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Can an Indonesian Model Work in the Middle East?

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Since the downfall of long reigning President Suharto in May 1998, Indonesia has successfully, if not always without difficulty, transitioned from authoritarian rule to a functioning democracy.

Earlier concerns over Islamist ascendancy have proved largely unfounded, and a diversity of Islamic political expression is accommodated within the framework of democratic electoral politics.[1] How was this development possible in the world’s most populous Muslim country, and can it serve as a template for the ongoing transitions in the Middle East?

Islam, Nationalism, and the Indonesian Republic

The Indonesian archipelago has a rich history of taking outside influences (especially religious ones) and adapting them to complement existing social structures, traditions, and belief systems. The first major encounters with Islam date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when the religion arrived peacefully via trading merchants from Persia and India. Spreading gradually to Sumatra, Java, and beyond over the centuries, Islamic practice including Sufi traditions amalgamated with indigenous custom and became part and parcel of many of the archipelago’s different cultural identities.

This gradual syncretic adoption is reflected in predominantly tolerant and diverse forms of religious expression across Indonesia. For instance, on Java there is a distinct difference, in terms of religiosity, between two major Islamic strands: Many nominal Javanese Muslims (abangan) identify with an indigenized syncretic form of practice, Agami Jawi, while other Javanese identify as Santri, practicing a stricter but still moderate form of Islam.[2] Outside Java, believers in places like Aceh in northern Sumatra, parts of the Moluccas, and in central Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes) observe a stricter practice while, on the other hand, some Sasak on the island of Lombok still adhere to an Islamic animist-ancestral amalgam known as Islam Wetu Telu. In fact, one could say that in the majority of cases, a dynamic and tolerant equilibrium exists between the archipelago’s overlapping strands of national, religious, and cultural identification. Indonesians share a strong sense of national, political identity forged from a common history of anticolonial struggles, shared national language (bahasa Indonesia), and state-sponsored education. The size of Indonesia’s two major socio-religious organizations also gives one an appreciation of the influence of Islam in daily life. Both organizations boast many devout followers. The traditionalist Sunni Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, Awakening of Ulama) has about 30-35 million members and formed in 1926 in reaction to the reformist Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad). Its raison d’être is to spread and retain conservative Islamic teachings and practices through a large network of religious boarding schools. The reformist Muhammadiyah numbers approximately 29 million. Established in 1912, it focuses on social and educational activities through a promotion of ijtihad (individual interpretation of the Qur’an and sunna) rather than the uncritical acceptance (taqlid) of orthodox interpretations of tradition by ulama.[3]

At the same time, the modern Indonesian state has not always had an easy relationship with the polity’s cultural-religious identification. Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in August 1945, but in the months leading up to it, a lively constitutional debate took place centering in part on the emerging pancasila (five principles) ideology of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. Enshrined in article 29, section 1 of the 1945 constitution, the five principles are belief in one God, national unity, humanitarianism, consensus democracy, and social justice. Originally, the first principle also contained the words “with an obligation for Muslims to implement Islamic law,” but this was soon dropped by the largely secular-nationalist minded Sukarno. This left many stricter Muslims, particularly from outside Java, with the sense that the finalized constitution marginalized Islam.

Sukarno and his nationalist allies soon successfully weakened and splintered the Islamic political party, Masjumi (an acronym for the Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations) in an attempt to reduce its political appeal. By 1958, opposition to Sukarno’s increasingly authoritarian “guided democracy” led to open rebellion under the aegis of the short-lived Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia. After the military crushed the rebellion, Sukarno jailed many of Masjumi’s leaders for their involvement and eventually outlawed the party. Erstwhile Islamic militias such as Darul Islam and Tentara Islam Indonesia, which had participated in the war of independence against the Dutch, met with similar fates. Sensing the threat they posed to his nationalist project, Sukarno banned both, and by the 1960s, they had fallen into disarray after suffering sustained attack from the Indonesian armed forces.

In 1965, a failed coup ignited a bloody power struggle in which the army purged the country of President Sukarno’s communist allies and installed Gen. Suharto as head of state. With the rise of Suharto, failure to profess a recognized religion meant potential persecution as a communist, a fate the majority of Indonesians were eager to avoid as it is estimated that between 500,000-1,000,000 alleged communist sympathizers died in a brutal slaughter between 1965 and 1966.[4] It thus comes as little surprise that between 85 to 90 percent of the Indonesian population carry identification cards identifying themselves as Muslim. Keen to stymie any challenges to his authority, Suharto also refused Masjumi a return to politics, and with his 1971 overhaul of the electoral system, he effectively de-Islamized Indonesia’s state-level political structure. The major Islamic organizations were forced to align themselves under the banner of a regime co-opted political party, the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan).

Nevertheless, Suharto was only partially successful in subsuming society’s Islamic identification to the diktats of his “New Order” ideology. In effect, his marginalization of political Islam merely precipitated a greater role on its part in fostering civil society activity. Rather than directly challenge the authorities for political power, moderate reformists such as Dawan Rahardjo, Djohan Effendi, and Nurcholish Madjid focused on building a strong and dynamic Islamic community based on education and social welfare. Their ideas on Islamic social and educational renewal emerged in close association with the Islamic Students Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam), which appealed to a younger generation of well-educated, urban, middle-class Indonesians who were enjoying some of the benefits of New Order economic development.

Democratic Transition and Political Islam

By the 1990s, Suharto himself began to encourage the restoration of Islamic issues onto the political agenda. Eager to court Islamic support as a counter to growing pro-democracy sentiment and rumbling military dissent, it became politically advantageous for Suharto to tolerate Islamic political activism. He promoted pro-Islamic officers in the army and supported the Association of Muslim Intellectuals (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia) made up largely of professionals, scientists, economists, educators, scholars, and regime supporters.[5]

The strategy eventually backfired in the wake of the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1997. The Indonesian rupiah went into free fall against world currencies, and the banking sector collapsed under a mountain of bad loans. The prices of oil, gas, and other commodity exports plummeted as per capita gross domestic product fell by 13 percent. The crisis was exacerbated by Indonesia’s worst drought in fifty years. As inflation soared, food prices rose, and ensuing shortages led to widespread rioting. By the following year, Suharto’s grip on power had loosened in the face of the economic meltdown and pressure from the reformasi movement, the broad movement to bring down Suharto’s New Order.

Prominent Islamic leaders such as Abdurrahman Wahid, president in 1999-2001, Amien Rais, leader of Muhammadiyah, and Nurcholish Madjid along with their associated organizations played major populist roles in Suharto’s eventual downfall and its aftermath by helping to disseminate democratic values throughout society via voter education and election monitoring.[6] Their links to Muslim activists on the frontlines of student protests and rallies against the president exemplified the compatibility of Islam with democracy, political rights, and justice. Underscoring moderation and support for Sukarno’s five principles was crucially important during the turmoil and prevented calls for the creation of an Islamic state from gaining any traction. Appeals to Indonesians’ sense of tolerance and national pride took precedence.

Suharto tried to deflect public anger by blaming Sino-Indonesians and global financial institutions for the crisis, but tensions within the military weakened his hold on power. Factional splits that had developed in the 1980s between “red and white” (secular nationalist) and “green” (Islamic) groups increased, and some began questioning Suharto’s authority. In this turbulent economic and political climate, factions within the green military began shifting their support to the Indonesian Council for Islamic Da’wa (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia) and the Indonesian Committee for Solidarity of the Islamic World (Komite Indonesia Untuk Solidaritas dengan Dunia Islam), both of which received substantial funding and donations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Eventually, key factions of the military simply abandoned the president. He had become too much of a liability.

Islamic Political Parties

Upon Suharto’s departure, pressure mounted on Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the NU, to run for office. Wahid was wary of NU’s return to politics as potentially damaging to its social mission but was eventually persuaded to head the newly-formed National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa), which combined Islam with the nationalist pancasila ideology. Notwithstanding NU’s long-time championship of an Islamic-oriented Indonesia and Wahid’s personal stature, neither it nor any of the welter of Islamic parties and groups that sprang up in the post-Suharto environment could achieve a parliamentary majority. By late 1998, the prospect of a single Islamic political voice emerging looked highly unlikely. Although forty out of eighty political parties were, to varying degrees, Islamic-oriented, this number decreased by election time in 1999 to twenty eligible groups.[7]

The outcome of this proliferation of parties was ultimately unsatisfying for all contenders. Megawati Sukarnoputri (Sukarno’s daughter) led the secular-nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan) to 37.4 percent of the vote (153 seats in parliament) while Wahid’s National Awakening Party only garnered 12.6 percent of the vote for 51 seats. Despite this, behind-the-scenes jockeying for power and horse-trading maneuvers by Islamic groups produced a coalition that backed Wahid for the presidency.

Wahid, however, was simply unable to hold together a broad coalition of competing interests. Notwithstanding the increased Islamic influence that led to his elevation, the confusion that reigned during Wahid’s presidency (and his eventual impeachment in mid-2001) indicated a process still very much in transition. But rather than impeachment signaling a return to authoritarian ways, it became the first big test of Indonesia’s new democratic credentials. Parliament followed constitutional protocol by replacing Wahid with then-vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who went on to complete the remainder of Wahid’s five-year presidential term. Ironically, the Islamic groups who had pushed so hard for Wahid to serve were now left with the unpalatable option of the secularist Megawati as the next constitutionally mandated president. They duly accepted the appointment, nonetheless.

Political machinations aside, developments in the post-Suharto party system introduced political players with stricter forms of Muslim identity politics capable of appealing to major Muslim constituencies. Islamic-oriented political parties appeal to sections of more conservative-minded, urban middle classes with an interest in promoting social decency, political moderation, and piety based on Islam as an ethical reference. The moral concerns of these constituencies combined with feelings of uncertainty toward social change in the face of rapid development have no doubt helped bolster the appeal.

Yet, while the number of Islamic parties is more prevalent than at any time in Indonesia’s past, most of their involvement is of a moderate kind and very far from being associated with the institution of an Islamist theocracy. Moreover, the results of the 1999 election indicated clearly that Indonesians en masse favored a democratic polity over an Islamic state, giving the secularist-nationalist parties of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle and the Golkar party 58.3 percent of the vote while the various Islamic parties amassed less than 42 percent.[8] True, the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or PKS), whose leaders claim it does not seek to impose Shari’a (despite links to the Muslim Brotherhood), increased its vote from 1.5 percent in 1999 to 7.45 percent in 2004.[9] But this success was largely a result of its image as a relatively new and untainted party, as well as the stagnation and subsequent unraveling of Megawati’s tenure. The PKS leadership skillfully exploited the situation to cast itself as a “clean” Islamic party committed to an anti-corruption platform, rather than to the imposition of Shari’a rule. Although the public’s perception of it has tarnished somewhat over the years, especially recently, it marginally increased its share in the People’s Representative Council (the Indonesian version of the House of Representatives) in the 2009 elections to almost 8 percent but made less significant inroads in many of the regions.

Most significantly, the PKS and other Islamic-oriented groups represent only 169 out of 560 seats in parliament—a mere 30 percent. The stunning electoral triumph of the secular-nationalist Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat) in 2009 with 148 seats alongside the more established Golkar and Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle groups (106 and 94 seats respectively) indicates that Islam does not necessarily trump other interests or issues in Indonesia. Still, there is a growing concern that not enough is being done to combat radicalism, intolerance, and increasing intimidation of local religious minorities by hard-line Islamist vigilantes such as Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front).[10]

Lessons to Learn

The Indonesian experience shows that countries do not emerge in a straightforward transition from authoritarian rule to multiparty democracy overnight: The challenges of transition are multiple. Success depends on translating momentum for change into meaningful reform and improvements over a sustained period of time. This involves redressing past injustices, economic stabilization, popular legitimization, judicial reform, diffusion of democratic values, marginalization of anti-system actors, ensuring greater civilian rule over the military, party system development, and the routinization of politics.[11] What also needs to be recognized is that democratization is not the same as democracy; one is a process, the other a political system. Democracy can become the “only game in town” if and when change occurs incrementally on the behavioral, attitudinal, and constitutional levels.[12]

Indonesia’s transformation, in common with other democratizations, has been anything but easy.[13] There continue to be corruption issues, ongoing policy ineffectiveness, judicial problems, institutional frictions, and personality politics but what is clear is that there has been substantive reform. The political system is now a functioning democracy with all its benefits and shortcomings. Reviewing the steps taken to get there may help in producing applicable measures for steering the turbulent Middle Eastern societies toward a more democratic future.

To begin with, there is the need to organize free and fair elections though elections in themselves can hardly be expected to channel contests peacefully among political rivals or accord public legitimacy. There also has to be corresponding reform of state institutions, policymaking procedures, and an attendant recovery of civil liberties. Inclusive suffrage, the right to run for office, enhanced freedom of expression, and access to alternative information are some of the necessary building blocks. Indonesia’s first two elections in 1999 and 2004 were the freest in more than forty years with huge amounts of political activity and media coverage. The lifting of press restrictions, the release of political prisoners, and the formation of new political parties all bore witness to its climate of reform.

Dismantling the most repressive structures of an authoritarian regime and removing the military gradually from politics are also major tasks of reform. In Indonesia, political leaders moved quickly to separate the police from the military. Turning the military into an asset rather than a threat to the process is a challenge but not insurmountable. Persuading the generals to “return to the barracks” involves investment in their professionalism, an appeal to their sense of honor, and realistically, an appeal to their wallets.

To prevent a reactionary backlash, allowing the military to retain substantial economic interests may be a prudent move if a difficult pill to swallow in the short term. However, one must be exceptionally wary of grand bargains being struck, whereby political hegemony is transferred on the assurance that the military unconditionally retains its reserved economic domains and privileged status. Rather, the aim must be to create enough time and space to institute some step-by-step reforms and gradually phase out military embeddedness in the body politic, something that the recent Middle Eastern revolutions have thus far failed to do.

Indonesia managed to reduce the sociopolitical role of its armed forces by allowing it to retain its substantial economic interests in the short term, and there have even been attempts to phase this out completely although very incrementally. This paved the way for constitutional reform of the army’s dual role in politics and the economy in 2002 and the formal removal of its allocated seats in parliament in 2004. All of this brought improved civilian rule of the military over time.

This, in turn, can help in the provision of transitional justice. A society often needs to allow some of its open wounds to heal so that it can move on. It is an incredibly fraught and thorny process, but one way to do this is to give them a good “airing.” This may involve the establishment of some form of truth and reconciliation commission as in South Africa or East Timor, depending on circumstance. South Africa provides a better template for reconciliatory justice than the attempts in East Timor. The 2002 Ad-Hoc Court for Human Rights Violations in East Timor convicted only a small number of lower-ranking military officers. Indonesia’s military (especially its top commanders at the time) have largely avoided recriminations. Syria represents a perfect example of where such an undertaking will be critical, but this process may also be applied in such countries as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia where long-standing authoritarian regimes were swept from power. The scale of the Assad regime’s violence and the country’s crosscutting sectarian rivalries make the potential for wide-scale retribution and bloodletting a very real prospect. Future prosecutions at the International Criminal Court or a similar tribunal for the worst offenders of the Syrian regime should be contemplated. Such steps are important in post-conflict situations as they provide mortar to rebuild respect for state institutions and the rule of law. Restoring pride and trust in institutions such as the judiciary, law enforcement, and security services is a massive task of reform that will take time and substantial effort.

A third critical factor, major constitutional and decentralization reform, brought improved representation and accountability to Indonesia, albeit by degrees. Although far from perfect, the restructured People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat) now consists entirely of popularly elected members sitting in the People’s Representative Council and a new Regional Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah). In fact, Indonesia’s 2004 elections bore witness to a meaningful and extensive number of permitted political parties, stabilized election rules, amendments to decentralization legislation, and constitutional limitations on the power of the executive. The president is elected directly and can only serve one renewable five-year term. Parliament has also gained more power in the legislative process, which encourages the president to maintain broad support in the legislature.

The success of Indonesia’s 2009 elections further attests to real stabilization and routinization. A diverse media remains open and vigorous, and civil society activity continues to flourish with an array of nongovernmental organizations and pressure groups. This is not to say things are all smooth sailing, but most important is the fact that the new democratic framework is accepted.[14] Current president Yudhoyono may be ex-military, but he is unconditionally committed to, and readily submits his interests to, the new rules of the game—something that new Middle Eastern leaders have yet to learn.

Conclusions

The recent Islamist electoral successes in Tunisia and Egypt suggest a different political dynamic than Indonesia. Yet the tenor of the uprisings, at least in their initial phases, as well as subsequent reactions to authoritarian behavior by elected Islamist officials, indicate that a substantial number of people in these countries, as in Indonesia, will expect parties to respect the rule of law and address their countries’ economic and corruption problems. As evidenced by the public backlash to Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s recent power grab and the assassination of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaïd, attempts at a coercive institutionalization of Islamist theocracy may well be met with continued protests and uprisings.

The real issue for the Middle East is not whether it will be secular or Islamic. In many ways, this is a false dichotomy and a distraction from much greater concerns. What one is witnessing in the region is a simultaneous convergence of multiple social, economic, and political vectors bringing things into sharp relief. Looking at the conditions in these countries, there were clear indications that storms were brewing. Despite the substantial wealth that narrow self-serving elites enjoyed (some of which trickled down to the middle classes), economic stagnation was rife; combined with rising prices for basic foodstuffs and high unemployment among educated, tech-savvy but disenfranchised youth this created an extremely volatile mix. What the people of the region now have to do is find ways to strike a different social contract by translating the popular momentum for greater political freedoms, effective rule of law, and better living conditions that brought down their autocrats into representative capacity. And if the Indonesian example teaches anything, it is that moderate Islam and democratic development are not incompatible bedfellows.

Paul J. Carnegie is senior lecturer in political economy at the Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. He is the author of The Road from Authoritarianism to Democratization in Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and taught previously in both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

[1] See, for example, Thomas Carothers, “Egypt and Indonesia,” The New Republic, Feb. 2, 2011; Jay Solomon, “In Indonesia, a model for Egypt’s transition,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2011.
[2] Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960), pp. 121-31.
[3] Fauzan Saleh, Modern Trends in Islamic Theological Discourse in 20th Century Indonesia: A Critical Survey (Leiden: Brill 2001), pp. 17-29.
[4] Robert Cribb, ed., The Indonesian Killings of 1965–1966: Studies from Java and Bali (Clayton: Monash University Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, 1990), p. 12; idem, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965-1966,” Journal of Genocide Research, June 3, 2001, pp. 219-39.
[5] Suzaina Kadir, “The Islamic factor in Indonesia’s political transition,” Asian Journal of Political Science, 2 (1999), pp. 21-44.
[6] Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh, “Islam and the Current Transition to Democracy in Indonesia,” in Arief Budiman, Barbara Hatley, and Damien Kingsbury, eds., Reformasi: Crisis and Change in Indonesia (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute 1999), pp. 201-12; Robert Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 189-200.
[7] Ken Young, “The national picture: A victory for reform?” in Susan Blackburn, ed. Pemilu: The 1999 Indonesian Election (Melbourne: Monash Asia Institute, 1999), pp. 3-11.
[8] Komisi Pemilihan Umum, “Indonesian elections with figures and facts 1955-1999,” General Elections Commission, Jakarta, 2000.
[9] Sadanand Dhume, “Indonesian Democracy’s Enemy Within,” Yale Global, Dec. 1, 2005.
[10] See, for example, “Indonesia: ‘Christianization’ and Intolerance,” Asia Briefing, no. 114, International Crisis Group, Jakarta/Brussels, Nov. 24, 2010, p. 17; “Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia,” Human Rights Watch, New York, 2013, pp. 60-6, 71-86.
[11] Andreas Schedler, “What Is Democratic Consolidation?” Journal of Democracy, Apr. 1998, pp. 91-107.
[12] Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post-communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 5-14.
[13] Paige Johnson Tan, “Indonesia Seven Years after Soeharto: Party System Institutionalization in a New Democracy,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, 1 (2006), pp. 88-114; Douglas Webber, “A Consolidated Patrimonial Democracy? Democratization in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” Democratization, 3 (2006), pp. 396-420; Marcus Mietzner and Edward Aspinall, “Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: An Overview,” in Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner, eds., Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: Elections, Institutions and Society (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), pp. 1-20.
[14] Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 26.

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Middle East

New Horizons of the Iran Nuclear Deal

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At the beginning of the 21st century, we were able to talk with some confidence about the obvious success of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the foundations of which had been laid by the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT). Back in the 1960s, the expert community was extremely critical of the regime that was being established, predicting that by the turn of the century, some 30 countries would possess nuclear weapons. Despite these pessimistic forecasts, at present, there are only four countries (apart from the officially recognized nuclear powers) that have the nuclear capability: India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Now, however, it is difficult to be confident about the reliability of the non-proliferation regime, even though its system of guarantees has been brought up to date by the Additional Protocol.

Today, the generation and utilization of nuclear energy is no longer restricted to a small group of countries capable of financing the construction of expensive nuclear facilities. Even though nuclear power plants continue to be extremely costly to build, an increasing number of countries are entertaining plans to construct their own nuclear facilities thanks to technological progress, improved nuclear security guarantees and the objective need for new sources of energy. For example, the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation in Russia has been contracted to build nuclear reactors in a number of countries, including China, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, and Turkey. The list of countries thinking about developing their own nuclear programs continues to grow, especially among those nations that require sources of cheap clean energy. However, the specific nature of nuclear energy is such that its peaceful use poses a threat to non-proliferation.

The problem is that nuclear power generation involves uranium enrichment as one of the stages in the technological process. The danger here is that the same enriching equipment (centrifuges) used to manufacture nuclear fuel can be used to obtain weapons-grade uranium suitable for military use. The difference lies in the enrichment level: 0.7–5 percent is sufficient for loading uranium into most existing reactor models while obtaining a critical mass requires enriching uranium to approximately 90 percent. In fact, states do not need to enrich uranium on their own to provide fuel for their nuclear power plants (off-the-shelf nuclear fuel is available in large quantities on the international market), but many nations insist on maintaining their enrichment facilities as a measure to ensure their energy independence. The very presence of uranium enrichment centrifuges creates the danger of their being used to obtain weapons-grade uranium. The case of Iran indicates that the existing system of curbing nuclear weapons proliferation cannot fully guarantee the exclusively peaceful use of nuclear energy.

One way or another, the risk always remains that countries will actively attempt to create nuclear arsenals under the pretext of ensuring their energy independence. The more countries that turn to nuclear power as their preferred energy source, the higher the likelihood of new nuclear powers emerging. It is evident that the existing non-proliferation regime no longer meets the realities of the 21st century, and that it requires additional guarantees. It appears appropriate to adopt the restrictions stipulated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to create a new non-proliferation regime.

What the JCPOA is about

The JCPOA was the result of years of negotiations between the international community and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. The plan provides for a broad range of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity, its primary purpose being to prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons. The JCPOA was never meant to be the final solution to the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons; instead, it is a temporary solution limited to a period of 15 years. This circumstance caused a wave of criticism on the part of the international community.

The JCPOA sets limits on two categories of radioactive substances that can be used in manufacturing nuclear weapons: uranium and plutonium. Uranium is the most common type of reactor fuel, and it is especially dangerous from the standpoint of its potential as a weapon. To ensure the use of nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes, the JCPOA introduces both quantitative and qualitative restrictions on the use of uranium. For example, Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium to more than 3.67 percent, and its reserves of enriched uranium cannot exceed 300kg. To meet this requirement, Iran had to get rid of 98 percent of its accumulated enriched uranium stockpile and significantly restrict its enrichment activity. In addition, the JCPOA imposes a temporary ban on Iran using advanced centrifuges that are capable of quickly enriching significant amounts of uranium.

There are also certain safeguards about plutonium. This element is not often used as fuel for nuclear reactors, so restrictions on its stockpiling are much easier to justify. Nevertheless, controlling the use of plutonium is difficult due to the specific nature of its production. Unlike uranium, plutonium is not extracted but rather synthesized from spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors of a specific type. Heavy-water reactors have a particular capacity for plutonium production, and the JCPOA reflects this by imposing restrictions on Iran’s only heavy-water reactor – the Arak Heavy Water Reactor Facility.

The JCPOA is not intended as the final solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear program. Its main objective is to temporarily prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability by handicapping the country’s progress in that area. According to some experts, at the time of signing the JCPOA, Iran had sufficient motivation and resources to create an atomic bomb within three to six months. The terms of the agreement forced Iran to downscale its resources and technical capabilities to such an extent that, if the JCPOA were to be terminated today, the country would need around 12 months to build a nuclear weapon. Thus, the JCPOA does not provide any perpetual non-proliferation guarantees, but it does ensure a buffer period for international actors to apply diplomacy or force to cull the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Criticism of the JCPOA

The urgency with which the JCPOA was adopted drew a spate of criticism over the guarantees offered by the new non-proliferation regime. One of the reasons for the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iranian deal was Washington’s concern about Iran’s actions after the expiration of the NPT. As the United States views it, once the 15-year period stipulated by the JCPOA is up, Iran will be free to go on with its nuclear program without any restrictions, so the sanctions on Tehran can only be lifted on the condition that the JCPOA remains in force indefinitely. This development would certainly secure more guarantees of Iran’s peaceful intentions, and could make the United States reconsider its position as to the reliability of the regime being proposed, but the prospects for prolonging the JCPOA appear to be dubious.

The difficulty of prolonging the treaty indefinitely is primarily linked to Iran’s interests in the Middle East. Tehran is positioning itself as a regional power that is capable of exerting significant cultural and political influence on Middle Eastern countries in general, and on the region’s Shiite population in particular. Iran perceives the current temporary limitation imposed on its nuclear program as a compromise with the West – it is making nuclear concessions in exchange for concessions from the international community in the form of a partial lifting of the sanctions. In this sense, Iran is an equal party to the deal, and it limits its activities proportionately to the concessions offered by its counterparts. An indefinite JCPOA would go beyond that deal and into the category of “requirements,
which would strip Iran of its status as an equal party to the agreement. A situation is emerging in which Iran will have to voluntarily limit its sovereign right to the use of nuclear energy in exchange for an easing of the economic pressure. At the same time, other countries that have developed nuclear weapons by obviating the provisions of the NPT are not being subjected to similar pressure. In addition, prolonging the JCPOA deal indefinitely would put Iran at a disadvantage compared to its regional rivals. The restrictions imposed on the Iranian nuclear sector in no way affect Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and they do not provide Iran with any significant guarantees against the nuclear programs of those countries.

Iran unilaterally waiving its rights can hardly be viewed as the basis of an agreement on limiting its nuclear program. Nevertheless, the problem of Iran’s nuclear potential remains relevant. On the contrary, it is posing an increasing threat to the non-proliferation regime. The renewed U.S. economic pressure is endangering the JCPOA regime, even though all the other parties to the deal have expressed their firm intent to observe it even with the United States withdrawing from it. Should Iran decide that the renewal of the U.S. sanctions makes the self-imposed restrictions futile, its attempts to develop nuclear weapons may continue. This is the most dangerous scenario, and it was precisely to prevent it from happening that the JCPOA was introduced in the first place.

The sanctions pressure being exerted by the United States is increasingly affecting Iran’s economy, meaning that Tehran is even more likely to go back on the JCPOA and resume its nuclear program. In this case, the international community will face a difficult choice between increasing economic pressure, which could provoke the emergence of new nuclear power, and resorting to armed violence to destroy the Iranian nuclear program. Both scenarios are fraught with numerous risks and are highly undesirable for both Iran and the international community. Seeing as there is no acceptable alternative, the only option is to search for other possibilities to preserve the non-proliferation regime established by the JCPOA.

Making the JCPOA global

Preserving the Iranian deal is closely linked to modernizing the global non-proliferation regime. Taken together, these two issues may lead to the conclusion that their possible solutions would complement each other. On its own, the JCPOA creates an effective system for preventing non-nuclear powers from developing nuclear weapons. This is achieved through significantly limiting the level of uranium enrichment, restricting plutonium production, and giving IAEA experts sweeping rights in terms of monitoring and inspections. The main drawback of the Iranian deal is its limited scope. Iran might agree to it being in place indefinitely, but only on the condition that its provisions are scaled up to the global level to become a world standard for nuclear non-proliferation.

To begin with, replicating the Iranian deal globally would effectively stop Iran from being treated like a pariah state when it comes to the use of nuclear energy. The restrictions on the use of radioactive substances and the IAEA’s extensive rights to carry out inspections at nuclear facilities as provided for by the agreement would become a new norm, adopted by a number of developed states, rather than an instrument specifically aimed at containing Tehran’s nuclear program. Second, if the requirements become global, Iran will get much more substantial guarantees concerning the nuclear programs of its rivals in the Middle East. Applying similar restrictions to Iran’s regional opponents would provide equal guarantees of nuclear energy being used exclusively for peace in the Middle East.

Thus, adopting JCPOA globally could resolve several issues at once. First, indefinite restrictions would be imposed on Iran’s nuclear program (as well as on the other signatories of the planned agreement), thus eliminating fears of Tehran relaunching its uranium enrichment program. Second, promoting the new rules to the international level would update the obsolete global nuclear non-proliferation regime, making it more suited to the realities of the 21st century.

It would certainly be naive to expect the entire global community would voluntarily adopt such a system of deterrence. However, this does not mean that steps should not be taken in this direction. Promoting the JCPOA to the global level should occur gradually and with support of the nuclear states and the world’s leading economies of the world. It should also take the importance and practicability of the JCPOA’s conditions at the global level into account.

The current JCPOA regime, which is geared specifically towards the Iranian nuclear program, may well represent a very reliable system of checks and balances, but it still cannot be brought up to the global level in its original format. Imbuing it with a universal character would require identifying the priority restrictions, with due attention paid to the specific requirements of potential new players in the non-proliferation regime.

The process of establishing such restrictions at the global level will present a serious challenge to the diplomatic capabilities of those countries that are most interested in maintaining the nuclear non-proliferation system (even though, to some extent, the existing regime is essential for all countries). We may assume that this task is a priority for nuclear states seeking to preserve their monopoly on nuclear weapons, thereby minimizing the risk of their use for military purposes. This calls for the process to be led by recognized nuclear powers, namely Russia, the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom (and also by the European Union as an influential political association). If these countries accept the conditions for limiting Iranian uranium enrichment, this could help achieve several goals at once. First, such major and reputable countries could help to establish a kind of “standard” for other nations. Second, such a strategy does not contradict the political vector of the movement of the nuclear powers (they all declare, in one way or another, their desire to reduce their nuclear arsenals). Third (which is particularly important), the recognized nuclear states are permanent members of the UN Security Council. If the Security Council approves a new non-proliferation regime, the issue will be brought to a qualitatively new level of consideration. As practice shows, the recognition of the need for certain actions at such a high level contributes to the creation of a consensus on such issues.

The success of the strategy is directly dependent on the readiness of the members of the Security Council to move to a new stage of the non-proliferation regime. Of particular concern are Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea as states that have acquired a nuclear arsenal despite the non-proliferation regime, as well as non-signatories of the NPT. It is difficult to expect that the international community will be able to convince them to abandon nuclear weapons shortly, and it will be challenging to achieve any restrictions in this area. In this regard, it would seem that the operation of the agreement should not be made dependent on the fact of its signing by these states. Unfortunately, the presence of nuclear weapons among these powers should be viewed as a fait accompli, the reversal of which will require an individual approach. The main goal of the new non-proliferation regime should be to prevent the emergence of new “nuclear” states, and not to correct the mistakes of the past.

The Middle East as a factor in the new non-proliferation regime

Special attention should also be paid to ensuring that the non-proliferation regime covers the maximum number of countries in the Middle East. As a country with colossal military and economic opportunities, and one that has historically played a prominent role in the fate of the region, claims a dominant position among the Middle Eastern countries. In this regard, an agreement that binds Iran’s competitors in the region to accept similar restrictions would be a critical condition for reaching a mutual understanding of the project. As some of Iran’s most fierce opponents in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey should become key signatories to such an agreement, especially because both states have ambitious nuclear plans. It would only be logical to expand this list to include Israel, which, despite the constant denials that it possesses a nuclear arsenal and the numerous reports to this effect, is known to have had nuclear weapons for several decades now.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to expect an agreement on disarmament with a state that already possesses nuclear weapons (as is the case with Pakistan, India and North Korea). The importance of paying special attention to the non-proliferation regime in the Middle East is also linked to the region’s specific challenges. The Middle East is more at risk of large-scale military conflicts and terrorist activities than any other region in the world. In this sense, this region needs extra guarantees to prevent the prevention of nuclear weapons.

Besides, this kind of list of restrictions may eventually become the foundation for turning the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. Such proposals have long been discussed by the international community, but a consensus has never been reached. The specific characteristics of such areas lie in the fact that they do not just ban the production of nuclear weapons, but also their deployment and delivery platforms. Iran’s ballistic missile program is one of the main reasons for the U.S. criticism of the JCPOA’s limitations since the development of such carriers often precedes or accompanies the creation of a nuclear charge. The prospect that the proposed non-proliferation regime will serve as the foundation for the complete liberation of the Middle East from nuclear weapons may contribute to the United States revising its position on the future of the system of guarantees of the JCPOA.

The importance of reaching an agreement on the establishment of new guarantees before the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is particularly noteworthy. The withdrawal of the United States from the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) system and the temporary suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) between the United States and Russia have jeopardized both the success of the 2020 Review Conference, and the nuclear non-proliferation regime as a whole. In 2015, the NPT suffered significant damage since no visible progress had been made at the conference on improving the non-proliferation regime. The main sticking point was the negotiations on the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. The conference ended with the adoption of only some procedural documents, and no real progress was achieved in the field of denuclearization. The unwillingness of the international community (especially the nuclear powers) to take steps towards nuclear disarmament and the creation of additional safeguards in the field of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons are a serious threats to the NPT.

The lack of any significant progress towards improving the NPT can be compensated by the adoption, by the international community (or at least part of it), of the limitations set out in JCPOA as global responsibilities in the framework of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. At the same time, successful worldwide promotion of the provisions of the JCPOA would be an important step towards the continuation of negotiations on turning the Middle East into a zone free of nuclear weapons.

A special role in reaching a compromise on the new non-proliferation regime should be assigned to Russia. Over the past several years of its diplomatic and military presence in the Middle East, Russia has been able to establish friendly relations with all the major players in the region, despite the fact that Moscow frequently neglects the interests of some of them. Russia is perceived as a relatively neutral player in the region, one that seeks to maneuver between the interests of the regional states while not giving an obvious preference to any of them. This situation is perfect for playing the role of a mediator between the states of the Middle East, without which reaching a compromising on the issue of non-proliferation in the region would be an almost impossible task.

New non-proliferation regime

It is difficult to talk about accepting the conditions of the JCPOA in full because any non-proliferation regime is a direct attempt on the sovereign rights of the state, which can only be removed by absolute necessity. In this regard, it appears that restrictions should concern only the priority areas of nuclear activity during the early stages of the adoption of a new regime.

The most important (and at the same time fairly achievable) area of limitation would be uranium enrichment. This is because uranium is the most common component of a nuclear charge. At the same time, uranium enrichment is much easier to explain away than plutonium production. Regular operation of a reactor does not require a given country to maintain an expensive enrichment infrastructure since uranium is available in large volumes on the international market. What is more, establishing worldwide limits on enrichment levels should not damage the operation of nuclear reactors, since low-enriched uranium is quite suitable for use as a fuel. It should be enough to put a cap on the enrichment limits for uranium at 5 percent, and this would guarantee that the substance cannot be used in weapons, without interfering with the operation of nuclear power plants. It thus appears that the first stage in the formation of a new non-proliferation regime should be the adoption of uniform standards as applied to permissible uranium enrichment.

The JCPOA also sets limits on the amount of enriched uranium that Iran can store at any given time. While these restrictions could strengthen the reliability of the non-proliferation regime, they can hardly outweigh the diplomatic efforts that could make this restriction universal. The only reason this condition was introduced with regard to Iran was that Tehran had already been accused of trying to obtain nuclear weapons. Iran keeps small stockpiles of uranium to offset the creation of a nuclear charge under the international deal. For most countries, the presumption of such a desire does not exist, and the establishment of the maximum amount of a stored substance would unduly limit the sovereign rights of the signatory states. Also, the establishment of such restrictions would require a separate study of the nuclear industry of each state and the development of individual restrictions for each party to the agreement. It appears that, at least in the first stages of the introduction of the new non-proliferation regime, the measures for limiting storage volumes should be applied exclusively to Iran. At the same time, as Iran meets its obligations, quantitative restrictions should be gradually lifted. After having successfully limited the degree of uranium enrichment and created the foundation for a new regime, negotiations can then begin on the introduction of quantitative restrictions. An alternative option would be to consider transferring Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to independent international institutions (such as the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium Bank).

Certain difficulties may also arise with regard to limitations on plutonium production. As noted above, plutonium can be used both for the manufacture of a nuclear charge and as nuclear fuel. At the same time, unlike the uranium enrichment process, the production of plutonium is much more difficult to track since it is directly related to the normal operation of a nuclear reactor. Moreover, while plutonium may not be among the most popular nuclear fuels, it is still used in a broad range of different reactor types. Russia and some other countries are unlikely to be prepared to limit their domestic production and use of plutonium, as this would severely limit their fleet of nuclear reactors.

Despite the danger of plutonium as a substance with large nuclear potential, the wisest thing to do would be to not extend the Iranian restrictions to the international community. First, the specifics of plutonium production mean that IAEA experts can, given the proper monitoring framework, distinguish between it being manufactured for peaceful or military purposes. Second, it would not be a good idea to overload the signatory states with excessive restrictions as the new non-proliferation regime is just settling in. Such pressure may force the potential parties to the convention to refrain from signing it. In the future, after the proposed system is implemented on a wider scale, plutonium restrictions (both qualitative and quantitative) can be resolved in the course of further negotiations.

Ensuring that states comply with the limitations of the non-proliferation regime will be granted by the broad rights of the IAEA to monitor the nuclear activities of the signatories. The JCPOA pays special attention to the IAEA’s supervisory powers, obliging Iran to provide experts with virtually unlimited access to its nuclear facilities, as well as creating conditions for 24-hour remote monitoring of the implementation of its JCPOA obligations. Granting the IAEA broad rights to monitor the nuclear industry of the signatory states should be a prerequisite for the creation of a new non-proliferation regime.

Promoting the JCPOA globally could immediately solve two tasks facing the international community: preserving the restrictions on Iran, which would prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons; and generally renewing the global non-proliferation regime, which is not fully capable of responding to modern nuclear threats. The existing non-proliferation regime leaves too many opportunities for violations, while not providing for any significant response to the violating state. Seeing as it is difficult to apply appropriate measures against a potential intruder under the agreement, non-proliferation could be guaranteed with the help of preliminary measures aimed at setting up a “buffer” period during which the international community would take over economically and, if needed, enforce sanctions. At the same time, the JCPOA should also significantly expand the powers of the IAEA, giving the organization greater access to nuclear facilities and storages of radioactive material.

Naturally, the implementation of such a large-scale project will be a long and laborious process. The position of the United States as one of the key parties in shaping the new non-proliferation regime has caused a number of doubts. Despite the fact that the urgent nature of the JCPOA has become one of the main causes for concern on the part of the United States, criticism of the plan is not limited to this. In particular, as follows from the 12 demands voiced by Mike Pompeo, the United States believes that the list of conditions for lifting the economic sanctions against Iran should also include the withdrawal of Iranian troops from Syria, restrictions of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the termination of its support for what the United States sees as terrorist organizations, etc. All this suggests that the United States has a unique vision of the problem, implying a more global consideration of the Iranian topic, without any specific reference to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. For the United States, partially lifting the sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on the latter’s nuclear program would mean a total disregard for the threat Iran poses to the United States’ allies in the region.

Despite Washington’s desire to consider the Iranian issue as a cluster of various threats, it is unlikely that all the existing problems can be resolved at the same time. The current threats Iran presents in the region pale in comparison to the risk of Tehran laying its hands on weapons of mass destruction, which, in addition to threatening the countries in the region, would have a significant potential to destroy the already fragile non-proliferation regime. The main objective for preserving the security in the region, and in the world as a whole, should be to search for ways to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As time passes and the parties involved refuse to continue to search for a compromise solution, the possibility of a peaceful resolution narrows. The proposed non-proliferation regime may not eliminate all the threats associated with Iran, but it would prevent Tehran from creating a nuclear weapon. This is what the international community should view as its highest priority.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Is Iran Testing Trump With Little Attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci

The sound of an explosion echoed through the Green Zone on Sunday night around 9:00 p.m., a reminder that this most secure part of the Iraqi capital is not, in fact, all that safe. The projectile appears to have been aimed at the United States embassy and, after the blast, embassy sirens went off, accompanied by repeated warnings blaring on loudspeakers instructing everyone to take immediate cover.

Within the hour the missile was reported to have been fired from the Amana bridge in Baghdad, missing its likely intended target and landing in an empty field near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with no casualties reported.

But for a brief and highly fraught moment alarms were going off in Washington, as well, where the much-publicized threat of Iranian “proxy” attacks on U.S. interests and personnel, and the American response positioning bombers and aircraft carriers, have conjured the specter of a new Middle Eastern war. One breaking news service breathlessly reported National Security Adviser John Bolton “just seen arriving at the White House amid rocket attack possibly aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.”

President Trump, meanwhile, tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” It is not clear if he was responding to the rocket, a Katyusha that might have been fired by any number of players in Iraq, or to threatening rhetoric by some Iranian officials, or both.

In any case, non-essential American personnel at the embassy had already been ordered to depart days earlier, many moving to posts in nearby countries to continue their work, and the U.S. embassy was already expecting a possible attack.

Our team of researchers for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) landed in Baghdad on May 14, 2019, the day before the U.S. State Department issued the security alert to the “non-essentials” in Baghdad and Erbil, recommending they “depart Iraq by commercial transportation as soon as possible, avoid U.S. facilities within Iraq, monitor local media for updates, review personal security plans, remain aware of surroundings.”

An earlier security alert on May 12 advised all U.S. citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq and the requirement to remain vigilant. It recommended not traveling to Iraq, avoiding places known as U.S. citizen gathering points, keeping a low profile and, once again, being aware of your surroundings.

For those of use who have been visiting Iraq since 2006, this seems at once familiar and strange. Is the threat greater now than it was when the U.S. embassy was housed in Saddam’s former palace, and frequently underwent mortar fire? In those days none of the 5,000 embassy personnel were ordered home.

Despite President Trump saying he does not want war, does this action signal that something more than just mortar fire is about to come?

A former senior diplomat who served in Iraq following the 2003 invasion warned that if the U.S. or Israel had decided to launch air strikes on Iran, emptying the embassy might be a smart move.  Iran could strike back at a close and convenient target—the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—and its ballistic missiles would be much more dangerous and difficult to withstand than mortars or Katyushas.

According to a senior official in the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) the rocket Sunday night was launched by the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah. If it came on Iranian orders, the lone, ineffectual projectile may have been intended as a pin-prick provocation testing reactions without triggering full-fledged war. Other recent incidents—a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline; minor explosions on Saudi and other oil tankers—could fall into the same category.

Iraq, liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, has come under increasing Iranian influence ever since, and the Iran-backed militias played a key role fighting the so-called Islamic State after the national army virtually imploded in 2014. They have since become a major element in the Iraqi defense apparatus, even though some 5,000 U.S. military personnel are on the ground training and working with other elements of the Iraqi military.

The threat inside Iraq to U.S. personnel was revealed in part to Iraqi leaders during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise visit here on May 7.

The secretary is reported to have told Iraqi officials that U.S. intelligence detected that Iranian-backed militias moving missiles near bases housing American forces. Reuters reported that, according to a senior Iraqi official privy to the substance of the talks, Pompeo asked the Iraqi government to rein in the Shiite militias. Pompeo also expressed U.S. concern about these militias’ increased presence and influence in Iraq and warned that the U.S. would use force to tackle the security threats if necessary, without first consulting Baghdad.

Iraq’s pro-Iranian military factions have long been a concern for U.S. personnel deployed in the region. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a radical Shiite militia in Iraq has, for example, long been cooperating with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a group that was just declared by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

The newly appointed IRGC leader, Hossein Salami, replied that his people are proud to be called terrorists by President Trump while also threatening the U.S. and Israel.

The Iraqi militia, Nujaba, also was added by the U.S. State Department to the U.S. list of global terrorist organizations on March 7 this year and its leader Akram Kaabi was sanctioned.

Nujaba has been demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq for quite some time. On May 12, Nujaba’s leaders proclaimed, “Confrontation with the United States will only stop once it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity,” while also stating that Iraqi resistance factions are ready to target U.S. interests in Iraq.

The Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, which our source says was behind the Sunday night rocket attack, warned in February 2018 that it might engage in armed confrontation with US forces in Iraq at any moment. According to one Iraqi source, the Kataib Hezbollah is one of the militias that recently placed missiles near U.S. military bases.

The New York Times reported the the U.S. government was picking up an increase in conversations between the Revolutionary Guards and foreign militias discussing attacks on American troops and diplomats in Iraq.

The New York Times also reported that American officials cited intelligence from aerial photographs of fully assembled missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf as cause for the U.S. administration to escalate its warnings about a threat from Iran. This created concerns that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would fire them at United States naval ships or American commercial ships.

An Iraqi source confirmed on May 18 that ExxonMobil was evacuating its personnel of 30 to 50 employees from Basra, Iraq, and that the Bahrain embassy had also evacuated its employees from both Iraq and Iran. And U.S. embassies disseminated a warning from the Federal Aviation Agency that U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Persian Gulf risk being misidentified and by implication shot down amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

A potential conflict much larger than Iranian-backed Shia militias throwing mortar fire at the now fortress-like U.S. Embassy appears to be brewing amid credible intelligence coupled with heated anti-American rhetoric.

Yet, security threats to U.S. personnel serving in Iraq are nothing out of the ordinary and date back to the 2003 U.S. invasion. At the height of its activities, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad had thousands of personnel, including contractors. They regularly suffered all sorts of threats from IED attacks when they ventured out on the road, RPG fire when they used helicopters, snipers when they were out in public view and intermittent but regular mortar fire that rained down on the temporary trailers that served as housing near the old Saddam palace where they worked. One mortar penetrated a window to the bathroom of the Deputy U.S. Ambassador’s office, situated inside the palace, destroying the brick wall around the window. It was later bricked up completely. The walkway from the trailers to the palace was mortared so often and so hard that it was nicknamed “death alley” by embassy personnel serving there.

While embassy personnel received danger and hardship pay, none were ordered home during those years, and danger was considered a part of the assignment. IED’s and mortars occasionally killed embassy personnel, but that did not stop the mission.

At present, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad is housed in a complex on a closed street that only badged officials can enter. The grounds are heavily walled walled and difficult to enter and inside, the buildings appear strongly built to withstand assault.

In Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which also fell under the non-essential personnel evacuation order, a restaurant nearby was attacked by a car bomb in 2015, killing three non-Americans. But, while less robustly built, the consulate also is behind a concrete walled-off security space.

U.S. Embassy diplomatic personnel posted in both Baghdad and Erbil infrequently leave their fortresses and when they do travel around Iraq, their security requirements require using armored cars, wearing bullet proof vests and flack helmets and traveling with armed security guards, sometimes with chase and lead cars in a convoy.

Likewise, U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil are not family postings—diplomatic personnel serve for one or two years, leaving their family members behind.

The new embassy building, not far from the old one, was planned during the time of frequent attacks and was undoubtedly built to withstand mortar storms. Long and short-range ballistic missiles however constitute a whole different threat and it’s not publicly known if the new embassy has bomb-hardened resistant bunkers to protect embassy personnel.

Whether U.S. embassy non-essential personnel will return to post anytime soon remains to be seen, and given the dangers such personnel have faced in the past and the fortress in which they currently serve, why they were really ordered home is also still an unanswered question. With ships coming to the region and troops readying for potential travel, serious troubles may well be on the horizon.

While the saber rattling on both sides continues, Baghdad has also made clear that it doesn’t want to become the battlefield.

Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast

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Middle East

Iran vs. US: Bracing for war?

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On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed tough unilateral sanctions on Tehran. Exactly a year later, this move looks dangerously fraught with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences for the Middle East.

Britain, France and Germany, as participants and co-sponsors of the JCPOA, strongly criticized Trump’s anti-Iranian policy and, with Russian and Chinese support, they established, registered and set in motion, albeit in a test mode, the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) – a special-purpose vehicle (SPV) to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran.

Tehran took its time hoping for European support. However, on April 22, 2019, Trump ended waivers that Washington had earlier granted China, India, South Korea, Turkey, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Taiwan that allowed these countries to import Iranian oil. A complete ban on the purchase of Iranian crude came into force on May 2, 2019. The United States’ ultimate goal is to stop all Iranian crude exports. Whether this is actually possible is not clear. What is clear, however, is that the US is ramping up economic pressure on Tehran.

Meanwhile, Europe will hardly be able to resist Washington’s sanctions against Iran, which are almost as hard-hitting as the ones that were in effect between 2012 and 2016 when the Iranian economy was going through hard times. Still, the EU’s foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini recently went on record saying that “we will continue to support [JCPOA] as much as we can with all our instruments and all our political will.”

Just how much will the EU really has to resist US pressure is a big question though.

Iran found itself in a real fix with President Hassan Rouhani saying that the situation the country is in today is no different from what it experienced during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

“During the war, we had no problems with our banks, oil sales, imports and exports. There were only sanctions for the purchase of arms,” he noted.

Hassan Rouhani emphasized the US sanctions’ strong impact on the country, and called for a concerted effort by all to minimize their effect.

“The enemies’ sanctions against our banking sector also affect our oil, petrochemicals, steel and agricultural exports, impair the work of Iranian seaports, shipyards and sea carriers. Our shipping companies have been blacklisted by the US Treasury,” Rouhani added.

He said that Iran would not bow to US pressure and will be looking for a way out of this situation.

What can Iran do?

First, it could exit the nuclear deal. Not immediately, like the US did, but gradually, refusing to fulfill the specific terms of the accord. Iran is already doing this now.

On May 8, President Rouhani announced that Iran would no longer observe two key commitments under the JCPOA accord, namely to sell to Russia and the US uranium enriched to 3.76 percent at volumes exceeding the storage allowed in Iran (over 300 kilograms). By the time the JCPOA was signed in 2015, the Islamic Republic had accumulated 10,357 kilos of such low-grade uranium, and 410.4 kilos of uranium enriched to 20 percent. To date, Iran has destroyed its entire stock of 20-percent-enriched uranium and has shipped surplus low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and the United States. According to the JCPOA, Tehran was allowed to enrich limited quantities of uranium for scientific purposes and sell any enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram limit on international markets in return for natural uranium. Now Iran will start stocking up on low-enriched uranium again. 

Neither will Tehran consider itself committed to the caps agreed under the deal on the mandatory sale of excess heavy water used in the production of military-grade plutonium. Iran has a working facility to produce heavy water, which is not covered by the JCPOA. However, it can store no more than 130 tons of heavy water. Tehran has already exported 32 tons to the US and 38 tons to Russia. Now it will start storing heavy water again.

President Rouhani gave the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal 60 days to make good on their promises to protect Iran’s oil and banking sectors. The Iranian move is certainly not directed at Washington but, rather, at Brussels in order to make it more actively and effectively resist US sanctions or see Iran resume higher levels of uranium enrichment, potentially all the way to bomb-making capability.  

He added that if the EU fails to address Iran’s concerns, Tehran will suspend the implementation of two more commitments under the JCPOA.

If its demands are not met, Tehran will no longer be bound by its commitment to enrich uranium up to 3.76 percent. Ali-Akbar Salehi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in January that the country had already taken the necessary steps to resume enrichment in larger volumes and with a higher level of enrichment.

Tehran will also reject help from the 5+1 group of initiators of the JCPOA (Russia, US, Britain, France, China and Germany) in the reconstruction of the heavy water reactor in the city of Arak.

The R-1 heavy water reactor was designed to produce up to 10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium a year, which is enough to build two plutonium nuclear weapons. The terms of the JCPOA accord require redesigning the reactor in such a way as to make it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. To oversee the process, they set up a working group of representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the Atomic Energy Authority of China and the US Department of Energy. In 2017, a UK representative moved in to fill the void left by the departing US representative. According to an official Iranian report issued in April 2018, the country had already completed a “conceptual reconstruction of the reactor.”  Still, the reconstruction process is slow and can easily be reversed. At least for now.

If, however, the EU comes across, then, according to Hassan Rouhani, Iran will honor its commitments under the JCPOA deal. “If [the five JCPOA co-signatories] could protect our main interests in oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one [and will resume our commitments],” Rouhani said.

The question is whether the European Union can fully activate INSTEX and  ensure continued oil exports and imports. Many people doubt this.

According to analysts, by demanding that Europeans “bring down to zero” their purchases of Iranian oil, the United States threatened to slap sanctions on European companies paying for Iranian oil. Shortly afterwards, almost all European banks refused to finance Iranian crude imports. The EU thus inadvertently joined the US sanctions, even though it continued to stick to the terms of the JCPA accord.

At the same time, European companies were all too happy to go ahead with the implementation of the part of the agreement that had not yet been banned, selling unauthorized goods to Iran. Tehran then complained that the deal allowed Europeans to make money inside Iran while preventing Iranians from selling their oil in the EU – a violation of the fundamental provision of the nuclear accord.

Tehran’s threat to walk out of the 2015 nuclear deal is sending a clear signal to the dithering Europeans to resume Iranian oil imports or see Tehran restarting nuclear production.

However, preoccupied by more pressing problems, the Europeans have other things to worry about. Moreover, no one is looking for a showdown with the EU’s main ally, the United States. According to Russian Oriental affairs expert Nikolai Kozhanov, Europeans consider the issue of circumventing US sanctions as an important part of their search for a mechanism of counter-sanctions in similar situations with more important economic partners, such as China or Russia.

Therefore, Iran is likely to press ahead with suspending its obligations under the JCPOA, which include the activation and acceleration of R&D in the field of improving centrifuges and building more of them in the future. Tehran could also hold up the implementation of the Protocol Additional to the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Signed in 2003, the Protocol gives the UN nuclear watchdog greater access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and provides for surprise inspections. Iran has not yet ratified this document, even though it fulfilled its requirements until 2006 and has done so since 2016.

Of course, Iran will go about additional suspensions very carefully (if it will at all), mindful of their possible consequences, because it would hate to see Europe turning its back on it and siding with Washington, adding its own sanctions to the American ones, thus essentially making them international.

Ever since the US’ exit from the JCPOA, Iran has issued a flurry of serious warnings that it might end its participation in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the IAEA. On April 28, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on record saying that Tehran was mulling an exit from the NPT as a response to US sanctions. He added that Tehran “has many options” of response. “Exit from the NPT is one such option,” Zarif noted.

This was only a rhetorical threat, however, meant to prod the European Union towards closer cooperation with Iran as a means of countering US sanctions. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Iran would withdraw either from the NPT or the IAEA, because this could make it an absolute outcast and the butt of scathing criticism worldwide.  

Second, to demonstrate strength and willingness to resist and safeguard the country’s interests. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei never tires of emphasizing the need for a tough policy of “resistance,” based on:

  • an active and effective search for ways to circumvent crippling economic sanctions;
  • strengthening the armed forces with an emphasis on the development of a missile program;
  • active promotion of Iranian interests in the region.

The “resistance” policy is primarily built around the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which brings together the country’s military, intelligence, police, political, ideological, as well as financial and economic structures. The IRGC is actually an all-embracing mega holding, led directly by the Supreme Leader and members of his inner circle. The Revolutionary Guards, who have proved highly efficient in countering sanctions,  modernizing the armed forces and promoting Iranian activities in the region, are all Tehran actually needs to implement a strict “resistance” policy.

With the situation developing as it is, Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent decision to replace the IRGC commander, General Mohammed Ali Jafari, who led the Corps for more than 11 years, with Brigadier General Hossein Salami looks pretty natural. The IRGC’s former deputy commander, General Salami is ideologically closer to Khamenei and is known for his radical statements. Ayatollah Khamenei also replaced about 60 officers both in the IRGC central office and local administrations with relatively young, ambitious, ideologically tested and competent officers. They are tasked with turning the IRGC into an indispensable and all-embracing institution that dominates the entire gamut of Iranian life: from ensuring internal and external security all the way to economic activity and cyberwarfare.

According to Mehdi Khalaji, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ayatollah Khamenei is strengthening the IRGC, which he sees as the cornerstone of the country’s triad of advanced missile technology, a nuclear program and asymmetric military capabilities to ensure reliable defense against any potential aggression by anyone.

Tehran’s decision to strengthen the IRGC was certainly prompted by President Trump’s statement on April 8, which branded the Corps as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Until recently, President Rouhani sought to keep the IRGC in check and limit its impact on many aspects of the country’s life. In fact, Trump’s recent statement played right into the hands of diehard radicals within the IRGC and in Iran as a whole.

Iran’s Supreme National Security Council responded to President Trump’s statement by putting on the list of terrorist organizations the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East and Central Asia. Simultaneously, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces said that the Iranian military was ready to use any means at its disposal against US troops in the region who are now likewise designated by Tehran as terrorists. This is putting Americans in peril all across the Middle East region, primarily in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf – wherever Iranian and US military might cross their paths.

Washington’s latest anti-Iranian move seriously exacerbated the already very strained relations between the two countries.

Third. To ramp up anti-American propaganda and warlike rhetoric in order to demonstrate Iran’s strength to the United States and its readiness to defend its interests even with the use of military force.

Increasingly frustrated with the situation around the JCPOA and doubting the EU’s ability to resist the US pressure on Iran, Tehran has been rolling back its participation in the nuclear deal, which is dangerously fraught with a new nuclear crisis and heightened tensions with the United States.

Meanwhile, an escalation is already happening. The United States is sending a battery of Patriot air defense missiles and an amphibious warship, USS Arlington, to CENTCOM’s operational responsibility zone. The Arlington will join a naval strike carrier group led by the world’s largest warship, the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln (5,680 crew, 90 combat aircraft and helicopters on board) and a tactical group of B-52 strategic bombers.

Moreover, an updated plan that has just been presented by the Acting US Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, envisions the dispatch of up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran steps up the development of nuclear weapons, or attacks the US military. However, the plan does not provide for a ground operation against Iran, which would require a lot more troops.

Iran has promised serious response to any use of force by the United States, with the IRGC commander, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, warning that “if America takes a step against us, then we will strike a blow to the head.” He believes, however, that the United States will not risk using its aircraft carriers against Iran, and added that since Iran’s defense capabilities are adequate and sufficient, US aircraft carriers are quite vulnerable.

Military experts know better of course, but when it comes to politics, chances of resolving the current crisis between Iran and the United States look pretty slim. In fact, the conflict may be beneficial to both President Trump and the IRGC.

Trump could use the standoff as a chance to show the opposition Democrats how tough he is with Iran, which is equally loathed by his supporters and many of his opponents alike.

Meanwhile, a US military buildup close to the Iranian borders would play right into the hands of local hardliners who have always been up in arms against any negotiations concerning the Iranian nuclear program and the nuclear deal itself.

With the situation favoring the opponents of President Rouhani, the IRGC is ruling out any possibility of negotiations with the US. The head of the IRGC’s political bureau, Yadolla Javani, said that “there will be no negotiations with the Americans,” in a remark that could also be aimed at politicians inside Iran who would like to maintain a dialogue with the US no matter what.

Still, according to unconfirmed reports, the Iranians are negotiating behind closed doors with American representatives in Oman, which is a traditional meeting place for both.

The IRGC needs tensions running high because this is turning it into the country’s foremost institution.

What is also clear is a dangerous psychological war now raging between Washington and Tehran. Just where things may go from now is hard to tell, but it still looks like the sides will not come to blows after all. The Iranian-American brinkmanship with concentrations of troops and military hardware in the region is fraught with unpredictable accidents that can force the parties to go overboard. Hopefully, things will not go beyond bellicose rhetoric.

“There will be no war, the Iranian people have chosen the path of resistance to America, and this resistance will force it to retreat,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, emphasizing, however, that this resistance is not military in nature. Neither side wants a military showdown.

Tehran and Washington realize full well that if the situation comes down to a military flare-up, then this, regardless of the real scale of the fighting, would spell disaster for the entire Middle East with equally dire consequences for the rest of the world.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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