Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Iranian Nuclear Issue has Moved to the Back Page

The P5 +1 negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program, after months of being at the forefront of every newscast, has moved into the background and has, for the most part, disappeared from view. The fallout from the crisis in Ukraine has absorbed almost all of the world news ink. This is not a bad outcome since difficult negotiations such as these are best conducted out of the spotlight of the 24 hour news cycle. While the negotiators have popped their heads up periodically, making bland statements that progress is being made, that the negotiations are difficult, etc., most of the attention of the mainstream media has been focused on the West’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has decided to look beyond the current situation and return to the Cold War policy of containment of Russia. (See here) One question that is worth considering is: what is the impact of the resurgence of the Cold War on the Iranian negotiations.

With lingering border disputes, with the Iranian tilt toward the West under the Shah, with Soviet support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, Russia-Iran relations have historically been difficult and, at times, hostile. As the world moves toward a return to the Cold War division into two or more mutually antagonistic camps, how will Iran decide to react? One possibility is that they will see an opportunity for a “Plan B” should nuclear negotiations breakdown. With hardliners in Iran and the U.S. working hard to torpedo the negotiations (See here and here.), an ultimate breakdown is certainly a very real possibility. With the resulting return of Western sanctions on Iran and with the breakdown in Russian-United States cooperation, Iran may choose to take a tougher negotiating stance and “pivot to the East”.

On the other hand, Iran may see this geopolitical complexion change as providing an opening door to the West. U.S. pressure to apply stringent sanctions on Russia over Ukraine has put EU countries that rely on Russia for over thirty per cent of their oil and gas in a difficult position. Suggestions by media pundits that the U.S. can make up the difference from its growing gas production from “fracking” are pure fantasy. Unlike oil, gas has no global market. With the exception of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), for which the U.S. has little capacity, gas requires pipelines and pipelines have a tendency to stay where you build them. The major gas producer best positioned to make up a gas shortfall in Europe is Iran. Iran has the latent production capacity and the existing ability to transport gas to Europe through the Trans-Anatolian pipeline. From this perspective, Iran and Russia are competitors and there is no particular reason why they should be allies from a geo-political standpoint. For now, Iran, feeling that it is in a no-lose position, thinking that time is on its side, appears to be trying to take a middle ground position, antagonize no one and avoid being trampled as Russia, EU, Ukraine and the U.S. stomp around like a herd of elephants. The U.S. may finally see that it is in its strategic interest to seek an accommodation with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ukraine is not a Country

During my time working in Ukraine, a Ukrainian businessman commented to me, “Ukraine is not a country. It’s just a place on earth where people live.” As events in Ukraine are unfolding, it may be that that he was prescient. This week’s referendum in Crimea, in which over 90 percent of voters, with over 80 percent turning out, endorsed affiliation with the Russian Federation and which was immediately accepted by Russia, shows how fragile a united Ukraine remains. The default U.S. responses to events such as this, bellicose statements by President Obama, (We will never recognize the Crimean result.), deploying military forces to the Black Sea and along Russian and Ukrainian borders, announcing sanctions, however modest, immediately surfaced out of Washington. In this case U.S. policy makers might consider a different path. Dare I propose the dreaded “A” word, appeasement.
The biggest problem that resulted from Neville Chamberlain’s failed attempt to appease Adolf Hitler during the run up to World War II was that it gave appeasement a bad name. Scholars, given 20-20 hindsight, have proposed that the problem in this case wasn’t appeasement itself, but that policy makers, at the time, got it backwards. They should have confronted Germany and appeased Japan, perhaps avoiding World War II. That said, appeasement, despite its bad name, remains a valid, if often ignored, tool in the diplomatic toolbox. Supporters of aggressive military action and coercive diplomacy frequently attack supporters of diplomatic compromises as appeasers, seeing the term as a pejorative. They neglect to point out that war and coercive diplomacy, such as economic sanctions, have a poor track record of resolving international disputes and have resulted in millions of deaths and enormous economic suffering.
The first step towards finding a peaceful resolution to the Ukrainian crisis is to recognize that Russia has a vital national interest in the status of Ukraine. The U.S. and its western allies, on the other hand, have no vital national interests at stake. Western efforts to bring NATO forces right on Russia’s doorstep is a complete non-starter for Vladimir Putin. Just as the U.S. tried everything possible, sanctions, embargo, military invasion, terrorist attacks, regime change, in an, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to dislodge a Soviet Union supported Communist government in Cuba, Russia will do everything possible to prevent their adversaries from entrenching themselves in Ukraine.
Although some eastern, Russian majority Ukrainian regions, namely Donetsk and Kharkov, have indicated a desire to conduct a referendum on more autonomy within Ukraine, Putin has said that he does not wish to annex more territory beyond Crimea. His hand may be forced, however, if the anti-Russian violence that has occurred in the eastern regions increases. Agreement with Russia on the status of Ukraine will require that any new Ukrainian government take aggressive steps to protect the rights and safety of Ukraine’s Russian citizens, wherever they reside. This may be difficult to accomplish in practice, as the interim government is dominated by the anti- Russian, anti-Semitic, neo-fascist Svoboda and Right Sector parties who hold eight ministerial positions, including National Security Chief, Deputy National Security Chief and Defense Minister. Another risk of escalating violence is that the Ukrainian government, feeling that they will be backed by the U.S. and its allies, relying on the assurances of Joe Biden and John McCain, will escalate the conflict.
If further violence against Russians can be avoided, Putin may agree to limit his territorial aspirations to Crimea. Beyond this, an agreement will need to be reached on the “Finlandization” (to use a Cold War term) of Ukraine. Under this scenario, Ukraine would maintain good relations with east and west, Russia and the E.U., and would align with neither. This role of an east-west bridge is a traditional role for Ukraine. When my wife was working in a hospital in Odessa, Ukraine, she saw both eastern and western medical practices being used. Ukrainians were proud of this role. It can happen again.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A View on Ukraine

-tweets.siOver the past few weeks, as I have followed the events in Ukraine on Western and Russian media, it seemed to me that I was watching two completely different events unfold. The U.S. media’s breathless reporting, focused on the violence in the Maidan (Independence Square in Kiev), making the Russian intervention in Crimea look like a major war and calling for immediate western intervention, is stirring up the American politicians and public into an anti-Russian frenzy. The Russian media, on the other hand, took a more analytic and calm approach. On CBS News, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “You just don't in the 21st century behave iimagesn 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext", the Russian media reaction was, “Seriously, what about Iraq”.

From the beginning, U.S. policy has been to support the opposition in their efforts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich, a government which came to power in an election judged free, fair and transparent by international monitors. This is not unusual as U.S. policy has generally been to support revolutions that overthrow governments it doesn’t like and oppose those that overthrow allies, such as in Iran and Cuba. I am, however, unsure that U.S. policymakers understand who they are supporting.

Who are these guys?

The opposition is made up of a number of disparate groups who, for the most part have differing agendas. About the only thing that they can agree on is opposition to Yanukovich. The “Fatherland” party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) led by former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko tend to be anti-Russian and pro-EU. The far right, nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, with its power base in the Ukrainian speaking regions, hates the eastern, Russian, oblasts of Ukraine and is openly racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic. Another far right movement, the “Right Sector”, drawing much of its support from stick wielding, stone throwing soccer thugs, has been responsible for much of the violence in the Maidan and has warned of civil or guerilla war. They are ardently anti-Russian, but also anti-EU. Adding fuel to this flammable mix are the neo-Nazi, Christian jihadists, who have flocked to Ukraine from around Europe. (See here) These outsiders are trying to form a new Fascist-friendly Ukraine.

This is not to say that Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions are necessarily “good guys”. When I was working in Ukraine, the Ukrainian businessman that I worked for said to me, “There are a lot of crooks in Ukraine, but the biggest crook is the government”. Yanukovic and his cronies have bled the country dry and have left the coffers empty. However, by supporting the opposition, we will probably be substituting one group of kleptocrats for another. A Polish diplomat told me, “In Ukraine, the government is where millionaires go to become billionaires”. From the actions of the interim government in Kiev, reducing the status of the Russian language, increasing penalties on those with dual nationality, it appears that Russo-phobic Ukrainian nationalists have a lot of influence. As the U.S should have learned from its experience in Syria, but apparently did not, it is very risky to support independent groups over which you have no control. The independent groups may act in ways counter to U.S. interests and feeling empowered by U.S. support, may take more risky actions.

What is the U.S. interest?

While it is easy to understand the Russian concern for a satisfactory outcome in Ukraine, because of close proximity, ethnic and family connections, a military base in Sevastopol, the need for a buffer state against NATO encroachment, it is hard to see what U.S vital national interest is at stake in a small country on the periphery of Europe. (The pundits, claiming that Ukraine is in the heart of Europe, evidently haven’t looked at a map.) Whatever U.S. interests are, they certainly don’t rise to the level of justifying conflict between two major nuclear armed powers.

The slippery slope to conflict.

As this potential conflict simmers, it is ironic that we are currently observing the one hundredth anniversary of World War I. That conflict also began with a small incident on the periphery of Europe. A series of bad decisions by supposedly intelligent government leaders quickly led to a war that killed millions of Europeans. Numerous books have examined the question of how this could happen in the most civilized part of the world that had been mostly at peace for one hundred years. Many theories have been advanced: rigid alliances, rigid military plans, failure of imagination, misunderstandings, nationalism, public pressure etc. These hot embers, however, fell on the tinder of the geopolitical situation and psychological fears. Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan points out in her award winning book “The War that Ended Peace”, “Political scientists might say that the fact that Germany and Britain found themselves on opposite sides in the Great War was foreordained, the result of the clash between a major global power feeling its advantage slip away and a rising challenger. Such transitions are rarely managed peacefully. The established power is too often arrogant, lecturing the rest of the world about how to manage its affairs, and too often insensitive to the fears and concerns of lesser powers. Such a power, as Britain was then, and the United States is today, inevitably resists its own intimations of mortality and the rising one is impatient to get its share of whatever is on offer, whether colonies, trade, resources or influence.” Can we avoid this trap?

Where is our crystal ball?

One disadvantage that European leaders had was that they didn’t have a crystal ball. If leaders in 1914 could have foreseen what Europe looked like in 1918, they would never have made the decisions that they did. Leaders today have a perfect crystal ball. Everybody knows what the world will look like in the aftermath of a conflict between two nuclear armed major powers. Let’s hope that the leaders are looking in their crystal ball.

Photos by NBC News, Russia Today)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What can Bibi be thinking?

Secretary of State John Kerry, continuing his extraordinary efforts to craft a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, efforts that have included shuttle diplomacy and arm twisting, appears to be on the verge of issuing the “Kerry Parameters”, a final status framework to guide future negotiations. Critics and pundits have said that this is just more of the same failed policy. This time may be different. For one thing, this will be the first American proposal designed to resolve the conflict since the “Clinton Parameters” in 2000. While no one except the insiders knows the exact content of the proposal, leaks and informed speculation leads me to believe that Kerry’s document will contain the following:

· Two states based on the 1967 borders with negotiated land swaps

· Jerusalem as a shared capital

· Israel to retain the major settlement blocks

· The Palestinian state to be demilitarized

· Israel to have a security force in the Jordan River valley for an extended period of time

· Israel to be recognized as a Jewish state

· No return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland

As with all the previous efforts to resolve the Israel/Palestine situation the devil is in the details. It appears that the Kerry Parameters will largely be based on the Clinton Parameters. In the land swaps, the Israelis will get land near the major population centers and the Palestinians will get an equivalent amount of desert. The Palestinian capital in Jerusalem will probably be a building somewhere near Jerusalem. The presence of the Israeli security force in the Jordan Valley will be vaguely worded in a way that it will likely become permanent. In short, Israel will get everything that it has declared that it needs in a two-state solution.

The political stars also seem to be aligned to make this time different. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, with no effective opposition, having assembled a stable governing coalition, is in a strong political position. On the other hand, the Palestinians, riven by divisions between Fatah and Hamas, represented by a corrupt, incompetent, illegitimate Palestinian Authority, having an economy solely dependent on Israeli inputs and foreign aid, as if preparing themselves to fade into a desert sandstorm, are in no position to negotiate from strength. The regional Arab states, long supportive of the Palestinian cause, are engulfed in chaos or, as is the case of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, just want to see the problem go away so that they can focus their attention on Iran, their number one enemy. Iran, a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, may be willing to give up the fight in order to retain its nuclear program while getting sanctions relief.

Having received everything that he wanted, why then is Bibi still pushing back against the plan? The answer may lie in the old cliché, “be careful what you wish for, you might just get it”. In the twenty plus years of the Oslo Peace Process, Israel, while expanding its footprint on the West Bank, has been able to make the security argument that a Palestinian state is an existential threat in order to frustrate the two-state solution. Faced with the Law of Return, allowing any Jew moving to Israel to obtain citizenship, Israel, with no defined borders, has been able to use the West Bank settlements to accommodate this burgeoning Jewish population. Fixed borders which do not include all of the West Bank will not only exacerbate the problem, but also anger the religious Jews who, seeing Judea and Samaria as a gift from God, wish to establish “Eretz Israel” from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.

The fixed borders of this plan allow Israel to get rid of most, but not all, of its Arab population. With the so-called Palestinian state in place, the attention of internal, as well as international, activists will now be focused on the second class status of Israel’s 1.5mm Arab citizens. Feeling that the two-state solution would never happen, successive Israeli governments have done almost nothing to prepare for this eventuality. It seems that Netanyahu’s strategy depends on finding a way to torpedo the proposal and having the Palestinians be blamed for it.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

A Dose of Reality Arrives in Syria

As the Syrian civil war drags on into its third year, it appears that the players, internal and external, in this long running tragedy may be starting to exhibit some common sense. With over 130,000 people killed to date on all sides, millions of people displaced internally and externally and the conflict gradually spreading into neighboring countries, leaders of the involved parties seem to be moving toward taking steps to resolve the crisis.

From the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, U.S. policies have been guided by geopolitical considerations involving Iran and Hezbollah rather than humanitarian concerns. Since Iran relies on Hezbollah to act as an asymmetric deterrent force against Israel and Hezbollah relies on Iran for financial and military support, if the conduit through Syria were cut off by the fall of Assad, both parties would be weaker. Israel, therefore, would be less deterred from attacking Hezbollah and Iran. Early on many U.S. politicians, led by Senator John McCain, advocated for the U.S intervention in support of the rebels. The Friends of Syria made up of 114 nations was formed by the U.S. and its allies and met numerous times in 2012-13 for the purpose of organizing military and other aid to the rebel organizations. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States sent millions of dollars to jihadist rebel groups. President Obama confidently stated that “Assad must step aside” (See here) and told Iraqi President Maliki that “Assad will fall in two months”. (See here)

As the situation on the ground in Syria began to deteriorate in 2013, the external actors began to have second thoughts. The al Qaeda linked Islamist rebel groups usurped the more secular Syrian National Council and became the dominant rebel force. Western powers became concerned that that their citizens fighting with radical Islamist groups would return home and bring the war to the home front. (According to intelligence sources, there are over 50 U.S. citizens currently fighting with jihadists in Syria) The pro-Assad forces have regained territory from the rebels and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have been steadfast in their support for the Assad regime. The first Friends of Syria conference attracted 114 nations; the last conference attracted 14. The outside actors, with no good outcome in sight have begun to search for a plan B.

While some of the suggestions for a plan B, such as reaching out to the al Qaeda linked al Nusra Front, are absurd, (See here) others being implemented and considered make sense. The U.S. and Russia organized a Geneva II conference which included all sides of the conflict. While the U.S., unable to get over its animosity toward Iran, refused to allow Iran to attend, Secretary John Kerry reached out to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at the Munch Security Conference. Unsurprisingly Zarif rebuffed his advance. Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri has disowned the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seeing them as too radical. (Now that’s a statement.) (See here) In what is perhaps the most important development, Saudi Arabia, under pressure from the U.S., has announced that it is abandoning its fighters in Syria and Iraq. (See here) Without Saudi support, it will be very difficult to sustain the jihadist armies.

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul has proposed cooperation between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Syria issue. Since these three are the main regional supporters of the protagonists, if the three can reach an agreement, a lot of pressure can be brought to bear to end the conflict.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Can the U.S. Deal With a Middle East Earthquake?

Over the last month the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East has been jolted and fractured by the earthquake of the EU3+3 nuclear agreement with Iran and the numerous aftershocks that have followed. The players who are wedded to the status quo are struggling to navigate this new landscape. Western and regional diplomats have been jetting around the region in an effort to figure out how to deal with the changes. This turmoil within traditional alliances has come at an inconvenient time for the Obama administration as it struggles to implement its announced pivot or rebalancing to the Pacific. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the NY Times in October, “We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is.”

Ever since Richard Nixon was forced to “pivot to the Pacific” by the Vietnam War, the U.S. has, at various times, relied on strong regional allies to protect its interests around the globe. Initially in the Middle East, the allies were Iran and Saudi Arabia. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the U.S. relied on Israel, Saudi Arabia and at times Egypt. Under George W. Bush this “twin pillars” strategy was abandoned for a policy of direct unilateral intervention to protect U.S. interests. Now, just when Obama would like to again rely on regional allies, the whole alliance structure is shifting and breaking down.

The Egyptian Revolution has taken Egypt completely out of the picture. Saudi Arabia’s divided and dysfunctional foreign policy team has been sorely tested by its desire to maintain relations with the U.S. while at the same time supporting sectarian conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Its vehement anti-Iran position and its leadership within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are being challenged by Iran’s diplomatic blitz. Iran was invited to the Manama Dialogue, a security conference in Bahrain, a Saudi client state. Ignoring Saudi objections, the GCC has responded positively to Iranian overtures to improve relations among Persian Gulf littoral states. GCC member Oman, a valuable U.S. intermediary with Iran, has rejected unequivocally a Saudi effort to unite the GCC as a single entity under Saudi leadership. Lebanon has rebuffed Saudi suggestions that the Lebanese Army turn its guns on Iran’s ally Hezbollah. The possibility of Iran dramatically increasing its oil production threatens the Saudi role as the swing producer in OPEC. Faced with the declining power of a key ally, the U.S. has relied on its default response of selling the Saudis billions of dollars of high tech weaponry.

America’s other pillar in the region, Israel, has its own struggles. The death of anti-apartheid hero, Nelson Mandala, came at a particularly bad time for Israel as it focused attention on Israel’s treatment of its non-Jewish population and resulted in growing international criticism Even the vaunted lobbying power of AIPAC is being called into question by its failure to prevent the Geneva Nuclear Agreement with Iran and, thus far, its inability to torpedo the Geneva agreement with new Congressional sanctions. As Obama’s threat to veto new Iran sanctions shows, Israel’s intransigence with respect to settlements seems to be wearing out its welcome at the White House. While the frustration with Israeli political pressure hasn’t reached the level of George Bush ’41 when his Secretary of State James Baker infamously said “F**k the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway”, the frustration is certainly increasing. With a second term President, who isn’t facing an election, Israel has a problem.

While Saudi Arabia and Israel are discussing an alliance to counter Iranian influence, it appears to be a marriage of convenience. As the U.S. attempts to back away from direct commitments in Syria and Afghanistan, it will leave a power vacuum. It is not clear who will be able to fill this vacuum. Russia and China have ambitions in the region, but they have neither the will nor the way fill the U.S. role. As Beirut based Alistair Crooke said his recent post on Conflicts Forum, “Winding-down the US commitment in the region does not mean that all the area’s problems will be solved, but it does imply that the US will no longer be expected to resolve them all. “

Monday, December 09, 2013

Obstacles to an Agreement with Iran

In order to understand the political dynamics surrounding the recently signed EU + 3/Iran nuclear agreement, it is important to understand some of the history. The U.S, sanctions regime against Iran began in 1979 shortly after the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis. The initial sanctions were imposed by President Jimmy Carter who froze millions of dollars of Iranian assets in U.S. banks. In the 1980’s, the sanctions were expanded to include weapons and any financial aid to Iran, as the U.S. attempted to aid Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. The sanctions regime was expanded in 1987 under President Ronald Reagan and again in 1997 under President Bill Clinton. President Obama has magnified the impact of the sanctions by threatening and coercing governments around the world, wishing to do business in the U.S., to abide by the unilateral American sanctions. These sanctions have had an increasingly negative impact on the Iranian economy and on the lives of ordinary Iranians. Circumventing and mitigating the effects of the sanctions has been a major focus of almost all Iranian governments.
The Iranian nuclear program dates back to 1957 when the U.S. signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s government under the Atoms for Peace Program. Following the revolution, the Siemens AG contract to build the Bushehr nuclear reactor was terminated. Shortly thereafter the Iranian government announced an ambitious program to construct its own reactor and to master the nuclear fuel cycle. In my opinion, while the nuclear program has been expanded to provide nuclear power and medical isotopes, its primary purpose has been to accumulate bargaining chips in order get the sanctions removed and reduced and to get Iran reintegrated into the international community. As the West has rebuffed all Iranian efforts at reintegration, the chips have continued to accumulate. It is not a nuclear weapon that concerns the U.S. and its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the reintegration of Iran into the global economy.
Iran is strategically located astride the Straits of Hormuz and is a buffer state between the Middle East and Central Asia. With its large (70mm), well-educated young population, relatively stable governance, and substantial potential for oil and gas production, Iran is much better positioned than its neighbors to project political and economic power, both within the region and globally. It is this potential to change the status quo in the region that most worries Iran’s adversaries. The nuclear weapons issue is a politically powerful red herring to cover the true concerns.
During the Geneva talks, Israel and Saudi Arabia spent much money, printers ink and bombast to prevent the interim agreement from being signed. Having failed in that effort, they are now rolling out the political big guns in Washington in order shoot down any final comprehensive deal that will result in rapprochement with Iran. Already the Obama administration is showing signs of backing away from any final status agreement. (See here and here.) While it is in America’s interest to resolve the conflict with Iran diplomatically, it is unclear to me whether or not Obama, who sees every foreign policy issue through a lens of domestic politics, will be able to summon the political will to deliver on the promise of the Geneva agreement.