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ISIL survives because all its enemies have other priorities

ISIL cannot be beaten without concerted Turkish involvement
Image from aircraft cockpit video released by Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu of what they report to be Turkish warplanes striking Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria. Anadolu via AP Video


ISIL really ought to be on the brink of obliteration now that Turkey has finally joined the battle against it. The terrorist group is in armed conflict with almost all other parties: the US and other Nato powers; Iran and its Shiite militia allies including Hizbollah; Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states; the Syrian regime; the Syrian rebels; Kurds in both Syria and Iraq; and now Turkey. Yet, despite facing this extraordinary array of power, ISIL manages to hang on, and in some cases even expand. And no one can say with any confidence when or how it will be defeated.

How can that possibly be? It is because none of its enemies considers defeating ISIL to be its paramount priority. All of those listed above have at least one other enemy or goal that it firmly believes is more important. Hence a band of terrorist maniacs – who seem almost as suicidal as they are homicidal – is surviving armed conflict with everyone else simultaneously. The prioritising of something or someone else constantly holds these parties back from fully attacking ISIL or provides it with some kind of backdoor out of calamity.

Turkey is a perfect example. For months, Turkey and ISIL have been eyeing each other warily across the Syrian border. Those days are over. Last Monday, 32 civilians were killed when the Turkish town of Suruc was attacked by an ISIL suicide bomber from Syria.

On Friday and Saturday Turkish F-16 jets bombed ISIL positions in Syria. The Turkish government claims at least 35 extremists were killed, although Syrian sources say the real figure is closer to nine. Turkey has also agreed to allow the American military to use Turkish airbases to launch attacks against ISIL positions in Syria. From now on, and at last, Turkey will be a part of the coalition, formal and informal, actively fighting ISIL in Syria.

But the big picture is far more murky. In recent months, most of the world applauded as Kurdish militias operating under the banner of the “Kurdish People’s Protection Units” (YPG) have driven ISIL forces back across a large patch of territory along the Turkish border. Turkey, however, has been increasingly alarmed.

The ISIL attack on southern Turkey was spillover from the fighting in northern Syria. Suruc is a largely Kurdish city. But the YPG is strongly tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which until 2013 waged a bloody battle against the Turkish state for decades. Numerous peace efforts have failed to lead to a permanent reconciliation between Ankara and the PKK, so Turkey feels threatened by the Kurdish advance along its southern border with Syria.

Turkey has pledged to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria, under the rubric of its intervention against ISIL. But one of its primary aims will be to deny the YPG control of a large, contiguous area across the soft Turkish underbelly near its own restive Kurdish areas. In particular, Turkey will be seeking to ensure that the two already- established Kurdish enclaves – the first around Afrin in the west, and the second starting near Kobani in the centre and stretching all the way to the far east of Syria – are not united to provide a Kurdish-dominated strip along the entire border.

In effect, Turkey had been relying on ISIL to deny this to the PKK by holding the territory between the enclaves. Not only is ISIL attacking inside Turkey now, perhaps even more significantly it is failing to prevent the PKK, Ankara’s main enemy, from expanding into that area. Turkey is therefore preparing to push ISIL aside and do the job itself.

Rhetoric notwithstanding, ISIL is not Turkey’s main target. The PKK is. ISIL is a secondary, albeit serious, concern for Ankara. But this will ensure that, time and again, Turkey’s efforts are not and cannot be primarily focused on defeating ISIL because it has a different priority. Indeed, Turkey launched its first new attacks since 2013 on PKK positions in northern Iraq at the same time it began bombing ISIL in Syria.

All of ISIL’s other enemies have their own alternate priorities.

Saudi Arabia is focused on thwarting Iran and its proxies. Iran is trying to keep Bashar Al Assad in power. Mr Al Assad is fixated on the Syrian rebels. The rebels are focused on overthrowing him. Kurds seek autonomy and, ultimately, independence. The US prioritises avoiding total institutional collapse in Syria – a skittishness illustrated by the American record of having trained only 60 Syrian fighters to fight ISIL almost a year after launching the campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group.

A similar set of misguided priorities applies to all the parties fighting ISIL in Iraq as well, providing it an endless series of reprieves there too.

ISIL cannot be defeated as an afterthought. But that is what it still, astonishingly, remains for all of its principal antagonists.

That is ISIL’s lifeline and it will continue until everyone – or maybe even just anyone – finally realises that defeating these uniquely evil maniacs is the most important goal after all.

Obama Pioneering Downsized US Foreign Policy in Iran Deal

Obama stakes his legacy on the nuclear accord
US president Barack Obama defends his high-stakes nuclear accord with Iran as a sign of American leadership. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)


A huge political battle is looming in Washington over the nuclear agreement with Iran. In the short run, Barack Obama will win the fight with his opponents in Congress. But in the long run, the fate of the deal, his legacy, and perhaps the future of American foreign policy, will be decided by forces operating beyond his control.

Anyone critiquing the agreement seemingly has an abundance of riches. It can be attacked as insufficient on inspections, rolling back Iran’s nuclear development, excessive sanctions relief (especially eventually lifting the UN arms embargo), and not accounting for what happens after its restrictions expire. But none of that is sufficient.

Mr Obama could veto any Congressional action – and a supermajority is almost certainly not available to the opposition. True, having to use a veto to protect his signature foreign policy initiative, would be embarrassing. But there is little doubt he will prevail.

Mr Obama has made an agreement on behalf of the US. For Congress to repudiate presidential judgment on a matter of this magnitude cuts deeply against the grain of American political sensibilities. Under such circumstances, presidents almost always get their way – and so will he.

The contours of the argument go something like this:

This agreement blocks Iran’s pathway to obtaining a nuclear device.

No it doesn’t. It’s full of loopholes. Iran can and probably will cheat. And, even if they don’t, it doesn’t roll back their nuclear programme enough.

What’s your alternative? War?

Not war. The real alternative is a better deal.

You can’t get a better deal. The only alternative is war.

Yes we could. Or at least we could have maintained the status quo, which is better than the agreement.

We can’t maintain the status quo because the most important international sanctions are fairly recent and will certainly disintegrate over the next couple of years if we don’t have an agreement, and we do not have the power or influence to maintain them.

At least we should try. The US has a lot of influence and we could continue to isolate and pressure Iran.

But none of that would do anything to stop their drive towards getting a nuclear bomb. And, anyway, we can’t maintain the most important sanctions. You’re basically warmongers – and totally unrealistic.

This is a capitulation to an extremist regime. There’s nothing more unrealistic than that. And what happens in 15 years? What’s to stop Iran from getting a bomb then?

That’s a good one. If they try, we’ll deal with it then. 15 years is a long time.

But they haven’t changed since 1979.

Well we will have the same options then as we do now. They will still be a year away from a bomb.

No, they will be much closer then.

We will know everything that they are doing, and still have all our options.

If that’s a reductive caricature of the basic argument, then it’s not by much. The administration’s case relies on the idea that there aren’t any reasonable alternatives to this agreement. The critique centres on the idea that no agreement would be better than this agreement.

Because so much depends on imponderables – what will happen during implementation, how will it affect Iran’s regional conduct, what will Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policy look like in a few years time, and will the international community stick together if Iran cheats on the accord – that it’s really not possible for either side to prevail on the merits. It’s a gigantic gamble and the question is whether it is one worth making or not.

Divisions in Washington over the agreement arise from, and focus sharp attention on, an irreconcilable disagreement that has arisen in recent years about the very basis of US foreign policy. Supporters of the agreement insist that recognising the limitations of American power is essential to avoiding further foreign policy disasters driven by overreaching, such as the invasion of Iraq. Its critics hold that these limits are being exaggerated by a risk-averse and essentially timid approach that manages to be both reckless and naive.

The Iran agreement perfectly illustrates how Mr Obama is pioneering a new “right-sized” foreign policy that seeks to reconcile goals with resources, and regards imperial hubris as the definitive error. And it may prove to be its ultimate test.

Mr Obama has been a lucky politician all his life, rising step-by-step to the White House with blinding speed as opponents dropped out, self-destructed or simply couldn’t cut it.

Like Abraham Lincoln, his claim to national leadership wasn’t based on any record of accomplishment but rather on his speeches, which cast him as the right man at the right time.

But never has he trusted more to fortune’s favour. Given the gamble that Mr Obama has made, his international legacy, and maybe even his legacy as president overall, is largely, if not entirely, in the hands of an unreconstructed extremist regime in Tehran. And so, perhaps, is the future of his downsized American foreign policy.

For Gulf Countries, Iran’s Regional Behavior Overshadows Nuclear Deal

Saudi foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir answers a question as he and US Secretary of State John Kerry address the media after their meeting at the Department of State in Washington, DC on July 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir answers a question as he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry address the media after their meeting at the Department of State in Washington, DC on July 16. (MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

The strategic impact in the Gulf region of the nuclear agreement with Iran will hinge on the perceptions of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as to whether or not it helps to curb Iranian “adventurism” and, especially, its support for destabilizing activities in the region. The potential emergence of Iran as a more responsible regional actor holds out the possibility for a major improvement in relations, and even for crafting political solutions to destabilizing Middle East conflicts. There is also the prospect of an expansion in trade between Iran and Arab Gulf countries, especially the United Arab Emirates and Oman. But many GCC countries remain concerned that Iran could emerge from the accord enriched and emboldened, with no change in what they strongly perceive to be aggressively hegemonic regional ambitions. These concerns and prospects indicate the pitfalls and opportunities for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the costs of the nuclear agreement in the Gulf region.

It is often claimed that the Arab Gulf countries are simply, unanimously, and categorically opposed to the agreement. For example, The Times of Israel quotes a senior Israeli official saying, “There is a lot of opposition to it, especially from countries in the region. Iran’s neighbors – those who know Iran best – are united in opposition to the deal.” Such claims are not an accurate reflection of the range of responses. While many GCC countries, including the largest and most influential, Saudi Arabia, are highly skeptical about the agreement and concerned about its impact, the Gulf reactions are varied and complex.

The GCC countries are six distinct sovereign and independent entities that come together to seek common approaches to securing their basic interests. Although they agree on much, they nonetheless do not have a single, unified foreign policy, especially on granular regional issues such as relations with Iran. Each GCC country has a specific and unique relationship with Iran that informs its strategic thinking. While all six GCC members view Iran as a potential threat to their security, they have employed a wide variety of approaches in their policies toward Iran since the 1979 revolution to deal with this challenge. Therefore it is not at all surprising that the Gulf countries have expressed a range of reactions to the deal.

Oman, not surprisingly, most warmly welcomed the agreement, calling it a “historic win-win.” For a variety of reasons, Oman has developed and maintained the warmest relations with Iran of any of the GCC countries. Indeed, its good offices played a crucial role in the Tehran-Washington back channel diplomacy that led to the Iran-P5+1 nuclear negotiations, some of which were hosted in the Omani capital, Muscat. Qatar – which jointly manages an oil field with Iran – also has a history of warmer relations with Iran than many of its fellow GCC members, and Doha quickly welcomed the nuclear agreement. Kuwait, too, publicly expressed congratulations to Iran on the agreement, and said it hopes the accord will “strengthen the security and stability of the area.”

Saudi Arabia expressed its views through comments by Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. After meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on July 16, Jubeir said “All of us in the region want to see a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear program,” but that “If Iran should try to cause mischief in the region we’re committed to confront it resolutely.” He emphasized the need for a “robust and continuous inspections regime to make sure Iran does not violate the terms of the agreement,” and a quick snapback of sanctions in the event of Iranian non-compliance. Jubeir insisted that Iran should use the anticipated flood of income arising from sanctions relief in a constructive manner, saying “We hope that the Iranians will use this deal in order to improve the economic situation in Iran and to improve the lot of the Iranian people, and not use it for adventures in the region.”

This skepticism comes despite considerable U.S. reassurance offered at the May U.S.-GCC Camp David Summit, and a phone call July 14 in which President Barack Obama briefed King Salman on the U.S. understanding regarding the agreement with Iran. Jubeir’s pointed warning about the use of sanctions relief for “adventures in the region” is a reference to Iranian support for clients and proxies in conflicts such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. If the agreement results in more responsible behavior by Iran, particularly with regard to regional conflicts, then it will be seen as a positive development by Gulf countries, which are generally more alarmed by Iran’s interest in expanding its influence in the region than its nuclear program. Consequently, if Iran’s behavior doesn’t change, or even becomes more aggressive, the nuclear agreement is more likely to be viewed as a negative development. The first and most important test of this question will arise as sanctions relief provides an influx of income to Tehran’s coffers. What the regime does with that windfall will be scrutinized very carefully by its neighbors, and will shape their perception of the regional strategic implications of the agreement.

As Abu Dhabi-based English-language daily The National phrased it in an unsigned editorial, “What Iran does with the money will determine how the Gulf views the deal. If they use it to build infrastructure, to invest in the talents of their people, and build a genuine, positive relationship with their neighbors, then there will be celebrations on this side of the Gulf as well. If, on the other hand, they continue their meddling, continue to foment unrest in Yemen and Iraq, and continue their support for the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria, then all the fears of the Gulf will have been realized. It will be the old Iran, merely with new window dressing.”

In the Middle East, the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which celebrated the agreement as a “great victory,” is seen as potentially one of the biggest regional winners from the nuclear deal. Iran has invested a huge amount of money and resources in propping up the Syrian regime, including focusing the efforts of its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to saving the regime in Damascus. Indeed, Assad seemed to be anticipating even more Iranian support in the context of the agreement, saying “We are reassured that the Iranian Islamic Republic will continue and with greater momentum supporting the just causes of the peoples and working to bring about peace and stability in the region and the world.” Saudi Arabia and several of the other GCC countries are among the strongest regional opponents of Assad. The prospect of even more Iranian support for the Assad regime was one of the issues addressed by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who complained that “The agreement restored respect to this regime that should not have been respected and should have been punished not just for its nuclear program but also for its aggressive behavior in the area.”

Concerns that Iran’s conduct toward the war in Syria and other regional conflicts will persist or intensify dovetail with lingering doubts about the U.S. role in the Middle East and its reliability as an ally for Gulf countries. A Saudi diplomat was cited by The Washington Post as fretting that, “The relationship between the Gulf and the U.S. will stand, but it’s a very delicate situation. Maybe we’ll look to other partners like China if America is giving everything to Iran.” Many Saudis are stressing that their country now might well look to building stronger relationships with Russia and France in order to be less dependent on a security relationship with the United States. As Mohammed al-Mohya, the news anchor on Saudi Channel 1, put it, “Iran made chaos in the Arab world and will extend further after the agreement, and the GCC countries should reduce their confidence in America and turn their focus to Russia and China.” Some Saudis also say that their country will now begin to explore nuclear technology with an eye, eventually, to matching every capability Iran has developed, or is allowed under the agreement.

Even if political tensions persist to some extent, the impact of the agreement might still lead to an increase in Iranian trade with some GCC countries. The biggest beneficiary is likely to be the UAE, which, despite its territorial dispute with Iran over three islands in the Gulf, and other important disagreements, has maintained close trading ties with Iran. Dubai, in particular, stands to gain with an estimated 400,000 Iranian residents and well-established trading relationships with Iranian partners.

The Emirates’ statement welcoming the accord expressed hopes it would “contribute to strengthening regional security and stability.” An unnamed senior UAE official joined the chorus of GCC voices speculating that “Iran could play a role in the region if it revises its policy and stops interfering in the internal affairs of countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.”

My colleague Karen E. Young, at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, has identified several factors that position Iran well to benefit economically from the sanctions-relief process, and how that could draw the UAE into a stronger trading relationship with Iran. Trade between the two countries reportedly fell from $8.5 billion in 2013 to $5 billion in 2014 because of international sanctions against Iran. However, Hussein Asrar Haghighi, vice-executive president of the Iranian Business Council in Dubai told Gulf News that, “We might see a huge trade growth between the two countries. Trade figures would double and business relations would be strengthened.” In June, the UAE Economy Minister Sultan al-Mansouri reportedly said trade with Iran had increased to $17 billion in 2014, but was still considerably lower than its pre-sanctions level in 2011 of $23 billion.

Oman is also expected to witness an early increase in trade with Iran following the lifting of sanctions. In the case of other GCC countries, improved political relations may be required to facilitate improved trade, which could in turn further strengthen political ties. Progress will be slow and gradual. The allure of investing in Iran’s energy industry and opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration should be considerable. But decisions on trade will not be made in a vacuum and in most cases will require a deliberate political decision to promote better economic relations.

The economic impact of the agreement for GCC-Iran relations will be determined by perceptions about its likely strategic implications. Even if there is some expansion in Iranian trade with the UAE and Oman, if the Gulf states believe that Iran is continuing to pursue an aggressive posture in the Middle East or, worse, is intensifying its destabilizing activities, the nuclear agreement will have failed in the eyes of Iran’s neighbors. They will continue to see their security threatened, if not by nuclear weapons, then by Iran’s ongoing quest to expand its regional sphere of influence.

The US can live with the status quo, but Iran can’t

The US can live with the status quo, but Iran can’t
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gathers with other Iranian diplomats on a balcony at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna. Joe Klamar / AFP


The brinkmanship exhibited at the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5 +1 international consortium is breathtaking, and suggests, for the first time in several months, the actual possibility of failure. There’s too much invested by all parties to make walking away appealing, but the United States reminding Iran that this remains a possibility emerged as a key factor last week.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the American suggestion that the talks could simply continue on a lower-level and open-ended basis into the foreseeable future. The grounds for that would be an extension of the interim accord. This was a not particularly subtle way for the American side to say to the Iranian one: “We can live with the status quo a lot more easily than you can.”

After all, the interim accord provides very limited sanctions relief to Iran and yet commits Tehran to some significant measures to reduce its low-enriched uranium stockpile and other steps that roll back its nuclear programme.

At the same time, Iran has not been able to extricate itself from the diplomatic, industrial and financial box that the last wave of intense sanctions managed to construct. The American message was designed to remind Iran about the difficulties they continue to face as a result of the sanctions regime.

In the final analysis, Washington’s proposal in this regard is not serious. How could it possibly be in Iran’s interests to agree to make the interim agreement less temporary? It’s conceivable that they could agree to such an arrangement, but only to buy time. But there is simply no way that Tehran could live with the interim arrangement as a long-term formula.

This might well have played into the widely-reported and uncharacteristic outburst of anger by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who reportedly shouted at his interlocutors: “Never threaten an Iranian!” Most speculation focused on the heavy attention this remark got in Iran’s domestic media, suggesting that the whole thing was a play for public opinion. And certainly all sides are doing their best to try to look tough to assuage domestic hardliners.

But the possibility that the outburst was genuine and meaningful should not be dismissed. If it was, what was the threat in question? The major threat coming from the American side has to do precisely with the idea that the talks could be mothballed in favour of an indefinite extension of the interim agreement arrangements. And that would indeed be enough to make any Iranian diplomat lose his temper.

The American side has also been provoked of late by Iran’s demands that any nuclear agreement should also involve a lifting of the UN arms embargo. This suggestion didn’t provoke an outburst, but it did produce a strong reaction from the outgoing chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey.

He told a Congressional hearing that “under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking,” seemingly ruling out any support for an American agreement to lift the embargo.

Russia and China, however, are reportedly strongly backing the new Iranian demand. This is hardly surprising, given that they are Tehran’s primary weapon suppliers. But it does mean that Iran has found a wedge issue dividing the P5+1 group, which has otherwise been surprisingly coherent across a variety of potentially difficult issues.

The Russians apparently also could not resist getting involved in the outrage game. “Or a Russian,” foreign minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly chimed in after Mr Zarif upbraided his interlocutors about threatening Iranians. The newfound Russian-Iranian common cause on not being threatened apparently came after European Union foreign policy head Federica Mogherini suggested that the talks might break down precisely because of Iran’s refusal to compromise on the arms embargo.

It’s entirely possible that Mr Zarif was basically playing tough for a domestic audience in preparation for unveiling an agreement that includes significant concessions to the West. But it’s also possible that his remarks, and those of Mr Lavrov, are actually public positioning in anticipation of a potential breakdown in negotiations. Either way, the uncharacteristic outbursts bear all the hallmarks of political manoeuvring before a major development.

It’s still far more likely that a deal will be achieved in the coming days than not, primarily because the core outlines of a deal were already laid down in the interim agreement: Iran will continue to enrich uranium but on a small scale and subject to intensive international inspections, in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. This would hold for 15 years, after which the issues would have to be revisited in some other context. Yet for both sides the devil is in the detail.

But as the United States has finally got around to reminding Iran in recent days, it can live with the status quo, including as laid out in the interim agreement, much more comfortably than Tehran can. And that ought to be enough to give the United States sufficient leverage to ensure that the details break largely in its favour. Or, everyone is now on notice, they really might just walk away after all.

The accusations will begin once a deal is reached

The accusations will begin once a deal is reached
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (3-L), Austrian President Heinz Fischer (2-R) and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (3-R) in a meeting in Vienna on 03 July 2015. Georg Hochmuth / EPA


With the international negotiations with Iran entering their final stage, all parties are reading from the same script in terms of managing expectations. The consistent message is that although there are numerous issues still unresolved, everyone is determined to finalise an agreement.

The second half of that statement is even more true than the first. Some of the toughest issues – including details of the inspection regime, the nature and timing of sanctions relief and what kind of nuclear research and development Iran would be allowed under an accord – are still not fully agreed. And while the parties have extended their deadline until at least July 7, they are clearly running out of time. If they do not have a deal by the end of the month, they are unlikely to ever get there.

But given the political investment in achieving an agreement by all the governments in question, especially in Washington and Tehran, failure is almost unimaginable. The parties may, in theory at least, still be willing to walk away from the table. And, if the other side is recalcitrant enough, they probably would. But, in reality, they are all loathe to do so, and they all know how invested the other is in success.

This has given both sides considerable leverage. But Iran appears to have so far put that opportunity to much better use than the US and its allies. The delicate balance in Vienna has produced a series of reciprocal but unequal concessions. It seems that Iran has been able to gain an upper hand by exchanging tactical, immediate concessions on its part for strategic, long-range concessions on the American side.

According to the Associated Press, a confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report issued Wednesday confirmed that Iran has made considerable progress in meeting its commitments to transform much of its existing enriched uranium stockpile into forms that are essentially not of military value. And, the report adds, this material is not being added to Iran’s store of low- enriched uranium that could be processed into weapons-grade fuel in the future. So, Iran is already held to be in compliance with its commitments under the interim agreement.

Meanwhile, the American side has adjusted its position on inspections, publicly agreeing that not all military sites will be subject to the regime. And Obama administration rhetoric is raising the prospect that most, if not all, of the sanctions – including those imposed on Iran due to its support for terrorism and other non-nuclear issues – will be lifted in short order after the agreement. The administration appears to put more stock in sanctions “snapback” than in maintenance. But many others doubt that sanctions, once lifted, can easily be reimposed, and think that therefore the true key is when and how they are eased.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming likelihood is that there will be an agreement this month, because it is in the interests of all parties that one is achieved. And, indeed, given the progress that has been made and the chance, admittedly slight, that an accord could lead to a lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear question, perhaps there really is no other viable, realistic option than trying to see what, in practice, an agreement can produce.

But no one should assume that a deal this summer will really restructure the strategic equation. It might. But there is every chance that, rather than ushering in a new era of harmony and cooperation between Tehran and its allies and Washington and the rest of the West, an agreement might quickly give way to an endless and increasingly bitter exchange of accusations over implementation.

This is especially true since the pressure to finalise a deal might lead the parties to overlook the fact that, while they agree on all of the specific language in an accord, they do not interpret it all in the same way. This is especially likely to emerge in the context of inspections, but also with regard to sanctions relief and other issues of implementation.

Despite the commitment of the two governments to reach a deal, let’s remember, there is still very little common interest between the US and Iran.

Even on the question of ISIL, which many cite as the prime example of how a new era has made Iran and the United States natural allies, there is, in fact, no real common agenda. Anyone who doubts that should look at how Iran’s English-language Press TV propaganda station airs a new segment almost every day asserting that ISIL is a deliberate American creation and puppet.

The United States and Iran are simply not counterintuitive but natural allies the way the United States and China clearly were at the end of the Vietnam War. This is an illusion that many harbour, but cold-eyed realists on both sides know that it’s simply not true. Therefore, an agreement may well be coming, and is probably worth a try. But it may be a lot less potent and meaningful in practice than its proponents hope.

Qatar Changes Course

DOHA, Qatar — The old joke among foreign policy wonks began thus: After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the world was surprised to discover that it still had two superpowers: the United States and … Kuwait. And, it went on, after Kuwait was chastened by the Iraqi invasion and the Persian Gulf war, by the mid-1990s the world again found itself with two superpowers: the United States and … Qatar.

This wisecrack lampoons the attempts of tiny but ultrarich Gulf states to punch above their weight in international relations. Kuwait may have once set the pace, but for the past 20 years Qatar has tried to leverage its vast energy wealth to build and project its influence throughout the Middle East.

Now, however, Qatar’s rulers seem to be adjusting their once-adventurous foreign policy. In particular, the rapprochement between Qatar and its neighbor and former rival, Saudi Arabia, marks a generational shift in strategic thinking.

Qatar’s astonishing wealth underwrote the policies under the previous emir — who ruled from 1995 until his abdication in 2013 — of spending lavishly on making friends and influencing people, Saudi Arabia excepted. For most of the past two decades, Qatar seemed driven by a determination to challenge and outflank its big brother to the West.

Among the most fundamental of Qatar’s numerous investments are the American military installations at Al Udeid Air Base and Camp As Sayliyah. Reportedly, these have been heavily funded by Doha, including more than $1 billion in initial construction costs. Qatar sees these bases as vital guarantors of its national defense.

Qatar’s regional strategy, meanwhile, focused on promoting Muslim Brotherhoodparties throughout the Arab world. But this approach provoked tensions with Saudi Arabia and another Gulf Cooperation Council state, the United Arab Emirates. Both have declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Qatar’s pro-Brotherhood policies were reflected in the activities of the influential state-owned Al Jazeera television news network, as well as in Doha’s financial support for Brotherhood groups, including Hamas in Gaza. Support like this strained relations with other Gulf Cooperation Council states over the upheavals in Egypt, Libya and other Arab Spring countries.

Tensions finally boiled over at a council summit in March 2014, which led Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha. The crisis continued until November, when it was finally resolved with the signing of the Riyadh “supplementary agreement.”

The full contents of the agreement have not been disclosed, but the widespread assumption that Qatar agreed to reduce its backing for Muslim Brotherhood movements has been borne out by a de facto shift of policy. Qatar has notablyreduced its support for Hamas, and there has been an exodus of Brotherhoodleaders from Doha.

In country after country, the Brotherhood’s fortunes were already in free fall. Doha clearly concluded that it was making too many enemies while backing a losing side.

The accession of new monarchs has also changed the dynamic between the once-rival states. In 2013, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad abdicated in favor of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and in January, King Salman took power in Saudi Arabia. Salman moved quickly to secure greater unity among the Gulf states, in particular ending the rift with Qatar. That was the prelude for a more assertive regional stance, best exemplified by the intervention in Yemen.

Doha has welcomed Riyadh’s new strategic direction. Qataris involved in the foreign policy debate in Doha now offer a robust defense of Gulf Cooperation Council actions that are harshly criticized outside of the Gulf. Public sympathy here for Saudi policies in Yemen, Iraq and Syria — and resentment of Iran’s role — reflects a level of cooperation between Riyadh and Doha unknown for two decades.

Along with this, there is a palpable sense of relief among Qataris that their leaders now define the national interest in a less arcane manner. These days, almost everyone in Qatar can explain what their country is trying to do and why. That wasn’t always the case, to put it mildly.

Qatar is also by far the most generous donor country investing in Gaza’s reconstruction. Counterintuitively, this has contributed to a thaw in relations with Israel, which cautiously welcomes Qatar’s investments in Gaza and its efforts to broker a long-term cease-fire, especially since they are coupled with reduced political support for Hamas. In March, Qatar’s representative in Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, praised Israel for facilitating Gaza reconstruction, the first public recognition of a new Israeli attitude that welcomes Doha’s efforts in the impoverished territory.

None of this is to say that the days of Qatari-Saudi rivalry are completely gone. Some level of competition is bound to continue. The more localized the issue, like an unresolved border dispute, the more likely the two countries are to fall out. And despite moving closer together, Qatar and Saudi Arabia still do not share a common view on several key regional issues.

Doha is less invested in the Muslim Brotherhood than it used to be, and Riyadh less hostile, but it would be an exaggeration to say the two leaderships view the Islamists in the same light. But there are good reasons Qatar seems to have concluded that rivalry with Saudi Arabia is at best pointless and potentially catastrophic.

One is the region’s grave security problems: Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen are imploding, and terrorist groups like the Islamic State are on the rise. Another is that with Tehran and Washington moving toward a nuclear agreement, if not a broader rapprochement, Qatar’s interest lies in closer ties with Gulf Cooperation Council allies, rather than going it alone.

This more circumspect foreign policy is a sign that Qatar has decided that coordinating with its Gulf neighbors should yield better results than trying to act like a miniature superpower.


Petty politics bode ill for the future of Palestine

Petty politics bode ill for the future of Palestine
Salam Fayyad the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority at his office in Ramallah on February 27th 2011. Photo for The National by Ilan Mizrahi


Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is 80 years old, an enthusiastic smoker and with a history of health problems. Yet not only has he refused to appoint an heir, one of his most energetic campaigns in recent years has been to systematically foreclose any prospect of the emergence of a successor, let alone a rival. This is the last thing Palestinians need, but it’s the one really successful government policy of late.

In the process, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah have, in one way or another, gone after, exiled, discredited or marginalised dozens of prominent individuals, including many who have no prospect or ambition to succeed Mr Abbas in any of his capacities, and cracked down on a large number of important non-governmental organisations. The main result has been an alarming constriction in the once robust Palestinian civil society and a severe narrowing of inputs into national decision-making.

The latest target of this campaign is former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and his Future for Palestine development institute. Initially accused of “money laundering”, now toned-down to “using money for political purposes”, the even more preposterous informal accusation against Mr Fayyad is that he has been plotting a “bloodless coup” against Mr Abbas with the ousted Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. However, Future for Palestine’s projects focus on developing wells and erecting solar panels for unserved villages – hardly the stuff of subversive intrigue.

On May 18, the anti-money laundering unit at the Palestine Monetary Authority ordered the freezing of two incoming transfers totalling $749,000 to the NGO from the Emirates Red Crescent. These funds were earmarked for two projects that would significantly benefit both the Palestinians directly helped and Palestinian society more broadly.

The first would benefit impoverished Bedouins in Area C, that 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank where the PA generally is prohibited from operating. The second project is dedicated to rehabilitating irrigation wells, some on the “Israeli side” of the “separation barrier,” which is often thought of as constituting an attempted unilateral Israeli de facto border. Palestinian projects “beyond” the wall are therefore even more consequential than those in other parts of Area C.

The two money transfers had already been vetted and approved by the anti-money laundering unit, and credited to the NGO’s bank account a week before the freeze was issued. However, the Authority used various legal provisions to freeze the assets for three, seven and 15 days in succession.

All of the legal powers available to attorney general Abdel Ghani Al Awewy to interfere with the transfer of the funds were exhausted, especially given the lack of any probable cause. The authorities then dropped all pretence, with Mr Al Awewy issuing a further freeze on June 15 affecting all the funds of the organisation and effective until he decides he is finished with his own investigation.

The practical effect of this open-ended freeze is to shut down the operations of Future for Palestine, which would appear to be the whole point of the exercise. Fatah and Mr Abbas do indeed face a mounting political crisis, part of which may involve Mr Dahlan. But it does not involve Mr Fayyad, who has never been a Fatah member and is being driven into the wilderness as the scapegoat du jour.

Mr Fayyad’s real “crime” is being an effective civil society leader independent of Mr Abbas and Fatah. Such figures used to be common and respected in Palestinian society, but increasingly they can expect a concerted effort by the government to shut their operations down. Civil society in Gaza was effectively done away with by Hamas years ago, and in the West Bank the PA is increasingly acting as if it wants to catch up to its Islamist rivals.

This isn’t the first time the PA has targeted Future for Palestine. Last August security forces raided its offices and questioned two employees, in a move widely seen as an intimidation tactic. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a western diplomat observing: “There’s no doubt that this process was initiated by orders from above. Such things don’t happen just like that.” Neither does the extralegal asset freeze.

The saddest thing is that it wasn’t ever thus. When he first came into office, initially as prime minister under the late Yasser Arafat, and then as president, Mr Abbas did not evince the characteristics of a would-be dictator. Yet if he can’t really be called a dictator these days, it is less that he has failed to develop such instincts and more that between the occupation and his own generally non-confrontational style he simply hasn’t accumulated enough practical authority.

A Palestinian president who thinks and acts like mayor of Ramallah, rather than a true national leader, leaves himself with limited scope for despotism, along with everything else. But as the scandal over Mr Fayyad’s NGO demonstrates, it can certainly be enough to do serious damage to the interests of Palestine, both in its present condition and its future prospects.

It’s not too late for Mr Abbas, who ought to consider his legacy, to recapture the spirit of his initial period in national leadership. Reversing the travesty over Mr Fayyad’s organisation would be an important step in the right direction.

Racial hysteria blights modern American culture

Racial hysteria blights modern American culture
Much of not most of American culture continues to view issues of “race” as centred on a black-white binary. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Of all the false, misleading and philosophically invalid identity categories that are seemingly inherent to modernity, concepts of “race” are probably the most persistent and damaging, particularly in the United States. Virtually everyone now knows enough to understand, if they stop and think about it, that “race” is an arbitrary and almost meaningless social construct. Yet it continues to dominate notions of identity, self and the other. As with any insidious neurotic symptom, understanding how racialised thinking functions does nothing to reduce its power.

An additional irony is that, uncritically accepting for a moment the received racial and ethnic categories, the relative percentages of both black and white Americans are in mutual decline. For most of the past few centuries, “white” and “black” people made up the two main “racial” categories of the American population, and hovered at about 80 and 20 per cent, respectively.

Depending on how one does the maths, it is either a short or moderate period of time before “white” Americans become a minority for the first time, with the aggregate of all “non-white” categories collectively making the majority. And it’s already possible to calculate, again depending on all kinds of variables, that African-Americans have already been superseded by Latinos as the largest minority in the country.

Nonetheless, much if not most of American culture continues to view issues of “race” as centred on a black-white binary. And all too often the beliefs at play are negative, hostile or angry.

The brutal murder of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week is only the most dramatic and tragic in a recent string of reminders about the enduring power of racism and racial violence against African-Americans.

When Barack Obama was elected president many rushed to the conclusion that racism had been dealt a fatal blow. Others, including several outspoken Arab-American academics, went to the opposite extreme by preposterously declaring that Mr Obama himself, by serving as the chief executive officer of an “inherently racist system”, became himself a de facto anti-black racist.

Neither of these positions is remotely sustainable. Mr Obama’s election certainly marks a turning point for African-Americans, but hardly the elimination of both structural, built-in patterns of racism that continue to pervade American society.

Over the past year or so, American society has been exposed to so many examples of the extent to which black people in the United States, especially young black men, are especially vulnerable to violence, both at the hands of the authorities, especially police officers (themselves often black), and marauding violent racists. The most notorious incidents were in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. But everyone who pays attention understands that those causes célèbres are merely the tip of a very ugly and huge iceberg.

And there is a particularly disturbing and persistent tendency for the media to try to blame the victims in these cases, often for the most mundane of reasons.

These incidents have become so disturbing that a major trope in American discourse now is the new slogan “black lives matter”.

It’s exceptionally disturbing that such a phrase would have so much resonance in 2015, but it does because the evidence that this value needs to be affirmed and respected, because it is so often violated, is simply overwhelming.

Last week’s church massacre is particularly evocative because of the history of violence against Southern black churches, both the infamous, such as the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four little girls, and the long-forgotten. In the 1990s there was a rash of still controversial church fires throughout the South that, in many cases at least, were almost certainly the result of racist arson. This particular church was the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the American South, cofounded in 1818 by the leader of a failed slave revolt. It was burnt to the ground in 1822.

Needless to say, sadly, the culprit in this case (there is really no need to use the term suspect, because there is no doubt of his responsibility) is not being described as a “terrorist,” or the crime as an act of “terrorism”, by either the state and local police or federal government officials.

The reticence to use this term, when the available evidence strongly suggests that the motivation was to try to provoke a generalised “race war”, would be mystifying if it were not consistent with a broad pattern.

Both the identities of the killer (an angry young white man) and the victims (random, innocent African-Americans) make such a designation unfortunately unlikely.

American culture has entered a phase in which the designation of crimes as “terrorism” and culprits as “terrorists” depends, more than anything else, on the question of identity with white American culprits least likely to be so designated, particularly when their victims are not white.

It’s a cliché to note that, from even long before its founding, “race” has been the savage underbelly of American culture.

For all the undoubted progress that has been made in the half-century since the civil rights movement, and even with an African-American president in the White House, the ugliest side of American culture is still defined by delusional racial thinking and, indeed, hysteria.

ISIL’s strategy in Saudi is the height of cynicism

ISIL’s strategy in Saudi is the height of cynicism

Members of the Saudi security services inspect the site of a car bomb attack targetting Shiite Saudis attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. EPA

ISIL’s two suicide bomb attacks against Shiite mosques in eastern Saudi Arabia in the past week are, perhaps, even more disturbing than its recent territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. These attacks are intended to put Saudi Arabia in a no-win situation, and a position in which its responses will inevitably play into the hands of the terrorists.

Obviously the attacks are designed to communicate that ISIL is able to operate effectively on Saudi soil. The terrorist group openly boasts that it has demonstrated this capability in spite of the heightened security at Shiite mosques across the country following the first attack, last Friday, in Al Qudeeh that killed 21 people.

So the challenge to Saudi government authority and sovereignty reflected in the attacks is unambiguous. It is also an attempt to take advantage of, or rather to sabotage, Saudi foreign policy. The sectarian nature of the atrocities arises in the context of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen against the Zaydi Shiite Houthi militia, and a concomitant rise in both implicit and explicit anti-Shiite rhetoric in some parts of Saudi discourse.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen was a significant political blow to ISIL, since the extremist group always tries to position itself as the Sunni vanguard against all expressions of Shiite power. Although this was not Riyadh’s motivation, its intervention against the Houthis undermined ISIL’s claims to be that unchallenged spearhead. So, ISIL now seeks to stoke sectarian tensions inside Saudi Arabia in an effort to regain control of a narrative in which it is always leading the battle against “the atheist rafida” (as ISIL’s derogatory anti-Shiite terminology puts it).

ISIL’s strategy is the height of cynicism. If the Saudi government cracks down on the terrorist group inside the country and moves strongly and effectively to protect its Shiite citizens, ISIL will denounce the Kingdom for supporting “impure infidels” (another favourite ISIL insult for Shiites). ISIL will also present itself as leading the battle to “purify the land of the two shrines” from this “impure” presence. If, on the other hand, the Saudi government is either too restrained or unsuccessful in its efforts to crush the terrorists, ISIL may succeed in fomenting dangerous new levels of sectarian tension in Saudi Arabia, and particularly in its strategic and oil-rich Eastern Province governorate.

Since its earlier incarnation as Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL’s stock in trade has been the fomenting and exploitation of Sunni-Shiite tensions and its concomitant efforts to present itself as the most powerful, effective and uncompromising enemy of Shiites and defender of Sunnis. ISIL’s success in the Syrian conflict was a direct and immediate consequence of the fact that the Assad dictatorship sought to use precisely the same strategy, but in reverse, to hold on to power.

Even in the early days of the uprising, when it was facing little more than unarmed and nonsectarian demonstrators, the Syrian regime sought to present itself as the defenders of Alawites, Christians and all non-Sunnis against an alleged, and at the time fictional, jihadist onslaught. The dynamic the regime carefully crafted played perfectly into the hands of ISIL, which, in turn, was exactly the kind of extremist enemy the dictatorship wanted to dominate the rebellion.

Both the dictatorship and ISIL became perceived in large parts of Syrian society as precisely the kind of monstrous sectarian enemy that allowed each to present themselves as saviours, no matter how otherwise distasteful, to their existentially-threatened constituencies.

The dynamic in Iraq has been similar, particularly insofar as the power of sectarian Shiite militias and political organisations has alienated, and even terrified, large portions of the Iraqi Sunni Arab population. As in Syria, this has allowed ISIL in Iraq to outrageously, but effectively, pose as that community’s last line of defence.

Al Qaeda in Iraq pursued a long-standing policy of ruthless massacres and atrocities against Shiite targets in a conscious and deliberate effort to radicalise Shiite fighters and foment bitter sectarian divisions. It was characterised precisely by spectacular suicide bomb attacks against Shiite mosques, such as that targeting the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006. The attack itself did not cause any deaths, but it led to the killing of at least 1,000 people in brutal sectarian reprisals in the subsequent days.

ISIL’s strategy has always been to seek to provoke sectarian conflict, and sectarian atrocities, to allow it to rationalise its extremism, justify its abuses and pose as defenders of the Sunnis. The effectiveness of this strategy in both Iraq and Syria, wittingly or unwittingly abetted by sectarian extremists on the other side in both countries, continues to this day.

Saudi Arabia is, therefore, on full notice of the exact nature of the severe threat posed by ISIL’s attacks against Shiite mosques. To avoid this trap it must find a delicate and precise balance that allows it to successfully protect and reassure its own Shiite population while minimising the ability of ISIL operatives to carry out further sectarian atrocities. King Salman has said the authorities will pursue the perpetrators and efforts to combat extremism will not stop. To be successful, Saudi policies are going to have to ensure that Saudi Shiites do not feel abandoned or unprotected, and that Saudi Sunnis understand that they are the real targets of ISIL’s terrorism.


After Ramadi, the US must be honest about its goals

After Ramadi, the US must be honest about its goals
Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi cross the Bzebiz bridge fleeing fighting in Ramadi (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)


The fall of Ramadi to ISIL was an alarming setback. But it exposed an underlying reality that was being ignored, and seems to have prompted a badly needed new atmosphere of introspection, and greater public frankness, in the Obama administration.

It has focused attention on the shortcomings of the strategy being pursued by the anti-ISIL coalition in both Iraq and Syria, and the need for a serious expansion and rethinking of the policy.

And it reminded all observers that the current approach – both in terms of how the campaign is being waged and the disturbing gap between the goals that have been set and the resources being allocated to trying to achieve them – is poised precariously between a policy that seeks to severely damage and marginalise (“destroy”) ISIL versus one that, in effect, seeks to contain it.

The fall of Ramadi once again demonstrates the profound weakness of the Iraqi armed forces, at least when operating against ISIL and in Sunni-majority areas of the country.

As on several other key occasions in the past, particularly during the fall of Mosul, Iraqi troops simply scattered. It raises the question not merely of the martial capability of these forces, but also of their willingness to fight against ferocious and determined opposition and retain control of areas of the country with which they may not fully identify.

ISIL again demonstrated that its strategy of intensively softening up a targeted area with major suicide bomb attacks before moving in to take advantage of the chaos with lightning speed is disturbingly effective.

The Iraqi military does not appear to have developed any tactical response to this method of attack. The coalition approach relyies on ground forces that frequently are simply not up to the task of combating ISIL.

All too often, sectarian Shiite militias, many of which have been implicated in serious massacres and other abuses, have taken the lead in government efforts to retake ISIL-controlled territory. This, of course, plays directly into the hands of the terrorists, allowing them to pose as the protectors of local Sunni communities, and casting the anti-ISIL campaign as, in effect, an extension of Iran in Iraq, and Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

ISIL has a well-earned reputation for effective messaging. But as long as images of Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani overseeing fighters in the field arrayed against ISIL emerge from every battleground, its most potent propaganda is being provided by others, gratis. Unless and until Sunni fighters, under whatever rubric, begin taking the lead in the battle against ISIL in Iraq, sustained success is unlikely.

Finally, the loss of Ramadi yet again underscores another obvious, and eventually potentially fatal, flaw in the coalition approach, which is not having an integrated strategy in both Iraq and Syria. Until now, attacks against ISIL in Syria have been seen as a kind of appendage of the main campaign, which is centred on Iraq.

The reasons why the coalition has focused almost entirely on Iraq, and viewed its actions in Syria as simply supportive of the Iraqi campaign, are far less important than the fact that this distinction virtually ensures the failure of the effort.

ISIL cannot be combated piecemeal, and only where it is politically convenient. Either the effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group is a thoroughgoing and serious one, or the real mission will be simply to drive it out of Iraq. This can only be described as a policy of containment, far different from the stated goals of the operation.

Much of this has been obvious for a long time, but was being papered over by increasingly anodyne, vague and even misleading official US government statements about the campaign in recent months.

However, a May 20 State Department background briefing was refreshingly frank and informative, and suggests that the setback in Ramadi may have shaken up at least parts of the Obama administration and prompted a greater willingness to publicly assess the difficulties and shortcomings of the campaign.

The unnamed senior State Department official identifies ISIL as “a formidable, enormous threat,” and says that it will take at least three years merely to “degrade” the group, let alone “destroy” it. The official admits the US government doesn’t know how many fighters ISIL has overall, or how many of them were deployed in overrunning Ramadi. And the official also admits, “you would have to be delusional not to take something like this [turn of events] and say, ‘What went wrong?’”

But, as military and security expert Anthony Cordesman has correctly noted, the coalition, and particularly the United States, have now reached a point in the struggle against ISIL “where more action is needed than simply addressing one defeat with a new degree of honesty and depth”.

The US and its partners are either going to have to start committing the kind of resources, and taking the kind of risks, necessary to inflict serious and sustained damage on ISIL, or publicly admit that the real policy is a containment strategy that accepts ISIL as a part of the Middle Eastern political landscape into the foreseeable future.