvement in Saudi genocide and war crimes in Yemen. Other leftists extend the critique to any relationship between Air NZ Gas Turbines and the US and Australian militaries. Right-wingers say that it is a simple commercial decision and so is business as usual, plus Saudi Arabia is a “friendly” country while Iran is not (yes, they get that simplistic). Much frothing has ensured.
Iranian news outlets have picked up on the story, questioning why a trade partner like NZ would provide support to a major military and political rival in the Gulf region. NGOs like Amnesty International are also aghast at the news, especially since NZ provides millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Yemen in an effort to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis produced by the proxy war conducted between a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the North and West of the country. Houthis compromise the majority of the 45 percent of Shiia Muslims in Yemen, with 55 percent of the population being Sunni Arabs and various smaller sects in the South and East.
in order to put context on the situation, let’s consider some background. The fault lines of contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts are drawn along the Sunni Arab-Persian Shiia line. The Sunni Arabs, most of who have quiet understandings with Israel that permit discrete cooperation between them and the Jewish state, are implacable enemies of the theocratic Shiia regime in Teheran. Although born of historical enmity between the two branches of Islam, in modern times the conflict between Arabs and Iranians has been accelerated by Iran’s efforts to be recognised as a regional power, including by acquiring nuclear weapons. Most of the principals in the conflict are authoritarians, but the Sunni Arabs have the backing of the US and other Western nations, much of which is specifically due to the shared hostility towards the Iranians and their purported “rogue” international behaviour (including their nuclear weapons desires and support for irregular fighting forces in and out of the Middle East). Iran, for its part, receives support from Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela precisely because of its anti-US and anti-Western orientation since the 1979 Revolution, so the vicious circle of homicidal enmity and distrust has global reach.
Over the years the main conflict zones between Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites have been in Lebanon, Syria (the Alawite regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a sub-sect of Shiia Islam), Iraq and Yemen. Because of the fear of escalation into major war if they fight directly, physical confrontations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states are conducted by proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian military and the Houthis (for Iran), and (for the Arabs) various Sunni militias and/or governments in the contested areas, as well as Israel directly and indirectly.
The results of this multi-dimensional conflict ebb and flow over time, but the situation today is that the Iranians have increased their influence in Iraq after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, have successfully (along with the Russians) propped up the Assad regime against ISIS, Kurds, Turkey and the US-led military coalition that began as an anti-ISIS force and then mission-creeped into a regime change-focused (and now departed) occupation inside Syria, have maintained the stalemate in Lebanon between Hezbollah and various other armed sectarian movements while threatening Israel, continue to support Hama’s standoff with Israel in Gaza and have helped prevent the Houthis from being cleansed from Yemen by the Saudi-led and US-supplied Sunni Arab military coalition. Domestically, the Iranian regime, while fronted by an elected executive and parliament, is dominated by conservative clerics and military hard-liners who have a poor human rights record and little tolerance for dissenters at home or abroad. They are no angels but are a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics.
For its part, Saudi Arabia is a despotic, deeply corrupt oligarchy with a notoriously poor human rights record at home, involvement in war crimes in Yemen on an industrial scale, responsibility for the murder of dissidents abroad (because Jamal Khashoggi was not the only one) and which has within its ruling structure people who support, fund and arm Sunni extremists world-wide. It is, in a phrase, an international bad actor. One that is deeply mired in a proxy war in Yemen in which its Navy is used to enforce a maritime blockade of Houthi-held regions, including the blockade of humanitarian assistance to displaced and starving civilians.
Against that backdrop, why on earth did Gas Turbines go through with the contract? Did it ask about what naval ships were the end users of the equipment (since it could be argued that supplying equipment destined for support vessels was ethically different than supplying equipment destined for warships)? Did a bunch of clueless engineers sign off on the deal because it was within their authority as a commercial transaction and they did not even consider the PR, domestic political or broader geopolitical ramifications of the end user? Or, because middle management recognised the political sensitivities involved, did the contract offer get pushed up the hierarchy to the parent company and its senior management at the time but that is now being denied?
Was there anything in place to prompt a “trigger” for higher level vetting of the contract and/or automatic consultation with MFAT and the minister responsible for SOEs? After all, this type of potentially controversial transaction would seem to fall under the “no surprises” bureaucratic dictum dating back to the 5th Labour government, and it would only seem surprising if the foreign ministry and minister responsible for the Crown’s stake in Air NZ were not informed prior to signing the deal.
Or did Air NZ management decide that they could slide the contract under the radar, perhaps using the cover of existing contracts with the US Navy (which does in fact have a logistical support and weapons supply arrangement with the Royal Saudi Navy, which uses a mix of French and US-built ships in its fleet). If so, did they think that they could keep knowledge of the contract away from government as well as the public, or did they let someone in a position of political authority in on the secret? If all of this was above-board, why did Air NZ delay responding to the reporter’s requests? Why did Grant Robertson initially say that the issue was “an operational matter” for Air NZ and why has MFAT said nothing about the affair?
Given the potential political fallout and diplomatic blow-back, can we really take at face value assurances that no one outside of Gas Turbines had knowledge of the contract when it was negotiated?
NZ has good trade relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former much more extensive than the latter. NZ has good diplomatic relations with both countries, although unlike other Western countries it has been viewed as an honest interlocutor by the Iranians in the past. Given the ongoing conflict between the two countries, it would seem that providing any sort of material assistance to the military of one rather than the other is like sticking a NZ pinky into a pot of boiling water. It could get burned.
NZ professes to have a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy. Semantics aside, the decision to accept the contract to service Saudi Navy turbine engines was neither principled or pragmatic. No due diligence or political risk assessment appears to have been done during the contract negotiations. Instead, the deal reeks of myopic commercial opportunism disengaged from the larger context and consequences of the transaction.
Whether than was caused by cynicism or cluelessness is the question of the day.
I have been unimpressed with Western corporate media coverage of the tensions involving Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. They repeat the line that Iran is the source of current tensions, that it is a major sponsor of terrorism, that it is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbours and that it is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with its attacks on shipping in the Strait. I disagree with much of this, so allow me to explain why.
A few months back the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement (the P5+1 deal involving the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany). Leaked diplomatic cables show that it did so manly because the Obama administration had signed it, not because it was a “bad deal” (in fact, the Iranians were upholding their end of the bargain and had complied with all international monitoring conditions). After withdrawing from the deal the US imposed a new round of tougher sanctions on Iran, with most of the bite coming from secondary sanctions on non-US based firms and organisations that do business with the Persian giant.
Let us be clear on this. The US unilaterally withdrew from a viable multinational agreement mainly because of presidential hubris, then unilaterally imposed sanctions not only on Iran but others who may wish to continue to commercially engage with it. The US sanctions are not supported by, and in fact are seen as illegitimate by many countries, including China, Russia and most of the countries in the EU. Yet, because the US has great economic weight, it can use the secondary sanctions in order to force international compliance with its edict.
Until recently the sanctions were not enforced by the military of any country other than the US. But on July 4 the Royal Navy stopped and seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, arguing that it was transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions (the sanctions only apply to aviation fuel and only cover EU members, which Iran is not). The tanker’s proximity to the colony was fortunate in that Britain has limited autonomous power projection capability in the Middle East but does have a naval garrison on the Rock. So the seizure was as much due to opportunity as it was support for principle.
Iran warned that it would retaliate to this act of “piracy” and this past week it did by seizing two tankers, one of which was UK-flagged (the other was briefly detained and released). The owners of the UK-flagged vessel have not be able to contact it since it was boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos.
This follows on Iran recently shooting down a US drone over the Strait and the sabotage of four vesels in a UAE port and two merchant ships in international waters that have been attributed to the IRGC. Needless to say, this appears to demonstrate that indeed, a brinkmanship game is being played. But let us disaggregate a few facts.
The UK was informed of the Iranian tanker’s movements by the US, which asked that it be seized when it made the passage from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. The May government complied even though Trump has repeatedly disparaged her and welcomed her ouster. The Iranians know that Teresa May is a lame duck and that Boris Johnson, her likely successor, simply does not have the stomach for a all-in confrontation with Iran when the Brexit mess is ongoing and the government is effectively paralysed on multiple fronts. To be clear: the UK is facing a crisis of governance and the Iranians know this. So any military counter has to come from somewhere else.
It certainly will not come from Europe, Asia or anywhere but the US. That is the rub. The Iranians know that Trump is a classic bully. All bluster and bravado but a coward at heart. When informed of the Iranian’s seizure he first uttered threats but then put distance between himself and the UK by saying that the US does not receive much oil that transits through the Strait and that other nations need to up their military patrols through it and the Persian Gulf if they want their vessels to be safe.
This signals that Trump does not believe that a US-Iran conflict would be existential or done out of necessity and that he does not see alliance commitments as universally binding. This gives him room to refuse UK requests for military assistance in getting the Iranians to resolve the stand-off on its terms. In doing so he effectively has thrown the UK under the bus as a reward for it doing the US bidding with regard to the Iranian tanker now tied up in Gibraltar. So much for that “special relationship.”
Although chickenhawk John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, is keen to shed other people’s blood in order to force an Iranian submission, Trump, like Johnson, does not appear to be inclined to do so. Besides his neo-isolationist proclivities, Trump has undoubtably heard from US military authorities that a conflict with Iran would make Afghanistan and Iraq look like a kindergarten party. The US military is stretched as it is, the US public is sick of constant war, a long election year is just beginning and no allies other than Israel and perhaps Saudi Arabia are going to be willing to join the US in a fight of its own making.
That is an important point to note. It is clear that for Bolton and other re-cycled neoconservatives like Mike Pompeo, the march to war with Iran is about regime change, not international commerce. US foreign policy elites have never gotten over the Iranian Revolution and the US embassy seizure in 1979, and the US military has since then had a prickly relationship with Iran in its regional sphere influence. US criticism of some of Iran’s more regressive policies as a reason to push for regime change holds little weight given its support for the likes of Saudi Arabia, and regardless of the theocratic nature of the regime Iranian elections are considered by international observers to be among the cleanest in the Middle East (thereby putting the lie to claims that Iran is as authoritarian as other regional autocracies).
The US push for war with Iran is therefore not grounded in concerns about international norms and the specifics of Iranian behaviour but in getting some measure of retribution for what some US elites feel was a great loss of face forty years ago and an ongoing reminder of US powerlessness in specific instances. The trouble for the likes of Bolton and Pompeo is that most world leaders understand their real motivations and so are reluctant to join their war-mongering bandwagon.
The Iranians know this. They know that they have Russia as a military partner and China as an economic lifeline. They know that any military conflict involving them will close the Strait for more than just the duration of hostilities. They not only have one of the largest militaries in the Middle East but they also have proxies like Hezbollah and allies like Syria who will join in what will be a multi-fronted asymmetric war of attrition against the US that will not be confined to the immediate region. They key is for Iran to isolate the US and a few allies in a manoeuvre-based military conflict that avoids short mass-on-mass exchanges and which over time inflicts political and military costs that become unbearable.
Although Bolton may believe in the rhetoric of “effects-based strategy” and therefore assume that any successful kinetic engagement between the US and Iran will be limited, short and intense, the problem with such assumptions is that the adversary may not subscribe to what is taught in US command and general staff colleges. I assume that US military planners understand this.
It is therefore very likely that Iran will get to exchange the British tanker for the ship detained in Gibraltar and that it will be able to continue to make the point that it has the means to disrupt commerce in the sea lanes adjacent to it. The latter is an important tactic for Iran because the price for it ending its maritime disruption campaign is a loosening of the US sanctions regime on it. Unless oil-importing countries step up their own naval protection of ships flagged by or destined for them (which brings with it the possibility of military confrontation with Iran), then they run the risk of economic slowdowns caused by fuel shortages, to say nothing of increased insurance costs and fuel prices as the impasse continues.
In short, it does not appear likely that the US is going to come riding to the rescue of non-US vessels anytime soon and yet will continue to demand that the world bow to its Iranian sanctions regime. Trump and his advisors may see it as a necessary hard choice for US allies but to them it is more likely to be seen as being placed in an untenable position.
Finally, it should be remembered that modern Iran has not engaged in an unprovoked attack on another country. Although it supports and uses irregular military proxies, it is nowhere close to being the sponsor of terrorism that several Sunni Arab petroleum oligarchies are. In spite of its anti-Israel rhetoric (destined for domestic political consumption), it has not fired a shot in anger towards it. Its strategic position in the Middle East is as strong now as it ever was. It has complied with the terms of the nuclear control agreement. It has good commercial relations with a wide variety of countries, including New Zealand. It therefore has no incentive to start a conflict even if it does have a strong incentive to turn the tables on the sanctions regime by demonstrating that imposing costs works in many ways and on more than just the targets of sanctions themselves.
It would be wise for Western leaders to put themselves in Iranian shoes when considering the security dilemma in the Persian Gulf, because if anything the root of the current tensions lies not in Tehran but in Washington, DC.
I was a replacement panelist invited by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs to join a discussion in Wellington on the Iranian nuclear agreement. It was a a pleasant event that addressed the pros and cons of the deal. I was impressed with some of the speakers, particularly Dr. Parsi from Lund University (speaking via Skype). I was less impressed with the Israeli discussant and the statements (not question) by an official from the Iranian embassy who was in the audience. Â All in all, it was an engaging affair and I encourage the Institute to continue with such public outreach efforts.
I spoke a bit about how the deal can be viewed on two analytic levels: as a First Image (interstate) issue and as a Second Image (domestic sources of foreign policy) matter. I mentioned that a way to conceptualise the agreement is as part of a “nested game” (to use a game theoretic term): the deal is part of a series of interlocked interactions (or “games’) that can be seen much as those iconic Russian dolls are (one inside the other) or as building blocks towards a larger whole. I noted that the core of the agreement was to exchange trade for recognition and security–in other words, Iran gets more trade and recognition of its legitimate interests and stature as a regional power by putting the brakes on its nuclear weapons development program with an eye to cancelling the weapons program altogether should the agreement prove beneficial for all sides. They main lever is another trade-off: dropping of international sanctions against Iran in exchange for a rigorous international (IAEA-managed) inspections regime.
For those who are not familiar with the agreement, it is not a bilateral US-Iran affair although they are the major players in it. Instead, the treaty was negotiated by the P5+ 1 parties and Iran, the P5+1 being the permanent UN Security Council members (the US, UK, France, China and Russia) plus Germany. For those interested in the details of the deal, the official US government position is outlined here (which includes the text of the full Agreement itself). A US translation of the Iranian interpretation can be found here. The fact that the P5 agreed to the deal is remarkable given their history of disagreement and subterfuge on matters of international security.
There was an interesting sidebar about “breakout time” introduced by the Israeli, who waxed hysterical about the apocalyptic implications of the deal. Dr Parsi noted that “breakout” refers to the time needed to enrich uranium to weapons grade, in response to the Israeli claim that the deal gave the Iranians a breakout potential of one year. Prior to the deal, that enrichment breakout threshold was two weeks. The point is that “breakout” time refers to the time needed to begin enriching uranium to weapons grade rather than the time needed to build a bomb.
Dr. Parsi noted that “breaking out” on enrichment is not the same as putting nukes on missiles. I said nothing at the time but here I actually know a bit without being a nuclear scientist ( I studied nuclear strategy under one of the original strategists behind the nuclear bombing of Japan and so-called MAD theory. He grappled with the moral dilemmas involved in front of me and my student cohort at the University of Chicago (home of the Manhattan Project) and later changed his mind with regard to MAD). The notion that Iran can start enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium to weapons grade in a short period of time and then quickly build a missile launched nuclear warhead is simply mistaken.
From a technical viewpoint beyond the specifics of Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing programs, the problem of weaponising nuclear material is simple. Unlike the multi-ton “dumb” bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki using concentrated high explosives as triggers focused on the nuclear material, the bulk of testing then and now consists of reducing the nuclear payload to a size that can be carried in the nose cone of an (increasingly small and light) intermediate range or intercontinental missile (IRBM or ICBM). The smaller the size of the delivery vehicle, the better its chances of avoiding surface to air or air to air interception. Given that requirement and the need for accuracy, nuclear payloads share very tight space with guidance systems. All of which is to say that given the weight constraints on a high velocity long range projectile, the “bomb” has to be miniaturised for maximum bang for the buck. Doing so requires downsizing the trigger mechanism from focused high explosives to something else. Laser triggers are one option. There are others. Â All of them are off limits to the Iranians irrespective of the deal. So not only is the fear of “breakthrough” unfounded and exaggerated for political purposes, but the real concern regarding mounting nukes on missiles is subject to Â both contractual and non-contractual enforcement.
My general view is that the agreement is worth doing. Other speakers and I commented on the downside, which mostly involves the reaction of Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies as well as domestic opponents in Iran and the US. I noted that there are disloyal hardliners in both the US and Iran that have potential veto power over the deal in the future should governments change, and that it was imperative for the soft liners or pragmatists to accrue tangible benefits from the deal in order to resist the sabotage efforts of hardliners who have vested interests in keeping tensions alive between the two countries. I made the point that Iran is more akin to Cuba than North Korea, and can be brought into the community of nations so long as it was recognised as a regional power with legitimate interests.
Speaker’s times were very limited (7 minutes each), so I was unable to fully address what I had intended to say. So let me do so here.
The lifting of sanctions on Iran as part of the quid pro quo at the heart of the deal opens a window of trade opportunity for New Zealand exporters and importers (more so the former than the latter). Coincidentally, Â Foreign Minster Murray McCully has announced that in a few weeks he will be leading a trade mission over to Iran to discuss those opportunities. This is in advance of the implementation of the accord (which goes into effect at the start of next year) and is, as far as I can tell, the first official Western government led trade mission to Iran in the wake of the signing of the agreement.
But let us be clear on what that mission needs to entail. Although Iran’s human rights record needs to be mentioned, however pro forma by McCully, to his Iranian counterparts, the point that must be emphasised is that New Zealand’s opening of trade relations with Iran is absolutely, explicitly contingent upon Iran adhering to its part of the bargain. Should Iran in any way shape or form renege on the letter or the spirit of the agreement and the inspections regime that it authorises, then McCully needs to make clear that New Zealand will terminate or at least suspend until Iran complies all imports and exports to the Persian giant.
I say this because under McCully and Tim Groser MFAT has turned into the Ministry for Trade with Anyone for Trade’s sake. Human rights and non-proliferation are not part of the Groser/McCully negotiating agenda. But in this instance both need to be and the latter has to be. The profit margins of New Zealand exporters and importers and the tax revenues derived thereof must not and cannot supersede New Zealand’s commitment to upholding the terms of this non-proliferation agreement in the event of violations. Those involve re-imposing sanctions, and the bottom line of private interests must not come before the commitment to non-proliferation, especially given New Zealand’s long held diplomatic stance on the matter.
McCully also needs to explain to New Zealand importers and exporters that any contracts they let in Iran are contingent and externally enforceable. That is, they are contingent on Iranian compliance with the inspections regime and the overall thrust of the Agreement (which is to reduce the prospect of weaponising its nuclear program); and they are subject to outright cancellation or suspension by the New Zealand government under penalty of law in the event Iran reneges or violates its side of the bargain. There are opportunity costs and risks involved, and these need to be outlined to interested parties in advance of the mission.
From announcements so far, it does not appear that the National government is interested in making such demands of the Iranians or its market partners. Instead, it appears that it is opportunistically jumping to the head of the cue of potential trade partners and will let the private sector lead the charge into trading with Iran. That is curious because McCully speaks of “not getting offside” with the P5+1, but the very fact that he mentions the possibility of “getting offside” indicates that he and his MFAT minions are considering the costs and benefits of doing so.
The Iran deal hinges on two things: verification and enforcement. There are instruments in place to verify that Iran is upholding its part of the deal. The sanctions will begin to be lifted on January 1, 2016. But it is enforcement of the terms that is the most uncertain aspect of the Agreement. If New Zealand does not explicitly tie its renewed trade with Iran to the latter’s compliance with the terms and be prepared to halt trade with Iran in the event that it does not comply, then it will begin the slippery slope of undermining the deal. For a Security Council member that depends more on reputation than power for its influence, and which has a past record of leadership on non-proliferation, that is a hypocritical and ultimately vulnerable position to be in.
There are several things to consider when digesting news about the recently signed nuclear limitation agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UNSC permanent members US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany, with the EU as a mediator/facilitator). First, what is publicly announced about international agreements is not always all that is agreed upon. Often times what is not publicly disclosed is as or more important than the announced terms.
Second, actors given majority credit for an international agreement may not have been as decisive as they and their home media would like the public to believe.
Third, no agreement stands alone or occurs in a vacuum: other geopolitical and strategic considerations are bound to frame and influence the terms of the finalized compact.
The agreement between Iran, EU and six world powers on the conditions by which Iran would de-weaponize its nuclear research program in exchange for a temporary relief from international sanctions is a case in point. The agreement is for six months, with an eye to negotiating a more permanent contract at the end of that period. The 7 billion dollars in sanctions relief is not a huge amount by global standards, but significant in that it demonstrates the effectiveness of the sanctions regime imposed on Iran as well as its the flexibility of it (since it can be reimposed in the event Iran reneges on its promises).
The technical details are pretty straight forward: Iran agrees to suspend the enrichment of natural uranium (U238) beyond five percent and to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (U235). This is a step away from weaponization because most weapons grade U235 is enriched above 80 percent, which is relatively easy to produce if 20 percent enriched U235 is on hand. Most civilian nuclear energy programs use 3 to 5 percent enriched U235 fuel, thereby making weaponization more time consuming and costly. The agreement therefore does not interfere with Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for civilian power production.
Iran will also curb its use and purchase of centrifuges employed for said enrichment as well as suspend the heavy water reactor extraction methods used to produce plutonium. The entire Iranian nuclear complex will be placed under tighter international inspection controls.
The Western media has variously described the deal as a “US-Iran” or “Iran-Western” accord, but the importance of China and Russia should not be ignored. Both of these powers have friendly relations with Teheran and have supplied it with weapons and diplomatic support. They were not at the meetings in Geneva to serve as props for the US and UK. In fact, their presence in the negotiations should be considered to be decisive rather than incidental, to the point that they may have had a large say in the broader issues being bargained over that eventually sealed the deal.
What might those issues be? That brings up the larger geopolitical and strategic context.
Iran, as is well known, is a major patron of the Assad regime in Syria, currently engaged in a civil war against a Sunni opposition backed by the West and Sunni Arab states. The Assad regime receives funding, weapons and direct combat support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiia militia that serves as an Iranian proxy and power multiplier in the Levant. Assad also receives weapons from Russia, which has a naval base at the port of Tartus and which considers the Assad regime as its closest Arab ally.
Should Assad fall, not only Russia but more importantly Iran will lose a major source of power projection in the region. This would suit Israel and the Sunni Arab world, as Iran is seen as an existential threat by Israeli and Arab Sunni elites alike. Defeating Assad will pave the way for Israel to turn its military gaze more directly on Hizbollah, something that will not meet with much opposition from the West or the Sunni Arab elites. Israel is less concerned about the radical nature of a future Sunni government in Syria or the fragmentation of that country into sectarian enclaves, as the heterogenous rebel coalition now fighting Assad will be consumed by factional in-fighting that will limit its ability to project meaningful military force across its borders whether Syria as presently constituted remains intact or not. Sunni Arab elites will welcome a Sunni dominance in Syria as another bulwark against Shiia influence in the eastern Mediterranean, again, whether Syria retains its present boundaries or divides into smaller Sunni states.
However, it has become increasingly clear that the leading rebel groups in Syria are led by al-Qaeda inspired jihadis who are as bad if not worse than the Assad regime when it comes to committing callous atrocities against civilians as well as armed opponents. They are people who do not have much regard for the laws of war and who have published videos of themselves gassing dogs using crude chemical weapons (which may have had something to do with the rush to reach agreement on removing Assad’s CW stockpiles in the midst of the civil war), and who have had to apologize for “accidentally” beheading a fellow Sunni rebel leader under the mistaken assumption that he was an Alawite or Shiia Assad supporter (all videotaped, of course). Their atrocities (as well as those of the Assad regime) are well documented in the propaganda war now raging on social media.
Jihadist government in Syria may not be an existential threat to Western, much less global interests, but it is the most visible. It would be the first and most important place outside of Afghanistan where Islamicists fought their way into power (Somalia does not count). That is a significant issue regardless of their actual military power because symbolism matters and diplomacy is as much about symbology as it is about substance.
Following Russia’s lead and over Israeli and Saudi protestations, Western powers have become very alarmed about a possible jihadi victory in Syria, and now see a weakened Assad remaining in power or as part of a brokered coalition as the lesser evil. Hence the previous Western moves to give material and technical assistance to the rebels have slowed considerably while calls for a negotiated solution grow louder. Not surprisingly and following on the success of the Iran nuclear accord, negotiations on the Syrian crisis are now scheduled for January in Geneva, and include the Iranians as interested parties along with those supporting the anti-Assad forces grouped in and around the non-jihadist Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army.
For Iran, this was the bargaining chip. It can agree to temporarily halt its nuclear enrichment efforts in exchange not just for sanctions relief but also in exchange for a reprieve for Assad. As things stood, its nuclear program invited massive preemptive attack and Assad’s fall spelled the end of its geopolitical influence. By agreeing to curtail its nuclear program to verifiable peaceful uses in exchange for a withdrawal of Western aid to the Syrian rebels and sanctions relief, Iran is able to buy Assad enough time to defeat the rebels, thereby maintaining Iran’s influence as a regional power while it re-builds its domestic economy unfettered by sanctions. Israel and the Saudis may not be happy about this, but their narrow interests have been shown to not be coincident with those of their Western allies on a number of strategic issues, Iran being just one of them.
Political scientists would call this the nested game scenario: within the public “game” involving negotiations between Iran and its foreign interlocutors lie other confidential or private “games” that are key to resolving the larger impasse over its nuclear program (Iranian involvement in Iraqi domestic politics might be another). These games are defined as much by those who are excluded as those who are involved in them.
All of this is speculation, and any “nested game” deal on Syria would be part of the non-public aspects of the agreement Â and therefore deliberately non-verifiable over the near term absent a leak. But there is enough written between the lines of the public rhetoric to suggest that this may be what is at play rather than a simple compromise on the limits of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Benjamin Netenyahu gets up in front of the UN General Assembly with a poster board showing a caricature of a bomb (surprisingly similar to the Mohammed Turban bomb cartoon motif) that supposedly shows how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon. The bomb is bisected by horizontal lines at the “70%” and “90%” uraniumÂ enrichment marks, the latter at the neck of the 19th century cannonball drawn on the board. Bibi draws a red line at the “90%” mark, declaring that it was time to draw a red line on the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Pardon me if I cough. Forget the fact that Israel has at least a dozen nuclear warheads, some of them submarine launched. Forget that even if Iran was to develop a trigger for its fissile material, it still would have to place it in a warhead that in turn must be installed inÂ an artillery shell, airborne deployed bomb, or on a missile, all of which are exposed to attack at the point of loading. Forget the Iranian nuclear physicists have one of the highest occupational morality rates in the world, dying in a myriad of unfortunate and unexpected ways. Forget that the computers governing the Iranian nuclear enrichment process are unusually susceptible to catastrophic failures caused by worms and viruses.Â Forget the fact that Iran is merely seeking what could be called deterrent parity: no one seriously messes with a nuclear armed country, as North Korea, India, Pakistan and yes, Israel, have demonstrated.
Forget all of that. Why shouldÂ Iran not seek deterrence parity given what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in light of the US attacks on them even though they threatened no vital US national interest (let’s be clear: terrorist attacks, no matter how atrocious, are not existential threats to any well-established state). Given the attitude towards it on the part of the US and other Western countries, to say nothing of Israel, Iran has every reason to seek the ultimate deterrent.
In fact, Iran is on the horns of a classic security dilemma: the more it feels threatened by the actions of hostile states, the more it is determined to protect itself by seeking the nuclear trump card. The more that it does so, the more the US and Israel will feel compelled to move against it.
One might say that it is the Iranian regime’s rhetoric and support for terrorism that warrants grave concern. I say give us a break. Ahmadinejad talks to his domestic audience the way Netenyahu and Romney talk to theirs, especially during electoral season or times of internal crisis. However Westerners may wish to misinterpret and mistranslate what he says (which, admittedly is offensive and often bizarre, as his latest “homosexuality is a product of capitalism” remarks demonstrate), and no matter what an unpleasant fellow he may be, Ahmadinejad is no more of a threat to international security than any of the dozen or more Central Asian despots that the West supports, and who do not even try to hold contestable elections. They may not have nukes, but that does not mean that they are any more peace-minded than the mullahs in Teheran. As far as the use of armed proxies are concerned, does anyone remember the Contras?
And even where nuclear states have elected leaders, they are not often the most stable or impeachable. I mean, does anyone seriouslyÂ think that Iran is a worse threat of starting the nuclear apocalypse than Pakistan? And yet billions of dollars in foreign aid flow to the Pakistani government, whose corruption is matched only by the rapidity with which they take offense at perceived slights.
No, the real problem is that the Persian Shiia did a bad thing to the US three decades ago by throwing out the US-supported Shah and holding US embassy hostages for more than a year (the latter a definite inter-state transgression and diplomatic no-no, to be sure). They also pose a grave threat to the US-backed Sunni Arab autocraciesÂ because ofÂ their evangelical and proselytizingÂ Shiaa fanaticism. Yet Iran has attacked no other stateÂ directly (Iraq attacked Iran to start the 1980s war between the two), even if it uses proxies like Hezbollah toÂ pursue military diplomacy and exact revenge on its enemies. After all, plausible deniability can work many ways.
In any event, Bibi’s show and tell show at the UN demonstrates the hypocrisy and disdainÂ he and his supporters hold for that international organization and the intelligence of the interested public. Trying to reduce and simplify into a cartoon a complex diplomatic and military subject that is layered upon centuries of cultural, religious and ethnic enmity is not a useful teaching aid: it is an insult to the audience.
If anything, with a different presenter that ticking/fizzing poster bomb could beÂ well beÂ read as an indication ofÂ the state of Palestinian frustration with a territorial occupation and ethnic subjugation that has been decades in theÂ making. Â As the leader of a stateÂ that yields nothing to the self-determination aspirations of the Palestinian people, aspirations that have exacted a terrible toll on both sides of the conflict, Bibi’s bomb poster is an incitement, not an explanation.
What is galling about Bibi’s demonstration is a) his denial of Iran’s right to pursue a course of action that has proven to be an effective deterrent against aggression by larger powers and which Israel itself has availed itself of; and b) his disrespect for the UN in trotting out a kindergarten poster as an illustration of the threat he claims that Iran poses.
I am no fan of the Mullahs regime and Ahmadinejad. I believe that the Iranians are lying when they say that there nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But I understand their reasons for doing so, especially since the Israelis have lied all along about their nuclear program.
The real issue here is that Netenyahu is trying to provoke the US during an electoral campaign into supporting a pre-emptive strike on Iran. He is doing so more for his own domestic political reasons than out of concernÂ about any imminent Iranian nuclear threat. He is a scoundrel, and he is mistaken. The US, quite frankly, is in no position to do support his preferred move, which Israel cannot do on its own. The USÂ needs a break from more than a decade of constant war and Iran is a far more formidable adversary than Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. Thus the timing of the cartoon presentation is ill-advised as much as its substance is childish.
The bottom line is that only a clown would findÂ explanation and justificationÂ in Bibi’s poster bomb. That clown is Bibi himself.
The latest Word from Afar column over at Scoop speculates on New Zealand’s seemingly odd silence on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
In Libya, an unlikely hero of a youth-led revolution
BENGHAZI, LIBYA – Mehdi Mohammed Zeyo was the most unlikely of revolutionary heroes. The bespectacled 49-year-old worked in the supplies department of the state-owned oil company. He was a diabetic with two teenage daughters.
But something snapped inside him as a youth-led uprising in Libya against the government of Moammar Gaddafi quickly turned bloody.
On the morning of Feb. 20, he walked down the stairs of his apartment building with a gas canister hoisted on his shoulder, witnesses said. He put two canisters inside his trunk of his car, along with a tin can full of gunpowder. Driving toward the base, he flashed the victory sign to the young men protesting outside and hit the gas pedal.
Gaddafi’s security forces sprayed his black car with bullets, setting off a powerful explosion, witnesses said. The blast tore a hole in the base’s front gate, allowing scores of young protesters and soldiers who had defected to stream inside. That night, the opposition won the battle for the base, and for Benghazi, as Gaddafi’s forces retreated.
Zeyo had left a will listing the debts he owed so that they could be paid, but Hafidh said the community and the company where Zeyo worked would take care of his family. On Zeyo’s desk Monday was a printed piece of paper pasted to the computer screen.
“We are from God and we return to God,” it said.
At home, his wife put her head down.
“We had no sons to carry on his name. But this is how God works, and now his name is written in history,” she said.
That was published in the Washington Post, and syndicated to the front page of the international news section of today’s Dominion Post. Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.
Then try to re-imagine this story if the protagonist was an uneducated working-class youth from the Palestinian Occupied Territories, rural Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq borderlands.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s airing of a 9-11 conspiracy theory during his speech to the UN General Assembly last week produced a walk out by several delegations (including New Zealand’s) and a predictable chorus of outrage by conservative Western media. Not being a fan of 9-11 conspiracy theories myself, I simply note that this is is just the latest in a series of provocative UN speeches by Ahmadinejad, including his contention three years ago that there are no gays in Iran (insert Tui ad here).
What may not be apparent to the peanut gallery is the real reasons for the crazy talk. Let me therefore explain them.
As I have written before here and elsewhere, authoritarian regimes are seldom monolithic but instead are usually divided into factions of one kind or another depending on the specifics of the regime. There are hard-liners and soft-liners, idealists versus pragmatists, old guard versus new guard, religious versus secularist, military versus civilian, rural versus urban–these and other cleavages may overlap in any variety of ways (and can include inter-service divisions in military-dominated regimes). Ahmadinejad is associated with one hard line faction within the electoral authoritarian theocratic regime in Iran. This faction has been seriously undermined by the disputed December 2009 election results and subsequent unrest, something that comes at a time when Tehran is trying to impose its stamp as a major regional power by, among other things, pursuing an independent nuclear capability that has the potential if not intent of achieving nuclear deterrent status. That is the domestic context in which the UN speech was given.
The speech was televised live in Iran. It was designed to bolster Ahmadinejad’s hard-line credentials and image as a strong leader at home, thereby shoring up his support within the Revolutionary Guard affiliated hard-line elements that are vying for regime control with more moderate, secularist factions. The speech was, in other words, more for domestic consumption than international indigestion.
But it was also designed to raise Ahmadinejad’s stature within the Muslim world, and by extension that of Iran in its battle with pro-Western Sunni regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. The theory that 9-11 was an inside job perpetrated by the US so that it could then embark on a military project of world domination and defense of the”Zionist entity” has a fair bit of credence amongst (mostly uneducated) Muslims. Although crazy on the face of it, supposedly unexplained questions about the attacks themselves, the possibility of an ex post facto US whitewash or cover-up of the events leading up to and immediately following the attacks, and the subsequent US declaration of a “war on terror” leading to the invasion and occupation of two Muslim-dominant states (as well as the deployment of US military forces to dozens of others), lends itself easily to conspiracy theorisation, if not out of genuine skepticism than as a tool by which to manipulate subject populations already hostile to the US and Israel. By voicing one version of the “9-11 was an inside job” theory (as one of three possible explanations for the attacks mentioned by Ahmadinejad in his speech), the Iranian president dared to go where other Muslim leaders fail to tread. That raises his profile, and that of Iran, as the champion of Islamic interests at a time when other Muslim states are seen as complicit with or subjugated to US-led Western interests.
There is an irony in all of this. In a very real sense, Ahmadinejad’s speech and the reaffirmation of his position within the Iranian regime can be seen as a good thing when it comes to negotiations about its nuclear ambitions. It is axiomatic in diplomatic negotiations that agents have a strong mandate from their constituents. If the agents do not then their bargaining position can be undermined during or after the negotiations, making the entire process futile. By making his speech Ahmadinejad bolsters his position as a negotiating agent in the measure that support for him unifies and consolidates into diplomatic talking points. Put another way, were his position within the regime to remain weak or under challenge, his position as a negotiator would be undermined as well and anything that he agreed to could be undone by rivals seeking to strengthen their own internal hand. In other words, his word would mean nothing at the negotiating table.
But if his speech serves to unify support for him, then his ability to negotiate an agreement on the nuclear programme in which trade-offs between renunciation of weapons ambitions are exchanged for removal of sanctions and provision of aid, etc. will be enhanced. This is especially so because he is a hardliner with a reputation, reaffirmed by the speech, of defying the Great Satan, the UK and other Western powers while denouncing the Zionists and courting Chinese, Pakistani, North Korean and Venezuelan ties. Just like US Republican administrations (Nixon and Reagan, respectively) could lead the opening to China and the thawing of relations (glasnost) with the Soviet Union because of their hard-line credentials and domestic positions of political strength, so too it is that Ahmadinejad’s faction, not the soft-line or moderates in the Iranian regime, has the best credentials for negotiating the terms of any durable agreement on its nuclear programme. In the measure that his speech reaffirms his hard-line credentials and strengthens his position within the regime, the more possible it is for him to be a reliable negotiating agent vis a vis the West, which means that the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse are actually improved if his speech has the desired effect on his intended main audience.
Which is to say, Ahmadinejad may seem crazy, but he is crazy like a fox.