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Iraq minus US

Al Arabiya has an article up detailing an interview with Iraq Deputy Parliament speaker Qusay al-Suhail, who is a political ally of Moqtada al-Sadr.  Al-Sadr has been a staunch believer that a complete withdraw of US troops at the end of 2011 was the only acceptable outcome, which fortuitously President Obama has now announced will be the case.  Al-Suhail explains his position that once the United States had completed its mission of removing Sadaam Hussein from power, it then became an occupying force imposing itself on Iraq.  He also suggests that the stress put upon Iraqi society by the invasion is what motivated so much strife and violence, which is not a behavior consistent with the Iraqi character.  Finally, he explains that Iran, while often accused of having undue influence on the new Iraq, is not as dominant as it is sometimes thought to be.

“Many countries in the region interfere in the Iraqi political scene and not just Iran and any delay in the formation of the government can be due to several factors related to some or any of those countries that influence Iraq’s internal affairs in one way or another.”

Many were surprised when President Obama announced that he wanted a complete withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.  My opinion is that there is little to be gained for Iraq by leaving 5-10,000 US troops behind, although I have no empirical evidence to defend my guesswork.  To me, it seems like an ambitious decision that trades short term ramifications for (hoped for) long term benefits.  What do you all think?  Is a complete withdraw the right decision, especially when its biggest proponents are in the Sadr political corner?


Iran’s plot

Not a lot in the way of news today, so I thought today it would be good to take a look at an opinion piece from Al Jazeera.  The author, Pepe Escobar, takes a skeptical view of the alleged Iranian terror plot, which Washington claims to have damning evidence of.

The whole thing smells like a flimsy pretext for a casus belli. The timing of the announcement couldn’t be more suspicious. White House national security advisor Thomas E. Donilon briefed King Abdullah of the plot no less than two weeks ago, in a three-hour meeting in Riyadh. Meanwhile the US government has been carrying not plots, but targeted assassinations of US citizens, as in the Anwar al-Awlaki case.

The Iranian government, for its part, has sent a letter to the UN Security Council accusing the United States of warmongering.

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at least introduced a little bit of common sense. “I think the US government is busy fabricating a new scenario and history has shown both the US government and the CIA have a lot of experience in fabricating these scenarios … I think their goal is to reach the American public. They want to take the public’s mind off the serious domestic problems they’re facing these days and scare them with fabricated problems outside the country.” Iran has not even established yet that these two characters are actually Iranian citizens.

There have been reports that President Obama was briefed on the possibility of a plot as early as June.  I think that whether or not you believe this story comes down to the degree to which you believe Iran is, in essence, evil, or at least is hellbent on ruining the United States.  I fall on the Iran-not-evil side of things, and so my inclination is to also approach this plot with a degree of skepticism.  My non-factual opinion is that our intelligence agencies may, when they find a suspicious target, run long sting operations in which our government inspires and advances the plot to observe what might come out of the woodwork, and then proceeds with charges before the plot is every really hot.  So, if you find a guy who dislikes America and boasts about his connections, encourage him and provide him with new connections–basically set the opportunity to act on his boasts in front of him–then observe what he does, and finally arrest him and announce that the plot was disrupted, even though his chances of acting on his boasts, and from there succeeding, were improbably low.

That’s my take at least, it’s probably wrong.

Two developments in Yemen

The United States killed two Americans in Yemen, both of whom had joined Al Qaeda, according to the New York Times.  One was Anwar al-Awlaki, a major Al Qaeda figurehead/leader/cleric in Yemen that the US has been aiming to kill for some time now.  This strike comes despite the upheaval in Yemen, and the absence of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In early September, the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said recent cooperation with Yemen was better than it has ever been despite the prolonged absence of Mr. Saleh, who returned recently after four months in Saudi Arabia recovering from wounds he suffered in a bomb attack on his presidential palace.

The article goes on to indicates that America’s interests in Yemen are almost entirely motivated by a desire to track down and kill Al Qaeda, and that so long as Saleh is a partner in that mission, the US will avoid putting any heavy pressure on Saleh to leave office.  The article also suggests that since al-Awlaki is an English speaker who aims his messages toward Muslims in the West, he had little influence on the course of protests and political developments in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the entrenched President Saleh has put out some new demands for leaving office, according to Al Jazeera.

In an exclusive interview on Thursday, the embattled leader told Time magazine and The Washington Post that a power transfer deal crafted by his Gulf neighbours calls for “all the elements” causing tension in Yemen to be removed and warned of a civil war if that did not occur.

Saleh was referring to dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who has joined ranks with a populist uprising that began early this year, and the powerful al-Ahmar tribe, not related to the general.

“If we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given in to a coup,” Saleh said in his first interview since returning home on Friday from a stay in Saudi Arabia to recover from injuries sustained during a June attack on his palace.

“If we transfer power, and they are in their positions, and they are still decision makers, this will be very dangerous. This will lead to civil war.”

In the interview, Saleh insisted he remained committed to the GCC initiative, denying claims he was seeking delays to hold on to power and putting the blame on the opposition’s inflexibility.

“This is a misunderstanding. We are willing within the next hours and next days to sign it, if the JMP [Joint Meetings Party] comes closer” to reaching an agreement, Saleh said about the Joint Meetings Party opposition coalition.

This all has sparked another round of protests and violence in Sanaa and Taiz.  Perhaps US involvement could break the deadlock.  Perhaps greater GCC pressure is what’s called for.  At the moment I’d say both sides seem firmly committed to staying their course, so some unforeseen development is needed before any breakthrough occurs.

Iran postures

This short article from the New York Times is pretty thick with things that deserve more details.  So I’m going to take it piece by piece.

Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defense minister, said the new missile, first unveiled a month ago and known as the Qader, which means Able in Farsi, had been mass-produced “as quickly as possible,” the country’s state-run media reported. The missile, designed to destroy warships and coastal targets, has a range of about 125 miles, the media said.

There is a picture of the new missile behind Ahmadinejad at the top of the article.  The obvious intention here is to have a weapon that threatens the US naval presence in the Gulf.  Iran’s long term goal is likely to push the US military out of the Gulf, which it views as a destabilizing force (and which we Americans view as a stabilizing force).  I’m not a military person, so I can’t get into technicalities of how effective this weapon might be, or how likely it is that the missile could successfully take down portions of the Sixth Fleet, but Iran surely hopes that our Navy is intimidated.

The announcement coincided with front-page headlines in a number of Iranian newspapers quoting the head of Iran’s navy, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, as saying he intended to deploy Iranian warships close to the Atlantic coast of the United States to reciprocate for the patrols in the Persian Gulf by the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The patrols are a constant source of irritation to Iran.

The article also points out that the US thinking is that the suggestion is ridiculous.  The Iranian Navy lacks the capability of deploying boats that far from Iran.  Besides, what is the point? Hypothetically, if such warships were understood to have any violent intent, they would have to cross the Atlantic,  where our military destroy them.  Instead, the idea works as a rhetorical device.  For many Americans, Iran approximates evil, and their deployment of warships to our coast would be anathema.  Yet they view us as an enemy too, and our warships have been patrolling their coast for years.

In another slap at the United States, General Vahidi also rejected any thought of creating a telephone hotline between Tehran and Washington. The idea that was floated a few weeks ago by Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a way of avoiding an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf, where American and Iranian naval vessels and aircraft sometimes operate within sight of each other.

“We do not need such a line in the region,” General Vahidi said, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency. “They are seeking to set up a hotline in order to solve any potential tensions, whereas we believe if they leave the region, there will be no tension.”

The US does not have any diplomatic relationship with Iran.  Perhaps Mullin’s desire to have a military channel of communication reflects the poor logic of that diplomatic stance, which we discussed here a few days ago.  Score one debate Zing! for Vahidi here.

His remarks may also have been an indirect slap at Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who endorsed the idea of a hot line when asked about it last week at a news conference at the end of his visit to the United Nations. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s standing within Iran’s hierarchy is in question because of his clashes with Parliament and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There has been a lot made over the past six months of a fall out between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.  Part of me wonders if it is exaggerated, wishful thinking on the part of those in the media who detest Ahmadinejad and would like to see him removed.  In this case, I’m reminded of when McChrystal was critical of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan in a Rolling Stone interview.  But then this case seems less severe than its American counterpart that I’ve brought up.

Iran’s latest military pronouncements come against a backdrop of continued foreign skepticism about its claims of peaceful nuclear energy development. Even Turkey, which has cordial relations with Iran, recently agreed to be one of the host countries for part of a new missile-interceptor system designed by the United States, which has expressed concern that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon that can be delivered via a long-range missile.

This paragraph implies that Turkey feels threatened by long-range nuclear missiles flying out of Iran, which I believe is not the case.  My understanding is that the US had to strong arm Turkey into putting up that missle-interceptor system.  So it is the US that is concerned and is working to surround Iran, much like we hoped to contain communism, which reminds me of a fantastic Foreign Policy article from last year.  Continuing…

Last week, American officials confirmed that the Obama administration had quietly provided Israel with bombs capable of destroying buried targets, including sites in Iran that could possibly house such a nuclear weapons program. Israel considers Iran its most dangerous enemy, and had been pressuring the United States for a supply of the so-called “bunker-busting” bombs .

I missed this news when it happened.  Bunker-busting bombs implies a preemptive strike on Iran from Israel, or at least that is the implication Iran will take away.  That would be incredibly destabilizing for the region.  I don’t like that the US made this sale.  Maybe it was to comfort Israel in the face of the Palestinian UN bid, I don’t know, but the move removes some ability of the US to control how events might transpire in the future.  If Israel were to use these bunker-busting bombs in a first strike, would Iran’s response not be to deploy as many of those Qader missiles as possible on our fleet in the Persian Gulf?  I know that the popular view is to see Iran as the irrational, militaristic, rogue, evil state, but in my view it seems like the US is doing its share of saber-rattling as well.

Honestly, I am incredibly liberal in my views on Iran.  I would prefer that the US aggressively seek rapprochement.  But what do you all think?  If Iran is damned determined to get nuclear weapons, how do we stop them?

Bahrain and colonialism

It is a slow news day; in the UN Security Council a resolution on Syria isn’t taking the shape America would prefer, according to Al Jazeera.  In Bahrain, the appeals of sentenced protesters were rejected.

So today I want to post an Al Jazeera piece from early September.  The author argues that the portrayal of Bahrain as split between Shi’a and Sunni is an over-simplification, and that rather Bahrain should be understood as struggling with colonialism, where the colonial British have set up a proxy authority (now controlled by the US and the Saudis) that happens to be Sunni in a place that happens to be populated by Shi’a.

The so-called sectarian divide of Bahrain is a manipulative simplification of a far greater divide: that of the colonially-installed government that has no connection with or compassion for the people of Bahrain. The Saudis are there to preserve Anglo-American power as they do in Saudi Arabia. They are Sunni. The people they rule over are primarily Shia.

These are the kinds of tensions the British specialized in and the Americans are taking advantage of in so many parts of the world. It’s an insidious approach to world affairs. Coupled with nonstop mainstream media portrayals of sectarian divides amongst the population, it has been a successful model for damaging the locals, their reputation, and their chances of getting the help they actually need.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to expect from Bahrain.  If the US and Saudi Arabia really are determined to support the Al Khalifa family out of fear of growing Iranian influence, among other factors, then international pressure wont mount.  If the army really has been carefully maintained to be all Sunni, then I can’t see the army switching its support from the government to the opposition, which I view as the critical step in any revolution.  So what is the best to hope for?  That the Khalifa family voluntarily relaxes its policies regarding the Shi’a population?  The other challenge activists face is that Bahrain is not a poor country.  It is not Qatar-rich, but it is not Yemen-poor either, so the desperation that plays a part in motivating other protest movements around the region may not exist in Bahrain.  Do we root for Iran to succeed in stirring up dissent?


Saudi women will gain a right in 4 years

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has announced that women will be able to participate in future municipal elections, according to Al Jazeera and The New York Times.  The Al Jazeera article explains that

More than 5,000 men will compete in Thursday’s municipal elections, only the second in Saudi Arabia’s history, to fill half the seats in the kingdom’s 285 municipal councils. The other half are appointed by the government.

Women will be allowed to vote in the next round of municipal council elections, which should come in 2015 or so.  The decision reflects long lasting pressures on the Saudi government to create better gender equality, as well as pressure from the Arab Spring to make changes that make government more representative and accountable to the people.

A quote from the Times:

“It is not something that will change the life of most women,” said Fawaziah Bakr, an education professor in Riyadh, noting that she had just held a monthly dinner for professional women who were buzzing with excitement about the change.

“We are now looking for even more,” Mrs. Bakr said. “The Arab spring means that things are changing, that the political power has to listen to the people. The spring gave us a clear voice.”

The story, for whatever reason, reminds me of this 2008 New York Times article about an unlikely icon (source of encouragment?) for Saudi Arabian women.

I think that the US is trying to come to grips with the fact that our less-than-wholesome allies in the Middle East are not entirely sustainable if we leave them to their own devices domestically.  So there is a challenge to push/encourage Saudi Arabia to take steps towards liberalizing their social/legal/political system when maintaining good relations is paramount to our Middle East strategy.  Given the Secretary of State Clinton’s priorities, especially in the area of gender equality, this might be a development that provides the United States an opportunity to build on.


Ahmadinejad gives a speech

President Mahmood Ahmadinejad of Iran addressed the United Nations in New York ahead of the big Palestinian push for statehood.  Al Jazeera reports that the speech was met with a walkout, as the United States, Israel, and various European Countries left their seats during the speech.  Obviously, Ahmadinejad is upset with the United States’ role in the Israel-Palestine peace process.

He also attacked the US for its history of slavery, causing two world wars, using a nuclear bomb against “defenseless people,” and imposing and supporting military dictatorships and totalitarian regimes on Asian, African and Latin American nations.

Ahmadinejad, who has called into question the Holocaust, raises extreme points that are generally ignored.  Still, there are people who assume similar positions regarding international affairs as Ahmadinejad, so his points must be heard and understood.  The general view of US policymakers is that Ahmadinejad is an interloper with devious, self-serving intentions, and so no effort is made to engage him.  Is this the best practice, or should the United States be more interested in creating a dialogue with the Ahmadinejad types?  The US doesn’t have any diplomatic relations with Iran.  Is that good policy?