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America’s Problems in the Middle East are Just Beginning

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It’s 2015, and there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas), financed by Iran, wins an election on a platform demanding the expulsion of the Jews from Israel.

Iran meanwhile smuggles shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to terrorist cells in Palestine that can take down civilian airlines at Ben-Gurion airport. With backing from the Egyptian military, Fatah throws out the elected Hamas government and kills larger number of Hamas supporters. What will Washington do? Given the track record of both the Obama administration and the Republican mainstream, one would expect America to denounce the use of violence against a democratically-elected government.

Such is the absurdity of both parties’ stance towards Egypt: the Egyptian military is doing America’s dirty work, suppressing a virulently anti-modern, anti-Semitic and anti-Western Islamist movement whose leader, Mohammed Morsi, famously referred to Israelis as “apes and pigs.” It did so with the enthusiastic support of tens of millions of Egyptians who rallied in the streets in support of the military. And the American mainstream reacted with an ideological knee jerk. America’s presence in the Middle East has imploded.

As it happens, Iran already is smuggling weapons via Syria to the West Bank to gain leverage against the Abbas government, as Stratfor reports (hat tip: the Daily Alert), including surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles. Hamas crushed Fatah in the 2006 West Bank elections parliamentary elections 74-45, and made short work of the supposedly moderate Palestinian faction when it seized power in Gaza in 2007. As Syria disintegrates, along with Iraq and Lebanon, the artificial borders of Arab states drawn first by Ottoman conquerors and revised by British and French colonial authorities will have small meaning. Palestinians caught up in the Syrian and and Lebanese conflagrations would pour into a new Palestinian state and swell the ranks of the hard-core Jihadi irredentists. Iran will continue to use Hamas as a cat’s paw.

Among other things, the American response to the events in Egypt show the utter pointlessness of American security guarantees in the present negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Authority. Even in the extremely unlikely event that Mohammed Abbas chose to make peace with Israel, he would face a high probability of civil war, just as Ireland’s independence leader Michael Collins did when he struck a deal with the British for an Irish “Free State” rather than a republic. Collins killed more Irishmen than the British did in the preceding independence struggle. I do not want to compare Abbas to Collins, and I do not think he has any attention of making peace with Israel. But American blundering in Egypt has closed out the option, for whoever makes peace with Israel will require a free hand with Iranian-backed rejectionists.

America forgets that it corrected the flaw in its founding by killing 30 percent of Southern men of military age during its own Civil War, so many that the Confederate Army collapsed for lack of manpower. There are numerous wars which do not end until all the young men who want to fight to the death have had the opportunity to do so. And of all of history’s conflicts, none was so likely to end with this sort of demographic attrition as the present war in the Middle East. Compared to the young Arabs, Persians and Pakistanis of today, American Southerners of 1861 were models of middle-class rectitude, with the world’s highest living standards and bright prospects for the future. The Europeans of 1914 stood at the cusp of modernity; one only can imagine what they might have accomplished had they not committed mutual suicide in two World Wars.

Today’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims have grim future prospects. The world economy has left them behind, and they cannot catch up. Egypt was at the threshold of starvation and economic collapse when the military intervened, bringing in subsidies from the Gulf monarchies. The young men of the Middle East have less to lose, perhaps, than any generation in any country in modern times. As we observe in Syria, large numbers of them will fight to the death.

America cannot bear to think about its own Civil War because the wounds are too painful; in order to reunite the country after 1865, we concocted a myth of tragic fratricide. Wilsonian idealism was born of the South’s attempt to suppress its guilt for the war, I have argued in the past. That is an academic consideration now. America’s credibility in the Middle East, thanks to the delusions of both parties, is broken, and it cannot be repaired within the time frame required to forestall the next stage of violence. Egypt’s military and its Saudi backers are aghast at American stupidity. Israel is frustrated by America’s inability to understand that Egypt’s military is committed to upholding the peace treaty with Israel while the Muslim Brotherhood wants war. Both Israel and the Gulf States observe the utter fecklessness of Washington’s efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The events of the past week have demonstrated that America’s allies in the Middle East from Israel to the Persian Gulf can trust no-one in Washington–neither Barack Obama nor John McCain. Those of us in America who try to analyze events in the region will be the last to hear the news, and the value of our work will diminish over time.

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Middle East

Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Iran’s game just started

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By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran. 

At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.  

As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms. 
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.  

At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”. 

All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.  

Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme. 

At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.  

In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.  

The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”. 

It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.    

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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