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A New Era at the State Department?

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With the election of Donald Trump as president, a new era may be emerging at the State Department. Or not.

Ever since the partition of UN Mandate Palestine and the creation of Israel, the State Department has promoted a grievance-based approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  It views Palestinian deprivation (of statehood, dreams, etc.) as the chief obstacle to peace.  U.S. diplomatic efforts, therefore, have focused on appeasing those grievances.  One year into the Trump administration, there are signs that this is changing.

After World War II the culture that would define the State Department’s entire Middle East outlook was developed almost single-handedly by Loy Henderson, director of the Office of Near Eastern, African and South Asian Affairs.  Henderson filled the Office with specialists known as “Arabists” because of their love of the Arabic language and Arab culture.  They suffered from what Robert D. Kaplan, in his seminal work on the topic, calls “localitis” and “clientitis,” and their sympathies with Muslims were often accompanied by a rejection of the West and especially of Israel.  In his Memoirs Harry S. Truman wrote that State’s “specialists on the Near East were almost without exception unfriendly to the idea of a Jewish state.”  He also noted that “Some of them were also inclined to be anti-Semitic.”

After the Six-Day War, when most Arab countries severed relations with the U.S. and closed embassies, many Arabists found themselves without foreign posts.  Their domination of the State Department subsided, and they were replaced by a new group – the “peace processors” – who were not immersed in Arab culture but rather in diplomatic culture.  By the 1980s they dominated the State Department, and they still do.

Though their motives may differ, the peace processors share the Arabists’ trust that the Palestinians will negotiate rationally.  In pursuit of the ultimate peace deal, they ignore or excuse Palestinian diplomats who insist that Israel has no right to exist, as though it were a negotiating ploy rather than a deeply-felt principle.

The cohesion of the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein in Desert Shield/Storm, heralded as a major diplomatic achievement, spurred a renewed faith that the diplomatic process itself can solve even the most intransigent of problems, of which the Israel-Palestinian conflict loomed large.  The peace processors have always been driven by the theory that the right combination of Israeli concessions (land, water, money) will end Palestinian hostilities.  They continue to downplay Palestinian rejectionism while emphasizing Palestinian cooperation.

Even the 2003 bombing of a State Department convoy in Gaza (the vehicles were carrying U.S. officials interviewing Palestinian students for Fulbright Scholarships) elicited little more than a perfunctory telephone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Palestinian Authority (PA) urging it to crack down on militants.

The peace processors endured through the Obama years.  With John Kerry as Secretary of State, they thrived.  In a 2016 Oxford Union speech Kerry waxed poetic about peace-making, or as he called it, “the art of diplomacy – [which] is to define the interests of all the parties and see where the sweet spot is that those interests can come together and hopefully be able to thread a very thin needle.”  The problem, to continue Kerry’s mixed metaphor, is that under his leadership the State Department expended most of its energies massaging the Palestinian sweet spot and trying to thread its very thin needle.  Israeli interests, on the other hand, were largely ignored, and Israel was often blamed for Palestinian hostilities.

Donald Trump campaigned promising a different approach to Israel.  He chose Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, a diplomat with no foreign policy record and few known political opinions.  Tillerson began his tenure at the default State Department position – treating the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas as legitimate and trustworthy peace partners, and ignoring or downplaying evidence to the contrary.  This seemed to change when the Trump administration’s efforts to negotiate were rebuffed.  The May 2017 meeting in Bethlehem, when the president reportedly accused Abbas of lying to him, may have been the turning point.

In November, Tillerson announced the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, D.C., in compliance with a U.S. law prohibiting any Palestinian attempts to bring a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court.  But when the PLO responded by threatening to cut off all contact with the U.S., the State Department rather obsequiously caved, announcing that the mission could remain open for a 90 day probationary period.  State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the U.S. was “optimistic that at the end of this 90-day period, the political process may be sufficiently advanced that the president will be in a position to allow the PLO office to resume full operations.”

Subsequent events further suggest a change in U.S. Israel policy, especially the announced plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the cutting of U.S. funding to UNRWA.  Trump has also threatened to cut all aid to Palestinians, and at Davos in January he said that Palestinian disrespect for Vice President Mike Pence would cost them as well.  Under normal circumstances, one might infer that these are coherent policy redirections.  But it is not unreasonable to believe that they are impulsive reactions to perceived insults.  They may also be bargaining chips in the president’s famed deal-making art.

To be clear, the U.S. embassy should absolutely be moved to Jerusalem, and U.S. funds should not support UNESCO which is waging a diplomatic war against Israel, nor UNRWA which regularly incites violence against Israel.

But these moves from the top down are not necessarily permanent.  No one really believes Abbas will terminate all contact with the U.S.  In fact, the PLO’s man in Washington, Husam Zomlot, signalled in an interview just days ago that he’s ready to talk: “It’s not like I am not speaking to them. My phone is open.”  Like Trump, Abbas too is positioning for a better deal.  When he comes back to his senses and apologizes, perhaps even personally thanks Donald Trump for reengaging, the State Department’s peace processors will awaken from their drowse with a new Oslo, a new Road Map to Peace, and Israel will be squeezed again.  As Daniel Pipes writes, “the American door is permanently open to Palestinians and when they wise up, some fabulous gift awaits them in the White House.”  Maybe next time there will be pressure to repeat Ariel Sharon’s mistake and force all Israelis out of the West Bank, and after that out of East Jerusalem, and after that, who knows?   Pressuring Israel to give up more land and money and make their nation less secure is the only strategy the peace processors know.

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump’s election initiated a major disruption at the State Department.  Many long-serving senior officials resigned immediately before or after inauguration day.  The hum of diplomats complaining that their expertise is being ignored has continued.  When Elizabeth Shackelford (lauded by Foreign Policy a “rising star at the State Department”) resigned very publicly in early December, she complained that State had “ceded to the Pentagon our authority to drive US foreign policy.”  The question is, will disruption lead to genuine change?

If outgoing senior diplomats are replaced with careerists and entrenched junior peace processors, the Trump shake-up will be just sound and fury.  On the other hand, bringing in qualified experts from outside the State Department rank-and-file might lead to meaningful and important changes.  If the rumor is true that David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will be the new Deputy Assistant for Near East Affairs, it’s a good start.

Genuine change at the State Department will require more than one year of the unpredictable Trump administration.  U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman recently began urging the State Department to stop using the term “occupation”.  When the State Department complies, we’ll know something big has happened.  Until then, celebrations are premature.

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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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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Middle East

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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Middle East

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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