America has become dispensable in Iraq

Emma Sky writes: “When the fighting breaks out between Arabs and Kurds, whose side will the Americans be on?” This was the message that Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP), instructed his chief of staff to have me convey to senior U.S. officials in Baghdad in 2010. I was serving as the political adviser to General Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Nuri al-Maliki, then the prime minister of Iraq, and Barzani, concerned by rising tensions between Arabs and Kurds ahead of the 2010 national elections in Nineveh province, had asked General Odierno for help in preventing conflict. We had devised a system of joint check points to facilitate cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the U.S. forces, and to ensure all forces remained focused on defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq.

A key part of the plan was to ensure freedom of movement for Atheel Nujaifi, Nineveh’s Sunni Arab governor, who had been elected the previous year on an agenda to roll back the gains the Kurds had made in the province since 2005. Determined to test the new security arrangements at the earliest, Governor Nujaifi decided in early February 2010 to make a trip to the town of Tel Kaif, in a part of the province which the Kurds lay claim to. Over Kurdish objections, the U.S. forces decided that the visit should go ahead. In response, the Kurds brought down reinforcements and tried to prevent the trip from taking place. Crowds of Kurds gathered to block the governor’s convoy; in the resulting melee, shots were fired. The Iraqi police detained 11 Kurds for incitement, and on suspicion of attempting to assassinate Governor Nujaifi.

I was awakened at 2 a.m. by a phone call from Murat Ozcelik, the influential Turkish ambassador to Iraq. He had received a report from Ankara that the Kurds had invaded Mosul, the largest city in Nineveh province. I investigated and soon discovered that there had been no invasion; instead, Kurdish forces had kidnapped a number of Arabs in Nineveh in retaliation for the arrest of the Kurds. President Barzani was furious. Every time he turned on his television, he saw footage of American tanks in a Kurdish village, and F-16s flying overhead. The Kurds had been highly supportive of the United States—not a single U.S. soldier had been killed by a Kurd. So why, he asked, had the Americans behaved this way towards Kurds?

Back in 2010, we did not need to answer Barzani’s question. We could mediate a deal whereby the kidnapped Arabs were swapped for the Kurds accused of attempting to assassinate the Governor of Nineveh. We had close relations with the Turks, and convinced them to back off. For once, everyone seemed happy with this solution, and things calmed down. We were the indispensable ally.

And then we weren’t. And Iran was.

Iran increased its influence during the negotiations to form a government in Iraq after the tightly contested 2010 elections. Iraqiyya, led by Ayad Allawi, won 91 seats; Maliki’s bloc, the State of Law, came in second with 89 seats. After much heated internal debate, Vice President Joe Biden determined that Washington would support the incumbent, insisting that Maliki was “our man,” an Iraqi nationalist, and would permit a contingent of U.S. forces to remain in Iraq post-2011 when the security agreement expired. But despite considerable arm-twisting, the United States could not convince its allies to support a second term for Maliki. Sensing an opportunity, Qassim Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council, pressured Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential and anti-American Shia cleric, to support Maliki on the condition that all U.S. troops would pull out of Iraq and that Sadrists would be given government positions.

Thus it was that Iran ensured Maliki remained as Prime Minister. The Obama administration, in its rush for an exit from Iraq, gave up the American role of “balancer,” of moderator, of protector of the political process, withdrawing its soft power along with its hard.

Secure in his seat for a second term, Maliki pursued a series of sectarian policies. He accused Sunni politicians of being terrorists, forcing them to flee the country; he reneged on his promises to the Sunni Awakening leaders who had fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq; and he arrested Sunni protestors en masse. This created the conditions that enabled ISIS to rise from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq and proclaim itself the defender of Sunnis against the Iranian-backed sectarian regime of Maliki. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Iraqi forces launch operation for Kurdish-held oil fields, military base

The Washington Post reports: Clashes broke out early Monday in northern Iraq as Iraqi forces moved to recapture Kurdish-held oil fields and a military base near the city of Kirkuk, setting the stage for a battle between two U.S. allies.

After a three-day standoff, Iraqi forces advanced into the contested province with the goal of returning to positions they held before 2014, when they fled in the face of an Islamic State push. The positions have since been taken over by Kurdish troops.

The conflict between Kurdi­stan and the Iraqi government over land and oil is decades old, but a Kurdish referendum for independence last month inflamed the tensions. The Iraqi government, as well as the United States, Turkey and Iran all opposed the vote.

The flare-up presents an awkward dilemma for the United States, which has trained and equipped the advancing Iraqi troops, which include elite counterterrorism forces, and the Kurdish peshmerga on the other side.

But the Iraqi side is also backed up by Shiite militia forces close to Iran, at a time when the Trump administration has been vocal about curbing Iranian influence in the region, having sanctioned Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps last week. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Israeli defense experts warn against dropping Iran nuke deal

The Associated Press reports: If President Donald Trump moves to scuttle the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Israel’s nationalist government can be expected to be the loudest — and perhaps only — major player to applaud.

But the true picture is more complicated than what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might portray: There is a strong sense among his own security establishment that there are few good alternatives, that the deal has benefited Israel, and that U.S. credibility could be squandered in the turbulent Middle East in ways that could harm Israel itself.

That is not to say that Israel’s respected security chiefs are all pleased with every aspect of the Iran deal. But after Netanyahu declared at the United Nations last month that it was time to “fix it or nix it,” the prevailing attitude among security experts seems to be that fixing it is the best way to go.

“It seems to me that the less risky approach is to build on the existing agreement, among other reasons because it does set concrete limitations on the Iranians,” said Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu. “It imposes ceilings and benchmarks and verification systems that you do not want to lose. Why lose it?” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Syria and beyond: Manufactured doubt and moral atrophy

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Earlier this year when the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif appeared on CNN, host Christiane Amanpour pressed him on his government’s support for the murderous regime in Syria. Zarif’s response was a bravura performance in denial and deflection.

Presented with facts about the regime’s crimes, Zarif was pugnacious. “No. Those are not the facts”, he said. That Assad is a dictator was merely “your impression”; to support Assad was to be “on the right side”; and the problem in Syria was IS, a group that was a “creation of the United States government” and “armed and equipped and financed” by Gulf states.

The man representing a state that supports designated terrorist groups such as Hizballah and whose forces are currently occupying parts of Syria, had advice for the West: “People are making the wrong choices in supporting terrorism”, he said; and they must avoid the folly of basing “foreign troops in an Arab territory”.

Zarif was bludgeoning irony with alternative facts. But his approach is unexceptional. This disdain for truth has become a defining feature of modern politics. The function of lies is no longer to persuade; it is to challenge the primacy of facts. Relativism has been weaponised by the powerful to eliminate the very possibility of justice.

This doubt is distinct from the kind of legitimate scepticism that might check against unqualified belief. It is ersatz and functional, manufactured to thwart action and allay guilty conscience. Politically immobilising and morally liberating, it sustains political inertia among cynical politicians and the will to disbelieve among jaded publics. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

What are Turkey’s plans for Syria?

 

Facebooktwittermail

False assumptions about the Iran nuclear deal

Gholamali Khoshroo, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, writes: There are a number of reasons the president and hard-liners in Washington think that the White House should pursue this path [undermining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. But their views are built on a set of false assumptions about the nuclear deal that should be laid to rest.

First, some of the agreement’s opponents claim that the J.C.P.O.A. is “the worst agreement the United States has ever entered into with another country.” This ignores an important truth: The nuclear deal is not a bilateral agreement between Tehran and Washington. In fact, it isn’t even a multilateral deal that requires ratification in either Congress or the Iranian Parliament. It is, instead, a United Nations Security Council resolution. (Indeed, this explains why the deal continues to have wide support from the other Security Council members, as well as from Secretary General António Guterres.)

A second false assumption is that the deal is meant to dictate Iran’s policies in matters unrelated to our nuclear program. This has never been the case. It was always clear that the path to reaching a nuclear deal meant setting aside other geopolitical concerns. Anyone involved in the years of talks that led to the J.C.P.O.A. can attest to this. For example, even as Russia and the United States disagreed on many other issues in the Middle East, they were able to work together at the negotiating table.

Reports now indicate the Trump administration wants to tie the nuclear agreement to Iran’s missile program, a move that would go far beyond the J.C.P.O.A.’s intended purpose. Security Council Resolution 2231, which incorporates the nuclear deal, “calls upon” Iran to not work on “ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” But my country is not seeking to develop or acquire nuclear weapons and this carefully negotiated language does not restrain us from developing conventional military deterrence technology that so many other countries possess. The fact that Iranian missiles are designed for maximum precision proves that they are not designed for nuclear capability, as such delivery vehicles need not be precise in targeting.

A third false assumption is that there is a “sunset clause” in the deal, suggesting that in a decade Iran will be free of inspections or limits on its nuclear program. While it’s true that some provisions regarding restrictions will expire, crucial aspects of inspections will not. Moreover, the deal establishes that some six years from now — assuming all participants have fulfilled their obligations — Iran should ratify the Additional Protocol on Nuclear Safeguards, part of the Nonproliferation Treaty. This would subject my country to an extensive I.A.E.A. inspection process. Iran will continue its nuclear program for energy and medical purposes as a normal member of the international community and signatory to the Nonproliferation Treaty after the period of years written into the J.C.P.O.A. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Iran’s ex-reformist president banned from public appearances week after six MPs sentenced to prison

Center for Human Rights in Iran reports: Iran’s former reformist President Mohammad Khatami has been banned from making public appearances and receiving political guests for three months.

The ban, first reported on October 5, 2017, was issued by the Special Court for the Clergy one week after six prominent reformist politicians, including Khatami’s younger brother, were sentenced to a year in prison for the charge of “propaganda against the state.” They were also banned from political and media activities for two years.

Following the news, thousands of Iranians defended Khatami on social media. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Will Iran stick to the JCPOA if Trump refuses to re-certify it?

Farhad Rezaei writes: As is well known, the Iranian regime is deeply divided along sectoral and ideological lines. On one side are moderates, also known as the normalizers, who, under President Hassan Rouhani, hope to use the JCPOA to “normalize” Iran and integrate it into the family of nations. On the other side are the hardline Principalists, largely concentrated in the parastatal sector such as the Revolutionary Guards, the big foundations, and the ultraconservative Haqqani Circle of clerics. The Principalists have objected to the nuclear deal and reject international reintegration. While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is essentially a hardliner, he was anxious about the legitimacy crisis triggered by international sanctions and empowered the normalizers to negotiate the JCPOA.

For the moderates, the response to looming possible decertification has been a difficult balancing act.

Under pressure from hardliners, Rouhani was forced to warn the United States that Iran would not stay silent if Washington exerts more pressure on Iran. In an interview with CNN on Sept. 19, Rouhani said that Washington will pay a “high cost” if Trump makes good on his threats. The Iranian president also stated that his country would not enter new negotiations. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned that Washington would lose credibility if it walks away from the JCPOA and urged European countries to uphold the agreement if the US does not.

Significantly though, the normalizers, have not threatened to quit the agreement should Trump decline to re-certify it. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump slow to implement Russia, Iran, North Korea sanctions law, say senators

Reuters reports: Two months after signing it, President Donald Trump has not begun enforcing a law imposing new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin said in a letter seen by Reuters on Friday.

Also, with just two days to go, his administration has not provided information related to Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors required under the measure by Sunday, they said.

White House officials did not respond to a request for comment on the letter from McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Later on Friday, the White House issued a presidential memorandum taking the first step toward implementation by designating different agencies to start the process putting the law into effect. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The ‘sectarianization’ of the Middle East

Facebooktwittermail

Is the Middle East destined to fragment?

Robin Wright writes: Pity the Kurds. Theirs is a history of epic betrayals. A century ago, the world reneged on a vow to give them their own state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The rugged mountain people were instead dispersed into the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with another block left in Iran. Since then, all three countries have repressed their Kurds. Saddam Hussein was so intent on Arabizing Iraq’s Kurdistan that he paid Arab families to unearth long-dead relatives and rebury them in Kurdish territory—creating evidence to claim Arab rights to the land. He also razed four thousand Kurdish villages and executed a hundred thousand of the region’s inhabitants, some with chemical weapons. Syria stripped its Kurds of citizenship, making them foreigners in their own lands and depriving them of rights to state education, property ownership, jobs, and even marriage. Turkey repeatedly—sometimes militarily—crushed Kurdish political movements; for decades, the Kurdish language was banned, as was the very word “Kurd” to describe Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. They were instead known as “mountain Turks.”

Iraq’s Kurds got a bit of revenge this week. In a historic but controversial referendum, more than ninety per cent of voters endorsed a proposal to secede and declare their own country. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” the President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, vowed on the eve of the poll. Jubilation erupted. Waving their distinctive flag—three stripes of red, white, and green, with a blazing golden sun in the center—Kurds across northern Iraq took to the streets.

The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East: Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon. Meanwhile, the outside world has invested vast resources, with several countries forking out billions of dollars in military equipment, billions more in aid, and thousands of hours of diplomacy—on the assumption that places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya can still work as currently configured. The list of outside powers that have tried to shape the region’s future is long—from the United States and its European allies to the Russian-Iran axis and many of the Middle East’s oil-rich powers. All have, so far, failed at forging hopeful direction.

They’ve also failed to confront the obvious: Do the people in these countries want to stay together? Do people who identify proudly as Syrians, for example, all define “Syria” the same way? And are they willing to surrender their political, tribal, racial, ethnic, or sectarian identities in order to forge a common good and a stable nation?

The long-term impact of these destructive centrifugal forces is far from clear. But, given the blood spilled over the past six years, primordial forces seem to be prevailing at the moment, and not only among the Kurds. “The only people who want to hold Iraq together,” Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, opined to me recently, “are those who don’t live in Iraq.” That sentiment is echoed, if not as concisely, elsewhere.

The challenge is addressing the flip side: If these countries, most of them modern creations, are dysfunctional or in danger of failing, what then will work to restore some semblance of normalcy to an ever more volatile region? No major player, in the region or the wider world, seems to be exploring solutions. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

New order indefinitely bars almost all travel from seven countries

The New York Times reports: President Trump on Sunday issued a new order indefinitely banning almost all travel to the United States from seven countries, including most of the nations covered by his original travel ban, citing threats to national security posed by letting their citizens into the country.

The new order is more far-reaching than the president’s original travel ban, imposing permanent restrictions on travel, rather than the 90-day suspension that Mr. Trump authorized soon after taking office. But officials said his new action was the result of a deliberative, rigorous examination of security risks that was designed to avoid the chaotic rollout of his first ban. And the addition of non-Muslim countries could address the legal attacks on earlier travel restrictions as discrimination based on religion.

Starting next month, most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea will be banned from entering the United States, Mr. Trump said in a proclamation released Sunday night. Citizens of Iraq and some groups of people in Venezuela who seek to visit the United States will face restrictions or heightened scrutiny.

Mr. Trump’s original travel ban caused turmoil at airports in January and set off a furious legal challenge to the president’s authority. It was followed in March by a revised ban, which expired on Sunday even as the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about its constitutionality on Oct. 10. The new order — Chad, North Korea and Venezuela are new to the list of affected countries and Sudan has been dropped — will take effect Oct. 18. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Iran defies Washington as it announces successful missile test

AFP reports: Iran has said it successfully tested a new medium-range missile, in defiance of warnings from the US that such activities were grounds for abandoning the countries’ landmark nuclear deal.

State television carried footage of the launch of the Khoramshahr missile, which was first displayed at a high-profile military parade in Tehran on Friday. It also carried in-flight video from the nose-cone of the missile, which has a range of 1,250 miles (2,000km) and can carry multiple warheads.

“As long as some speak in the language of threats, the strengthening of the country’s defence capabilities will continue and Iran will not seek permission from any country for producing various kinds of missile,” said the country’s defence minister, Amir Hatami. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Bernie Sanders calls for rethink on U.S. aid to Israel, Iran policy

Times of Israel reports: US senator and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders called for Washington to adopt a friendlier approach to Iran, and said he would consider supporting slashing US aid to Israel over the Jewish state’s policies towards the Palestinians.

In an interview Thursday with The Intercept, the Jewish senator said the US was “complicit” in what he termed Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, but was not the only guilty party, and urged Washington to play a more fair role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Certainly the United States is complicit, but it’s not to say… that Israel is the only party at fault,” he said.

“In terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the United States has got to play a much more even-handed role. Clearly that is not the case right now,” he added. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

If Trump kills the Iran deal, he may give the world another Rocket Man

Jeffrey Lewis writes: President Trump made quite the scene at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. He didn’t bang his shoe, as Nikita Khrushchev did in 1960, or wear a pistol like Yasser Arafat in 1974. But in his own way, Trump unsettled the audience in the room and those watching on television with an extraordinary, bellicose speech.

The early headlines focused on his mocking of Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and his warning that the United States would “totally destroy North Korea” if provoked. But perhaps more worrisome was Trump’s veiled threat to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, which he referred to as “an embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded with a threat of his own: “If, under any conditions, the United States chooses to break this agreement . . . it means that our hand is completely open to take any action that we see as beneficial to our country.”

It’s all very reminiscent of when the United States sought to walk away from a nuclear agreement with North Korea in 2002, squandering the best opportunity to forestall North Korea’s nuclear program. And if Trump refuses to certify Iran as being in compliance with the deal by the next deadline, Oct. 15, the result may be the same: Another country with long-range nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States.

The deal made with Iran in 2015 is remarkably similar to the agreement negotiated with North Korea in 1994 — in its gen­esis, its concept and the political resistance it has met.

The stories begin with nuclear ambitions. In both cases, those ambitions were revealed through strong U.S. intelligence capabilities in tandem with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. In both cases, the sensitivity of IAEA techniques, such as environmental sampling, caught the governments by surprise, revealing far more about their nuclear programs than Pyongyang and Tehran ever anticipated. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Birth of a second Hezbollah? Where Iran stands in a post-war Syria

Shahir Shahidsaless writes: Iran’s doctrine in Syria and Iraq is that “if we don’t defend our strongholds outside of our borders we will have to fight our enemies inside our borders”. Accordingly, Iran heavily invested in Syria. Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, has previously estimated that Iran spends $6bn annually in the Syrian war.

According to IRGC officials, the largest Iranian contribution has been the organising of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia. According to several independent reports, at any given time, there are an estimated 50,000 National Defence Force fighters under arms in Syria.

In May 2014, Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who had reportedly supervised the funding for the NDF, said that Iran had organised roughly 70,000 pro-Assad NDF fighters into 42 groups and 128 battalions. Hamedani was killed near Aleppo in 2015.

In addition, numerous reports confirm that the Fatemiyoun Brigade – composed of thousands of Afghan Shias who fight under the auspices of Hezbollah Afghanistan, the Zaynabiyoun Brigade (the Pakistani version of Fatemiyoun), Hezbollah of Lebanon, and the militia group Kataib Hezbollah of Iraq – are actively involved in the Syrian war under the Iranian IRGC’s direct control.

Modelled after the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the experience of coordinating with proxy militias in Iraq, this large, battle-hardened paramilitary base in Syria will provide assurance to Iran by emerging as a decisive political force in Syria once the war is settled, no matter which government is in power as it happened in Lebanon and Iraq.

This simply means the birth of a second Hezbollah and an Iranian foothold right in Israel’s backyard with Syria. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Iranian president aptly describes Trump as a ‘rogue newcomer’ to world politics

The Washington Post reports: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted President Trump on Wednesday for his “ignorant, absurd and hateful” speech before the United Nations a day earlier and vowed Iran would not be the first to walk away from the historic 2015 nuclear deal.

Rouhani, during a 23-minute address at the U.N. General Assembly, never mentioned Trump by name. Instead he referred to him obliquely, at one point saying it would be a pity if the nuclear deal were undone by “rogue newcomers to the world of politics.”

Rouhani denied that Iran had ever sought to obtain nuclear weapons and said the ballistic missiles it has been testing would be used only for defensive purposes.

“Iran does not seek to restore its ancient empire, impose its official religion on others or export its revolution through the force of arms,” he said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail