Blame the state for sham Arab democracy

Rami G Khouri writes: The recent string of “elections” across the Arab world raises profound questions about the Arab world’s apparent difficulty in adopting institutions and practices of liberal pluralistic democracies.

But is the problem really about the ability of Arab social values to accommodate democracy, or is there a deeper problem related to the clumsy nature of statehood that has emerged in this region during the past century?

The “elections” I refer to include spectacles in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Lebanese presidential election-selection that was not even held on time due to political bickering among the country’s sectarian leaders. The Egyptian, Syrian and Algerian cases repeat the ugly legacy of the modern Arab tradition of family-run security states and dictatorships that put on a show of voting to secure approval ratings of 87 or 93 or 97 percent, complete with adoring crowds of supporters of the “Great Leader.” [Continue reading...]

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Israel wants the Middle East to remain dominated by dictators

Ynet columnist, Smadar Perry, writes: Egyptian polling stations opened Monday morning across the country. Tens of thousands of inspectors-judges, representatives of civil organizations, foreign diplomats and even representatives of the Arab League have arrived to ensure that no one would try to tamper with the ballots.

The truth is that there is no need for that. Barring any dramatic surprises, “Egypt’s strongman,” Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will be the president. All surveys grant the second candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, symbolic success. Sabahi himself is already offering his services, hoping that they’ll just take him, as the prime minister or vice president.

Next week will be the turn of the sweeping victory in Syria. After arranging two anonymous “rivals” for himself and forcibly taking the right to vote from the six million refugees who have run away from him, Bashar Assad will be the “rais” for the third time. He will of course justify himself by saying that “that’s what the nation wants,” and no one will be able to force him to keep promises or create reforms.

The reason is so prosaic: Up until this moment he hasn’t even bothered presenting a political platform or economic programs. He doesn’t have to. Bashar will win for certain, and after the elections, as they say, everything will work out (for him).

In the past few days I have been hearing more and more complaints from people I talk to in the Arab world that Israel – and the criticism focuses constantly on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – only wants dictators in our neighborhood. We democrats don’t care about the Arab Spring, the protests, the terrible economic distress, the refugees and the terror attacks.

My interlocutors present irrefutable proof of their claim, how Israeli messengers are lobbying vigorously, as we speak, for the waiting president al-Sisi among the high echelons of the administration in Washington. Netanyahu, they say instinctively, is insisting on not getting in Bashar’s way. He is the only one he wants in the palace.

Between you and me, they’re right. We’re better off with dictators. [Continue reading...]

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The Ukraine/Crimea crisis: ramifications for the Middle East

Yossi Alpher writes: Israel’s approximately one million Russian speakers maintain close relations with Russia. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, in the past sought (unsuccessfully) to develop a closer relationship with Russia and its “near abroad” as a counter to Israel’s strategic reliance on the US. Israel’s decision to absent itself from the recent UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea rather than vote as usual with the US presumably reflects Lieberman’s policy input.

Israeli strategic thinkers are well attuned to Russian logic regarding the need to invoke extreme measures against Islamist terrorism – one of the rationales for a beefed-up Russian presence in Crimea. Some Israeli Middle East experts find Russian expertise regarding the region more compelling and less likely to confuse ideology with interests than that of the US.

Further, precisely because the Putin government in Moscow does not pressure Jerusalem over the Palestinian issue, Russia’s assertiveness in Crimea – by ostensibly highlighting US, NATO and EU weakness there – is likely to strengthen the hand of the Israeli political right in rebuffing western peace-process-related pressures and boycott/sanction threats. In the same context the Netanyahu government, having watched how the 1994 western commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity was rendered meaningless by Russia, now has an additional rationale for refusing to buy into US and other security guarantees regarding the West Bank and Jordan Valley. On the other hand, Israeli governments since 1967 are themselves no strangers to the concept of unilateral annexation of neighbouring territory. [Continue reading...]

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Saudi Arabia’s military exercise was a goodbye wave to America

Faisal Al Yafai writes: When one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East holds the largest military exercise in its history, the region and allies would be wise to look beyond the explosions and manoeuvres at the political intent.

Last week’s “Abdullah Sword” military exercises in the north-east of Saudi Arabia brought together 130,000 troops, as well as military jets, helicopters and ships. With the notable exception of Qatar, all the GCC countries were there to observe the exercises, as well as the head of Pakistan’s army.

On the surface, the exercises were timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the accession of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But military movements of this order send messages. But to whom?

The obvious answer is Iran, Saudi’s great regional rival, or one of the three states that the Saudis are most concerned about – Syria, Iraq or Yemen. And it will not have escaped Tehran’s notice that the CSS-2 ballistic missiles that Riyadh paraded for the first time last week can easily reach any part of Iran.

Certainly, a message of strength was being telegraphed to the region. But there was also another one, over the heads of the region, to the United States: if you leave, the region can defend itself. [Continue reading...]

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Syria and the Arab affliction of family rule

o13-iconRami G Khouri writes: Perplexity and despair seem to be the two sentiments that most often define people’s attitudes to the mayhem in Syria.

The fighting by an expanding range of Syrians, backed by a regional and global web of supporters, has reached barbaric proportions in some cases, with civilians largely paying the price.

Refugee and displaced persons flows continue to grow and now account for some 6 million people. While efforts to find a diplomatic breakthrough continue and most interventions by outside forces are focused on providing humanitarian aid to the millions of Syrians in need, a wider web of Arab, Middle Eastern and global actors pump in money and guns to keep the Syrian war going.

Nobody knows what to do and more and more voices are calling for external military intervention to protect civilians or even to topple Bashar Assad’s regime. The impact of the war on neighboring countries is reaching unsustainable levels, especially Jordan and Lebanon. To their credit, the neighbors have kept their borders open to fleeing Syrians, even though these host countries are finding it more and more difficult to absorb any more refugees due to the pressure on their own social infrastructure, such as housing, water, education, and medical care. The host countries have received financial assistance either directly or through the United Nations and other international organizations, but it is well below what is needed.

Perhaps one reason why Arab host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq keep their borders open is that these countries have all experienced the pain of conflicts that sent many of their own citizens fleeing for shelter in neighboring lands. So we should keep in mind that what is happening in Syria, terrible as it is, should not be seen as an aberration in modern Arab history, but rather represents perhaps the culminating chaos of that history. Syria once referred to itself as “the throbbing heart of Arabism.” That might be an appropriate description in retrospect, because the country’s destruction and implosion today very much mirror those deviant tendencies that have defined the configuration and behavior of so many Arab countries.

Some time in the 1970s, the majority of Arab states left behind their nationalist development aspirations and instead settled into a pattern of conduct that has culminated in the ghastly situation in Syria. The single most debilitating reality of modern Arab history has been the tendency of Arab countries to be ruled by single families that rely on vast security networks to maintain their rule. Single family rule is bad enough; military-security-police states are equally bad. Put them together and you get the core weakness of the modern Arab state system that has seen country after country suffer the scourge of internal war, mass suffering and significant refugee flows. [Continue reading...]

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The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Greater Levant

Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]

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Israeli military intelligence sees genuine political change in Iran

Summarizing the assessment of Israeli military intelligence, Haaretz reports: Syria is continuing to fall apart, with forces that oppose the regime now in control of nearly half the country, in the north and the east. But the Assad regime continues to cling to the cities that are important to its survival and maintains a fairly wide corridor that includes the Alawite cities in the northwest of the country, as well as Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and the southern city of Daraa. Last March, Assad seemed to be on the verge of collapse, but was able to recover thanks to massive aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Since the victory organized for Assad in June by Hezbollah forces in the town of Qusair, on the Lebanese border, the fighting has become static, with no thrust of momentum or victory by either side. Presently, the opposition looks too weak and divided to topple the regime in the near future.

All the signs are that the upheaval in the Arab world will continue into 2014. The worsening economic situation – which the violence has only aggravated – will likely push more young people into the arms of the jihadist organizations, which will increasingly also clash with Israel on the margins of their main activity.

As for Iran, intelligence discerns a genuine struggle over the future image of the country between the spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies, and a more moderate group headed by the new president, Hassan Rohani. Expert analysis does not view Rohani’s election as a deception by Khamenei intended solely to mislead the West, but rather as an authentic leader who is creating an independent power center. The internal struggle between the blocs in Iran has yet to be resolved, but Rohani enjoys broad public support, despite the clout of the Revolutionary Guards and the senior army officers who are loyal to the spiritual leader.

Haaretz reported in September that on the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the head of MI, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, provided him with an assessment holding that a deep strategic change was being played out in Iran, expressed in Rohani’s election victory in June.

Kochavi appears to be sticking to this opinion. Earlier this month, he presided over a ceremony at which prizes for creative thinking were awarded to intelligence officers. According to a report on Israel Radio, a group of officers from the research division who “identified the change in Iran” received a special certificate of appreciation from Kochavi. Officially, senior Israeli figures such as Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are scoffing at the change in Tehran and saying that Rohani’s “charm offensive” is simply a mask assumed by the regime solely in order to get relief from the international sanctions. It turns out that MI, without for a moment detracting from the dangers of Iran’s nuclear project and its support for terrorism, thinks otherwise.

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Syria’s civil war tests whether borders drawn less than a century ago will last

The Washington Post reports: That half of his farm lies in Syria and half in Lebanon is a source of mystery and inconvenience for Mohammed al-Jamal, whose family owned the property long before Europeans turned up and drew the lines that created the borders of the modern Middle East.

Jamal has mostly ignored the invisible frontier that runs a few yards from his house — and so did the Syrian civil war when it erupted nearby. Relatives were kidnapped, neighbors volunteered to fight and shells came crashing in, killing some of his cows, injuring three workers and underlining just how meaningless the border is.

“I blame Sykes-Picot for all of it,” said Jamal, referring to the secret 1916 accord between Britain and France to divide up the remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The result was the creation of nation-states where none had existed before, cutting across family and community ties and laying the foundations for much of the instability that plagues the region to this day.

Less than a century after they were drawn, the durability of those borders — and the nations they formed — is being tested as never before. The war in Syria is spilling into Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, sucking in places that for centuries belonged to a single entity and people whose history, faith and livelihoods transcend the nations in which they were born.

Sunnis from across the region are pouring into Syria to fight alongside the rebels, many in pursuit of extremist ideals aimed at restoring Sunni dominion. Shiites from the same countries are flocking to defend President Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite-affiliated regime, compounding the sectarian dimension of a war that no longer is just about Syria.

Civilians are fleeing in the opposite direction, 2.3 million of them to date, transforming communities lying outside Syria in ways that may be irreversible.

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Nobody seriously expects existing borders to be formally redrawn as a result of the ongoing upheaval. But as world powers prepare to gather in Switzerland next month for talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, this is a moment every bit as profound as the one that followed World War I when the region’s nations were born, said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics. [Continue reading...]

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With Iran, Obama can end America’s long war for the Middle East

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: What Jimmy Carter began, Barack Obama is ending. Washington is bringing down the curtain on its 30-plus-year military effort to pull the Islamic world into conformity with American interests and expectations. It’s about time.

Back in 1980, when his promulgation of the Carter Doctrine launched that effort, Carter acted with only a vague understanding of what might follow. Yet circumstance — the overthrow of the shah in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — compelled him to act. Or more accurately, the domestic political uproar triggered by those events compelled the president, facing a tough reelection campaign, to make a show of doing something. What ensued was the long-term militarization of U.S. policy throughout the region.

Now, without fanfare, President Obama is effectively revoking Carter’s doctrine. The U.S. military presence in the region is receding. When Obama posited in his second inaugural address that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” he was not only recycling a platitude; he was also acknowledging the folly and futility of the enterprise in which U.S. forces had been engaged. Having consumed vast quantities of blood and treasure while giving Americans little to show in return, that enterprise is now ending.

Like Carter in 1980, Obama finds himself with few alternatives. At home, widespread anger, angst and mortification obliged Carter to begin girding the nation to fight for the greater Middle East. To his successors, Carter bequeathed a Pentagon preoccupied with ramping up its ability to flex its muscles anywhere from Egypt to Pakistan. The bequest proved a mixed blessing, fostering the illusion that military muscle, dexterously employed, might put things right. Today, widespread disenchantment with the resulting wars and quasi-wars prohibits Obama from starting new ones.

Successive military disappointments, not all of Obama’s making, have curbed his prerogatives as commander in chief. Rather than being the decider, he ratifies decisions effectively made elsewhere. In calling off a threatened U.S. attack on Syria, for example, the president was acknowledging what opinion polls and Congress (not to mention the British Parliament) had already made plain: Support for any further military adventures to liberate or pacify Muslims has evaporated. Americans still profess to love the troops. But they’ve lost their appetite for war. [Continue reading...]

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Iran deal could reconfigure the Mideast

Rami G. Khouri writes: The most striking implication of the agreement signed in Geneva last weekend to ensure that Iran’s nuclear industry does not develop nuclear weapons while gradually removing the sanctions on the country is more about Iran than it is about Iran’s nuclear industry. The important new dynamic that has been set in motion is likely to profoundly impact almost every significant political situation around the Middle East and the world, including both domestic conditions within countries and diplomatic relations among countries.This agreement breaks the long spell of estrangement and hostility between the U.S. and Iran, and signals important new diplomatic behavior by both countries, which augurs well for the entire region. It is also likely to trigger the resumption of the suspended domestic political and cultural evolution of Iran, which also will spur new developments across the Middle East.

Perhaps we can see the changes starting to occur in Iran as similar to the developments in Poland in the early 1980s, when the bold political thrust of the Solidarity movement that enjoyed popular support broke the Soviet Union’s hold on Polish political life, and a decade later led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Empire. The resumption of political evolution inside Iran will probably move rapidly in the years ahead, as renewed economic growth, more personal freedoms, and more satisfying interactions with the region and the world expand and strengthen the relatively “liberal” forces around Rouhani, Rafsanjani, Khatami and others; this should slowly temper, then redefine and reposition, the Islamic revolutionary autocrats who have controlled the power structure for decades but whose hard-line controls are increasingly alien to the sentiments of ordinary Iranians.

These domestic and regional reconfigurations will occur slowly, comprising the situations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council states led by Saudi Arabia. The critical link remains a healthy, normal, nonhostile relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which I suspect will start to come about in the months ahead, as both grasp the exaggerated nature of their competition for influence in the region and learn to behave like normal countries. They will learn to compete on the basis of their soft power among a region of half a billion people who increasingly feel and behave like citizens who have the right to choose how they live, rather than to be dictated to and herded like cattle. [Continue reading...]

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Even Israel would benefit from a nuclear weapons-free Middle East

Scott McConnell writes: Faced with a contest between an arms-control intellectual—soberly pointing that a deal reducing Iran’s enrichment capacity and placing its remaining centrifuges under international inspection will do far more to ensure that Iran doesn’t build a nuclear weapon than continued sanctions and no deal at all—and a Nentayahuite screaming about Hitler and Munich and making racist comments about Iranians, the most attentive and educated slice of the population will favor diplomacy. But I suspect that more flamboyant arguments register more deeply with more of the American population. Obama risks having diplomats left high and dry without the backing of mass public opinion.

In fact, more emotive arguments to defend an Iran deal are available and shouldn’t be left in the closet. Take the obvious one. It is political malpractice that the administration’s allies, including those in Congress, fail to question the role Israel’s nuclear arsenal has played in the development of the current crisis. What role do Israel’s nukes play in pushing other Middle East states to take massive risks to develop their own nuclear technology? M.J. Rosenberg recently reminded readers of John F. Kennedy’s long and ultimately futile effort to monitor Israel’s nuclear program, constructed with blatant deception and dishonesty by French engineers at Dimona. Kennedy and the diplomats of the era pointed out again and again that by introducing nukes into the region, Israel risked setting off a cascade of nuclear proliferation. JFK was, of course, correct. If you speak to average Americans, there is an implicit assumption that the golden rule is a fair guide to thought and action, and there is something rather odd about Israel, stuffed to to gills with nuclear rockets and submarines, insisting that no one else can ever have them. But no one on Capitol Hill raises this point. What do they fear would happen to them?

(It’s a rhetorical question; I know they would face AIPAC-generated opposition. But I’m not sure AIPAC would know what to do if 40 members of Congress suggested exploring a nuclear free Mideast).

Farah Stockman writes: When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands that Iran’s plutonium reactor at Arak be completely dismantled because it has “no peaceful purpose,” he is speaking from experience. Israel had built a similar plant, and engaged in similar deception, at Dimona.

That’s what spooks Israeli policymakers: Iran’s nuclear playbook feels all too familiar.

“When Israel looks at Iran, they see Iran as if Iran is like Israel 50 years ago,” said Avner Cohen, professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and author of “Israel and the Bomb” and “The Worst Kept Secret.”

If you look at things that way, the Iranian bomb feels downright inevitable.

But Iran isn’t Israel, Cohen points out. There are plenty of reasons the Iranian program could turn out differently.

Israel had a much deeper reason to seek the bomb. Surrounded by hostile neighbors bent on its destruction, Israel felt that nuclear weapons were the key to the Jewish state’s very survival. Iran faces no such existential threat.

And, unlike Israel, Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran is therefore subject to far stricter inspections than Israel ever allowed at Dimona. If Iran does decide to try to start producing weapons-grade fuel, the world is likely to discover it in time to stop it.

And while Johnson’s administration pressed Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, he looked the other way when Israel refused. Drawing attention to Israel’s refusal would have doomed the treaty. Arab countries would have jumped ship. At the end of the day, Americans could live with an Israeli bomb, as long as Israelis didn’t advertise it by testing it. Iran can’t expect the same deal.

“I think Iranians know the world is not going to allow them” to have a nuclear weapon, Cohen said.

Instead, he said, Iran appears to be trying to keep its nuclear options open, inching as close to the ingredients for a bomb as the Nonproliferation Treaty allows, while refraining from actually building one. [Continue reading...]

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Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s Gatsby, master spy

Christopher Dickey writes: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once famous in Washington for his cigars, parties and charm, is now Saudi Arabia’s point man, fighting Iran in Syria and denouncing the Obama administration.

When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac. For almost 30 years as Saudi Arabia’s regal messenger, lobbyist, and envoy, he told amazing stories about politicians and potentates, some of which, surprisingly, were true. Washington journalists loved him. Nobody had better access to more powerful people in higher places, or came with so much money, so quietly and massively distributed, to help out his friends.

Over the years, Bandar arranged to lower global oil prices in the service of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and both the Bushes. At the behest of the CIA’s Bill Casey, and behind the back of Congress, Bandar arranged for the Saudis to bankroll anti-Communist wars in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan. He was thick with Dick Cheney, and he was so tight with the George H.W. Bush clan—the father, the mother, the sons, the daughters—that they just called him “Bandar Bush.”

Now, the prince is a spy, or, more precisely, the master spy of the Middle East. He is the point man for a vast Saudi program of covert action and conspicuous spending that helped overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and is attempting to forge a new “Army of Islam” in Syria. Without understanding the man and his mission, there’s no way, truly, to understand what’s happening in the world’s most troubled region right now.

Bandar’s goal is to undermine Iranian power: strip away Tehran’s allies like Assad and Hezbollah; stop the Shiite mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons; roll back their regional designs; and push them out of office if there’s any way to do that.

At the same time, he aims to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization that pays lip service to democracy and is fundamentally anti-monarchy.

The Bandar program makes for some interesting alliances. Never mind that there’s no peace treaty between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in these parts, as they say too often, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Bandar has become the de facto anti-Iran ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. [Continue reading...]

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America’s diminishing dependence on Middle East oil will be short-lived

The New York Times reports: The boom in oil from shale formations in recent years has generated a lot of discussion that the United States could eventually return to energy self-sufficiency, but according to a report released Tuesday by the International Energy Agency, production of such oil in the United States and worldwide will provide only a temporary respite from reliance on the Middle East.

The agency’s annual World Energy Outlook, released in London, said the world oil picture was being remade by oil from shale, known as light tight oil, along with new sources like Canadian oil sands, deepwater production off Brazil and the liquids that are produced with new supplies of natural gas.

“But, by the mid-2020s, non-OPEC production starts to fall back and countries from the Middle East provide most of the increase in global supply,” the report said. A high market price for oil will help stimulate drilling for light tight oil, the report said, but the resource is finite, and the low-cost suppliers are in the Middle East.

“There is a huge growth in light tight oil, that it will peak around 2020, and then it will plateau,” said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency. The agency was founded in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, by oil-importing nations.

The agency’s assessment of world supplies is consistent with an estimate by the United States Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration, which forecasts higher levels of American oil production from shale to continue until the late teens, and then slow rapidly.

“We expect the Middle East will come back and be a very important producer and exporter of oil, just because there are huge resources of low-cost light oil,” Ms. van der Hoeven said. “Light tight oil is not low-cost oil.” [Continue reading...]

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Bob Dreyfuss: American death spiral in the Middle East

When Barack Obama took office, the sky was the limit in the Greater Middle East.  After all, it seemed the U.S. had hit rock bottom.  President Bush had set the region aflame with a raging debacle in Iraq, a sputtering conflict in Afghanistan, and a low-level drone war in Pakistan.  The outgoing president was wildly unpopular in the region and it was hard to imagine just what the new administration could do to make the situation worse.

For all his foreign policy faults, Bush had even left his successor with an ace in the hole.  Obama had campaigned on ending the Iraq War and Bush was kind enough to negotiate the terms for him before he left office.  All the new president had to do was sit back and reap the rewards.

Almost five years later, the administration surely wishes it had a time machine to take America back to the Bush days when Iraq was convulsed by a civil war, the war in Afghanistan was largely forgotten, Egypt and Tunisia were under the thumbs of American-backed tyrants, and Syria and Libya were controlled by detested but stable dictators.

What seemed at the time to be a blood-soaked hell must look more like the halcyon days to the Obama administration, whose national security team now seems content to limp through the remainder of the president’s second term with fingers crossed, hoping desperately that they won’t stumble, bumble, stagger, slide, or inadvertently leap into yet another foreign policy fiasco in the region.  Today, as Bob Dreyfuss indicates, the administration finds itself adrift in the Greater Middle East, chastened by a series of its own foreign policy flubs, stumbles, and mini-disasters, as well as by governments that seem increasingly beyond its power or ability to control, coerce, or cajole.  The only country in the region that seems to bear much resemblance to its pre-Obama self is Iraq, where violence has reached its highest level in half a decade and suicide and car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats are creeping ever closer to Bush-era levels.

Today, TomDispatch regular and Nation magazine stalwart Bob Dreyfuss wades knee deep in the Big Muddy in the Middle East to offer a vivid portrait of an Obama administration in remarkable disarray. Nick Turse

A field guide to losing friends, influencing no one, and alienating the Middle East
Obama’s Washington is the Rodney Dangerfield of the region
By Bob Dreyfuss

Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.

Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.

[Read more...]

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A resumption of history in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: Observing the Middle East from the United States, where I have spent the last month, has been fascinating, because historic changes are occurring in some relationships between these two regions. This includes evolving American ties with the five key strategic players in the region: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. The most important changes are taking place in the triangular relationship among the United Sates and each of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Three simultaneous things are occurring here that are intriguing, but their permanent implications remain unclear because events are in their early days.

The first is the United States’ resumption of direct and serious talks with Iran in a more positive atmosphere that seeks to end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear capabilities while also addressing Iranian concerns about American policy toward Iran. Should the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers succeed, as I expect, this could mark a revolutionary new era when Iran would slowly resume normal ties with global powers and reshape its relations within the Middle East. This in turn could have major implications for Saudi Arabian and Gulf Cooperation Council policies, as well as conditions in Syria and Iraq, and the status of Hezbollah and Lebanon.

Washington’s evolving perceptions of Iran reflect the second change, which is a rare case of the U.S. pursuing policies in the Middle East that are not fully in line with Israeli fears or wishes. Israel and its influential American mouthpieces in Washington have lobbied overtime in recent months to prevent a U.S.-Iranian dialogue or serious negotiations that could lead to a rapprochement. They have failed to date in this. Washington has tried to placate Israeli concerns with the rhetoric that Israel expects to hear from its friends in the U.S., but President Barack Obama has ignored Israeli exhortations and moved ahead sharply to negotiate with Iran. We can expect major consequences from a U.S. foreign policy that is shaped by U.S. national interests, rather than by Israeli dictates, fears and manipulations. [Continue reading...]

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NSA’s Mideast spying ‘intense’ amid regional upheaval, say experts

Al Arabiya reports: Leaked documents disclosed earlier this week revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted 125 billion phone calls and SMS messages in January 2013, many of them originating in the Middle East.

The NSA’s attention on the Middle East and the surrounding region is far more “intense than anything comparable in Europe,” according to Matthew Aid, a Washington, DC-based intelligence historian and expert.

Strained relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia over resolving the Syrian conflict could be a possible reason for the NSA’s particularly large targeting of Saudi Arabia – over 7.8 billion times in one month – said Aid.

Saudi-U.S. tension may have also resulted in Obama’s administration being “quite curious” over the kingdom’s thoughts on Syria, as the countries have consistently disagreed on the issue.

Aid, who in 2009 published a history on the NSA entitled “The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency,” said that most of the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks have not focused on the agency’s surveillance in the Middle East.

“We’re waiting for that shoe to drop, but it hasn’t,” Aid told Al Arabiya News, stating that leaks by Snowden’s associates have been largely focused “on those countries which will generate immediate reaction in the press and from the governments in question.”

Saudi Arabia and Iraq witnessed 7.8 billion wiretapping incidents from the NSA each, while Egypt and Jordan saw 1.8 billion and 1.6 billion respectively, according to Cryptome, a digital library that publishes leaked documents.

Additionally, over 1.7 billion wiretapping incidents were recorded in Iran. [Continue reading...]

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