Turkey is not quite a founder member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but with Greece was the first addition to the 12 nations that set up the organization in 1949. Both countries were admitted in 1952 in recognition of the vital strategic positions they occupied as outposts of Western democracy. The hope at the time, with the Cold War at its iciest, was that Turkey would help protect NATO’s eastern flank from Soviet aggression.
In the event Turkey frequently diverged from the consensus view within the alliance, but since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power – first as Turkey’s prime minister, and later as President – Turkey has pursued strategic and foreign policy goals increasingly at odds with the West. Believing that NATO was strategically dependent on Turkey, and that its place within the organization was impregnable, Erdogan has pursued his own agenda. For example, even when Western countries combined to fight Islamist terror groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, Erdogan continued supporting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots. In Syria Turkey is at loggerheads with the US over its support for Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.
Now, however, Turkey has placed itself so at odds with NATO that its very membership is being questioned.
At issue are two big arms deals being pursued by Ankara. Turkey wants to buy 100 F-35s, the latest generation of US stealth jet fighters, produced by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. But Turkey is also engaged in installing Russia's advanced S-400 air-defense missile system. Defying strenuous American objections and the threat of sanctions, Turkey received the first shipment from Russia on July 12.
If the deal in respect of the American F-35s were to go ahead, the situation would become impossible. The S-400 is designed to detect and shoot down stealth fighters like the F-35. If Turkey acquired both, the Russian engineers and other specialists required to set up the S-400 system would be able to learn much about the American-made fighter jets.
So when it became perfectly apparent that Erdogan was insistent on receiving the Russian ground-to-air missile system, Washington cancelled the F-35 deal. In a formal statement issued on July 17 the White House said: “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
Pentagon strategists doubtless see the S-400 deal as part of Russian President Putin’s plan to undermine NATO, and Washington has already said that the administration intends to impose sanctions on Turkey. Legislation known as the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) targets purchases of military equipment from Russia. The president could impose a range of measures such as banning visas to Turkish officials, and denying access to the US-based Export-Import Bank. Harsher options include blocking transactions with the US financial system and denying export licences.
On the face of it, opponents of the Russo-Turkish deal seem to find no comfort in the fact that the advanced Russian S-400 system is to be installed in a NATO country, and is likely to be fully exposed to Western scrutiny. Russia’s President Putin has doubtless discounted that downside on two grounds. The first is that the export version of the S-400 system being supplied to Turkey differs significantly from what Russia itself uses – and that in any case Russia is working on a more advanced system for itself. The second is the political benefits of Russia having infiltrated into the heart of NATO.
The sale will certainly enhance Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East. Every future NATO operation will have to take into account the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey – a disruptive effect on the Western alliance very much to Putin’s liking. And on the plus side the S-400 deal draws a line under the breakdown in Russo-Turkish relations which occurred back in 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on its southern border with Syria. The following year a Turkish policeman, shouting “don’t forget Syria”, shot and killed the Russian ambassador at an art gallery in Ankara.
If this dispute between Turkey and the US results in the imposition of sanctions on Turkey, it could strain the long and close relationship between the US and Turkish militaries. An especially sensitive issue would be the impact on the Incirlik air base, close to the city of Adana in southern Turkey, 70 miles from the Syrian border. The base is operated jointly by the US and Turkish air forces, while air force personnel from other NATO countries are often stationed there. Critically, some 50 of America’s tactical nuclear weapons, a leftover of the Cold War, are stored at Incirlik.
A NATO spokesman recently emphasized that “Interoperability of our armed forces is fundamental to NATO for the conduct of our operations and missions” and that Russia’s S-400 system is considered “technically incompatible with the weapons systems used by NATO countries.”
It is doubtful if Erdogan considered that his insistence on acquiring the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile could lead to Turkey’s continued membership of NATO being seriously put in question. Yet calls for Turkey’s expulsion have appeared in various media. The broad consensus of opinion is that this would be a step too far. In any event, there seems to be nothing in the NATO’s rules about expelling a member. Such a step has never occurred, and if it were ever seriously considered, the procedures would have to be invented from scratch. This wrangle is likely to have a less dramatic resolution.
Video version Glance at a map of the Middle East, and the geopolitical–cum–religious complications facing Iraq are immediately apparent. The country is like a wedge, forced between the two bitterly opposed leaders of the Muslim world – Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Following decades of instability and civil war, it is only in the past few months that Iraq has been secure enough to start the process of carving out an appropriate place for itself within the political structure of the region.
The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 led to Iraq becoming a battlefield of competing jihadist militias. For a while US-led coalition forces attempted to quell the chaos. . When this failed, the US formally withdrew its fighting force in an effort to outflank the strong anti-Western sentiment that provided the battle cry for many of the armed forces.
Civilian rule was reinstated in Iraq in 2005 by way of a new constitution. After a shaky start, the nascent democracy slowly strengthened until it was again thrown off balance by the emergence in 2014 of Islamic State, whose forces rapidly conquered large tracts of the country, and imposed its version of harsh Sharia law over its self-declared caliphate. It took nearly four years of concerted effort by Kurdish and government forces, backed by the US and a Western coalition, before all IS territory was finally back in Iraqi hands.
Elections in October 2018 resulted in veteran Kurdish politician, Barham Salih, assuming the largely ceremonial role of president, while experienced Shia politician, Adel Abdul Mahdi, became the nation’s prime minister. The defeat of the IS caliphate restored a certain degree of stability within Iraq, but a major challenge facing the new government is the continued presence, lodged within the body politic, of some 30 armed fighting forces known collectively as the popular mobilization forces (PMF), amounting to some 125,000 personnel..
Volunteer PMF fighters fought hard in the campaign against IS, but as it drew to a close many of the PMF’s leaders sought to make political capital out of their positions of power within the state. These efforts to convert militias into parallel state structures have been compared to the evolution inside Iran of the Islamic Republican Guard (IRGC), or within Lebanon of Hezbollah. Moreover a number of PMF factions have close ties to Iran, are reaching into various sectors of the Iraqi administration, and using their military power to brush aside competition and opposition.
In March 2018, prime minister Mahdi’s predecessor, Haider al-Abadi, tried to chip away at the militias’ independence by formally making them part of the country’s security forces – an initiative that largely failed, Mahdi has not only reinstituted al-Abadi’s order, but has gone further by requiring the militias to leave their local military headquarters and shut down their so-called economic offices. He has set a deadline of July 31 for the militias to comply.
Troubling as this issue is, it is Iraq’s relations with its geographical neighbours that find the state balancing on a political tightrope.
While Iraq contains a sizeable Sunni minority, it is essentially a Shi’ite state with an area in the north dedicated to a form of Kurdish autonomy. As such, despite sizeable US financial support, it has a strong relationship with Iran. Iran’s influence within Iraq is sustained by the over-mighty paramilitary groups it supports.
In March 2019 Iran’s president, Hassan Rohani, made his first official visit to Iraq. A few days later Iraqi prime minister Mahdi reciprocated, with a two-day visit to Iran, where he met not only Rohani, but Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Discussions centred on the expansion of commercial ties, especially gas and electricity, and a plan to connect their railroads.
Ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait back in 1990, Iran has been no friend of Saudi Arabia, which joined the UN coalition to reverse Hussain’s victory. Recently, though, Saudi has been attempting to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, and is intent on repairing fences with its neighbour. Early in April 2019 Saudi Arabia reopened its consulate in Baghdad for the first time in nearly 30 years. The opening was accompanied by a one billion dollar aid package for Iraq.
On April 17 the two oil-producing giants moved towards closer diplomatic and economic ties when King Salman welcomed Mahdi on his first official visit to the kingdom. Mahdi went to Riyadh with a large delegation, including officials and businessmen, with trade billed as a prime focus of the discussions. The visit produced no less than 13 agreements covering trade, energy and political cooperation.
With his two powerful neighbours totally opposed to each other, Mahdi has to keep relations with them in some kind of balance. This perhaps explains Iraq’s less than wholly welcoming reaction to the latest overtures by Iran.
In the wake of Iran’s shooting down of a US drone over the Gulf of Oman, an Iranian military delegation visited Iraq on June 23-24 and met with senior officers to propose closer military cooperation between the two countries. In a meeting with Major GeneralTariq Abbas, Iraq’s deputy commander of the army, Iran’s land forces commander Kioumars Heydari suggested joint exercises.
The suggestion was endorsed by Alireza Sabahifard, commander of Iran's Air Defense Forces. “Iran and Iraq have many reasons … to unite and consolidate Islamic power in the region," he said “We are ready to create expert committees for all areas in order to establish and improve bilateral cooperation."
Iraq’s leadership would have been fully aware that the idea of Iraq and Iran collaborating on military matters was scarcely likely to appeal to Washington, yet interchanges with Iran continued. Iran’s Heydari is quoted as saying that agreements had already been concluded "in the transfer of expertise in the field of armored vehicles, artillery and airborne and other exercises, and we are waiting for a positive response from the Iraqi army."
He may have to wait considerably longer. The US and its anti-IS coalition is still providing training to Iraqi forces, and the US has designated several major Shi’ite paramilitary groups as terrorist organizations. If or when they become officially part of the Iraqi security forces, the situation will become even more complicated. On the other hand, a burgeoning Iraqi relationship with Saudi Arabia is likely to be welcomed in Washington.
Mahdi and his government have a very narrow path to tread.
This article appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated July 22, 2019
One of Israel’s odder characteristics is the practice of dubbing citizens who happen to have English as their mother tongue “Anglos”, whichever part of the globe they chance to emanate from. Whether you hail from New York, Vancouver, Cape Town, or Sydney, to say nothing of London’s Golders Green, you’re an “Anglo” – which is actually a truncated version of “Anglo-Saxon”. In fact one nationwide and highly respected real estate agency in Israel trades under the soubriquet “Anglo-Saxon” – a clear signal to clients that “English is spoken here”.
Israeli citizens with English as their mother tongue are, therefore, a recognized sector of Israeli society, but they are only a minor sector. The Central Bureau of Statistics recently estimated them at something under 200,000 individuals. Organizations such as AACI (the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) and ESRA (the English Speaking Residents' Association) claim the actual figure ranges between 250,000 and 300,000, still in a total population of nine million, this is very nearly insignificant – except, of course, to the people concerned.
Given this statistic, however, it is perhaps surprising that when the last general election loomed on the political horizon, Anglos and their particular needs figured at all in the consideration of the political parties. Yet a fair number did go out of their way to address an English-speaking audience. Perhaps they did so in recognition of the fact that, while some fortunate people have a natural facility with language, for many who have acquired a working knowledge of a second language it is often a struggle to read or write in it. Or perhaps it is simply acknowledging that although Hebrew became Israel’s sole official language in July 2018, English is pretty much universal.
Before the last general election, held in April 2019, no less than 47 parties registered to participate. In pre-election maneuvers and deals, they finally amalgamated into the 15 joint lists from which voters were invited to choose.
Some parties made no effort to venture beyond Hebrew in their pre-election promotion, and some scarcely did even that. United Torah Judaism, Shas and the Arab parties, and also the lists in which they participated, did not bother to set up websites or to open Twitter or Facebook accounts. The little they did to reach out to voters by way of leaflets and phone calls was couched in Hebrew. Surprisingly, the Blue and White joint list, which played such a major role in the election, also did not run a website to which interested voters, English-speaking or not, could turn for information.
This deficiency was partly made good by the efforts expended by Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a founding partner in Blue and White – the alliance formed by the Israel Resilience party (Hosen L’Yisrael), Telem and Yesh Atid, specifically to contest the election. Yesh Atid ran an impressive website in English which set out its platform in detail, together with information about party members and planned political gatherings. It established a closed group on Facebook, and fostered debates and meetings in English. Neither its main partner, Israel Resilience, nor Telem were to be found on the internet.
The two main parties to the left of center were Labor and Meretz. The Labor party hosted a website which set out the party’s political platform in colorful detail, together with information about its candidates. The site was in Hebrew, but the touch of a button re-presented all the material in English. Meretz, though, confined its internet presence to the Hebrew language, as did the center parties Kulanu and Gesher.
The governing party, Likud, vied with Yesh Atid in the effectiveness of its on-line presence and the presentation of its policies to English-speaking voters. It ran a website in English which set out its policies, listed its candidates, and provided on-going news of the campaign. At the same time Likud, like several other parties, ran Twitter and Facebook accounts, offering voters the chance to comment and offer opinions on the changing political scene.
The hawkish New Right party, led by the prominent figures Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, ran a website in Hebrew only. Jewish Home-Jewish Power did not bother with a website at all. The only right-of-center party in addition to Likud that attempted to reach out to English-speaking voters was Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), the party established in 1999 by Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, whose main constituency is Israel’s large Russia- originating population. It set up a website providing basic information in Hebrew about the party and its objectives, but with the nominal capacity to convert the contents to Russian and English. This option, while working for Russian speakers, unfortunately failed to function for English. The party would be well advised to repair the site before campaigning gets under way for the September vote.
During the last election campaign Anglos keen to discover the political choices open to them would have had to scour the internet with determination, If they confined their search simply to what the political parties provided, they would have gained only a sketchy picture. Fortunately, for those determined enough to persevere, there were a clutch of other organizations intent on catering to the political needs of Anglos. It is to these bodies, as much as the political parties, that Anglo voters will be able to turn in the run-up to September’s general election.
The Israel Democracy Institute is an independent organization dedicated to strengthening the foundations of Israeli democracy. As part of the wide range of its activities. its English language website provides a comprehensive rundown of all the parties and joint lists competing in each general election, together with the main planks in their political platforms.
The Jewish Virtual Library is an invaluable source of intelligence about Israel, its past, present and possible future. Its website is a treasure house of information in general and, during a general election campaign, of detailed political material. The JVL is run by the American-Israeli Co-operative Enterprise, a non-profit and non-partisan organization set up in 1993 with the aim of strengthening the US-Israel relationship.
In the run-up to the April general election a body called “Secret Tel Aviv” provided what it described as “the ultimate elections guide”. Its English language website was indeed replete with information about the participating parties and their policies, and encouraged comments both directly and by way of its Facebook account. Set up in 2011 by an Anglo and his wife, both originally from Manchester in the UK, Secret Tel Aviv is dedicated to helping what it describes as “internationals” to settle in Israel, assisting their businesses to grow, and fostering the integration of immigrants and native Israelis.
And then, believe it or not, there is the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (IGC). Of all the websites available on the net, including the special election editions of Israel’s English language newspapers. the best, fullest, most comprehensive survey of the parties, their policies and their leading figures was provided by the IGC, simply as a minor by-product of its main purpose. The organization has a worldwide remit to help countries, their people and their governments tackle some of the major problems they face. In respect of the Middle East, the IGC has a special objective, perhaps a hangover from Blair’s period as special envoy for the Middle East Quartet: “to increase stability and understanding between Israel and the Palestinians.” If the IGC undertakes the same in-depth coverage of Israel’s political scene for the forthcoming election, Anglos will be well-served.
Finally there is the official website of the Knesset Central Elections Committee, available in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. The website was created prior to the April elections specifically, as the chairman wrote, “to assist each of you in your efforts to come to an educated decision.” The website provided a wide range of information about the election process, the candidate factions, the election laws and statistics about previous elections. In addition there was information relevant to election day itself, including the arrangements for voting.
In short, before voting day comes round in September 2019, Anglos will have a wealth of data available to them, provided they have the will and inclination to seek it out. On the evidence of the last election, the most obvious deficiency is that Anglos who may be attracted to one of the minor parties, or to Blue and White, have little opportunity to connect directly with it in English. For a political party to enter a general election in 2019 without a website appears an act of deliberate self-harm. To set up a Hebrew-only site, when it requires only minimal effort and money to enable conversion to English, seems perverse. Perhaps the political parties – and especially Blue and White – have reflected on the deficiencies in their efforts last time. If so, they will surely provide voters in general, and Anglos in particular, with an improved service in the forthcoming campaign.
Over the past few decades a rapacious predator has been consuming the political, military and administrative organs of the once proud state of Lebanon, until only the outer shell of an independent sovereign country now remains. At one time it seemed that Hezbollah, a body deemed a terrorist organization by large parts of the world, had created a “state within a state” inside Lebanon. Many now believe that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are in effect indistinguishable.
In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.
Around 1980 Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shia Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”.
Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Soon Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. A wave of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations including Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, all the Gulf states that form the Gulf Cooperation Council and, of course, Israel. They were joined in March 2019 by the UK, which finally proscribed the whole of the Hezbollah organization, rather than only its supposed “military wing”.
A few days later a British foreign office minister, Alistair Burt, visited Beirut and met Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a known supporter of Hezbollah. During the course of conversation, Aoun declared that Hezbollah’s allegiances in the region did not affect internal Lebanese politics. The president was, in effect, giving his stamp of approval to the terrorist body controlled by a foreign state. Iran, that has sucked much of the independence out of his country.
Prime minister Saad Hariri. on the other hand, could never be reconciled to the increasingly dominant position that Hezbollah has been assuming within the Lebanese body politic. Regardless of his political objections, his personal reasons are overwhelming.
On February 14, 2005, Hariri’s father Rafik, one-time prime minister and a powerful opponent of Syrian and Hezbollah’s increasing influence in Lebanon, was assassinated. The subsequent judicial proceedings, still ongoing after 14 years, have pretty well established that the murder was ordered by Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president, and carried out by Hezbollah operatives.
How complete is Hezbollah’s takeover of the state of Lebanon?
The country went to the polls in May 2018. The elections saw the Hezbollah-led political alliance win just over half of the parliamentary seats. A major factor in Hezbollah’s popularity is the vast network of social services, funded by Iran, that it runs, providing healthcare, education, finance, welfare, and communications. Initially set up to augment the pitifully poor services provided by the state, it has virtually taken over the state’s function in many areas.
The government that was eventually formed some nine months after the poll reflected the dominant position attained by Hezbollah and its allies. The organization was allocated three ministries including, for the first time, the Ministry of Health which controls one of the country’s largest budgets. In addition the Finance Ministry went to a Hezbollah ally.
As regards the military, there are two fully equipped fighting bodies in Lebanon – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah. The LAF may seem on paper the larger organization, with 72,000 personnel as against a Hezbollah maximum of 55,000, but it is a far less cohesive and unified force. Hezbollah has been equipped by Iran with a large rocket arsenal, thousands of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, as well as tanks and other military vehicles stationed in Syria. The LAF has been well funded by the US over the years, and has air and naval capacity, but the unpalatable fact is that it is no longer the independent instrument of the state. Hezbollah has infiltrated the LAF, and there is evidence of cooperation between them.
It is particularly concerning that the LAF has compromised its role as the nation’s defence force by collaborating with the Hezbollah military. As a result, in any future conflict Israel would be unable to restrict its military action to Hezbollah. Indeed in May 2018 Israel’s then education minister, Naftali Bennett, said that “the State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.”
The distinguished commentator on Middle East affairs, Jonathan Spyer, recently analyzed the extent to which Hezbollah, acting as a proxy for Iran, has swallowed up the Lebanese state. The shell of the state has been left intact, he pointed out, both to serve as a protective camouflage and to carry out those aspects of administration in which Hezbollah and Iran have no interest. As a result, he concludes, it is impossible today in key areas of Lebanese life to determine exactly where the official state begins and Hezbollah’s shadow state ends. Lebanon is indeed in a sorry state.
Video version One of the less attractive aspects of political argument these days is to remove responsibility from those who commit crimes and transfer it to the victims.
In the latest flare-up in the Gulf of Hormuz, this is the approach deployed by the European Union. Which nation used limpet mines on a Japanese oil tanker? Which nation destroyed a US unmanned drone flying over international waters? In both cases, despite vehement denials, the strong evidence points to Iran. Yet the inherently anti-American EU firmly assigns blame to the Trump administration. Its line is that Iran cannot be blamed for the increase in tension, because it is all due to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.
None among the Iranian leadership, however, could have been in any doubt that incoming President Trump viewed the whole deal as flawed, nor greatly surprised when he withdrew the US from it. In doing so he made clear that what he wanted was to renegotiate a deal more likely to ensure the desired result – a permanently non-nuclear-weaponised Iran. Indeed, that remains Washington’s position, the only obstacle to resolving the dispute being Tehran’s absolute refusal to return to the negotiating table.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, has never concealed his total opposition to the Western democratic way of life, to the United States as leader of the Western world, and to Israel’s existence, all of which it is his aim to eliminate. Allied to this is the ultimate objective of the Iranian Islamic Revolution – to displace Saudi Arabia’s Sunni hegemony over the Muslim world and replace it with their own Shi’ite interpretation of Islam.
US president Barack Obama chose deliberately to ignore these basic building blocks of Iran’s regime. The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility. In the event the opposite was the case. Obama’s placatory approach resulted in no softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”. “Even after this deal, “ proclaimed Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.” And indeed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard spent the billions of dollars they acquired as a result of the deal in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression since the deal was signed.
By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. This is why Obama’s US lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist. It has taken Trump and his administration’s tough approach to Iran and its pretensions to restore America’s standing in the moderate Arab world.
The Iranian nuclear deal was regarded by the EU and like-minded nations as a guarantee against Iran developing nuclear weapons. This sidesteps the basic flaw in the deal – that it expires after 15 years, at which time there is nothing to prevent Iran from continuing with its full-scale nuclear program.
Meanwhile, it persists in its disruptive activities throughout the Middle East and beyond. It is Iran that is providing arms to groups like the Houthis in Yemen, who are firing Iranian-made missiles directly into Saudi Arabia, and to the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq that recently launched a rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, and to the Revolutionary Guard Corps on active duty in Syria, propping up the president, Bashar al-Assad.
Yet the EU’s foreign policy establishment is so determined to portray the Americans as the villains, that they remain committed to upholding the nuclear deal, no matter how provocative Iran's actions might be. In pursuit of this ill-considered policy the EU is still striving to establish its own trading mechanism – the so-called special purpose vehicle – to by-pass US sanctions and enable European businesses to continue trading with Iran.
Trump’s economic pressure has caused Iran’s leadership major domestic difficulties. Rallies and street protests, centered on the worsening economic situation and the ever-rising food and commodity prices, keep bursting out spontaneously across the country. Some morphe into opposition to the government. A major cause for complaint are the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
But as for the danger of outright war, both Washington and Tehran, in the midst of the blood-curdling threats they utter against each other, have indicated that they have absolutely no desire for military conflict.
The years of internal conflict that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq in 2003 have at last been succeeded by a degree of precarious stability.
Iraq is a federation of three elements held in uncertain balance – the Shia majority, the Sunni minority and the Kurds in their northern autonomous region of Kurdistan. But it also faces the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) caliphate that dominated large areas of the country for more than three years. In addition the government has to cope with the presence of two competing power brokers lodged within their body politic – the US and Iran.
Iraq’s political parties, mirroring the balance of politico-religious power underlying the Lebanese constitution, have reached an informal agreement under which the presidency is reserved for Kurds, the premiership for Shia Arabs, and the post of speaker of parliament for Sunni Arabs. Accordingly, in October 2018 the veteran Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih was elected by parliament to serve as president for the first of a maximum of two four-year terms. In line with the political agreement, Salih appointed Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shi’ite, as prime minister.
Mahdi, with a wealth of ministerial experience under his belt. is faced with a formidable agenda. The defeat on the ground of IS, the result of a united effort by government and Kurdish forces backed by support from the US and its coalition, leaves Mahdi with the task of rebuilding the infrastructure of large parts of the country.
Yet although all the territory previously part of the IS caliphate has been reclaimed, the organization’s destructive activities have not been effectively quelled. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report for 2018 condemns IS for dozens of explosive attacks on civilian-populated areas, and the capture and extra-judicial killing of civilians.
In February, UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a report to the Security Council that IS has already "substantially evolved into a covert network...it is organizing cells at the provincial level, replicating the key leadership functions." Despite its losses, said Guterres, it still controls between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria. Cells "appear to be planning activities that undermine government authority, create an atmosphere of lawlessness, sabotage societal reconciliation and increase the cost of reconstruction and counter-terrorism."
These activities include kidnappings for ransom, targeted assassinations of local leaders, and attacks against state utilities and services, including setting fire to crops in bizarre imitation of Hamas’s attacks on Israeli farmers close to Gaza.
A severe humanitarian problem also faces the authorities. The newly elected US senator for Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, recently visited Iraq and found that some 30,000 widows and children of dead IS soldiers had been interned in camps in the desert, including 10,000 children under the age of 5. She was not able to discover what, if anything, was planned for them.
In a recent interview with President Salih, journalist Christian Caryl elicited a frank appraisal of the difficulties facing the nation. Salih himself pointed out that Mosul, its second-largest city, had been recaptured from IS more than a year ago, yet the city remains in ruins. Discussing the effectiveness of Iraq’s administrative machinery, the president admitted the need to fight a deeply entrenched culture of corruption in the bureaucracy, the government’s failure to provide basic public services such as water and electricity, and the challenge of preventing a full-scale IS revival.
Taking all its problems into account, however, a vital factor affecting Iraq’s current, as well as future, prospects is that it is the second–largest crude oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after Saudi Arabia.
During the first half of 2018, Iraqi crude oil output stood at about 4.5 million barrels per day (b/d), including oil produced in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Disputes between the government and the KRG flare up from time to time, but an innovative “swap deal” with Iran involving northern crude production seems to be functioning very effectively.
Iraq abuts Iran right along its 900-mile (1450 kilometer) eastern border. Accordingly, in the far north Kurdish Iraqi crude oil is trucked to Iran, while in the far south Iran ships the equivalent volume of crude oil from its Kharg terminal to Basra. Iraq plans to double the amount swapped with Iran in this way to 60,000 b/d of crude oil.
In this, and in many other ways, Iran is intent on retaining Iraq within its sphere of influence. Washington believes Iran’s aim is to destabilize the country. US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently accused Iran of financing and training militia groups and promoting Islamist politicians, including followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric who controls a militia known as the Mahdi Army.
Deeper analysis suggests the main motives for Iranian involvement are to push out coalition forces and Western influences; to keep Shi’ites in power, since Shia Iraq is a useful support for Iran’s much wider “Shia Crescent”; and to maintain Iraq as a federal state, minimizing Sunni influence and optimizing the Shia regions.
Iraq is slowly emerging from the trauma of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the turmoil that followed his overthrow. There is a long road yet to travel, but there is reason for hope. Iraq may yet develop into a democratic and prosperous island of stability in a chaotic Middle East.
This review appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 24 June 2019
The title chosen by Jerold S Auerbach for his new book, “Print to Fit” is a deliberate inversion of the slogan invented by the first owner of the New York Times (NYT), Adolph Ochs, which has appeared on the front page ever since – “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” Auerbach subjects the New York Times to a meticulously researched analysis of its attitude over the years 1896 to 2016 towards Zionism and Israel, and comes to a firm conclusion. With some notable exceptions, the paper’s coverage has consistently been skewed against both. In short, what the NYT has printed has often, perhaps usually, been designed to fit the profound anti-Zionism of its original owner, passed on to succeeding generations of publishers, all of whom have been family members.
At least part of this indictment has very recently been acknowledged as valid by the NYT’s editorial board itself.
On Thursday April 27, 2019 the NYT international edition published a deeply anti-Semitic cartoon. As a tsunami of adverse criticism from around the globe engulfed the paper, the cartoon was withdrawn, the editor responsible was disciplined and several apologies appeared in its pages. Then, on April 30, in an editorial denouncing its “appalling political cartoon”, the editorial board acknowledged its own historical contributions to the rise of anti-Semitism.
“In the 1930s and the 1940s,” it wrote, “the Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper.”
In Zionism’s early days political cross-currents motivated Adolph Ochs, and Auerbach examines them in some detail. In the very year that Ochs acquired the Times – 1896 – Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, published “The Jewish State”, while in the following year the first World Zionist Congress was held in Basle, Switzerland. From it emerged Zionism’s fundamental objective: “To establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law."
Most old-established and well-assimilated Jewish families in the States, mirroring the same type of families in Britain, were profoundly opposed to the concept, arguing vehemently that there was absolutely no need for a sovereign Jewish state with all the trappings of nationhood, since Jews were not a race, a nation or a people, but merely adherents of a religion. Many wealthy American Jews, deeply anxious not to be suspected of entertaining the idea of a dual loyalty, proclaimed themselves unreservedly American by nationality and Jewish by religion. They were patriotic Americans of the Jewish faith. Their Zion was America.
Ochs and his family belonged to the Reform wing of Judaism, where these beliefs were strongest, and it was from this source that the NYT drew much of its opinion journalism on the issue of Zionism. As Auerbach illustrates with chapter and verse, published comment turned largely on the thesis that Zionism was wrong in principle and in any case impossible to realize. The NYT covered only briefly the appearance in November 1917 of the document that eventually led to the fulfilment of the Zionist dream – the Balfour Declaration, which announced that the British government favored the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
Although Zionist achievements in Palestine were occasionally lauded in the pages of the NYT – for example, the inauguration of the Hebrew University in 1925, the rapid development of Tel Aviv and the agricultural successes of the young pioneers – adverse criticism of Zionism as a principle remained a persistent feature of its coverage during the Mandate years. The violently anti-Jewish Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was the subject of laudatory articles, and the deteriorating situation between Arabs and Jews was at first laid firmly at the Zionists’ door. Although its coverage later became more nuanced, the NYT’s balance always tilted away from the requirement laid on the British government by the Mandate to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was the doomed attempt to realize this, the NYT often argued, that lay at the root of Palestine’s ills. In short, the problem in Palestine was Zionism.
Auerbach maintains that the greatest dereliction of its journalistic duty, however – as the editorial board itself acknowledged in 2019 – was in how it handled the rise of Nazism, its adoption of anti-Semitism as state policy, the discrimination and indignities heaped upon Jews in the 1930s, and the deliberate attempt to exterminate the whole Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1940s.
In addition to that innate anti-Zionism that marked the NYT’s editorial policy from the beginning, Auerbach identifies a second factor at play over the years. Each of the successive publishers, acutely aware that they themselves were Jewish, were one after another determined to ensure that the Times was never perceived as a “Jewish” newspaper lest it be devalued “in Gentile circles”.
Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Ochs’s son-in-law and immediate successor, insisted that Jews were not to be identified as a distinctive group in stories run by the NYT. So in describing the plight of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930s, the Times deliberately ignored the fact that they were Jews. By-passing the fact that the prime reason for their predicament was the institutional anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, it described thousands desperately seeking places of refuge as “a problem of mankind.” Auerbach quotes an NYT editorial which, describing the fate of 500 Jewish refugees stranded in a riverboat on the Danube for months, does not mention that they are Jews but identifies them as “helpless and terrified human beings.”
The fact that Jews were major victims of the Nazi regime was consistently downplayed – a deliberate editorial policy instituted in order to avoid the NYT being perceived as too pro-Jewish. Even at the end of the war in Europe, Auerbach notes that the horrors of Auschwitz never made the front page. “The liberation of Dachau did,” he writes, “without any indication that most victims were Jews.”
The New York Times never lost its basic distaste for Zionism and thus, more often than not, for Israel. The reaction of its Jewish correspondent to the Six Day War was disappointment that Israel had not used its military triumph “to offer the Palestinians honorable terms.” In the 1970s the policies pursued by Israel’s first right wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, mostly infuriated the NYT. It had no time for the Greater Israel concept, and deplored the extension of settlements. Even coverage of the Begin-Anwar Sadat peace treaty of 1979, although given an approving nod, was the subject also of an admonition. Israel had to “distinguish its security needs from territorial ambitions on the Arab populated West Bank.”
Following the first intifada and the terror bombings inside Israel, voter opinion strengthened on the right; the NYT’s stance on Israel hardened accordingly. During the second intifada, which witnessed some of the most horrific suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians, the Times, as Auerbach puts it, “resolutely held ‘both sides’ responsible.”
In essence that remains the NYT’s editorial position to this day. Extraordinarily, the convictions and attitudes that dictated Adolph Ochs’s editorial approach to Zionism and Jewish affairs as he published his first edition in 1896 were maintained over the years. Auerbach asserts that the NYT’s reporting from Israel was consistently dominated by journalists “whose evident liberal bias constricted and distorted their coverage.” The Times, he maintains, remained faithful to Ochs’s concept that Zionism challenged American Jews’ loyalty to the United States. Accordingly, the NYT came to believe that criticism of the Jewish state somehow affirmed American patriotism. Somewhere along the way, Auerbach affirms, all the news “fit to print” became news “printed to fit New York Times discomfort with the idea – and since 1948 the reality – of a thriving Jewish democratic state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.”
“Print to Fit” leads the reader through Israel’s story along an unfamiliar route. The New York Times is one of the world’s leading newspapers. It is regarded as a “journal of record”. For more than 120 years it has been shaping American opinion. Jerold S Auerbach argues convincingly that, as far as Zionism and Israel are concerned, the paper has consistently been far from objective in its editorial policy, has fallen short of its own high standards, and has consequently failed in its journalistic obligations to the public.
On November 14, 2001, in The New York Times' 150th anniversary issue, former executive editor Max Frankel wrote that before and during World War II, the Times had maintained a consistent policy to minimize reports on the Holocaust in their news pages. Laurel Leff, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, concluded that the newspaper had downplayed the Third Reich targeting of Jews for genocide. Her 2005 book Buried by the Times documents the paper's tendency before, during and after World War II to place deep inside its daily editions the news stories about the ongoing persecution and extermination of Jews, while obscuring in those stories the special impact of the Nazis' crimes on Jews in particular. Leff attributes this dearth in part to the complex personal and political views of the newspaper's Jewish publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, concerning Jewishness, antisemitism and Zionism.
This article appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 24 June 2019
In 2006 the trenchant British political commentator Melanie Phillips published a volume that quickly became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Titled Londonistan, it was the first major attempt to explain how and why the UK had become what Phillips termed “the epicenter of Islamic militancy in Europe” – a hub for recruiting, financing and promoting Islamic terror and extremism.
The incentive behind the book, and the urgent need Phillips felt to arouse the public’s awareness to the major problem facing it, was probably the London bombings on 7 July 2005, the worst terrorist attack to take place on British soil.
At 8.50 on that morning explosions tore through three trains on the London Underground, killing 39 people. An hour later 13 people were killed when a bomb detonated on the upper deck of a bus in central London. In addition more than 700 people were injured.
It was subsequently established that the attacks were carried out by four suicide bombers with rucksacks full of explosives. The investigation characterized the four as “ordinary British citizens”, but the British public was forced to recognize that these relatively unassuming young men, living what appeared to be quite normal lives, had been radicalized by extremists living freely in Britain and operating from institutions functioning legally on British soil.
For decades Britain’s laissez faire attitude towards immigration had meant that centers of extremist Muslim thought had been established across the UK without any effective system of control.
Professor Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University, an expert on Islamism in Europe and North America, has explained in detail how, since the early 1960s, Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organized network of mosques, charities and Islamic organizations”. By way of an often stealthy, but steady and sure, expansion of influence and activity the Brotherhood now has active branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria and numerous other European countries.
Before becoming the leaders of IS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of al-Qaeda), all belonged to the Brotherhood. Its basic principles lie at the heart of both IS and al-Qaeda. In founding the Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, Hassan al-Banna declared: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”
The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its strategy, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. “The presumption,” said Professor Bernard Lewis in his book “The Crisis of Islam”, “is that the duty of jihad will continue … until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule.”
This ruthless obsession with imposing its version of Islam on the entire globe is, in the view of its adherents, of such paramount importance that its achievement justifies the use of any means, however excessive. The more confusion, dissension and terror created, the better. Those willing to sacrifice their own lives in pursuit of these ends are martyrs.
These were the teachings promulgated in Britain from the 1980s by radical Muslim preachers to willing or vulnerable young Muslims. In November 1999 a UK newspaper reported that Muslims were receiving weapons training at secret locations in the UK. The report identified Anjem Choudray as a key figure in recruiting for these training centers. Choudary was convicted of soliciting support for a proscribed organization, namely Islamic State (IS), and in 2016 imprisoned.
Finsbury Park is a district in the north-east of London. In 1994 a new 5-storey mosque was officially opened in a ceremony attended by Prince Charles and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who had contributed funds for the building. Three years later a fanatically radical cleric named Abu Hamza al-Masri became its imam, and soon the mosque was being described as "the heart of the extremist Islamic culture" in Britain.
One of his disciples was Richard Reid, born in London in 1973, a young criminal who had been in and out of prison from the age of 16. During his incarceration in 1992 for various street robberies, he converted to Islam, and on his release in 1995 began attending the Finsbury Park Mosque. Here he fell under the sway of terrorist talent spotters and handlers allied with al-Qaeda, including Djamal Beghal, one of the leaders of the foiled plan for a 2001 suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Paris, and then of Abu Hamza.
On December 22, 2001 Reid boarded an American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami, wearing shoes packed with explosives, which he tried unsuccessfully to detonate. Passengers subdued him on the plane, and In 2002 he pleaded guilty in a US federal court to eight counts of terrorism. He was sentenced to three life terms plus 110 years in prison without parole.
By the end of 2014 Islamic State had reached its physical apogee. Spread across Syria and Iraq, It covered more than 34,000 square miles and controlled millions of people. At the same time it was claiming responsibility for a succession of horrific terrorist attacks across the world, causing the deaths of thousands. At its high point, IS was attracting thousands of young Muslim recruits, both male and female. Britain was an especially fruitful recruiting ground. In November 2014 Labour MP Khalid Mahmoud told the media that he believed as many as 2,000 British citizens were fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.
One such UK citizen who achieved worldwide prominence was a young man described by a former schoolfriend as “a typical north-west London boy.” Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait, but moved with his parents to the UK aged six. He attended a good school, and went on to university where he graduated in computing. In late 2013 he joined IS on the Turkey-Syrian border.
In August 2014 IS issued a video capturing the horrific death of US journalist James Foley by beheading. Just before the gruesome murder, a man standing beside Foley, dressed in black, wielding a blade and speaking in a British accent, delivered a warning to the US government. He then appeared to start cutting at his captive's neck before the video faded to black. The next screen showed James Foley’s body on the ground.
Over the following months a series of similar videos were issued, showing further beheadings. In at least two of them the masked figure himself appeared to kill his victim. The man in black with the British accent was later positively identified as Mohammed Emwazi.
On November 12, 2015, US officials reported that Emwazi had been hit by a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria. His death was confirmed by IS in January 2016.
Bethnal Green is a district in east London. It sprang into sudden prominence in February 2015, when three schoolgirls attending the Bethnal Green Academy suddenly disappeared. CCTV equipment located at Gatwick airport caught the three – Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana – leaving the country. Another image showed them several hours later at a bus station in western Istanbul.
The three were following their friend – confusingly named Sharmeena Begum – who had fled to join IS the previous December. Media reports suggested that Sharmeena had been targeted for recruitment by a group known as the "Sisters Forum", affiliated to the Islamic Forum of Europe, that met at an east London Mosque.
When the three teenagers reached the Syrian border, they were picked up by smugglers working for IS and taken into the group's territory in northern Syria. Once there, they were each married off as “jihadi brides” to foreign fighters, three of the thousands who had flooded in from across the world. In Nazi fashion, Islamic State aimed to raise a new generation of children supporting its so-called caliphate, and grooming young women to the cause was key to that plan. A month later, five other girls from Bethnal Green Academy, all aged 15 or 16, were barred by the High Court from traveling abroad.
In February 2019 a heavily pregnant Shamima Begum resurfaced at the al-Hawl refugee camp, along with 1,555 other women and children who had travelled from abroad to join IS. Her two Bethnal Green companions were believed to be dead. Shamima and her Dutch-born husband had retreated with IS to their final stronghold of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and when the caliphate faced final defeat by US-backed Kurdish-led forces, they had fled.
In interviews with the British media Shamima begged to be returned to the UK, but when questioned she said she did not regret joining IS, and that she was “OK” with the beheadings she had witnessed. Her story initially was that she had been nothing but a Muslim housewife, but later, after she had given birth and this baby had died like her previous two, reports emerged that Shamima had played an active role in the caliphate’s reign of terror. It was claimed that she had been a member of the “hisba”, the IS morality police, a feared group which enforced the organization’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. There were also allegations that she had stitched suicide bombers into explosive vests, so they could not be removed without detonating.
As a result the UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, stripped Shamima of her British citizenship and debarred her from returning to the country – a decision currently being appealed in the British courts which, in a typically British gesture of tolerance, have granted Shamima and her supporters legal aid with which to pursue their case. Londonistan is living up to its reputation.
Certain areas of the world, simply on account of their geographical location, seem destined to be perpetual trouble spots. One such unhappy country is Afghanistan. Because of its position plumb in the middle of central Asia, Afghanistan is a prize that has been fought over and won by foreign occupiers many times in its long history. Its domestic story is equally turbulent, with warring tribes battling it out over the centuries for power and control. In 2019 the basic pattern persists.
Britain gained control over Afghanistan in the 19th century as part of its imperial expansion, but after it granted India independence in 1947 the political dynamic in central Asia changed. Afghanistan became a client state of the Soviet Union, and when a military coup by the hard-line Islamist Mujahadeen seemed about to remove the country from the Soviet sphere of influence, the USSR invaded.
Soviet forces were soon mired in continuous and unproductive guerrilla warfare, and in 1989 the USSR admitted defeat and withdrew. But the turbulence had left its legacy – first, the jihadist group al-Qaeda, set up by Osama bin Laden, and then the rise of the hard-line Islamist organization calling itself the Taliban. From the mid-1990s until 2001 the Taliban ruled Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, imposing an oppressively strict version of Sharia on the population.
It was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 that focused the world’s attention on the Taliban. It was soon established that the events of 9/11 were the responsibility of the al-Qaeda movement, and the US accused the Taliban of providing sanctuary for its master-mind, Osama bin Laden. Shortly afterwards a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban were driven from power.
President Barack Obama authorized an annual spend of some $5 billion on the Afghan security forces in an effort to raise their efficiency to a level that would enable the United States and its partners to reduce support, and eventually withdraw.
It hasn’t worked. The Taliban have actually gained ground since 2017, in part because of increased support from Pakistan, Russia and Iran. According to a December 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the “insurgents are now in control of or contesting more territory today than at any point since 2001.”
Coming into presidential office promising a quick win against the Taliban followed by the withdrawal of American troops, Donald Trump changed tack in 2017. Explaining that his policy was to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge, he announced that he would raise troop levels from 9,000 to 14,000. What he did not disclose was that he was prepared to open negotiations with the Taliban to try to reach a deal leading to US disengagement from Afghanistan.
In December 2018 the Taliban announced that they would meet with American negotiators in Qatar to find a peaceful solution to the 17-year armed insurgency in Afghanistan.
On 25 February 2019 peace talks began, with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Barada, at the table. They got off to a surprisingly productive start. Agreement was actually reached on a draft peace deal which involved the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country.
Deadlock soon followed. After no less than six rounds of talks the Taliban negotiators were demanding an American troop withdrawal within six months of any agreement, and were refusing to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regard as a puppet regime.
American negotiators, on the other hand, were unwilling to withdraw US troops until the Taliban had reached a deal with the Afghan government, believing that an early withdrawal without peace would leave the country open to civil war, or a swift Taliban military takeover.
At this point Russia stepped in, and invited the Taliban to peace talks in Moscow to be attended by “senior Afghan politicians” planning to challenge President Ashrat Ghani in this year’s presidential election. The talks were held between 28 and 30 May, and a Taliban official reported that “decent progress” had been made, though there had been no breakthrough and further talks would be necessary. Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Taliban delegates reiterated their position that no ceasefire could be possible while foreign forces remained inside Afghanistan.
Trump caused alarm within the Afghan government earlier this year when he appeared to signal he would pull out troops unilaterally from a conflict he considers a costly failure. The prospect of such a withdrawal seems to have receded, but the mere rumour was sufficient for some Taliban delegates to think they can wait out America.
“They still think the Americans are going to leave en masse,” said one US official. “They are waiting for the Trump tweet.”
Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, chief US negotiator, will be meeting the Taliban envoys in June for a seventh round of talks, as he tries to clear away the obstacles to an agreement.
Success, he said, “will require other parties to show flexibility.” But the Taliban show little signs of doing so. Even Khalizad’s call for a ceasefire has fallen on deaf ears..
“No one,” said Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, “should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of jihad, or forget our forty-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives.”
Video version May 2019 has seen a marked deterioration in the long-running US-Iran standoff. Back on 8 May Washington announced it had acquired credible intelligence suggesting a possible Iranian attack on US troops on the ground and at sea. Accordingly the Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and other military resources to the Gulf.
On 24 May Vice-Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, announced a further deployment. “We have had multiple credible reports,” he said, “that Iranian proxy groups intend to attack US personnel in the Middle East.”
In response the Pentagon decided to send additional American troops, drones and fighter jets to the Middle East, including some 1,500 US military personnel, a Patriot battalion to defend against missile threats, and a fighter aircraft squadron.
Referring to a recent rocket attack in Iraq, armed drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations and the sabotage of four vessels including two Saudi oil tankers, Gilday said: “We believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership in Iran at the highest levels.”
Iran’s leadership at the highest level, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, has never concealed the fundamental purposes of his administration – total opposition to the Western democratic way of life, to the United States as leader of the Western world, and to Israel’s existence. Allied to this is the ultimate objective of the Iranian Islamic Revolution – to displace Saudi Arabia’s Sunni hegemony over the Muslim world and replace it with their own Shi’ite interpretation of Islam.
US president Barack Obama chose deliberately to ignore these basic building blocks of Iran’s regime. Obama came into office feeling guilty about America’s strength and its political record. In his apology tour, which began in Strasbourg on April 3, 2009, he said that throughout the nation’s existence, "America has shown arrogance and been dismissive even derisive” of others. If the power of the US could be reduced, he declared, then America would have the “moral authority” to bring murderous regimes such as Iran into the “community of nations”.
His mention of Iran at that early stage is significant. A widely-held view among political analysts is that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy”, as political scientist Amiel Ungar puts it, was to transform US-Iranian relations, with the aim of using Shia Iran to help defeat Sunni Al-Qaeda. In 2014 the Wall Street Journal revealed that Obama had exchanged secret correspondence on at least four occasions with Iran’s Supreme Leader, attempting to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State conflict.
The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility. In the event the opposite was the case. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard spent the billions of dollars they acquired in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression.
In Syria, Iran used its alliance with President Bashar al-Assad to build what amounts to a state-within-a-state, just as it did in neighbouring Lebanon in the 1980s when it set up Hezbollah. By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. In consequence the US lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist.
Did Obama’s placatory approach result in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’, “ proclaimed Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”
Donald Trump denounced both Iran and the nuclear deal from the start, and after he was elected president soon withdrew from the deal and re-imposed sanctions that severely harmed Iran's economy. He has consistently accused Tehran of breaching the spirit of the nuclear deal and supporting extremist groups in the Middle East. He recently ordered countries worldwide to stop buying Tehran's oil or face sanctions of their own, and placed new sanctions on Iran's metals, its largest non-petroleum-related source of export revenue.
Despite a show of bravado, the Iranian leadership is rattled. Though the EU opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and is seeking to maintain its trade ties with Iran, its proposals for economic guarantees have been judged "insufficient" by the Supreme Leader. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has questioned whether Europe has the will to continue with the current deal.
Trump’s economic pressure has caused Iran’s leadership major domestic difficulties. Rallies and street protests, centered on the worsening economic situation and the ever-rising food and commodity prices, keep bursting out spontaneously across the country. Some morphe into opposition to the government. A major cause for complaint are the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
Doubtless, against this domestic unrest the leadership sets its success on the world stage. Iran’s geopolitical reach extends through Iraq, into Syria, then to Lebanon and out as far as the Gulf state of Bahrain. The achievement of this strategic Shia Crescent has been a dream of the radical Iranian leadership for decades. It is now a reality. Iran’s leadership feel confident they can out-maneuver any sanctions that the Trump administration may impose.
As for the danger of outright war, both Washington and Iran, in the midst of the blood-curdling threats they utter against each other, have indicated that they have absolutely no desire for military conflict.