Reese Erlich – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 06 Aug 2020 18:37:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.15 Trump’s Desperate, last-ditch Effort to Hike Tensions with Iran https://www.juancole.com/2020/08/trumps-desperate-tensions.html Sat, 01 Aug 2020 04:03:47 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192316

This might be the final stretch for his failed policy of maximum pressure.

( 48hills.org ) – During the past month, Iran has suffered a half-dozen explosions and fires at military and civilian sites. A bomb blew up near the Parchin missile base outside Tehran, Iran’s capital. Fires broke out at an electric power station and aboard seven ships in a southern port city.

Iranian government authorities say some of the incidents were accidents. But the most serious, it appears, was an act of sabotage.

On July 2, a blast ripped through the main assembly hall at Natanz, a facility that produces centrifuge parts essential for enriching uranium for Iran’s nuclear power program.

No one officially took credit for the sabotage, but The New York Times reported that a “Middle East intelligence” source admitted that Israel was behind the bombing. An Israeli newspaper later identified the source as Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad intelligence agency.

Analysts say such a brazen attack, which constitutes an act of war, would need the approval of officials in Washington, D.C.

“If the US did not participate in the attack directly, at the very least it gave Israel its consent,” Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California and Iran expert, says in an interview.

Washington and Tel Aviv think such attacks, along with the unilateral US sanctions, are a low-risk means of pushing back on Iran. They are an escalation of Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign—which has notably failed and will likely be abandoned after the US presidential election.

“There’s a sense that there’s a bit of desperation right now” in both capitals, says Trita Parsi, executive vice president and co-founder of the Quincy Institute, an anti-interventionist think tank in Washington, D.C. He likens the attempts to those of medieval archers fighting a losing battle: “Empty your quiver . . . shoot all your arrows.”

October surprise?

Some analysts speculate that the Trump Administration is seeking to provoke Iran into military retaliation. Trump could then launch a war, rally support at home, and win the election. It’s a classic “October Surprise” or even a “Wag the Dog” scenario.

But Foad Izadi does not agree with that analysis.

“Iran is not Iraq,” Izadi, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Tehran, tells me by phone from Tehran. “Any overt war runs the danger of serious US casualties. He should know, after being president for almost four years, attacking Iran has consequences.”

Izadi says he doesn’t think that “starting a new war with Iran a few months before the election” is in Trump’s interest. “Even a limited war is not useful for him.”

But that doesn’t preclude other forms of US aggression.

On July 23, a US fighter jet flew close to an Iranian civilian airliner on a routine flight from Tehran, as it crossed Syria on its way to Beirut, Lebanon. The US military claimed to be conducting a “visual inspection” of the plane in order to “ensure the safety of coalition personnel at At Tanf garrison,” says Captain Bill Urban, spokesperson for US Central Command.

Urban claimed the F-15 fighter jet kept 1,000 yards away from the airliner. But a video shot by passengers shows a jet flying much closer. The proximity of the F-15 forced the Iranian pilot to drop 14,000 feet in four minutes, injuring several passengers.

According to Izadi, the US military has no business “inspecting” a civilian airliner flying in a normal civilian air corridor over Syria. In fact, he says, the United States “has no right to be in Syria at all.”

The Trump Administration keeps several hundred troops in Syria in defiance of the Syrian government and without authorization from the United Nations or any other international body.

Iranians are particularly sensitive about US interactions with civilian planes. In 1988, the US Navy shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 passengers and crew. After initially providing false information about where and how fast the plane was flying, Washington admitted to shooting down the airliner and paid compensation to the victims’ families.

“These things unify the Iranian people,” Izadi says. “Whether they like the government or not, Iranians don’t want to be on a plane that will be shot down.”

Iranian response

To date, the Iranian government has not overtly responded to the US provocations. It seems more likely that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is waiting for the US election on November 3, which could result in the election of Joe Biden.

“Iranians are holding their fire, playing the long game,” Parsi says. “They fear it may be a trap to give Trump an excuse to go farther.”

Iran’s conservative hardliners, meanwhile, denounce Rouhani as vacillating in the face of a US and Israeli onslaught. But Parsi says these hardliners “are playing a political game. They understand the logic of not doing anything for now, but that doesn’t prevent them from calling Rouhani weak.”

Sahimi, a close observer of Iranian politics, agrees that “there is a lot of ‘hot’ rhetoric against President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by the hardliners. But I do not expect any practical action in the near future.”

Depending on what policy the United States adopts after the elections, Sahimi expects “the response to come at a later time and in a manner and at locations where neither Israel nor the US would expect.”

Biden has pledged, if elected, to reverse course on Iran. Izadi believes a Biden Administration would change the Trump policy of maximum pressure. “Whether doing it through rejoining the nuclear agreement or coming up with some other policies, we have to wait and see,” he says.

Parsi, who is familiar with the views of Biden’s Iran advisors, says the new administration would likely call for “compliance for compliance.”

“Biden could lift sanctions by executive order without rejoining the nuclear accord,” he says. “That’s a necessary step, but not sufficient.” The new administration would also have to work with Congress and lay the groundwork for restoring the nuclear accord.

Despite the current crisis, Izadi says, “I’m optimistic. Trump’s policies are not working. The US will have to change, and the change will be for the best.”

Via 48hills.org

Featured Photo: Iranian civilians are endangered by recent sabotage carried out against both military and civilian targets. Here a woman sells spices in the bazaar. Photo by Reese Erlich.

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Was there Really a Russian Bounty on US Troops in Afghanistan? A Story with Holes https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/really-russian-afghanistan.html Sun, 19 Jul 2020 04:03:38 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192116 (48Hills.org ) – On June 26, in a major front page story, The New York Times wrote that Russia paid a bounty to the Taliban to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan last year. The story quickly unraveled.

While the military is investigating the allegations, Mark Miley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says there’s no proof that Russian payments led to any US deaths. The National Security Agency says it found no communications intelligence supporting the bounty claim.

Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of the US Central Command, says he’s not convinced that American troops died as a result of Russian bounties.

Caption: The US occupation of Afghanistan has killed over 100,000 civilians. Here, refugee children in Kabul. Photo by Reese Erlich

“I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” he tells The Washington Post.

Sina Toossi, senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council, tells me the controversy reveals an internecine battle within the foreign policy establishment. “Many in the national security establishment in Washington are searching for reasons to keep US troops in Afghanistan,” Toossi says. “This story plays into those broader debates.”

Troop withdrawal?

Faced with no end to its unpopular war in Afghanistan, the Trump Administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban in February. Washington agreed to gradually pull out troops, and the Taliban promised not to attack US personnel.

The Taliban and Afghan government are supposed to hold peace talks and release prisoners of war. The US troop withdrawal won’t be completed until May 2021, giving the administration in power the ability to renege on the deal.

Nevertheless, powerful members of the Afghan intelligence elite and some in the US national security establishment strongly object to the agreement and want to keep US troops in the country permanently.

Matthew Hoh, who worked for the State Department in Afghanistan and is now a senior fellow with the Center For International Policy, tells me that the reports of Russian bounties likely originated with the Afghanistan intelligence agency.

“The mention of Russia was a key word,” says Hoh. CIA officials fast-tracked the Afghan reports. They argued that Russia’s interference, and Trump’s failure to respond, only emboldens the Russians.

Originally, the Times claimed $500,000 in Russian bounty money was seized at the home of a Taliban operative named Rahmatullah Azizi. He turned out to be an Afghan drug smuggler who had previously worked as a contractor for Washington.

The Times later admitted that investigators “could not say for sure that it was bounty money.”

Hoh says the alleged bounties make no sense politically or militarily. Last year, he says, “The Taliban didn’t need any incentives to kill Americans.” And this year, it has stopped all attacks on US forces as part of the February agreement.

But leading Democrats ignore the unraveling of the story in a rush to attack the White House from the right. Joe Biden reached deep into his Cold War tool box to blast Trump.

“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden told a town hall meeting.

Demonizing Russia

While cozying up to Putin on a personal level, Trump has actually taken a harder line against Russia than his predecessors, to the detriment of people in both countries. The President canceled two arms treaties, imposed sanctions on Moscow, and sent Javelin missiles to Ukraine.

Both high-ranking Republicans and Democrats benefit politically by creating an evil Russian enemy, according to Vladimir Pozner, Putin critic and host of a popular Russian TV interview program.

The bounty accusation “keeps the myth alive of Putin and Russia being a vicious, cold-blooded enemy of the US,” Pozner tells me.

Some call it the foreign policy establishment; others say the national security state or simply the Deep State. A group of officials in the Pentagon, State Department, intelligence agencies and war industries have played an outsized role in foreign policy for decades. And it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts.

Defense industries make billions from government contracts. Former military officers and State Department officials rake in six-figure incomes sitting on corporate boards. Aspiring secretaries of state and defense strut their stuff at think tank conferences and, until the pandemic, at alcohol-fueled, black tie events in Washington.

“There’s an entire infrastructure influencing policy,” says Hoh, who had an inside seat during his years with the government.

The Deep State is not monolithic, he cautions. “You won’t find a backroom with guys smoking cigars. But there is a notion of US primacy and a bent towards military intervention.”

And that’s what the current Russia-Taliban scandal is all about: An unreliable Afghan report is blown into a national controversy in hopes of forcing the White House to cancel the Afghan troop withdrawal. Demonizing Russia (along with China and Iran) also justifies revamping the US nuclear arsenal and building advanced fighter jets that can’t fly.

Afghans suffer

While the Washington elite wage internal trench warfare, the people of Afghanistan suffer. More than 100,000 Afghans have died because of the war, with 10,000 casualties each year, according to the United Nations. The Pentagon reports 2,219 US soldiers died and 20,093 were wounded in the Afghan war.

A lesser imperialist power, Russia has its own interests in Afghanistan. It has taken advantage of the US decline in the region to expand influence in Syria and Libya.

According to Pozner, Russia doesn’t favor a Taliban government in Afghanistan. The Kremlin considers the Taliban a dangerous terrorist organization. But if the Taliban comes to power, Pozner says, “Russia would like to have stable relations with them. You have to take things as they are and build as good a relationship as possible.”

Neither Russia nor any other outside power has the means or desire to control Afghanistan. At best, they hope for a stable neighbor, not one trying to spread extremism in the region.

That’s been the stated US goal for years. Ironically, it can’t be achieved until US troops withdraw.

Via 48Hills.org

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Newsy: “U.S. Pulls Troops From Bases As Taliban Keeps Up Afghanistan Attacks”

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Foreign Interference Keeps Libya’s Crisis at a Boil https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/foreign-interference-libyas.html Sat, 04 Jul 2020 04:01:32 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191878

Though it has disappeared from headlines, Libya’s humanitarian crisis continues unabated.

( 48hills) – I arrived at the airport in Tripoli, Libya, on assignment for CBS Radio with my paperwork in order. I even had the phone numbers of local immigration officials in case anything went wrong.

It quickly did.

An airport official said my papers wouldn’t allow me into the country, even though the visit had been approved by the Libyan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

He put me on the next plane leaving Tripoli, and I ended up in Vienna, Austria. Turns out that the militia controlling the airport had a beef with the Washington Embassy and wasn’t recognizing its authority to issue visas.

It was 2012, not long after the US and other Western powers had overthrown Muammar Gaddafi and brought “democracy” to the country. But Libya was already on its way to becoming a failed state ruled by competing warlords, as my airport experience affirmed.

In 2011, President Barack Obama and his liberal interventionists justified yet another disastrous invasion by claiming they were protecting civilians from a murderous dictator. But very soon, the actions of Washington and its allies created chaos.

“Libya is a failed state,” Barah Mikail, associate professor at Saint Louis University in Madrid, tells me in a phone interview. “It is a country with spheres of influence, not a government.”

Today, a myriad of outside powers compete for dominance in Libya, none of which care much about the country’s people.

Turkey, Qatar, and the Arab League back the so-called internationally recognized government, which is actually an alliance of political Islamist and extremist groups in Tripoli. Russia, France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates support military dictator Khalifa Haftar based in Benghazi.

The Trump Administration has no coherent policy towards Libya, which has given a free hand to the other intervening powers.

“It was a mess from the beginning,” Vijay Prashad, author of the 2016 book The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution, tells me. “This was not an uprising against Gaddafi. It was a regional war.”

Imperialist interests

Because of its rich reserves of oil and natural gas, outside powers have long sought to dominate Libya, a country of only 6.9 million people. More recently, with the collapse of the central government, terrorist groups have sprouted up, contributing to regional instability. Immigrant smugglers also use Libya as a jumping off point to Europe.

Libya was once in the anti-imperialist camp. In the early 1970s, Muammar Gaddafi, who had come to power in a military coup, allied with rising anti-imperialist movements to oppose US policy. But over time, he became just another corrupt dictator soliciting bribes from foreign powers.

By 2003, Gaddafi made a 180-degree turn and allied with Washington, giving up his nascent nuclear weapons program and opening his economy to additional exploitation by Western corporations.

“He was our partner,” Mark N. Katz, professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, tells me by phone.

But Gaddafi was an expendable partner. In 2011, when Arab Spring protesters ousted dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Libyans took to the streets as well. Western powers saw an opportunity to replace Gaddafi with an even more pliant ruler.

In March 2011, French, British, and US air forces bombed Libya, causing huge damage to the country’s infrastructure. Western powers supported efforts to write a new constitution and hold parliamentary elections. But real power stayed with local militias. The country began to fall apart.

“Other countries parachuted in Libyans who had been living in Arab countries and the US,” says Prashad. “The militias didn’t see them as leaders.”

Nevertheless, the Obama Administration saw Libya as a great success story for its policy of humanitarian intervention, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaiming, “We set into motion a policy that was on the right side of history, on the right side of our values, on the right side of our strategic interests in the region.”

History has judged the invasion far more harshly.

“How can you talk about the right side of history when you’ve just destroyed a country?” asks Prashad.

Recent fighting

General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the powerful Libyan National Army, launched a major offensive against Tripoli in April 2019, promising quick victory. He relied on the backing of Russian mercenaries and arms from the United Arab Emirates. The former CIA asset claims to represent secular forces but allows extremists to control the mosques in areas under his control.

Haftar’s military offensive ran into fierce opposition in January of this year, when Turkey sent troops and sophisticated arms to back the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. For years, the GNA controlled little more than that capital city. It consists of various political Islamist parties and militias, including the Moslem Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, formerly affiliated with Al Qaeda.

The GNA also relies on extremist Syrians and Libyans who returned home after fighting Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria. These brigades, politically close to Al Qaeda, were the most experienced fighters, according to Wolfgang Pusztai, Austria’s former defense attaché to Libya.

“These guys are crazy,” Pusztai tells me in a phone interview from Vienna. “But they were the backbone of the anti-Haftar fight in the first months.”

The Pentagon supports the GNA in Tripoli and offers low-key military cooperation. But Washington has generally pulled back from Libya and allows Turkey to do the heavy lifting.

The nearly decade-long war and outside intervention has been disastrous for Libyans. According to the United Nations, 1.3 million Libyans need humanitarian assistance and 200,000 are internally displaced. Human Rights Watch notes that all sides are guilty of violating the laws of war and, in some cases, of committing crimes against humanity.

Peace prospects?

Since June, the GNA and Turkey have been on a military offensive towards Benghazi, Haftar’s stronghold in eastern Libya. Egypt, a Haftar ally, has threatened to intervene militarily.

Egypt and Haftar have called for a ceasefire and peace talks, reflecting Haftar’s weakened military position. So far Turkey and the GNA have rebuffed this peace effort.

In the past, Washington would have maintained occupation troops in Libya, or at least sent a lot of arms to a political faction. But both the Obama and Trump Administrations have backed away from Libya, a sign of a weakened empire.

Eventually there will need to be a political settlement in Libya, but not until the major players recognize they can’t win militarily.

“Foreign interference and delivery of weapons is the main problem,” analyst Mikail says. “If this stops, we’ll have a different landscape.”

Via 48hills

Syndicated articles do not necessarily represent the views of Informed Comment and are provided for insights and debate.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

France24 English: “France suspends naval mission as Turkish tensions rise”

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The rest of the world sees uprisings, not riots, in Trump’s US https://www.juancole.com/2020/06/world-uprisings-trumps.html Sat, 06 Jun 2020 04:03:06 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191343

The United States is paying the price for denying people what Malcolm X called ‘the right to be a human being.’

(48hills.org) – One of Germany’s largest dailies ran the headline “This killer cop set America ablaze,” with a photo of the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd. Protests in the United States, the article reported, looked like “scenes out of a civil war.”

Bettina Gaus, political correspondent for the Berlin daily Die Tagezeitung, tells me that everybody in Germany, “regardless of political affiliations, is appalled by the murder of George Floyd and sees it as just another example for racism in the US And nobody thinks Donald Trump is helpful.”


The German newspaper Bild headline: This killer cop set America ablaze.”

In another part of the world, Palestinians and some Israelis recognize that both US and Israeli security forces regularly shoot unarmed civilians. On May 30, Iyad Halak, a Palestinian student with autism, was murdered by Israeli soldiers claiming he had a gun. No weapons were found, and former General Benny Gantz later apologized.

As victims of America’s long history of supporting violence, Palestinians have expressed solidarity with US demonstrators. “The growing protests . . . against police brutality in the U.S. are fundamentally an uprising against an entire system of racist exploitation and oppression,” read a statement issued by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement in Palestine.

Uprisings not riots

While President Donald Trump’s White House, many US politicians, and the corporate media condemn the protests as riots, much of the rest of the world sees them as uprisings. Ajamu Baraka, founder of the Black Alliance for Peace and 2016 Green Party vice presidential candidate, says US officials are hypocrites when it comes to criticizing violence.

The US government and corporate media “cheer on demonstrators in Hong Kong, regardless of the level of violence and property damage,” Baraka tells me. He adds that the worst looting took place when the government “transferred billions of public resources into banks and corporations under guise of helping the economy during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Bill Fletcher, executive editor of GlobalAfricanWorker.com and former president of TransAfrica Forum, notes that the vast majority of protests against police killings have not engaged in violence or looting.

“I’m sure there are opportunists out there who just loot and provoke,” he says. “But there are also very frustrated people.”

Spontaneous demonstrations have broken out in more than 140 American cities in the largest US uprising since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. But this time African Americans have been joined by white, Asian, and Latinx protesters.

The Black liberation movement has a long history of solidarity with the Third World. Some of today’s protesters, particularly whites, may not be familiar with that history and its lessons for today.

Solidarity with the colonized

African American historian and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois travelled to the Versailles peace talks after World War I to express solidarity with colonized Africans. Britain, France, and the United States had promised democracy and self determination following the war. Instead, the victorious imperialist powers carved up Africa, Asia, and the Middle East into colonies under their control.

“Self determination didn’t apply in the colonial world,” says Fletcher.

During the 1920s and 1930s, leftist and nationalist movements developed in the Black community. Marcus Garvey led a massive Back to Africa movement. The Communist Party and other leftists gathered considerable support by organizing non-segregated trade unions and defending African Americans against police brutality.

African Americans strongly opposed Italy’s 1935 invasion and occupation of Ethiopia, and joined the fight against fascism.

Activists from that era came to understand that African Americans are “not only exploited as workers but are a colonized people,” Baraka says. “The source of their oppression was the colonialist, capitalist system. So they had a common interest with other anti-colonial struggles.”

Malcolm X

By the 1950s, African Americans and liberal whites had joined together in the civil rights movement demanding an end to segregation in education, housing, and employment. But leaders such as Malcolm X, particularly in the last year of his life, said demanding civil rights was not enough.

“We believe that our problem is not one of civil rights but a violation of human rights,” he said in 1965. “Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States, we are denied the right to be a human being.”

By calling for human rights, says Fletcher, Malcolm X “meant that our struggle was not simply a struggle for constitutional rights but for political power and self-determination. It was a struggle for other people in the Global South. US Blacks are fighting the same system.”

Malcolm X questioned the way US society was organized, according to Baraka, “not just what’s in the heads of individual white people, but the structure and logic of white supremacist domination.”

It was an analysis that would prove prescient.

Human rights

US officials, whether Democrat or Republican, pretend that only other countries violate human rights. Every year, the State Department issues a report on worldwide human rights with the heaviest criticism aimed at enemies du joursuch as China, Russia, and Iran.

Human rights, as defined by US officials, include freedom of the press, maintaining an independent judiciary, and civil rights. But most of the world, the United Nations included, goes further, saying human rights include the right to a job, health care, and housing, among other things.

Not surprisingly, US leaders never mention authoritative international reports detailing U.S. human rights violations. In 2017, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights issued a report sharply criticizing US human rights abuses. It noted that the United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries.

“The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power,” the report stated. “With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”

Dangerous times ahead

The Trump Administration finds itself increasingly isolated at home and abroad. The United States has the world’s highest death count from COVID-19 and faces a massive recession.

But Trump is not deterred. He uses the issue of “violent demonstrators” to proclaim himself “the president of law and order.”

Progressives see large demonstrations in front of the White House as a call for freedom and democracy. Trump supporters see radicals and anarchists attacking the U.S. government.

I worry that Trump could mobilize his supporters to provoke a race war. Or these multiple crises could lead to Trump’s removal from power.

Baraka, for his part, does not foresee a return to normal in the months ahead.

“There’s never been a period like this,” he says. “This is one of the most serious and dangerous moments in the history of this country.”

Via 48hills.org

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DOJ is Dropping charges against Trump Buddy Flynn even though he was a Turkish Agent while at NSC https://www.juancole.com/2020/05/dropping-charges-turkish.html Sun, 24 May 2020 04:01:25 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191072

Before Russiagate, the former national security advisor was an operative for Turkey, tilting foreign policy against the Kurds.

(48hills.org) – Trump’s Justice Department wants to drop all charges against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn despite his having admitted to being guilty. Twice. The judge in his case has so far refused to knuckle under and is investigating whether Flynn’s conviction should stand.

In 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a secret phone call with Russia’s ambassador to the US. Lost in the hubbub over Russiagate, however, was Flynn’s slimy role as a lobbyist for Turkey. A Turkish businessman paid Flynn $530,000 in 2016 to push pro-Turkey, anti-Kurd policies in hopes of influencing the Trump Administration.

Michael Fynn’s ties to Turkey have been largely forgotten in the news media.

The American public has mostly forgotten about Flynn’s Turkey connections, says Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

“There’s more going on with Turkey than people may realize,” Cook tells me.

Flynn’s money-driven opportunism is just one example of the operations of Washington’s foreign policy lobbyists. As a candidate, Donald Trump correctly criticized the Washington swamp, but as President, instead of draining it, he has shoveled in more muck.

I’ve dipped my toe into the swamp on occasion by attending conferences and press events populated by Washington’s elite. I’ve rubbed elbows with the likes of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Chaney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Believe me, these folks are just as evil in person as they appear on TV.

Washington swamp creatures are easily identified by their black pinstriped suits, wingtip oxfords, and red power ties. Two kinds of people attend these events: those in power and those hoping to seize it.

Washington is crawling with former diplomats, intelligence officers, and business executives eager to influence policy and make a buck. And so enters former army Lieutenant General Michael Thomas Flynn, poster boy for the military-industrial complex.

Flynn’s checkered past

Flynn, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, came to Washington during the Obama Administration as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was forced to resign for insubordination in 2014, whereupon he joined the Washington swamp by forming the Flynn Intel Group.

In 2016, Flynn hitched his wagon to candidate Donald Trump, giving a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention in which he echoed the call to “lock up” Hillary Clinton for her handling of State Department emails.

Behind the scenes, however, the Flynn Intel Group signed a contract totaling $600,000 with a Turkish businessman who had close ties to authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğanwanted Washington to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a political opponent living in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gulen is a rival political Islamist who had a falling out with Erdogan.
The Turkish president accuses Gulen of organizing the unsuccessful July 2016 coup. At the time Flynn spoke favorably about the military trying to overthrow Erdogan. He also criticized Turkey for allowing terrorists to cross the border into Syria.

But after receiving the contract to help Turkey, he did a 180-degree turn and supported Erdogan’s policies.

“Flynn believes whatever is good for Flynn is good for America,” Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network, tells me. “The minute they put money in his bank account, he became pro-Turkey. That was the shocking part.”

Kidnapping

In September 2016, Flynn arranged a meeting between former US officials and Turkish leaders, including the country’s foreign minister, energy minister, and Erdogan’s son-in-law.

Participants at the meeting talked about kidnapping Gulen and bringing him to Turkey. Former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey, who attended the meeting, said they discussed “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.”

In December, Flynn wrote an op-ed for the influential Washington publication The Hill in which he compared Gulen to both Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini. According to analyst Cook, the op-ed could have been written in Ankara: “It was all Turkey’s talking points.”

Flynn didn’t tell The Hill editors that he was a paid lobbyist for Turkey.

Flynn became part of Trump’s transition team after November 2016, and he used the position to push anti-Kurdish policies. At that time, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were on the verge of taking control of the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa, Syria. He told the Obama Administration not to provide arms to the SDFand implemented that policy when Trump came to power in 2017.

But Flynn’s stint as National Security Advisor lasted for only three weeks. He was forced to resign after revelations of his phone call to the Russian ambassador. In March, Flynn registered as a foreign agent for Turkey.

In 2019, a federal jury convicted Flynn’s business associate, Bijan Kian, on two felonies: conspiracy to violate lobbying laws and failure to register as a foreign agent for Turkey. Flynn was scheduled to testify against Kian but changed his story at the last minute, causing problems for the prosecution. The judge later tossed the verdict, saying the prosecution didn’t prove its case.

As part of an overall deal with federal prosecutors, Flynn was never charged in connection with his lobbying for Turkey. It seems unlikely that he ever will be.

Corrupt world

Flynn’s activities are just one example of the corrupt world of foreign lobbying. Recently, The New York Times exposed how defense contractor Raytheon pressured the Trump Administration to sell sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia, which were then used to slaughter civilians in Yemen.

The Yemen war, which began in 2015, has killed an estimated 100,000 people and displaced 80 percent of the population. Saudi air bombardment of hospitals, schools, and other civilian targets helped create one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. US arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have profited handsomely from the slaughter.

Until recently, Raytheon’s vice president for government relations was a former career army officer named Mark Esper. Today Esper is Secretary of Defense.

Crawling into bed with lobbyists is bipartisan activity. The Obama Administration sold $10 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies. Trump has openly boasted that US arms sales provide corporate profits and jobs at home.

“Trump has been more forthcoming praising US relations with Saudis because they want to buy more weapons,” Kurdish activist Xulam tells me. “He doesn’t care what Saudis do with the weapons.”

Analyst Cook says the entire system of foreign lobbying needs major reform. “It’s a scandal that needs to be cleaned up,” he says. “It’s legalized foreign influence peddling.”

Via 48hills.org

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Justice Department Asks Judge To Drop Michael Flynn Prosecution | MSNBC

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Trump and Biden on the Middle East https://www.juancole.com/2020/05/trump-biden-middle.html Sat, 09 May 2020 04:03:51 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190785 ( 48hills.org) – We all know that President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been a disaster. But is Joe Biden’s any better?

Trump promised to stop America’s endless wars but has stationed some 80,000 troops in the Middle East. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord, and imposed harsh sanctions and even sent drones to assassinate a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard. But Iran still has more political influence in Iraq than the United States. His administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban, only to see it rejected by the US-installed Afghan government.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, sharply criticizes Trump but, unfortunately, continues to defend many of the failed policies of the Obama Administration.

During Biden’s time as Vice President, the White House went from fighting two active wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) to seven (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, drone war in Pakistan, and escalation in Somalia).

Biden now says he disagreed with some of Obama’s interventionist policies, most notably in Libya. Today Biden calls for easing Iran sanctions, returning to the Iran nuclear accord, and reestablishing relations with Cuba.

“Biden represents the return of the classical foreign policy establishment,” Alan Minsky, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, tells me. “Biden is running a campaign as a restoration candidate.”

But given significant changes in the world’s balance of power, it’s not all that clear what Biden could restore.

A changing world

Many corporate, State Department, military, and intelligence officials—otherwise known as the Deep State—hate Trump for his nationalist, America First policies.

The President imposed tariffs on allies around the world. He’s questioned the need for NATO. China and Russia have grown stronger economically and politically on the world stage, even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even card-carrying members of the Deep State acknowledge Washington has no reason to keep fighting in the Middle East. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, says what’s “been hard for many in the American foreign-policy establishment, including me, to accept: Few vital interests of the US continue to be at stake in the Middle East.”

In a major mea culpa in The Wall Street Journal, Indyk admits, “[A]fter the sacrifice of so many American lives, the waste of so much energy and money in quixotic efforts that ended up doing more harm than good, it is time for the US to find a way to escape the costly, demoralizing cycle of crusades and retreats.”

Whoever wins the election in November will face an economy wracked by recession, an electorate wary of more long-term military interventions, and other countries determined to go their own way.

What kind of foreign policy will that produce?

Biden boasts

Biden boasts of his foreign policy credentials. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001-2003 and 2007-2009. While generally hewing to interventionist Democratic Party policies, he has taken some independent stands, for example, by voting against the 1991 Gulf War.

By far Biden’s most reprehensible stand was his strong support for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. As documented by Professor Stephen Zunes in The Progressive, Biden forcefully supported the war, but later claimed he opposed it. (Of course, Trump lied about his support for the war as well.)

When the Iraqi occupation failed in the mid-2000s, Biden infamously called for splitting Iraq into three parts along sectarian lines, so the United States could continue imperial control at least in Kurdistan.

Even today, Biden favors maintaining some troops in the region, using the excuse of fighting ISIS. “I think it’s a mistake to pull out the small number of troops that are there now to deal with ISIS,” he’s said.

Biden hasn’t learned the lessons of the Afghan war either. After nineteen years of failed war and occupation, he still wants to maintain some troops in the country.

“I would bring American combat troops in Afghanistan home during my first term,” Biden tells the Council on Foreign Relations. “Any residual US military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counterterrorism operations.”

But whoever wins in November will have to face the new reality: People in Afghanistan and the United States are fed up with the war. All foreign troops will have to withdraw.

Venezuela

Besides his bad record in the Middle East, Biden continues to support US domination in Latin America. Both Trump and Biden call for the removal of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, for example. Last year they supported efforts by Juan Guaido, the former head of the National Assembly, to anoint himself president.

The Venezuelan government accuses Washington and Guaido of trying to overthrow Maduro by armed force. Rightwing, former military officers tried to assassinate Maduro with a drone strike last year. Then on May 4, a group of mercenaries—including two US Army vets—landed on the Venezuelan coast intending to overthrow Maduro and install Guaido in power. The coup plot was organized by a Florida private security company. It has the earmarks of a US intelligence operation, although not surprisingly, Trump denies it.

While Biden has not formally called for regime change in Venezuela, neither has he criticized the armed coup attempts. And he favors economic sanctions to cripple the economy, saying: “The US should push for stronger multilateral sanctions so that supporters of the regime cannot live, study, shop, or hide their assets in the United States, Europe, or Latin America.”

In my opinion and that of many others, Bernie Sanders offered a far better foreign policy program than Biden. But Biden will at least restore the Iran nuclear accord, normalize relations with Cuba, and take steps to end the Yemen War. On the whole, Biden is better than Trump.

Biden has the potential of attracting working class and young voters disillusioned with Trump’s aggression overseas. Younger voters have seen the country at war their entire lives, says Erik Sperling, executive director of the advocacy group Just Foreign Policy. “They know that, at a minimum, 30,000 people die every year in the US from lack of health insurance. Fighting endless wars is not their priority.”

Biden will respond to anti-war activists far more readily than Trump. If Biden wins on November 3, then starting on November 4 progressives should be pressuring Biden to do more than “restore” US foreign policy.

After the election, says Minsky, “We will be poised and ready to oppose a whole range of issues pursued by a Biden Administration.”

Via 48hills.org

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Al Jazeera questions Trump on Iran’s military satellite launch”

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Trump trots out Blaming China for his own Pitiful Covid-19 Failures https://www.juancole.com/2020/04/blaming-pitiful-failures.html Sat, 25 Apr 2020 04:02:51 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190516 The Republican Party is trying to shift blame for President Donald Trump’s disastrous coronavirus policies onto China. Chinese communists, Republican leaders claim, hid the pandemic from the public, allowing it to spread worldwide.

Trump has even given credence to the conspiracy theory that China intentionally developed the virus in order to kill Americans.

Scapegoating China serves a twofold purpose: It distorts China’s actual progress in combating the pandemic and aims to help Trump get re-elected.

“Trump has always been successful when he’s had a bogeyman, and China is the perfect bogeyman,” Republican strategist Chris LaCivita tells The New York Times.

Unfortunately, many top-level Democrats, including the party’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, are competing with Republicans on who can bash China harder.

“Trump rolled over for the Chinese,” a narrator intones on a recent Biden campaign ad, “Trump praised the Chinese fifteen times in January and February as the coronavirus spread across the world.”

The bipartisan China bashing is one more indication of the decline of the US empire. China has quickly grown to be the world’s second largest economy and is now pulling through the pandemic in far better shape than the United States.

As of April 22, China had more than 82,000 coronavirus cases and more than 4,600 deaths, and had gone six consecutive days without a COVID-19 death. The United States, a country with about one-fourth China’s population, had nearly 850,000 cases and more than 47,000 deaths. (While China has been accused of undercounting its casualties, so are most countries in the world, including the United States, according to a survey in The New York Times.)

Trump is just playing “political tricks,” says Andy, a Mandarin language teacher in Shanghai, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety. “Trump and his officials knew how serious the virus was. It’s their own fault.”

How epidemic began

The first COVID-19 death appeared in the city of Wuhan on November 6, 2019, according to a timeline constructed by pro-China blogger Nathan Rich. But doctors assumed the death was from pneumonia. By December, a few more residents were hospitalized in Wuhan. But it wasn’t until December 26 that local doctors discovered what they thought was a variant of SARs, the deadly virus that swept through Asia in 2002-03. It was actually the coronavirus.

On December 31, medical officials notified the World Health Organization about the existence of the new virus, and Chinese TV first reported the outbreak. On January 1, authorities closed the live animal market in Wuhan, which was suspected of being the virus’s origin point and had become a hotspot.

Chinese scientists initially thought the virus couldn’t be transmitted between humans, but on January 15, they confirmed that it could.

By January 23, China’s central government ordered a total lockdown of Wuhan, followed quickly by quarantines in other major cities. Residents were not allowed to travel in or out of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. They were restricted to their own homes and even had food delivered. It was the largest cordon sanitaire in world history, according to a definitive study in Science magazine.

In retrospect, local authorities should have moved more quickly to identify the new virus and impose a quarantine. On January 19, for example, tens of thousands of people participated in a Wuhan municipal potluck dinner, which helped spread the virus. They should have recognized much sooner that the virus spread human to human.

However, when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, the United States’ record is far worse.

Here, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Seattle on January 21. But officials in Washington State didn’t declare a state of emergency for another month (February 21), and it took California two months (March 19) to order people to stay at home. To this day, some states have still not declared stay-at-home orders, and the virus continues to spread.

China has surely engaged in some reprehensible behavior while combating the pandemic. A doctor who originally warned friends about the new virus was forced to sign a letter recanting his claim; he later died of COVID-19. Africans living in China complain of evictions and other acts of racism due to government warnings that foreigners may carry the coronavirus.

But from an overall public health perspective, China’s actions, according to the study in Science, saved many lives. “The national emergency response appears to have delayed the growth and limited the size of the COVID-19 epidemic in China, averting hundreds of thousands of cases by February 19.”

US launches attacks

The US government and mainstream media attacks against China began almost immediately. At first, China was criticized for not doing enough to stem the epidemic. Then it was accused of going too far and violating civil liberties. Meanwhile, Trump and his acolytes at Fox News claimed the virus was no more serious than a normal flu.

This week, two US states, Missouri and Mississippi, filed lawsuits against China, alleging that the nation failed to take appropriate actions to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Bring in the clown

China-bashing has even spread to popular culture. HBO comedian Bill Maher insists on calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” On his weekly show aired April 17, the sometimes liberal, sometimes libertarian comedian insisted that advocates of political correctness were preventing use of a perfectly appropriate name.

“Scientists, who are generally pretty liberal, have been naming diseases after the places they came from for a very long time,” said Maher, citing examples of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and Ebola, named after the Ebola River.

While some diseases are named after locations, others are not. SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and then there’s H1N1, or the swine flu. Interestingly, the infamous “Spanish” flu of 1918-19 did not originate in Spain. US press censorship prohibited coverage of the flu, which in the US began at an army base. Because Spanish newspapers were the first to cover the pandemic in depth, people assumed it began there.

The Trump Administration is promoting a similar shift-the-blame tactic, promoting the use of the term “Chinese virus” and advising State Department officials to accuse China of orchestrating a cover-up. “Everything is about China,” one official told The Daily Beast. “We’re being told to try and get this messaging out in any way possible.”

I pity US diplomats forced to defend the Trump Administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus. We’re a rich nation with the most powerful military in history. Yet we can’t protect our own people in a health emergency.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Trump warns of consequences if China ‘knowingly responsible’ for COVID-19”

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How Trump is making the Coming Great Recession even more Massive https://www.juancole.com/2020/04/making-recession-massive.html Sat, 11 Apr 2020 04:02:24 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190227

A recession was inevitable, but COVID-19 and the Trump Administration’s failures are making it worse.

San Francisco (48hills.org) – The current recession was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. But after 11 years of economic boom, a capitalist bust was inevitable. And it’s being made worse by the Trump Administration’s blunders.

Meanwhile socialist China, despite very real problems, is effectively combating the pandemic and starting an economic recovery.

Here in the US, shuttered businesses, massive unemployment, and the spread of a deadly disease are grinding the economy to a standstill.

Economists at Morgan Stanley predict the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will decline at a 38% annual rate in the second quarter this year and by -5.5% for 2020. By comparison, the economy contracted at an annual rate of 8.4% in the worst quarter during the Great Recession of 2007-09. (A recession is defined as two or more successive quarters of negative GDP.)*

Optimists in Washington predict a “V” shaped recovery—a sharp economic plunge followed by a sharp return to normalcy. They believe we’ll be back to Trump boom times as soon as the pandemic recedes.

But that prediction comes from Fantasyland..

Large states such as New York and California will be shuttered at least until May. But because of the lack of a national plan, other states are seeing an upswing in virus infections and have only recently ordered residents to shelter in place.

New COVID-19 epicenters will likely emerge in Florida, Texas, and other states where rightwing Republican governors refused to protect their people in a timely manner. As late as April 7, when 95% of the US population was under instruction to “shelter in place,” nine states had refused to issue statewide stay-at-home orders.

So we may see pandemic recoveries in some areas while others continue shutting down for months.

“There will be no nationwide all-clear signal,” says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley. In a phone interview, she tells me that epidemiologists predict that the virus will continue in regional hotpots. “So we’ll likely see an initial significant economic bounce back followed by slower, possibly uneven, growth.”

How bad is the economy?

David Kotz, an economics professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an old friend, tells me the US was due for a recession as an inevitable part of the capitalist boom and bust cycle.

The economy did show signs of a possible recession towards the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, he explains. “Then the coronavirus walloped the economy.”

Kotz says the decisions made by the Trump Administration have worsened the pandemic and hurt the economy. Trump hasn’t made sure that hospitals and first responders have the necessary equipment and supplies, so “states and localities are forced to compete with one another for scarce medical resources, instead of them being directed to the areas of greatest need.”

The Trump Administration cut funding for vital health services and replaced competent government officials with “political hacks whose only qualification is willingness to praise Trump. That has undermined the ability of the government to respond to this crisis,” he tells me.

“Trump’s slow and inconsistent response to the pandemic will prolong the economic crisis,” says Kotz.

Trump has also refused to suspend tariffs imposed on numerous countries, from France to China. The tariff policy had already slowed the economy, according to Kotz, because business people couldn’t be sure if other countries would impose retaliatory tariffs.

“Tariffs reduce business investments and will retard the recovery,” he says.

The US government response to the pandemic has been to give qualifying individuals $1,200 direct cash payments and let small and large businesses apply for large loans and grants. The federal government will also extend unemployment insurance, which will be changed to include gig workers and independent contractors.

But even this $2 trillion package won’t be enough. Leaders in Washington are already preparing for another outpouring of cash. They face a serious problem, however. No one can predict when the quarantines will end, nor whether consumers will spend money once they do. The recession could deepen.

Needed reforms

The recession has already changed political dialogue in the US. Small government Republicans suddenly favor massive government intervention. Corporate denunciations of socialism have transformed into cries of “help me, Washington.”

Reforms that once seemed out in left field are being seriously considered. Here are a few reforms that could slow the recession and permanently help the economy:

* Medicare for All. A single payer health care system would guarantee that everyone could be tested and treated. It could improve health care delivery for African Americans and other people of color.

* Federally mandated paid sick leave.

* Nationalized payroll where the federal government pays workers’ wages to their employers for the duration of the crisis as is being done in Germany, Denmark, and Ireland.

* Use the Defense Production Act to produce needed health equipment and make sure it’s distributed where it is needed.

* Expand social programs and increase emergency aid to states and cities.

* Suspend monthly payments for rent, mortgages, and student, medical, and consumer debt for the duration.

The government could partially pay for such plans by trimming the Pentagon budget and increasing taxes on the rich. But it would have to allocate trillions more. The government bailout laws now spend trillions to subsidize big corporations. Why not provide assistance directly to ordinary people?

Resistance

Unionized nurses in western Pennsylvania went on strike to protest the failure of their nursing home employer to provide protective masks. Gig workers at Shipt, a delivery service, have started a unionization effort. Amazon workers are increasingly angry at working long hours under unsafe conditions. Some walked off the job to protest.

It’s too soon to know if these are the beginnings of a wider anti-corporate, pro-union movement. But an ongoing recession will make people angry and reduce at least some of Trump’s support among white workers and small business people.

So tie your face mask tight. The coronavirus and its impact are yet to be fully felt.

How capitalism responds to a pandemic crisis

* Hospitals across the United States are laying off doctors and nurses just as they are needed to fight the pandemic. Medical facilities have canceled elective surgeries and other lucrative procedures. As they lose money, for-profit hospitals reduce pay or lay off staff. What could be more irrational than laying off doctors in the midst of a pandemic?

* Ambulance drivers face layoffs in Alameda County, east of San Francisco. Falck, a multinational corporation that owns the privatized ambulances, threatens to layoff many of its 600 workers because the state’s stay at home policy has reduced the number of ambulance calls. So at a time when authorities expect a spike in emergency COVID 19 cases, EMTs may be filing for unemployment. Cities such as Berkeley that hire EMTs through their fire departments will not be affected.

* In New Jersey, Baruch Feldheim bought up tens of thousands of masks, gloves, and protective gowns in order to sell them for huge profits, in one case at a 700% markup. Federal prosecutors charged him with making false statements and assault on a federal officer. I can’t wait for federal prosecution of corporate CEOs for price gouging, but I’m not holding my breath.

Reprinted from 48hills.org with the author’s permission.

*This para. corrected and revised on 4/12/20.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

0:03 / 0:32
Pandemic could provoke ‘deepest economic recession… of our lifetimes’: WTO chief | AFP

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In a Plague Year, Trump Ratchets up Tensions with Iran and Iraq https://www.juancole.com/2020/03/plague-ratchets-tensions.html Fri, 27 Mar 2020 04:02:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=189915

Leaders in Washington and Tehran say they don’t want a full-scale war, but they are playing a dangerous game.

San Francisco (Foreign Correspondent) – While the world focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, tensions between the US and Iran are heating up.

The two countries are engaging in tit-for-tat military attacks that threaten a wider war. In mid-March, Washington officials accused an Iran-allied militia of launching rockets at a US military base in Iraq, killing two American soldiers and one British soldier. The Pentagon retaliated with a missile strike against the group Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, killing militiamen, five Iraqi servicemen, and a civilian who were also at the base. On March 26 rockets once again hit near the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The Pentagon sent two aircraft carriers to the region, claiming in a March 19 Navy statement that the US is protecting “freedom of navigation and [the] free flow of commerce.” Threatening a possible military attack on Iran, the Navy said the carriers “provide the combatant commander significant striking power for contingency operations.”

Leaders in Washington and Tehran say they don’t want a full-scale war, but they are playing a dangerous game. And the people of Iraq will suffer the consequences.

“Iraq has become a proxy war between the US and Iran,” says Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist and writer based in Washington, D.C., in a phone interview. “Iraq is paying in blood and treasure.”

How it all began

In 2018, US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear accord with Iran and imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran. Iran waited a year to see if the European signatories to the accord—Britain, France, and Germany—would live up to the agreement by engaging in normal trade and investment. The Europeans knuckled under to Trump, so Iran decided to slam down its fist.

By mid-2019, oil tankers from US-allied countries came under attack. Iran seized a U.K. tanker and shot down a US drone. Iran also pulled back from some provisions of the nuclear accord.

At the end of 2019, Iran-allied militias launched rocket and mortar attacks on US bases in Iraq. Washington portrays these militias as tools of Iran. Groups such as Kataib Hezbollah do receive arms and training from Iran, but they are also now part of the Iraqi army.

The US picks its favorites within the Iraqi military as well, arming and training Kurdish militias and Iraqi army special forces.

Kataib Hezbollah and similar Iran-allied militias initially bore the brunt of fighting ISIS, according to Patrick Theros, a former US ambassador to Qatar and now a strategic advisor to the Gulf International think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The militias are not Iranian controlled,” Theros tells me in a phone interview. “The Iranians can’t just send an order and be confident it will be obeyed.”

But the Trump Administration acts as if the militias are extensions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as seen in the January 3 assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleinmani and Iraqi militia head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Assassinations backfire

Those assassinations were a huge mistake, according to Nader Talebzadeh, an analyst and influential TV host in Iran. “What the American President did was unify the Iranian people and took things to a different level,” he tells me in an interview.

Ordinary Iraqis were even more outraged at the murder of al-Muhandis, who was an extremely popular leader in the fight against ISIS, according to Theros.

“We’re killing Iraqis, not Iranians,” Theros says. “That affects the attitudes toward us.”

The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Iraqi military leaders demanded that Washington get permission from top Iraqi leadership prior to launching another retaliatory raid.

Trump responded to these assertions of Iraqi sovereignty by threatening to impose harsh sanctions and seize Iraq’s central bank reserves held by the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

“That makes us look like an occupying force,” Theros notes wryly.

Resentment of Iran

Iraqis have plenty of legitimate complaints against their leaders in Tehran. Iranian troops entered Iraq to assist the fight against ISIS, but stayed to spread Iranian influence. Many resent Iran’s role in supporting brutal and corrupt Iraqi politicians.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in late 2019, protesting both the US and Iranian presence. Demonstrators burned down two Iranian consulates. Ordinary Iraqis were furious at the lack of electricity, water, and widespread government corruption. Iranian-allied militias and government forces brutally suppressed the peaceful demonstrations, killing more than 600 people and injuring tens of thousands.

The demonstrations forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi on March 1. Adnan al-Zurufi was appointed the new prime minister, but parliament must confirm him by mid-April. Al-Zurufi had lived in the US for years and holds dual US/Iraqi citizenship. He returned to Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, and Washington installed him as governor of Najaf province.

Iraqi politicians are wheeling and dealing over al-Zurufi’s nomination. He has US backing and is hoping for Iranian support as well.

The opposition street protestors see al-Zurufi as part of the old establishment they oppose, but their numbers have dwindled. While thousands had occupied Baghdad’s Tahrir Square at the height of protests last year, only a few hundred remain today.

But Theros says the world shouldn’t write off Iraq’s protest movement. “Unless the government addresses the issues they were protesting, they will be back,” he says. “It’s gone dormant, but it’s not dead.”

US policy failure

Iran currently faces a series of crises: low international oil prices, major flooding in the south, and a spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Harsh, unilateral US sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy but have not changed Iran’s policies in the region. Nor has US military action.

Nevertheless, the Trump Administration is pressuring the new Iraqi prime minister to cut off imports of Iranian gas and electricity, in keeping with US sanctions. For the moment, Washington has given Iraq waivers to allow trade to continue. Many Iraqis don’t like Iran but the economies of the two countries are deeply intertwined.

“They can’t do it,” Theros says. “They have no choice but to choose Iran over the US.”

So the ball is in the US’ court. Trump can continue his “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran and face continued Iraqi attacks on US troops. Or he can back off to focus on domestic concerns and avoid a wider war.

Iranians can wait. They may yet see regime change in Washington this November, long before it comes to Tehran.

Featured photo courtesy Reese Ehrlich.

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