Many things have already been said about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. In this piece, I want to focus on the reactions of Middle Eastern leaders to the outcome of the US election.
Although it would not be completely surprising if Trump’s positions on the Middle East will change from the campaign trail to the presidency, they are still worth considering. As summarized by Paul Salem, these positions are:
- he favors cooperation with Russia and the Assad regime in Syria against ISIS and has little regard for the Syrian opposition;
- he has promised either to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran or to monitor it very aggressively; either way the tone of détente will be replaced by hostility;
- he has spoken fondly of authoritarianism and authoritarian leaders, and argued that human rights and democracy should not be US foreign policy priorities;
- he has said he will ratchet up the war on ISIS without revealing how that would happen;
- he has vilified Muslims and called for a ban on their entry to the United States;
- he has questioned America’s alliances and commitments, and argued instead that US protection should be in exchange for payment.
Egypt President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called Mr. Trump and expressed hope his election will “inject a new spirit into the trajectory of Egyptian-American relations.”
Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised the president-elect for continuing to prioritize the war against the extremists: “We are looking forward to seeing the world and the United States of America standing by Iraq in facing terrorism.”
Saudi King Salman expressed hope that Trump would bring stability to the Middle East. “We wish your excellency success in your mission to achieve security and stability in the Middle East and worldwide,” he said, praising US-Saudi relations, which are “historic and tight between the two friendly countries, that all parties aspire to develop and reinforce”.
A spokesman for the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbassaid: “We will deal with any president elected by the American people on the principle of achieving permanent peace in the Middle East based on the two state solution on June 4 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital.”
The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru by David Samuels.
In this article in The New York Times, Samuels provides an insider’s view on the person of Ben Rhodes. Rhodes is deputy national security adviser for strategic communications to President Obama and, according to the author’s sources, “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself”.
I find two aspects of this long article especially interesting.
The first aspect concerns the way the US administration has been using new information technologies “to spin” the news.
“The easiest way for the White House to shape the news is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps … But then there are sort of these force multipliers … We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple of people … and I’ll give them some color … and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.”
The second aspect regards details on the US-Iranian negotiations leading to the JCPOA.
In particular, on the when, the who, the how, the where, and the why the negotiations took place.
With regard to the WHY, Samuels writes that “by eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”
I am personally not so sure about the goal of “disengagement” from the ME but I do share the opinion that there was the idea within the Obama administration of “disentangling” the United States from a controversial/constraining/complex system of regional alliances. This does not mean that the administration wanted to abandon their ME allies, rather, that US officials wanted to make the United States less dependent on them and freer to design its own foreign policy in the region.
The full article can be read here
Given the current level of tensions among the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran, any talk about cooperation between the two countries seems unlikely and even naive. However, the possibility for cooperation between these two major actors in the Persian Gulf should be seriously explored. Here is an excerpt from an article on Markaz that does so:
“To head off outright confrontation, Saudi Arabia and Iran need to identify potential areas of shared interest. Both states’ economies are dependent on oil, and both are working to reduce that reliance. To some extent, each country’s economy depends on the other’s success. Both are targeted by the same terror groups, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State. And the countries face similar environmental threats, including oil spills, challenges related to accelerated industrialization, and water shortages. In all of these areas, Iran and Saudi Arabia can work together. It won’t be easy, but there are helpful historical examples. Seventy years ago, no one could have imagined France, Germany, and Britain overcoming their regional rivalries to become close political and economic partners.”
The full article can be read here
Today, 14th July 2015, the so-called E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the Islamic Republic of Iran reached a potentially historic deal on Iran nuclear program.
The full text of the joint Comprehensive Plan of Action can be read here.
This is a link to a map showing the location of the major Iranian nuclear facilities (I could not personally verify the accuracy of the map but I thought it useful to have a “visual” idea of the situation on the gound).
Below are some of the main points of the Plan as summerized by the newspaper The Telegraph:
• Iran will sacrifice two-thirds of its ability to enrich uranium, the vital process that could be used to make the core of a nuclear bomb. All but 6,000 of Iran’s 19,500 centrifuges will be placed in storage, monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
• Iran will export all but 300kg of its entire stockpile of eight tonnes of low-enriched uranium.
• The combined effect these measures will be to place Iran about 12 months away from having enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb – compared with its current “breakout” time of three or four months.
• The Fordow enrichment plant, which was built in secret inside a hollowed-out mountain, will be converted into a research centre. Almost two-thirds of the centrifuges in Fordow will be removed and the remaining 1,000 will not be used to enrich uranium.
• Iran’s heavy water plant at Arak will be redesigned and rebuilt to make it impossible to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
• Iran will implement the “Additional Protocol” safeguards agreement, giving IAEA inspectors more powers to monitor its nuclear plants and other facilities.
• Once the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has taken these steps, America and its allies will lift all nuclear-related economic sanctions, including oil embargos and financial restrictions. This could release over $100 billion (£65 billion) of frozen Iranian assets.
• America and its allies will also recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, as guaranteed by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
• Iran will remain subject to a UN arms embargo for five years. Restrictions will stay on its ballistic missile programme for another eight.
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In this post I invite you to read two articles on Iran’s role in the Middle East.
The first one is “Iran and the Middle East: leveraging chaos” by Karim Sadjadpour and Behnam Ben Taleblu.
The second one is “No, Iran Isn’t Destabilizing the Middle East” by Paul Pillar.
The two titles already suggest the existence of opposite positions between the authors.
Sandjapour and Taleblu offer what we could define as the “general wisdom” about Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East.
They address the destabilizing role of Iran in countries like Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen and argue that Iran’s foreign policy is generally guided by revolutionary ideology instead of the pursue of the national interest.
In the second article Pillar (in my opinion convincingly) challenges this general wisdom and offers a different analysis of the facts.
Pillar concludes by saying that:
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This brief piece published on The Economist provides useful information on and background of the recent framework agreement reached by the U.S. and Iran.
When and how did these talks begin?
Talks that led to a breakthrough interim agreement agreed in November of 2013, known both as the Geneva Accord and the Joint Plan of Action, began in February of that year. Prior to that there had been numerous (unsuccessful) attempts to negotiate a deal with Iran since 2002 when Iranian dissident groups raised the alarm over the country’s nuclear programme by revealing the existence of two facilities that had not been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
Two things have given the current talks real momentum, however. The first was a back channel to Iran opened up by the Obama administration in March 2013 that led to several secret bilateral meetings in Oman. The second was the election in June of 2013 of Hassan Rohani, who 10 years before had served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator, on a platform promising constructive engagement with the international community aimed at lifting harsh economic sanctions and ending Iran’s international isolation. The negotiations leading to Thursday’s pact kicked off in March 2014. Several deadlines for a comprehensive agreement were extended. The final deadline has now been set for July 1st of this year, but the White House needed a detailed framework agreement to be in place well before the return of Congress from its Easter break, in order to head off an attempt by Republican critics of any deal with Iran to legislate for new sanctions and thus kill off the talks.
Who are the P5+1? Why not call it the P6?
The P5+1 are America, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany. The first five are all permanent members of the UN Security Council. Germany is there because it was part of an EU3 including France and Britain, that held an earlier series of negotiations with Iran. The European Union is also represented at the talks by its foreign affairs supremo. The UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran since 2006 following reports by the IAEA regarding Iran’s non-compliance with its safeguards agreement under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Sanctions were first imposed when Iran rejected the Security Council’s demand that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.
What did they hope to get out of a deal?
In short, the P5+1 wants to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, or at least to stop it from being able to get one either very quickly or clandestinely. To that end the negotiators have compromised over allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium, concluding that complete dismantling of a huge infrastructure was unrealistic. However, they have sought strict limits on Iran’s enrichment programme, the redesign of a plutonium-producing heavy water reactor under construction and a highly-intrusive inspection regime to prevent cheating. Their aim has been to extend Iran’s “breakout capability”—the key yardstick of the time needed to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon—from the current estimate of a couple of months to at least a year, and to maintain it there for a decade or more.
What did Iran hope to receive?
For Iran, the pressing need is to gain relief from sanctions that have ratcheted up in severity and are having a crippling effect on its resource-dependent economy. In particular, restrictions on its oil and gas exports, its ability to import technology to exploit its energy resources, and being cut off from SWIFT, the financial-messaging system used to transfer money between the world’s banks, have taken an increasing toll. Iran would have liked all sanctions to end from the moment of a deal being signed, but relief will be staged on the basis of good faith implementation of whatever limits on the nuclear programme are finally agreed. Sanctions related to other aspects of Iran’s behaviour, such as human-rights issues, support of terrorism and its ballistic-missile programme will not be affected. Furthermore, Mr Obama can only suspend sanctions that Congress has legislated.
What does the deal actually include?
The agreement announced on Thursday night was more detailed than most expected, but nothing is in place until a formal deal is signed before the July 1st deadline. However, under this statement of intent Iran will reduce its installed enrichment centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000, only 5,000 of which will be spinning. All of them will be first-generation centrifuges: none of its more advanced models can be used for at least 10 years, and R&D into more efficient designs will have to be based on a plan submitted to the IAEA. Fordow, Iran’s second enrichment facility (its main one is at Natanz) which is buried deep within a mountain and thought to be impregnable to conventional air strikes, will cease all enrichment and be turned into a physics research centre. It will not produce or house any fissile material for at least 15 years. Iran has said it will reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (which can be spun further into weapons-grade material) from 10,000kg to 300kg for the next 15 years. Iran’s alternative plutonium path to a bomb also appears to have been satisfactorily dealt with. The heavy-water reactor at Arak will be redesigned and its original core, which would have produced significant quantities of weapons-grade plutonium, will be removed and destroyed. No other heavy-water reactor will be built for 15 years.
All these undertakings hinge on the assurance that Iran will abide by them. Without a uniquely intrusive inspection and verification regime, sceptics would still be right to question their worth given Iran’s past history of lying and cheating over its nuclear programme. Under the terms of the framework agreement, inspectors from the IAEA will be able to inspect any facility, declared or otherwise, as long as it is deemed to be “suspicious”. The agreement also states that Iran will address the IAEA’s concerns about what it calls the Possible Military Dimensions (PMDs) of its nuclear programme. Such powers for the IAEA, which will remain in place indefinitely, are a lot more sweeping than those it has under the normal safeguard agreements that are part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
What needs to happen by July 1st?
Basically, a lot more of the technical detail needs to be filled in. The exact nature of the inspection and verification regime is especially important as are the penalties for non-compliance (such as automatic snapback of US and EU sanctions and new UN resolutions). Because the framework agreement was so specific, some of the heavy lifting has been done. But the negotiator’s watchword is that until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed.
Who is hoping the deal falls apart? What are the odds they get their wish?
The deal has many strenuous critics. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has described it in almost apocalyptic terms (although much of Israel’s security establishment is more sanguine about it); Republican hawks in Congress (and even some Democrats) hate the idea of any deal with Iran that does nothing to address its behaviour as a troublemaker in the Middle East and as a sponsor of designated terrorist outfits, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon. The deal is also opposed by hardliners in Tehran who may still be hoping to win over the enigmatic but ailing supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to their point of view. Elements of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), who control military sites which the IAEA will have to gain access to if it is to address the vital PMD issues, may be quite happy to find a way of sabotaging the deal. The IRG may even wish to see sanctions remain in place, as they have provided money-making opportunities for many of its leaders.
However, the problem faced by those who would like to see the deal collapse is that they have yet to offer any attractive alternatives. Ordinary Iranians are desperate to get back to having a normal economy, while American voters have little appetite for going to war with Iran to prevent it getting a nuclear weapon. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted just before the agreement on April 2nd was announced, Americans support the notion of striking a deal with Iran that restricts the nation’s nuclear program in exchange for loosening sanctions, by a nearly two to one margin.
If the deal holds together, what does that mean for the Middle East?
That is hard to say. Overall, if the deal does what it is meant to, it should make the region a bit safer, heading off, at least for now, the prospect of a dangerous nuclear arms race involving Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt and Turkey as well. Israel will surely be more secure if Iran’s breakout capability is extended to over a year from just a month or so and its whole nuclear programme becomes vastly more transparent. What a deal is most unlikely to do, at least in the short-term, is to make Iran a more cooperative, less aggrandising player in the region’s geopolitics. If Iran feels richer, there is a risk it may actually interfere more. This is an arms-control deal between adversaries, not a friendship hug. Interests will continue to diverge between Iran and the West. Just possibly, however, if Iran’s economy becomes re-integrated with the world, and a degree of trust is established on all sides by Iran’s meeting the obligations they have signed up to, something more fruitful could eventually emerge.
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In this interesting article Martin S. Indyk, executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, argues that, given the current situation, the United States has to work with some coalition of regional powers to bring back some kind of much needed stability to the Middle East. Indyk offers two options:
1. Joint Condominium with Iran: The essence of this approach is for the United States to concede Iran’s dominance in the Gulf in return for its agreement to curb its nuclear program, reduce its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and Basher al-Assad in Syria and contribute instead to the construction of a new regional American-Iranian order.
2. Back to the Future: This approach would require the United States to return to its dependence on its traditional allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. The objective of this renewed “pillars” strategy would be to restore the old order based on the containment of Iran, the roll-back of its advances in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the curbing of its nuclear program. This same coalition of traditional allies would then have the sense of security to work more effectively with the United States against ISIS and Al Qaeda.
In this second article, Indyk explains why he believes that the Back to the Future option is a more viable option.
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