White Nat’list Trump Adviser Miller Bounced from CNN after Sit-in

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Senior policy advisor for the Trump White House and notorious white supremacist Stephen Miller appeared on Jake Tapper’s Sunday show to defend Trump from the allegations in Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.”

Miller declined to leave after the train wreck of an interview, in which he accused Tapper of gloating over the revelations in the Wolff book and attempted to portray Tapper as an out of touch East Coast elite journalist unable to understand the discontents of the US working class.

CNN building security allegedly had to come and physically remove Miller from the studio. (I’ve done a lot of television, and the issue here is that if the guest doesn’t leave the desk after the segment ends, he’ll be in the next shot as well, and still will have the microphone).

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CNN: “Tapper cuts off Trump adviser interview: I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time”

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Miller serves an administration staffed by billionaires who just stole $1.5 trillion from the working and middle classes and gave it to the . . . billionaires, attempting to kick 26 million workers off of health insurance.

Miller insisted on delivering a set of long speeches praising Trump’s political genius instead of answering any specific questions, and attempted to erase his mentor Steve Bannon from the history of the first Trump administration. Tapper characterized the performance as “filibustering.”

Tapper pointed out that Miller has his job on Bannon’s recommendation, and Miller denied it, attaching himself retrospectively to Corey Lewandowski. Both Bannon and Lewandowsky were fired (the latter by Paul Manafort, who was then fired)– likely pointing to Miller’s future fate, which he seems to be attempting to avoid by becoming the universe’s premier brown-noser.*

Miller’s attempt to ventriloquize the working class is sad, given that he is serving the wealthiest administration in American history, and one especially sadistic toward the working and middle classes. Two-thirds of Trump voters make over $50,000 a year. WaPo reported that “white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters.” A third of Trump voters, in contrast, make over $100,000 a year. Trump’s base is wealthy, which is why his policies are rewarding the wealthy. It is true that 70% of Trump voters don’t have a college degree, but 70% of Republicans don’t have a college degree, and a lot of those people are very well off.

Most working class people don’t vote at all, and the majority of them reliably vote Democratic when they do go to the polls. Pro-Trump white factory workers exist, but they are a minority of their social class and trying to portray Trump as a champion of the working class is just propaganda. It is true that members of the white working class mainly driven by financial distress voted for Hillary Clinton, while the minority of that class who voted for Trump tend to dislike foreigners.

Miller again blamed immigrants for taking jobs from working class whites, which is a false argument. Immigrants most often don’t have the skills to compete in the same market with the working class, and tend to do menial jobs or jobs locals decline to do, as with picking strawberries. Their labor brings down prices for working class consumers. There are also high-income immigrants in e.g. the tech world, who often make discoveries and form companies that expand the economy and create working class jobs.

Miller used his appearance not to answer questions about the goings-on in the White House or even effectively to refute Wolff’s book (a denial and character attack is not an argument), but to broadcast his racist poison to millions of people. Corporate news really shouldn’t be giving him a platform, since he uses it to normalize Neo-Nazism. His epithet on social media is “Baby Goebbels,” referring to the National Socialist propagandist.

*

“1939, American English colloquial, said to be military slang originally, from brown (adj.) + nose (n.), ‘from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought’ [Webster, 1961]. Related: Brown-noser, brown-nosing (both 1950).”

Trump Engineered Saudi Soft Coup, attack on Qatar, to Save Self

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Michael Wolff in his new book Fire and Fury makes a number of allegations about Trump’s role in the Gulf crisis that, if true, help explain the mess in that part of the Middle East.

Wolff asserts that Trump and his then inner circle–Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Gary Cohn, Hope Hicks, etc.–hoped the mid-May foreign policy jaunt would change the conversation in Washington, DC, about Trump’s having fired FBI director James Comey and about the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. So the first thing to say is that the whole trip and the announcements around it were for the purpose of hype.

In ancient Greece, Bion of Borysthenes observed that “Boys throw stones at frogs in sport, but the frogs die in earnest.” Trump and his cronies glibly unleashed a massive crisis in Gulf affairs that will have long term downstream effects, all in hopes of a week or two of positive headlines.

Trump was convinced that his son-in-law and Middle East plenipotentiary, Jared Kushner, had gotten the Arab world on the side of the US and that his administration was on the cusp of a huge breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His team was concerned that the geriatric, cautious, Saudi establishment was not up to the challenges of the 21st century. Jared had met with Muhammad bin Salman, the son of King Salman and minister of defense, and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the two became fast friends. It was, he is alleged to have remarked, like meeting someone nice on the first day in boarding school. (The bourgeois assumptions behind that remark are worth a book.)

Muhammad bin Salman is an insular and largely uneducated young prince in his early thirties known for his recklessness, love of conflict and bullying style of regional politics. So of course the Trumpies fell head over heels in love with him.

Trump misunderstood what was being offered by the Saudis. They had made a vague commitment in the Obama era to buy some US military weaponry, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. They recycled this pledge for Trump, specifying $110 bn. Most of it was not a new commitment. Trump, on whom the Wizard of Oz has nothing, hyped this old pledge into hundreds of billions in new investments in the US and was sure that the Saudis all by themselves could in this way jumpstart the US manufacturing sector. While Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in the US stock market and in US real estate, and while it helps keep Boeing, Lockheed Martin and a whole phalanx of Washington fixers in business, that they are interested in more US F-18s is not new news and was not a game changer in the way Trump understood it.

Trump also seems to have been under the impression, perhaps given to him by Muhammad bin Salman, that Saudi Arabia would offer the US a new air force base, replacing the al-Udeid Base in Qatar, where some 11,000 US personnel are stationed, and which has been crucial for the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Udeid will be even more important if Trump roils relations with Pakistan to the point where the latter cuts back on US basing rights for Afghanistan bombing raids.

Saudi Arabia does not have the slightest intention of giving the US a military base. It leased Prince Sultan air base to the US during the Clinton era for policing the Gulf War aftermath and no fly zones in Iraq, and that was one of the bases on which al-Qaeda’s Usama Bin Laden said he launched the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, which left almost 3,000 dead. It isn’t true historically, but fundamentalist Muslims believe that early Muslim holy figures banned non-Muslims from the Muslim holy land around Mecca and Medina, and Bin Laden et al. interpreted it as a ban on foreign troops anywhere in Saudi Arabia, which rules over the holy cities.

So then Trump accepted the Saudi line that Saudi Arabia is uninvolved in Muslim terrorism, but that Qatar is. This proposition is bizarre. I have argued that it is inaccurate to associate the Saudi state with terrorism, since it was at daggers drawn with al-Qaeda. The argument that it spreads terrorism indirectly by spreading its intolerant and bigoted interpretation of Wahhabi Islam is also hard to prove, since most acts of terrorism in the Middle East have not been carried out by Wahhabis but by Sunnis. Terrorism is a weapon of the weak, and people deploy it when they feel oppressed and blocked and want to break out of some intolerable situation. How they frame the world (why they see a situation as intolerable) is important, but only part of the picture.

Qatar has been an important US ally in the fight against terrorism. Not only has al-Udeid base (once commanded by current US Secretary of Defense James Mattis) been absolutely crucial, but Qatar helped capture al-Qaeda’s mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and operative Ramzi Bin al-Shibh.

The Saudis mean, when they charge Qatar with supporting terrorism, that many in the Qatari government are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood (which used to be supported by Saudi Arabia before the early 2000s). The Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. It ran for office peacefully in Egypt before being massively repressed. The Saudis and the Egyptians just don’t like it, so they brand it terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood is right wing and religious, but not opposed to democracy, and has parallels to the Christian Dominionism of US Vice President Mike Pence, who also probably is not a terrorist. For Trump of all people to equate support for the religious Right with terrorism is rich.

So Trump appears to have given a green light to Muhammad Bin Salman last May to do two things: to make a soft coup against Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and to launch a campaign to isolate and perhaps overthrow Qatar.

After Trump’s visit, on 21 June 2017, King Salman removed Bin Nayef from all his positions. Muhammad Bin Salman became the crown prince. Wolff said Trump exulted that June that he had made a coup in Saudi Arabia and put his own man in charge. But this soft coup had been predicted in late 2016 by German intelligence and was long in train. Trump at most gave it his imprimatur.

But the Saudis were emboldened. On June 5, 2017, they severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and put it under boycott. Qatar is a small country and a peninsula that juts into the Gulf, surrounded on land by Saudi Arabia. There are roughly 300,000 Qatari citizens and a guest worker population that brings the total to 3 million. Saudi Arabia probably has a citizen population of 20 million (they exaggerate it) and a guest worker population of 6-8 million. Saudi Arabia initially apparently planned an invasion of Qatar and overthrow of its emir in favor of a puppet from an alienated branch of the ruling family, sort of along the lines of its war on Yemen. But the Turkish parliament voted to allow troops to be sent to Qatar, and that move put the brakes on any Saudi invasion plans.

In the end, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an economic and travel boycott on Qatar, which is probably illegal by the rules of the World Trade Organization. They also cut off Qatar Air from air traffic control, which is certainly illegal. (Qatar Air has survived nicely but had to fly over Iran, Iraq and Turkey). After initial concern about the loss of trucked in food imports via Saudi highways, Qatar replaced them with goods shipped from Iran or Iraq by sea or brought in by plane. Prices went up a little for some things but the situation has normalized.

This naked power grab on the part of Saudi Arabia has likely destroyed the budding Gulf Cooperation Council (that groups Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar), which aimed at being sort of like the European Union plus NATO for the small Gulf Arab oil monarchies. Some of its rationale was to resist Iranian hegemony, so breaking it up helps Iran. Iran has correct relations with Qatar, and stepped in to help offset the Saudi boycott.

To any extent that Trump encouraged the rash Saudi move, he helped further fragment politics in the region. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and SecDef Mattis clearly did not approve and have tried behind the scenes to undermine Trump policy in this regard.

So to conclude: Trump did not get hundreds of billions in new investments in the US from Saudi Arabia. He did manage to put in an erratic and aggressive crown prince in Riyadh, helping destabilize the region in ways Iran will take advantage of. The other corner of Wolff’s reporting on the May trip, that Trump thought it was a prelude to Peace in Our Time in Israel-Palestine, is too complex to take on here but that was also obviously a scam.

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Related video:

Aljazeera English from 2 weeks ago: “Qatar marks National Day amid ongoing Gulf crisis”

Civilized UK, rebuking Trump on Coal, now 30% Wind Powered

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Nope, coal is still doomed. Coal is the dirtiest fuel for electricity generation, putting out enormous amounts of carbon dioxide when it is burned. Its use is responsible for a significant amount of global climate change since the late eighteenth century.

And yes, the enormous storm in the Northeast is a climate disaster caused in part by carbon emissions. Climate change is associated with long term trends toward heating but also with moments of extreme weather along the way.

In a world where human beings were rational, intelligent, and caring, coal would have been banned a long time ago.Instead the world is run by walking moral disaster zones, dumb as bricks, like Trump. Not only is coal destroying the earth’s climate but it causes thousands of deaths every year from air pollution–causing lung and heart disease. For the piece de resistance, its emissions contain mercury, a nerve poison that concentrates in fish and damages the human nervous system.

About thirty percent of US electricity comes from coal. That is a shocking statistic. Coal seems inexpensive, generating electricity at 5 cents a kilowatt hour. Nuclear is 12 cents. But that price, as most prices given by corporate economics, leaves out “externalities”–all the health and environmental harm and pollution it causes. If those were taken into account we should cost out coal at something like 80 cents a kilowatt hour.

Energy policy is policy, and the energy market (as with all markets) is profoundly shaped by legislation. Trump aims at reinvigorating coal and killing wind and solar through legislation. He could easily succeed.

But one unexpected area of pushback comes from red states such as Kansas (30% of its electricity comes from wind) and Texas, and now even, as Amanda Paulsen shows, in Wyoming, whose conservatives know a gravy train when they see one. Wyoming is the course of putting in 3 gigawatts of wind power near Rawlins and another company plans a further gigawatt elsewhere in the state. They are not doing this out of idealism, since Wyoming is a coal state; it is sheer economics, and the economics will only get better technologically– though Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the ogre Trump could try to slow that progress down substantially.

In civilized countries like the UK, the future is more obvious. The UK had its first coal-free day of electricity in 2017, and last year renewables and nuclear produced a majority of the country’s electricity. Fossil fuels were responsible for 47% of electricity, down from 75% in 2010.

Wind power surged in the UK by a startling 31% last year! Wind capacity grew by 20%. It is now about 30% of the UK’s energy mix, and and for about half of 2017 it was more like a third. Given the fall in wind power prices, it is likely to grow substantially in coming years.

Coal as a source of electricity has fallen 85% in just five years in the UK, and the government will get rid of it entirely by 2025. Coal is over. Even natural gas is now cheaper, and it is driving some of the doldrums in the coal industry both in the UK and the US. In the UK, gas is responsible for 40% of electricity. Since it emits only about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned, using it instead is a savings in emissions– though obviously going over time to renewables is far preferable.

In some parts of the UK, offshore wind is already cheaper than natural gas! The price of offshore wind has plummeted over the past five years, with bigger and better turbines coming on line. Offshore wind also now beats the pants off nuclear in the UK. The UK government is still attached to nuclear power and has new plants on the drawing boards, but it is possible that many of them will never get build, having been overtaken by cheap wind and solar.

As for coal, stick a fork in it. It is finished, and while its death rattle may last longer in the polluted United States, even there the future is not in doubt.

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Related video:

wochit News: “UK’s Clean Energy Sweep A Beacon In A Difficult 2017”

Has Iranian regime repression Succeeded?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

News agencies are reporting that on Thursday, Iran’s wave of protests died down.

If so (and for all we know they could start back up again), here are some reasons.

The regime raised the cost of protest, speaking of executing protesters. While that threat might not have deterred the dedicated dissidents, it would peel off the less committed and reduce the amount of people power available to them.

The rallies, often in remote small towns, took the regime and its security forces by surprise, and challenged local police deputies.

Over time, the regime has proven able to mobilize police, street thugs loyal to the ayatollahs (the paramilitary ‘basij’), and the Revolutionary Guards. Opinion polling over the past 25 years shows that about 15% of the population strongly supports the hard liners, and that 15% can be mobilized for counter demonstrations. A succesful movement has to outnumber the 15%.

Trump, Pence and Haley made it easy for the regime to paint the protesters as foreign agents by sqawking publically their support for the dissidents.

These protests in some ways resembled IMF riots, which break out when the Bretton Woods institutions convince governments to reduce subsidies. The rising price of staples contributed to the unrest, as did reductions in gasoline subsidies.

IMF riots typically subside when the government restores some subsidies and helps those at the very bottom of the economy.

Historically in Iran, successful revolutions have comprised clerics, middle class intellectuals, and the traditional big merchants. In 2009 it was mainly the intelligentsia who came out. The gold merchants in the bazaar only went on strike in 2010, when it was too late.

This time the center of gravity was the working class in small provincial municipalities.

Some observers rejoiced that the protesters were not reformers but were calling for the overthrow of the regime and were cursing its high officers. But reform would have been more practical and a more promising platform for attracting other social classes. In a rentier oil state a lot of people depend on government salaries and contracts.

The protests revealed a rich vein of profound discontent at the grassroots level. The regime has been challenged. The future depends on whether the ayatollahs rise to that challenge.

Posted in Featured,Iran | 13 Responses | Print |

Bannon’s Game: White Supremacist takeover of GOP

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Steve Bannon’s trash-talking of the Trump in the interviews he gave in Michael Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury,” are not political suicide and not just pique. Bannon wants to take over the Republican Party.

Nor is Bannon likely to be deterred by Trump’s ‘cease and desist’ defamation order.

For Bannon, Trump was just a useful idiot who unfortunately brought along not only his white nationalists but also what he calls globalists. From Bannon’s insular white nationalist point of view, the globalists won out in the Trump White House, so now it is time to move on to stage two of taking over the party.

In the 1970s, when Tricky Dick Nixon and his various criminal elements thought up the Southern Strategy, they had no idea that they were not only gaining a huge new constituency for the Republican Party but that they were also ensuring their own marginalization. For all his personal flaws and sheer criminality, Dick Nixon was the old genteel GOP, born a Quaker, a Californian, an attorney, a relatively wealthy man, a backer of price controls and a supporter of abortion.

When the Republicans picked up most white southerners, who seemed not to want to stay in the Democratic Party of their fathers and grandfathers if it meant now having to share it with African-Americans, they also picked up evangelicalism. Evangelical Christianity is not only a phenomenon of the South– there are evangelicals all over the country, and many of them are middle or upper middle class. But they overlap with some denominations and the Baptists are dominant in the South.

And the Evangelicals gave up their traditional quietism and became political and primaried the old Nixon-style Republicans through the 1980s and 1990s especially in the South, and they won those primaries. They made an anti-abortion stance de rigeur. They fought women’s and gay rights. The new GOP that they took over and reshaped did not look anything like the party of 1968 when Nixon won.

Bannon wants to do to the evangelicals and other Republican candidates what they had done to the old genteel GOP of Wall Street investors and Nebraska farmers. He wants to run far right Neo-Nazis in his own mold in primaries, and gradually take over the GOP.

From his point of view, Trump has now become a liability in that quest. Hence, he is glad to help deep-six Trump. What the Republican Party would look like under Bannon’s tender ministrations is clear. You just have to look at his and Breitbart’s strident support for Judge Roy Moore, for someone who wanted to get rid of the First Amendment and whose taste in women ran to the child side.

So don’t worry about the White House. Look who Breitbart is supporting in the way of the “Hail the Leader” factions for Congress in 2018.

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Related video:

Steve Bannon Reveals Key Insights Into President Donald Trump And His Family In New Book | MSNBC

No Normalization: All the Fascist Highlights Trump still Hits

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Fascism as a political ideology is difficult to define, in part because it usually contains a big dose of populism, and the content of populism differs from people to people.

In my view Mussolini’s fascism in Italy is a fair exemplar of the phenomenon. One characteristic fascist societies have in common is social hierarchy. Men are better than women, they hold. Men are entitled. Some ethnicity is better than all the other ethnicities. White people are entitled (even if some white supremacists in Anglo-Saxon societies wouldn’t consider Mussolini’s Italians or Franco’s Spanish to be “white.” Hitler put off an alliance with Italy because he was still hoping he could get the white British to join him and they seemed to him a superior race). A corollary is that some ethnicities are sick or polluting to society and need to be eliminated, made to emigrate or diminished in some more sinister way.

Another hierarchy is economic. The wealthy and the middle classes are better than the poor, and the poor should be punished for being poor. Under Mussolini in the 1930s the condition of the poor plummeted.

Yet another thing that is common to fascist societies is militarism. Because they affect a macho and militaristic stance, they glorify war and generals. And they prefer to deal with problems through war rather than diplomacy, which they code as effeminate.

People kept hoping that Trump was only kidding, only playing to some base, and that once he won the generals he would pivot.

He hasn’t pivoted, except further toward fascism.

His shouting match with North Korea, essentially boasting of a bigger nuclear arsenal (and implicitly threatening to use it) is typical of fascist braggadocio.

His budget, which aims to kick 26 million working and middle class people off of health insurance, is punitive to the poor. They shouldn’t get sick, he is saying, and if they do they should try please to die quickly, as a congressman once said.

His bullying of the Palestinians is likewise more authoritarianism and more punishment of the dispossessed (the British and European Jewish settlers kicked a majority of Palestinians out of their homes, and now Trump and Netanyahu are coming after them for what little land and dignity they have left).

Trump’s generals are spoiling for a fight with Iran and the Trumpists are licking their chops over the Iranian protests. They can’t stop to think that people protesting corruption and the screwing over of little people and authoritarianism are not very likely to erect a government favorable to Trumpism.

As for neo-patriarchy and the treatment of women, Trump’s hypocrisy is impenetrable. Despite a wave of disgrace washing over powerful men for behaving in the ways Trump has boasted of behaving, he remains unrepentant and teflon on the issue. He strongly supported Roy Moore for the senate, as did his house organ, the fascist rag Breitbart, just to underline that he approved of taking advantage of teenaged girls.

White grievance is the natural outcome of fascism. If the natural order is racial supremacy, any sign that that supremacy is not being actively performed in all areas of life must be protested. Are we polite to Jews by saying happy holidays instead of Merry Christmas? That is an outrage. Do African-Americans dare protest the governmental scams being run on them by city establishments like Ferguson? That is an outrage.

Not only has Trump not moderated his fascism, but the national media, addicted to ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism, inevitably normalizes it by bringing on Trumpists to model his fascist discourse for the masses.

The US is being pulled to the far right. Many are resisting, but Trump’s capture of the Republican Party means that he has millions of agents for his planned transformation. Only millions of people actively resisting can offset them.

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Related video:

President Donald Trump To North Korea: My Nuclear Button Is Bigger! | The 11th Hour | MSNBC

America’s Biggest Mideast Foreign Policy Challenges in 2018

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In some ways, the United States faces a more favorable foreign policy environment in 2018 than it has in some years, with regard to facts on the ground. Ironically, some of the more severe challenges emanate not from objective conditions abroad but from the erratic and often insular views of President Donald Trump. Other threats come from putative US allies.

middle east mp

The Middle East is not very important to the US by most objective measures. We only do $220 bn in trade with 47 Muslim-majority countries, with only Iraq standing out among them as our 6th-largest trading party (Bush and Cheney finally got their petroleum imports from that country). With the onrush of green energy and the prospect of electric vehicles replacing internal combustion ones over the next decade and a half, the relative importance of the Middle East to US trade will decline radically over the next 15 years. In contrast, we do $579 bn in trade a year with China alone. And we do about $1.1 trillion in trade with Europe. We are up to 15% renewable energy in the US, and when it is 100% and we all have electric cars, most of us won’t care more about the Middle East than we do about South America (about which we almost never hear on the news except for uppity Venezuela, which also has petroleum).

The far, far right wing Israeli government’s increasingly brazen colonization and annexation of the Palestinian West Bank is causing a great deal of trouble. Trump is encouraging them in this dangerous course. As the promises of Oslo recede, the two state solution has become definitively unrealistic. There really are only a few end games possible here. Either there can be a South Africa-style Apartheid regime, with the Israeli army ruling stateless Palestinians for many decades; or the Palestinians could be ethnically cleansed, in which case over time Europe would likely pick up several million new residents; or there could be a binational federal state of what Moammar Gaddafi used to call Isratine. The first, a long-term Apartheid, is the most likely near to medium term outcome, given the weakness of the Palestinians and of their so-called allies and given that the superpowers either actively support Israel in this scheme or are unwilling to expend political capital to halt it. But Apartheid is also the least stable outcome and will continue to feed anti-Americanism and terrorism. Trump’s especial coddling of the expansionist and authoritarian Israeli far right, paralleled only by his esteem for Vladimir Putin, is extremely dangerous in this context. Ironically, the colonization project in the West Bank strengthens Iran in the region, so Israel creates its own worst enemy.

Although the Washington think tanks and the Trumpian circle in DC are obsessed with Iran’s influence in the Middle East, they are exaggerating. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and Turkey are entirely independent of Iran and Tehran has almost no influence in any of them where it is not actively despised. Iran is influential in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But Lebanon is a small country of 4 million with no hydrocarbons and a gross domestic product of $50 bn. (similar to Bulgaria and Croatia). And it isn’t exactly hostile to the US, despite a cabinet that tilts toward Hizbullah and Iran (some of these politicians are Christians). Syria is a small war-racked country of 18 million and 11 million internal refugees, has no resources to speak of, has an army of perhaps 50,000 men and is just not important. Iraq is the only important asset of Iran by the economics and demography, but it is simultaneously an American ally with a 6,000-strong American troop presence and a US command.

Although the inside-the-Beltway people are always shouting about Iranian backing of terrorism, it is difficult to discern any Iran-backed terrorism of any significance in the past decade. The trick is that the Wonks consider the Iraqi militias (alongside whom US forces fought ISIL in Iraq) and Hizbullah (the major activities of which have been to fight in Syria, often against al-Qaeda and ISIL) as “terrorists.” The US corporations have been defunding public education so that the American public cannot tell the difference between Sunni or Shiite and when they hear Iranian terrorism they assume that Tehran is blowing up Paris.

Iran for some reason is a useful bogeyman, but it has a military budget the size of Singapore’s and it is difficult to see any way in which it significantly affects US interests in the region in any negative way. Israel and Saudi Arabia see it as a budding regional hegemon and are afraid of it, but many of their concerns are vapor and paranoia, or mere reflections of their own actions. They keep complaining about Iranian influence in Yemen, but little is visible while Saudi Arabia and Trump have bombed that poor country back to the stone ages. So who is having the significant impact on Yemen? And despite the propaganda making Hamas ten feet tall, it isn’t as close to Iran as it used to be and it is signalling that it has failed to administer Gaza and is negotiating to have the secular PLO come back in and take over. The Palestinians of Gaza are two million poverty-stricken captives of the Israelis, who keep them in an open air prison and they pose no significant challenge to Israel, Iranian help or no.

In 2014, security in the Fertile Crescent collapsed with the rise of the phony “caliphate” of the so-called Islamic State group, or ISIL or Daesh. A lot of breathless pundits made this emergence of a rogue state more important than it was. I called it a flash in the pan from the beginning. The Iraqi government was not going to cede 40% of its territory to 25,000 extremists hyper-Wahhabis. Damascus was not as much in a hurry to take back the distant and unimportant eastern desert from ISIL, especially since it was fighting other rebels, but it wouldn’t leave them there forever. Moreover, the regional and international security environment was unfriendly to ISIL survival. Iran did not want it there. Russia did not want it there. The United States and NATO did not want it there.

ISIL also gets the 2018 Darwin Award for stupidest human organization on earth (and it has a lot of competition). It is a terrorist organization and attacked Paris and Brussels. But it was also a state with a return address. Terrorist organizations are weak, and terrorist tactics are a sign of weakness. The only advantage they have is that they do not have a return address, so they can strike much stronger foes and then fade away. (The US never has found Ayman al-Zawahiri, who killed nearly 3,000 Americans, though for reasons known only to Washington there doesn’t seem to be a manhunt for him.) But the Daesh leaders announced a capital, and had a state house where they met, and *then* they attacked Paris with terrorism. What do you think France would do to them (and French fighter jets played a bigger role in rolling up Daesh in eastern Syria than was usually reported)? Hence, Darwin award. It has devolved back into a terrorist organization and hasn’t disappeared, but its resources have diminished by 98% and those policy wonks in DC who hope to go on making a living analyzing it should start studying Korean or something.

The US has largely ceded Syria to Russia as a sphere of influence, and Russia gives every sign of settling in for a long military presence there. This is a defeat for those in Washington who wanted regime change in Damascus, but it is not clear that it adversely affects US security per se. The Baath regime or the al-Assad family fief is weak. Syria has no resources to speak of (it was pumping 400,000 barrels a day of petroleum in the good old days, but that is like the Bakken fracked field in the US. Saudi Arabia has don 11 and 12 million barrels a day).

The one bit of unfinished business of the US in Syria is the 2,000 special operations forces embedded with the left-anarchist YPG Kurds in the Jazira region and now Raqqa province. Damascus will want the Jazira back, since it is prime farmland, and besides, states resist loss of territory. Turkey doesn’t want the YPG to control territory because Ankara sees them as an affiliate of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which Turkey and the US view as a terrorist organization. The YPG is not without links to the PKK but they aren’t the same and don’t have a common line of command, and the US doesn’t agree with Turkey’s analysis.

The best case scenario for the leftist Kurds is that Syria moves away from a French-style unitary state to a form of less centralized federalism. The Kurds might be able to live with a Federal Syria where they have a lot of regional prerogatives. Russia has made noises about this sort of settlement but it is resisted by the Baath Party, which is an old Stalinist-style one-party state (though in tatters after the civil war).

The Syrian Kurds were dealt a serious blow by the Iraqi government reassertion in Kirkuk and its boycott along some dimensions (air travel e.g.) of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. The Kurds in general have been weakened. And Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan is waging a violent war of suppression against Turkish Kurds.

It will be very difficult for the US to retain troops in northeastern Syria in the long and perhaps even the medium term, and that they might be hit in a 1983 Beirut-style attack cannot be ruled out.

The Da’wa (the Shiite “Islamic Call”) Party in Iraq is firmly allied with Iran. Trumpian, Saudi and Israeli hopes of delinking the two are forlorn. Neither the Sunni Arab population (which may be only 15% of the country) nor the Kurds (22%?) are a match for the Iraqi national army and its Shiite militia auxiliaries and Iranian advisers. The Iraqi Shiites have come out of the last three years stronger than ever before and have no obvious challengers. Whether they are up to the challenge of uniting Iraq is unclear, and it is that question the raises security concerns for the US.

If you did not assume that US interests in the Middle East required rolling back the regional influence of Iran, the situation would not obviously be alarming. Syria is economically and geopolitically unimportant. Iraq has turned insular (save for Iraqi Shiite militia activity in Syria in support of the regime), and if what the US wants is for Iraq to produce its 3 mn. barrels a day of petroleum, they can probably be relied upon to do so. I love Lebanon but it is poorly governed and its government is weak and it is not a challenge to the US in any way, despite Hizbullah political influence.

Among the biggest challenges in the region is the continued lack of Foreign Direct Investment and consequent high unemployment among members of the youth bulge, which help account for some of the turmoil the area has seen in recent years. Another is the tendency toward authoritarianism, in Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, a tendency that is like putting a lid with no escape valve on a pressure cooker. Trump’s love of strong men militates against his ability to ameliorate that situation.

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Related video:

CGTN: “Iraq invites foreign companies to build new Kirkuk export pipeline”

Are Iran’s protests Economic or Political?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Neoconservative poobah Elliott Abrams slammed the New York Times for headlining an article about the Iran protests as being about the economy. (Abrams was an Iran-Contra fraudster supporting nun-killing right wing death squads in Central America who was convincted of lying to Congress but was rehabilitated by W. Bush, who appointed him to the National Security Council). Abrams insisted that the protests are instead political.

Abrams is a far-right supporter of the far-right Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, and would like nothing more than to see the government of Iran overthrown– not so that its people could have more liberty but in hopes of breaking Iran’s legs as a player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (just as Abrams led the charge to break Iraq’s legs). So he isn’t exactly an objective observer of the Iranian scene, not to mention not actually knowing anything serious about, you know, Iran.

But why someone makes a statement and who they are is ultimately not important in judging whether the statement is true or false. As much as it pains me to say so, Abrams could be right in this dispute.

The rallies certainly began as protests against inflation and joblessness. Iran’s economy is set to grow 4% this year, but inflation is at 9%, which means that Iranians will get 5% poorer. Moreover, the clerical ruling class will be held harmless from that decline in real purchasing power. The four percent growth is mainly because of increased petroleum sales now that international sanctions have been lifted, and because oil prices have firmed up to $60 a barrel. The petroleum proceeds go straight to the government, i.e. to the ruling clerics, who head up a range of foundations and businesses that get government subsidies.

Borzou Daragahi has argued that in a bid to be more transparent, President Hassan Rouhani released budget numbers recently that revealed the extent of government support for clerical foundations, angering workers who not only do not get subsidies but who are going to see their real purchasing power drop 5% again this year.

It also appears that the protests began last Thursday with support from hard liners who were hoping to embarrass President Rouhani. The latter had put a lot of political capital behind the nuclear deal with the Security Council, on the grounds that it would end sanctions and improve the economic situation, which had become dire under Obama’s severe sanctions. The joke turned out to be on the hard liners, who started a wave of protests but lost control of them, with crowds chanting not just death to Rouhani (what the hard liners were going for) but death to Khamenei and death to the Revolutionary Guards (the very institutions the hard liners wanted to strengthen).

So for instance, Iranian Labour News Agency reported (via BBC Monitoring) that 80 people were arrested in the central city of Arak for attempting to invade government offices yesterday. So why were they doing that? It isn’t clear. But it could be that they were hoping to capture municipal records showing corruption. A crowd in Tehran broke into a municipal building, according to Afsaran.ir. Although you could say that invading government offices is a political and not a religious act, in fact it would be hard to separate them out.

In Tehran, some 200 protesters have been arrested and at on point this weekend they attempted to march on the private residence of Aytatollah Ali Khamenei, the clerical leader of the country. That march was political, but they may have been making economic demands.

The killings (two dead in Dorud in Lorestan) and jailings of hundreds have themselves become reasons for people to come out to demonstrate. The demonstrations create martyrs, in whose name more demonstrations are held.

President Rouhani took revenge on the hard liners by giving a speech in which he upheld the right of Iranians to demonstrate. He did draw the line at sabotage, however.

One problem with the debate between Abrams and Thomas Erdbrink of the NYT is that separating out economic and political discontents is not easy, especially in Iran, where the government (as in most petro-states) owns some 80% of the economy. I think we may conclude that some voices in some of the protests have begun speaking of overthrowing the government, and the question for many protesters no longer seems to be high priced food but rather the clerical regime itself.

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Related video

Clashes erupt in western Iran town – BBC News

Top 5 Signs Trump doesn’t Actually Care about Iranian Protesters

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Trump has tweeted as though he cares about the welfare of the Iranian protesters in small towns across that country who are upset about reduced government subsidies for commodities such as eggs and gasoline. His administration tried to prosecute protesters for laughing at VP Mike Pence.

The scattered rallies, mostly consisting of a few hundred people but sometimes swelling to 1,000, continued for a third day.

Here are the reasons for which these statements are hypocritical.

1. If Trump cared about Iranian dissidents, he would welcome those who want to flee to the United States. The more forthright and well known dissidents are at risk of long jail sentences or even death. Instead, Trump has tried to ban Iranians from coming to the United States at all. If he won’t let a grandmother come for her grandchild’s wedding, how much does he care about Iranians?

2. The protesters are protesting economic hardship. But Trump and the Washington Establishment were all for imposing economic hardship on the Iranian public to pressure the government to give up its nuclear fuel enrichment program. Under severe sanctions which Trump doesn’t think severe enough, some families stopped being able to afford imported medicines key to treating a family member. Some of today’s economic problems are rooted in the American deep sanctions and in the GOP Congress’s refusal to lift sanctions on Iranians after the government signed the nuclear deal.

3. Sympathizing with working people facing increased prices is not Trump’s brand, and it is rich for him to pretend to care about them. Trump with his budget law has just plunged millions of Americans living in straitened circumstances into even more dire poverty and is trying to take health care insurance away from 26 million Americans. Trump hasn’t even gotten the electricity back on for American citizens in Puerto Rico because of his racism. So if Trump were in power in Iran, the people in the streets protesting would be treated much worse than they are now.

4. The protesters are complaining about the arbitrary, high-handed and authoritarian way that the clerical regime has run Iran. Trump does not object to any of those policies in principle. He just told the New York Times that as president, he can do anything he wants and it is legal, and that he can suborn the Department of Justice. Trump also wants to outlaw abortion in order to please his base of religious evangelicals and conservative Catholics. That the Iranian clerics make policy on irrational religious grounds is one of the things people mind about them, but how is Ayatollah Trump different?

5. Trump has allied himself, and aligned himself, with the Saudi royal family, which in turn is attempting to undermine Iran. Trump is backing Saudi Arabia’s cruel and useless bombing campaign on poor little Yemen. That any Iranians would see Trump as sympathetic to them beggars belief.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: “Trump: World is watching Iran protests”

Did the US cause Iran’s Economic Protests & will Trump Take Advantage?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The scattered urban protests that began in Mashhad on Thursday spread to several other provincial cities on Friday, including Qom, Rasht, Kerman and Qazvin. This is like protests in the US starting in Boston and spreading to Denver and Cleveland.

Predictably, Trump had to get involved, tweeting an objection to the government’s arrest of protesters. Jeff Sessions had people arrested for laughing in protest at him. If people in Iran think Trump is behind this movement, that would kill it right there.

One thing I have to complain about in the US press coverage is people saying protests in Iran are rare because it is a totalitarian state. Actually small protests about economic issues are pretty normal from time to time and here and there. There have been lots of protest movements with a political overtone, as well. Something like summer of 2009, when there were really big rallies in the big cities that lasted for months– now, that is rare. It remains to be seen whether this wave of protests is all that important.

It seems clear that the rallies began with complaints against Iran’s bad economy. People are complaining about inflation, high prices and the reduction or removal of government subsidies.

That economic focus of the protests is a little ironic. Iran is back up to exporting 2.5 million barrels a day of petroleum. President Obama’s severe sanctions before the nuclear deal in summer, 2015, had involved twisting the arms of countries like South Korea not to buy Iranian petroleum, and had reduced exports to 1.5 mn barrels per day. Moreover, today the price of petroleum is roughly $60 per barrel, which is way up from last summer. In short, Iran should have had a lot of money coming in during the past couple of months.

But at the level of the ordinary person who doesn’t directly share in oil wealth, there was a loss of real income during the Obama sanctions and people haven’t recovered. Moreover, since the GOP Congress and Trump are trying to destroy the nuclear deal, they have declined to lift US unilateral sanctions on Iran, and implicitly threaten European corporations who plan to invest in Iran with US Treasury Department sanctions. So the gold rush of investment that Rouhani promised the public to come as a result of the nuclear deal has not materialized to the extent that Iran wanted. And lack of foreign investment has hurt job growth.

In addition, a problem with rentier states like Iran, which depend on one or two pricey primary commodities, is that it is hard to get the money into people’s hands, even where government bureaucrats aren’t hopelessly corrupt and keep it for themselves. If you just give the money out it causes inflation by increasing the money supply in the absence of any rise in productivity, i.e. any increase in goods produced per person per hour. Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. And inflation eats up the value of money. So people end up worse than before. Moreover, having a pricey primary commodity hardens your currency artificially. Iranian raisins and pecans and carpets are expensive in India for the arbitrary reason that Iran has petroleum. So exports are hurt (ironically, Obama’s sanctions may actually have been good for non-oil exports since the value of the riyal dropped). Small oil countries like Kuwait can sometimes bribe their people to keep quiescent, though that doesn’t always work (in Bahrain sectarian disputes make that bargain hard to implement).

Anyway, what appear to be remnants of the failed 2009 Green Movement emerged among the crowds, chanting not for reform but for the fall of the regime. People condemned the “dictator” (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clerical leader) and also slammed President Hassan Rouhani. They said they wanted the akhunds, a disrespectful word for clerics, to “give back the country.”

They also wanted to know why Iran was spending all that money propping up the al-Assad regime in Syria instead of spending it on the Iranian public. This theme of “Iran first” had also been prominent in 2009.

People in Quchan (in the far east of the country over near Turkmenistan) were chanting “Death to Rouhani!” and denouncing high prices:

To the extent that the protests come out of economic distress, the US is certainly a big part of the problem here, acting in part at the behest of the Israel lobbies and in part at those of the arms manufacturers and oil interests. The US overthrew the Iranian government in 1953 in part by putting a severe boycott on nationalized Iranian oil, and provoking protests against the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

That is the GOP and Trump playbook again these days.

Which is not to say that there aren’t real discontents in Iran. It remains to be seen how widespread and intense they are.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Iran’s anti-government protests spread to major cities”

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