Mohammed Nuruzzaman – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 23 Jun 2019 18:11:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Trump caught in Iran War Trap of his own Making Mon, 24 Jun 2019 04:03:13 +0000 Kuwait City (Informed Comment) – Iran–US tensions have reached the tipping point. The downing of a Global Hawk RQ4C surveillance drone, a high prized US military asset, by the IRGC air defense forces on June 21, has pushed the two enemy nations to the brink of war. A shooting war may break out at any time. This is no more a fantasy, a very high probability indeed.

President Trump, in fact, declared a war on Iran on the very day (May 8, 2018) he scrapped the Iran deal, unilaterally re-imposed illegal sanctions on Iran and threatened actions against any nations that would engage in trade or financial transactions with Iran, including oil purchases. The desired outcome of this so-called “maximum pressure” policy is to coerce Iran into complete submission, to force Iran to scale back its involvements in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and to dismantle its ballistic missile programs that pose threats to US interests in the Middle East and choke off its regional allies.

The “maximum pressure” policy has started backfiring; and more importantly, it has resulted in a “counter-maximum pressure” policy Iran is currently pursuing. Iranians have dubbed harsh US sanctions as “economic terrorism”, a sort of new terrorism that simultaneously violates all international laws and is slowly strangling the Iranian economy. This is a terrorism that avowedly aims to pauperize all Iranians, multiply their sufferings day by day and slowly kill them all, sans the direct use of force triggering a hot war.

Iran’s “Counter-maximum Pressure” Policy

Iran’s “counter-maximum pressure” policy, evident in recent nerve-wracking developments like shooting down of the US high-tech military drone, the threat of withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and a strong refusal to negotiate with the Trump regime, is a self-defense policy with an offensive component. The coercive US sanctions have seriously reduced Iran’s economic capacity and maneuverability putting its survival at risk. The Iranian government is pushed hard to the wall with two options left at its disposal – either surrender to the Trump regime’s dictates or confront the Trump regime to break its grip on the Gulf and the Middle East for the preservation of Iran’s independence. As it is clear, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has chosen the second option – to face off the Trump regime and its regional allies, even if that means an open conflict.

The “counter-maximum pressure” policy rests on some significant components that give Iran a competitive strategic edge in the tense standoff with the US. Iran’s major strategic assets are its regional allies – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Hezbollah fighters, with many of them currently deployed in Syria, and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza are capable of engaging the Israeli IDF and holding it back from coming to US military aid, in case a war breaks out with Iran. The Houthi forces are regularly hamstringing the Saudi-led coalition inside and outside Yemen, with a recent escalation in the salvos of missile attacks hitting vital Saudi economic and strategic targets like airports, oil pumping stations and water desalination plants. Riyadh is failing to cripple the Houthi missile power, let alone eliminate it. All this is a part of Iran’s counter-strategy to inflict deep damages on US’ Persian Gulf allies and dissuade them from tying the knot with the US in the future.

Iran’s most powerful weapon is its threat, backed by credible military capabilities, to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. Time and again, the Iranian leaders have threatened to close the Strait but never really did so. This time the threat sounds real as President Hassan Rouhani made it clear a few weeks ago that if Iran was not allowed to export oil, no oil would pass through the Hormuz. And Iran can actually stop oil shipments from the Gulf to wreak havoc on the global economy without resorting to force.

At its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is just 21 nautical miles wide. As per international law, Iran can legally claim 12 nautical miles as its territorial waters; so is the case with Oman located on the other side of the narrowest point. Legally speaking, nothing will go wrong if Iran, citing threats to its national security, decides to ban the movements of commercial and military vessels of enemy nations through its territorial waters. And a war between Iran and the US will encourage no commercial ship to sail through the Strait of Hormuz at all. The global oil markets will experience an acute shortage of 30% oil supplies that pass through the Hormuz pushing up uncontrollable upticks in oil prices. National economies around the world are most likely to experience a freefall with dangerous threats of energy crisis, downward GDP growth rates, economic dislocations, social and political violence etc.

Trump’s Limited Options

President Trump and his neoconservative warmongers – National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comfortably thought that economic hardships would leave Iran no option but to come to the negotiating table. They were living in a fool’s paradise and did not learn from the disastrous war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hardly did they make any rational assessment of the prospects of success of the “maximum pressure” policy; nor could they figure out the unfolding consequences of the policy which are spiraling out of control now. Iran’s “counter-maximum pressure” policy has caught them off-guard, to say it right.

The backlash of the “maximum pressure” policy has convinced Trump to bank on diplomacy to find a way out of the standoff with Iran. Last week Pompeo proposed to negotiate with Iran with no preconditions; Trump has also reiterated his readiness to talk to Iran absent preconditions. The Iranian response has been totally lukewarm and it refuses to pursue the fruitless North Korean diplomatic path. In his meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who attempted an abortive mediation role between Tehran and Washington, Ayatollah Khamenei said he did not consider Trump worthy of a message. This was an utter expression of Iran’s huge distrust in Trump and a slap in his face, to say the least. Iran insists the road to diplomacy is closed unless and until Trump returns to the 2015 nuclear deal and lifts all illegal sanctions imposed after May 8, 2018.

If diplomacy is not what Iran prefers as a productive option with the US, what other alternatives remain available to President Trump? A war with Iran, at last? That sounds unrealistic not only because it will set the global economy on an explosive course, also there is no guarantee that the US will win the war against Iran. History testifies that the US did not win any war after World War II. The so-called superpower has been battling the Taliban for almost two decades with no victory in sight; it was forced to withdraw from Iraq in 2011 after sustaining huge material and human costs. A new military clash with Iran, a country many times larger and militarily more powerful than Iraq, will be much more devastating and this may be America’s last episode in the imperial “Game of Thrones”. What’s the point of fighting a war that will further sink the US deep under the sands of Middle Eastern deserts? This point exactly explains why Trump has been quite reluctant to respond to Iranian actions against US military drone.

The story circulated by the New York Times that the president approved and then abruptly called off military strikes on Iranian targets sounds like a fiction. It was at best a face saving public stunt. The US did not pull back from invading Iraq in 2003 or launching air strikes on Libya in 2011 and on Syria last year knowing well that there would be high civilian and military casualties. Trump’s sudden concern for the loss of 150 Iranian lives from the strikes convinced him to walk back the strike approval is unconvincing. The real purpose was somewhere else: to restrain Iran from further attacks on American targets and find a diplomatic way to negotiate with Iran.

What’s Next?

Trump is caught in a dangerous crisis he chose to create at will by ditching the Iran deal and now hardly has a way to get out of it. In a sense, the current standoff with Iran is the logical culmination of the intense hostilities between the two adversaries since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The 2015 nuclear deal, spurred partially by the Islamic State menace, was a temporary arrangement to manage the never-ending tensions between them for a while. The deal did not address the deep strategic and political divergences between the two hostile parties – it did not achieve America’s expectations of a cooperative Iran; neither did it bring for Iran a recognition of its preeminence in the Gulf neighborhood and the Middle East region. If war becomes the ultimate option to resolve the deep divergences, as Clausewitz said war is the continuation of politics by other means, everybody will be the loser regardless of who emerges victorious at the end of the day.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

ABC News: “Trump seeks to make a deal with Iran”

How Saudi Arabia lost out to Iran and Turkey over failed Qatar Blockade Fri, 08 Jun 2018 04:01:27 +0000 The 5th of June was the first anniversary of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. Imposed on the accusation that Qatar was sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing the Middle East region, the blockade came as a big shock, a bolt from the blue for the Qataris but they have managed to survive it well. Qatar’s capacity to make quick diplomatic and economic adjustments to weather the impact of the blockade has saved it from a possible collapse. The Gulf state now looks stronger than what it was before the June 2017 diplomatic standoff, even after incurring a huge financial costs of US $43 billion, according to Bloomberg.

In early February this year, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani dubbed the boycott a “futile crisis” manufactured by the neighboring Arab quartet of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt. He claimed that Qatar successfully “preserved its sovereignty” by diffusing the crisis – a claim it is difficult to reject. In the past one year, Qatar neither accepted the 13-point demands of the blockaders, including the shutting down of state broadcaster Al Jazeera, scaling back relations with Iran, and expelling Turkish troops stationed on Qatari soil nor bowed to the pressures of its powerful Arab opponents. Rather, in a tit-for-tat, Qatar has recently banned Saudi, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt-made products in its domestic markets. Boycott blowback is in the offing!

Qatari Strategies

The Saudi-led bloc aimed to coerce Qatar into submission under the financial stress of land, air and sea boycott. But Qatar’s two-pronged diplomatic and economic strategy to fight back the boycott has paid off. It quickly pursued deft diplomacy to find friends outside the GCC, and was equally quick to make skillful economic policies to largely neutralize the impact of the Arab commercial siege.

Qatar, despite being a tiny Gulf state, is known for its high profile foreign policy in and outside the Middle East. It has had a diplomatic reputation of “playing all sides”, including both friends and foes, to its benefits. Being a member of the GCC (created in 1981 primarily to stand up to the so-called Iranian threats) Qatar has maintained good relations with Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis Iran, allowed Iran’s principal enemy the US to establish the Al-Udeid air base, the largest in the Middle East, outside Doha and even permitted Israel to open and operate a trade outpost in Doha in 1996, first closed down in 2000 due to Iranian and Saudi boycott threats of OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) summit Qatar was hosting at the time and finally in 2009 after the Hamas – Israel winter war of 2008–2009. In an attempt to impress the Obama administration and the Europeans, Qatar also militarily participated in NATO’s 2011 air operations in Libya to dislodge the Gaddafi government, raising eyebrows in Riyadh and Tehran.

The policy of “playing all sides” proved useful for Qatar to seek powerful friends to meet new powerful foes. The old diplomatic adage – the enemy of my enemy is my friend soon came into full play. Doha’s overtures to Saudi opponents Iran and Turkey for political and diplomatic bail out did not go unheeded. Turkey was already enjoying strong ties with Qatar, partly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood factor and partly influenced by the Erdogan government’s geopolitical drive to reach out to wealthy Gulf region. Capitalizing on a previous defense agreement with Qatar, concluded in the wake of the 2014 diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and the UAE (the two countries withdrew their ambassadors demanding Qatar stop interfering in their domestic affairs) the Turks sent military contingents to defend Qatar against foreign aggressions (read possible Saudi and UAE military attacks).

Iran, in a similar way, beefed up actions to aid the political and economic defense of Qatar. It buried the hatchet with Qatar as well as Turkey over Syria, where they back up opposite sides and still maintain simmering differences. For Iran’s decision to side with Qatar, a host of strategic considerations, particularly a crack in the GCC bloc to weaken Saudi standing in the Gulf neighborhood and to foil President Trump’s bid to shore up Sunni Muslim support for military actions against Iran played a critical role. Tehran readily offered all-out help – the shipments of food items, the use of Iranian airspace by the Qatar airways and the transition facilities for Turkish goods and services transferred to Qatar through Iran. Iran’s support was no doubt highly critical to Qatar’s survival at the initial “shock and awe” stage. A friend in need is a friend indeed!

On the economic front, Qatar did not experience any crack or crisis so far due to its enormous oil and gas resources, and successful rerouting of trade links with Iran, Turkey and Oman, in particular. It is the world’s largest exporter of LNG (liquefied natural gas) and has access to a nearly infinite gas reserve in the Persian Gulf, which it shares with Iran. With a 77 million tons of LNG production per annum, Qatar is a vital player in the world energy markets and plans to hike its LNG output to 100 million tons between 2022 and 2024 – a factor that discouraged LNG-dependent countries not to cut off diplomatic relations with Doha, notwithstanding the Saudi-led bloc’s campaign to isolate the Gulf state. Its sovereign wealth fund, a huge financial cushion of $320 billion managed by the Qatar Investment Authority, provided the Qatari government with the required liquidity to keep its financial institutions floating and to contain the economic costs of the blockade.

A recent IMF report on Qatar, issued in March, mentions fading impact of the blockade on Qatari economic activity, as growth continues to remain positive (2.2% in 2016 and 2.1% in 2017 while the projected rate for 2018 is 2.6%).

Recalibrating trade relationships with and finding alternative markets in Iran, Turkey and Oman as primary sources of imports were the much needed safeguards for the Qatari economy. In fact, Qatar is experiencing a trade boom with Iran and Turkey. Iran – Qatar trade went up 137% in the last fiscal year (March 2017 – March 2018), with Iran’s exports to the Gulf state hitting at a 140% growth. The value of Qatar – Turkey trade stood at $1.5 billion in 2017, pushing up the growth rate to 30% since the onset of the diplomatic crisis. Virtually, Iran and Turkey are shipping most consumer items to the Qatari markets, which Saudi Arabia supplied previously.

Boycott Blowback

The Saudi-led bloc has apparently made no big gains from its anti-Qatar drive, while its losses are piling up. Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely seen as the architect behind the drive, is frustrated to see that Qatari economy did not break, it is out of the orbit of the GCC and well into the arms of Iran and Turkey. His policy to keep Iran out of the affairs of the Arabian Peninsula (the justification for the attack on Yemen), after failing to contain Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria, has, in fact, brought Iran much closer to the Peninsula. So long Syria was Iran’s only strategic Arab partner but now there are two – Syria and Qatar. The list may get bigger in the future creating real problems for the Saudi-US-Israel alliance to put up a united GCC front against Iran. Recently, Qatar has publicly declined to “fuel a war” with Iran the Saudis, the Israelis and the Trump regime are threatening to roll back Iran’s regional influence.

The possibility of Qatar’s realignment with the Arab quartet, by way of reducing ties with Iran, looks slim as well. There exists an irreducible chasm in their mutual trusts, as the Qataris see the Saudis as a serious source of security threats, as next door aggressors. Qatari defense minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah revealed in February that the Saudis and the Emiratis had intended to invade Qatar at the beginning of the diplomatic rift to effect regime change in Doha. Reportedly, the invasion did not go ahead in the face of America’s strong disapproval. A return to GCC solidarity in the near future, after bridging the mistrusts and threat perceptions, remains a far cry.

Qatar’s perceptions of security threats from Saudi Arabia and the UAE have negatively pushed it down the road to join the arms race in the Gulf region. The Saudis are known for concluding defense deals with the US, the UK, France and Germany in recent years, worth hundreds of billions of dollars that made them the world’s fourth largest spender in arms (a total of 8.2% of world imports). Qatar entered into the fray after the blockade – a switch from soft power (investments in development, energy wealth, global broadcasting, companies and properties in Europe and America) to hard power. It signed a lucrative $12 billion arms deal with the US to buy fighter jets soon after the crisis had sparked and another 12 billion euro deal with France to buy fighter jets and armored vehicles.

The arms purchases strengthen Qatar’s sense of security, they also ratchet up tensions in the Gulf region. Just days ago, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz has threatened to attack Qatar unless it abandons the planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems. Rising tensions and war-like situation between Qatar and the Arab quartet, and between Iran and its foes – US, Saudi Arabia and Israel may end up in another major disaster for the entire Middle East region.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

?? Gulf crisis one year: Qatar steps up self-sustainability | Al Jazeera English

Why does Trump want to Sabotage the Iran Deal but to Negotiate with North Korea? Fri, 27 Apr 2018 07:30:02 +0000 The fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is sealed. It is set to expire by mid-May, as President Trump looks bent on ditching it. He won’t re-certify the deal unless some “terrible flaws” are fixed by Washington’s European allies – Britain, France and Germany. The “terrible flaws” are three additional elements Trump is seeking to latch onto the original deal – Iran’s ballistic missile program, curbs on regional influence, and further limitations on Tehran’s freedom to restart the nuclear program under the deal after 2025. The demand to incorporate the additional elements, which Iran interprets as an encroachment on its sovereignty, is simply a clear death blow to the deal. In a tit-for-tat move, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the deal if the US does so. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with the Associated Press, has stated that “[T]here won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in”.

Though he loathes the Iran deal, Trump is creating a lot of surprises by his readiness to engage the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whom he once denounced as “the little rocket man”. In a dramatic shift from his past bellicose mood, he recently praised Kim Jong-un as a “very open” and “very honorable” leader. Not only that, he is looking forward to a historic summit with Kim in late May or early June to broker a deal on North Korea’s nuclear program and advances. So, why does Trump stand ready to tear up the Iran deal but seek to negotiate with North Korea?

Iran and North Korea are, of course, two different cases operating from two different geopolitical theatres in the world. They stand poles apart ideologically, politically, culturally and economically. What brings them together, like their allies China and Russia, is their common quest for independence in world politics, an urge to walk past the US shadow and their common opposition to US hegemonic dominance in their respective regions. Their resort to nuclear option has been solely guided by an overarching need to achieve security autonomy to discourage the US from aggressing them now and in the future. North Korea has succeeded in achieving the ultimate nuclear deterrent by defying all US-led regional and international odds, while Iran opted to accept curbs on its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for sanction reliefs.

Why Trump engages North Korea

President Trump sees North Korea as a more formidable foe, a foe equipped with more strategic tools than Iran. It shares common borders with one of the world’s two superpowers – Russia and another great power – China that has protected the North Koreans at least since the 1950–1953 Korean War. Clearly, Kim Jong-un is negotiating with the Trump regime from a position of strength. The successful launch of ICBM Hwasung–15 in November last year proved North Korea’s effective and credible deterrence capability against future US attacks. The Hwasung–15 missile launch has effectively ensured regime survival in Pyongyang; it also brandishes direct threats to US mainland. North Korean scientists and technicians are assumed to have succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear warheads to mount on ICBMs, a development the US has many reasons to worry about. That means the nuclear situation in the Korean Peninsula totally spiraled out of control rendering the US no option but to negotiate with Kim Jong-un. Additional pressures for negotiations came from other regional parties, particularly from China and South Korea who stand to immensely suffer in case open hostility breaks out between the US and North Korea.

A probable Trump – Kim summit in May or June hardly guarantees any success on the nuclear front, however. The contradictory objectives both leaders are hoping to realize from the summit may end up in a major failure. Trump is looking for total destruction of the North’s nuclear program, including its nuclear and missile testing sites, what is dubbed denuclearization; Kim prefers the preservation of the nuclear option for future peace and for future Korean generations to live without security fear. In his address to the Workers Party of Korea on April 20, Kim declared a moratorium on further nuclear and missile testing as his country had achieved a viable nuclear deterrent. He also signaled North Korea’s willingness, as a world power, to enter into talks on global nuclear disarmament.

The White House misinterpreted Kim’s speech as a major concession to accept denuclearization. President Trump prematurely tweeted: “Wow, we haven’t given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for world), site closure, & no more testing!” He had the wrong impression that America’s strong-arm tactics produced the desired outcome. Other big hurdles in the way of a successful summit include the presence of American troops in South Korea, lifting of sanctions imposed on North Korea, the signing of a peace treaty between the two Koreas and the US etc.

There is no strong reasons for Kim to trust and conclude a deal with Trump’s America either. A noted American international affairs expert had this to say: “It’s hard to be powerful when nobody believes a word you say”. Indeed, the US has an infamous record of reneging on international promises and accords, creating widespread suspicions about its international behavior. Before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the US promised to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if he would permit German unification NATO would not move eastward by one inch. Subsequently, NATO’s eastward expansion became such a critical threat that Russia had to fight the Georgia war in August 2008 to resist NATO’s eastward drive up to the Russian door.

Former President George W. Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 creating a confidence gap with Moscow. The Bush administration also convinced the slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to dismantle his nuclear program in exchange for guarantees for regime survival – the guarantee that what happened to Saddam Hussein would not happen to Gaddafi. Alas! In late 2011 the US and NATO not only toppled the Gaddafi government through direct intervention to support the anti-Gaddafi rebels but also captured and killed him. A similar fate was awaiting the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad but he escaped because of strong Russian and Iranian military and diplomatic support. President Trump is on record for abandoning the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade agreement in the very first year of his government. Such developments are unlikely to escape the attention of the North Korean leader.

Why Trump reneges on the Iran deal

The Iran deal is the latest victim of America’s global non-committal postures. Possibly, Trump is finding it easy to tear up the deal as Iran is no North Korea. Unlike North Korea, Iran has no nuclear deterrent, no ICBM to threaten American territories far and wide, hardly has a committed great power ally standing firmly behind it and is surrounded by unfriendly or hostile neighbors in the region. Still, Tehran takes great pains to challenge America’s hegemonic role in its neighborhood and has successfully posited itself as a great stakeholder in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In contrast, the US enjoys the support of Iran’s two archrivals – Israel and Saudi Arabia, has military, air force and naval bases all around Iran and can even count on active military support by some big NATO allies, at least France and the UK, as demonstrated by the joint airstrikes on Syria on April 14.

Israel, in particular, is a much influential factor in Trump’s anti-deal position. Tel Aviv has been securitizing Iran’s nuclear program for quite a long time, often spreading lies and falsehoods that Iran was about to develop nuclear bombs. The 2015 Iran deal simply belied the Israeli claim and deprived the Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu of a deceitful propaganda tool against Iran. Thereafter, attention shifted to Iran’s regional role and ballistic missile program. On the whole, there is a clear political, military and diplomatic imbalance against Iran which Trump is exploiting to finally scrap the nuclear deal.

A great number of other reasons add up to the anti-Iran deal stance of a domestically beleaguered US president. The Iran deal, officially dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), brought a number of benefits for Iran, which the Iran hawks in Washington and in the Middle East region find completely unpalatable. By signing the deal, the Obama administration accorded a certain degree of legitimacy to Iran’s regional status and role. President Obama even advised the Gulf Arab leaders to share the neighborhood with Iran, much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia. Politically, the US accepted the Islamic government in Tehran as a legitimate Iranian government, and economically, the deal paved the way for Iran to reintegrate itself into and reap benefits from the global economy. Just in the first year after the deal was signed, Iran recorded a double-digit economic growth rate of 12.5% in 2016 but GDP growth rate slid to 3.5% the next year largely due to a series of post-deal sanctions unilaterally imposed by the US. Iran’s regional rivals are scared that Tehran will soon vault them past in economic performance to claim the top economic power status in the region.

In short, the Trump regime’s anti-Iran deal posture reflects the US and its regional allies’ ambitious desire to undercut Iran’s regional power and influence. Trump engages North Korea because of its hard-won nuclear power status, ignores Iran precisely because it is not the Middle East’s North Korea.

Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait,

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Australia’s ABC: “High-stakes North Korea talks”