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The Algerian crisis of March 2019

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Since last February 22, Algeria has been shaken by street demonstrations that occur almost simultaneously in all the 48 provinces of the country.

 Working on the assumption that the people’s anger is entirely spontaneous, its immediate origin is the announcement by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika  he wants to run for his fifth term, which should start following the elections scheduled for next April.

  President Bouteflika, who is over 80 years of age, is in very poor health. In fact, as far as we know, he is currently hospitalized in Geneva for treatment, probably as a result of the two strokes he suffered in 2013.

 Bouteflika, however, made his spokesman, Abdelghani Zaalane, state that the upcoming election will be held on a date to be set by the National Assembly.

  In any case, Bouteflika does not intend to serve until the end of his next presidential term, but will confine himself to setting, as President, the date of the new election.

 Moreover, the elderly and sick leader has promised the adoption by referendum of a new Constitution, partly already drafted, and a reform of the electoral law.

 The Presidency, however, is currently run by the Head of the intelligence Services and by the Chief of the Armed Forces, who really pull the strings of Algeria’ s political and economic transition.

 However, who is really ruling in Algeria while, in the electoral campaign,  Bouteflika keeps on showing his photos of twenty years ago and is never heard on the radio or on TV?

 The power of the traditional leader of the FLN, who has been President for twenty years, is now divided into three groups: the presidential and political power; the military and intelligence one, and finally – albeit  certainly not to be neglected – the branch of family and State affairs, as well as internal and international influence.

  The Armed Forces, however, still play a primary role and seem to have great autonomy.

 Over the last few years, President Bouteflika has tried to reduce their autonomy in favour of his business clan, to which not even the senior officers of the intelligence Services and of the Armed Forces are alien.

 The military take orders only from the President himself, where possible, but above all from his brother Said.

  In the Algerian political circles’ imagination, the latter still epitomizes the true eminence grise of the regime.

 It should be recalled that Abdelaziz Bouteflika was Foreign Minister several times from 1960 to 1970. In 1979 he voluntarily relinquished power after the death of Houari Boumedienne, of whom he had been private secretary. He finally settled abroad, at first in the United Arab Emirates (which, in fact, have played a significant role in Algeria’s current “transformation”) and later in Switzerland and France.

 Shortly after Boumedienne’s death, he was accused of embezzlement of State funds.

 In 1999, only upon the military’s request, he returned to Algeria to rule it, following the resignation of General Liamine Zeroual.

  The old FLN President, however, has always done everything to move the military leaders away from the real centre of power, namely business and intelligence.

  Moreover, Bouteflika amended the Constitution twice to increase his powers and, above all, he has brought to power a new class of businessmen, who depend only on him.

   As happens also in Western Europe, the political parties are now only the pale shadow of what they were in the past.

 Political aggregation is achieved with the traditional advertising-style systems commonly used also in the West, but there is a sort of fear and prestige of the Leader, namely Bouteflika, that still lingers within the crowds.

 Here the political parties include the traditional group of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its traditional ally –  the former Soviet-style single party, known as Rassemblement National Democratique- as well as the Islamists (we do not know yet whether “moderate” or not) of the Rassemblement de l’Espoir de l’Algerie, and various other small parties. There is also the old single union, namely UGTA.

 As already mentioned, one of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s first supporters is his brother Said, who is the official advisor to the Head of State.

 He is aged 61, but nobody knows his true role and personal power which, however, is presumably very strong.

Opponents say he is the only one who chooses Ministers, but also decides policies and carefully coordinates news on the media. He never granted interviews.

 Former Professor at the University of Algiers and trade unionist, Said has a wide network of very solid friendships, both in Algeria and abroad, including Italy.

 The other man at the core of Algerian power is Ahmed Gaid Salah.

 He is aged 79 and is both Armed Forces Chief of Staff and Deputy-Minister of Defense, considering that the role of Minister is officially played by the President of the Republic.

 He is considered Bouteflika’s lieutenant.

 He has certainly obtained personal advantages thanks to his current role, especially when, in September 2015, the elderly President marginalized  Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufik, the traditional Head of the Algerian intelligence Services he had led for 25 years in a row.

 Bouteflika had openly accused Toufik of incompetence but, in the logic of the elderly President, the sense of his removal is to fully and safely control all the Algerian military apparatus and subject it to his wishes, which are above all those of the lively Algerian business community.

 At the core of the Algerian FLN power elite, there is also Athmane Tartag.

 He is the new Head of the intelligence Services. In the 1970s he trained for a long time at the KGB and in the 1990s he was a protagonist of Algeria’s very tough fight against jihadist terrorism.

 He is very close to Said Bouteflika.

 Nevertheless, the demonstrations throughout the country have now been reduced significantly by the current Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouhaya, who has spoken of “unknown sources” that allegedly fuel the street riots. Probably he is not entirely wrong.

 The fear of a new civil war, not necessarily linked to a new uprising of the “sword jihad”, troubles not only the ruling classes, but also the crowds in action. The latter do not absolutely want to go back to the 1990s and that was the spectre which, alone, stopped the possibility of an “Arab spring” in Algeria.

 It should be recalled that, at the beginning of the 1990s, the Algerian civil war – which was also the first mass evolution of jihad-exacted a toll of at least 200,000 deaths.

 For the Algerian crowds, in 2011 the only memory of those years avoided the “contagion” of the “Arab Springs” among the Muslim Brotherhood and the clumsy Western agents.

 The population and economic data, however, are currently similar to those found in the “democratic” propaganda machine of 2011: very strong corruption of the public apparata; widespread unemployment; a very high rate of youth unemployment and people’s poor aptitude for work.

 In fact, as early as the mass demonstrations of last February, the protesters’ demands have focused on stopping price increases – and in this case the  government has decided not to cut subsidies -and on protecting and increasing the now miserable salaries of the public sector (hence with a quasi-automatic recourse to the corruptive bakshish), as well as on finally finding a solution to the very severe housing emergency.

 The government, however, has no money.

 It still depends on oil remittances (to the tune of 65%), which obviously fall in time of low oil prices and OPEC restrictions. The government must also come to terms with an old Soviet-style bureaucracy. It still has a very extensive power on business and companies – a real longa manus –  but is in fact isolated from the new strategic and military equilibria of the Maghreb region, to which it reacts without being able to change them.

 Furthermore, the relative increase in oil prices – made possible almost exclusively by a decrease in the production of OPEC, of which Algeria is also a member – has certainly provided a small new channel of fresh liquidity to the Algerian government, but has also broken fiscal discipline and further increased public spending.

 Hence higher taxes on imported goods – as first economic measure implemented by the government -and relinquishment of the subsidy cuts introduced in 2017, as well as increases for investment and social spending.

  According to the Algerian General Accounting Office, however, rebus sic stantibus, the deficit should be redressed in 2023.

Furthermore, many customs duties have been levied on imports, which lead to an increase in prices. We should also consider the very poor success of the plans for economic diversification and for reducing “oil dependence”. Indeed, if anything, the Algerian authorities are trying to maximize profits from oil and natural gas and currently the GDP is growing thanks to the increase in public spending generated only by the increase in the oil price.

 However, what would be the real political alternatives to Bouteflika?  Probably for want of anyone better, the FLN has already crowned him, but it could not do otherwise. Prime Minister Ouyahia does not know where else to turn, although he is also the leader of the Rassemblement National Democratique.In particular, there is such a level of tension between the various powers within the clan and political affairs of Bouteflika and the Armed Forces that no true new national leader can emerge.

 Among the protesters in the streets, there is growing consensus for JilJedid, the “new generation” political party, but the possible candidates  also include Chabib Khelil, former Energy Minister and OPEC President, who has also the Moroccan citizenship, and is currently a powerful international consultant.

 Chabib Khelil has strong ties with the United States and a Palestinian wife with a US passport.

 This makeshis candidacy impossible, due to Algeria’s rules and regulations.

 Not to mention the judicial problems due to his old relations with SAIPEM.

 Another “new” candidate could also be Mouloud Hamrouche, a former “moderate” Prime Minister.

 Within the establishment’s natural strategy designed to fully support Bouteflika’s candidacy, we must also consider the recent ousting of the Police Chief, Abdelghani Hamel – who, at the time, was considered one of the most natural successors to Bouteflika – as a result of a drug trafficking case involving the powerful Algerian Police, that can rely on 200,000 men but – after the above mentioned reforms-is deprived of a reliable and stable Security Service.

 What doAlgeria’s current decision-makers fear? Obviously the “sword jihad”.

 We Europeans – and Italians, in particular – could add that the irrational disruption of Algeria relating to the “Arab springs” leads to a porous and uncontrollable Algerian coast, just as the danger of migration flows from Libya is slowly fading away and the migration flows from Tunisia have stabilized.

 Algeria is also deeply concerned about the tribal, jihadist and military instability that emerged in Mali during the elections held there between last July and August.

 The Algerian decision-makers are also worried about the great instability in Libya – currently a major problem for its military decision-makers – and obviously in Tunisia.

 With specific reference to Libya, Algeria is a clear, open and very helpful supporter of Al-Sarraj’s GNA, while its intelligence Services, which know the sub-Saharan deserts very well, are endeavouring for peace between the militias and the non-jihadist tribes of Fezzan, so as to later achieve the goal of a unified Libya.

 Shortly before the arrival of Haftar, who currently holds about 80% of the Libyan territory from the South.

 Nevertheless, apart from the recent amnesty for the local jihadists, which led to the surrender of about 88 militants of the “holy war”, all the Algerian military operations in Sahel are of scarce political relevance – and this is a very severe matter.

 Currently the Algerian Armed Forces can rely on 147,000 people – all well trained even in the desert -and on a total number of 460,000 reservists.

 It should also be recalled that, despite the economic crisis, Algeria spends 10 billion US dollars a year on weapons and, between 2012 and 2016, its military spending increased by 277%, almost all (80%) used to purchase Russian weapons.

 Algeria is still the fifth largest importer of weapons in the world and the third largest buyer of Russian weapons.

 It is also worth recalling that, although currently Algeria is not a place for migrant transit to Europe, there are still very active old routes from sub-Saharan Africa up to Tamanrasset and then leading to Morocco, Libya and Tunisia.

 Currently the only chance for avoiding the rehabilitation of the Algerian coasts for the transit of migrants heading to the EU and, above all, to Italy, is solely the Algerian authorities’ very firm will to repress these flows.

If this is no longer the case, we will soon have a powerful and effective alternative for the new transit of illegal migration flows from the Maghreb region to Italy and to the other European and Mediterranean ports.

 Algeria, in fact, has long been gathering its many irregular migrants and directing them, manu militari, towards Mali and Niger.

 There are some agreements between Algeria and the Sahel countries, but there have also been tensions, since Algeria has often imposed its pace and its weapons on sub-Saharan Africa, even with some clashes with Mali’s and Niger’s forces.

 Hence there is great fear that insecurity – now endemic in the Maghreb region – spreads also to the wide Algerian territory, the greatest true strategic driver of Bouteflika’s current management.

 The Algerian regime is certainly not wrong in assessing the facts in this way.

 The Kingdom of Morocco has denounced the fact that some months ago Algeria had the Iranian support in its old fight against the Polisario Front, with the subsequent closure of the Tehran diplomatic representative office last May.

 Even before the Algerian independence, the Polisario Front has been one of the souls of the FLN foreign policy.

 This is a sign that now the Algerian (and Moroccan) issue is at the core of the link between the jihad and the overt operations in all the internal areas of the two countries – and hence of their connection with the Sahel region.

 Nevertheless, there is still another issue on the table that is much more important than it may appear at first sight, i.e. the joint candidacy of Morocco and Algeria to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

 Another very great bet on the internal security of Bouteflika’s regime – and of Mohammed VI, who is very focused on this event to make his Alawite Kingdom rise to world fame.

 In all likelihood, however, the great global forces that disrupted Tunisia, at first, and then Egypt and Libya – thus making those old, but basically stable regimes an unbalanced system, largely porous from the South – are caring precisely about Algeria, which has all the characteristics to interest the global propaganda for world democracy: an old and sick leader – almost an absolute leader – an old protectionist and oil-based system, to be possibly made available to other OPEC countries; an internal demographic bomb and a major crisis preventing the young people and the new elites from finding opportunities in the Northern developed countries.

 A political-propaganda paradigm that is now very well tested, although ever more dangerous.

  The perfect scenario for an “old vs. young people” fight – as already seen in the US and French propaganda – or even a possible platform for internal liberalization, probably with the usual “moderate Islamists” who enter the political game, also because – just to use again the old-fashioned standards of Western propaganda -the blame for the sole presence of the sword jihad in the Maghreb region is to be laid on the “reactionary” governments’ “repression”.

 As already noted, with a view to facing the economic crisis and the lack of investment, the current Algerian regime has implemented a short-term expansionary fiscal policy, which has led to high inflation and only enables the government to buy for time, without being able to solve the central issues of State economy and the relationship between bureaucracy, political power, oil revenues and industrial transformation.

 For Algeria oil and natural gas still account for 97% of total exports, two thirds of State revenues and one third of GDP.

 These figures date back to 2014, but today data is only slightly different.

 The quantity of oil and gas reserves, however, does not bode well.

Oil experts talk about twenty years of reserves still possible for oil and fifty for natural gas.

 It should be noted, however, that Algeria’s foreign debt still accounts for a mere 2% of GDP.

 Hence probably Bouteflika and his successors want to keep things as they are and, in the future, start modernization by resorting to debt and foreign investment, with two additional years of debt fiscal spending and then a massive sale of Algeria’s public debt securities, which could finance again both the currency status quo, held artificially too high, and public spending in subsidies and bureaucratic jobs for young people.

 However, the demographic bomb – the trigger of the “Arab Spring” old crises – is one of the first aspects to study.

 Also from the anthropological and cultural viewpoints. The young people, also in the West, aredéracinés, without the memory of what happened to the FLN to make it reach that point.

 Currently five sevenths of the Algerian population is below 21 years of age.

 In 2019,for the Algerian young protesters, “democracy” is not the fight against France and the pied noirs, possibly helped by ENI and the USSR, but only a decent job and food every day.

 Hence crowds easy to manipulate, who probably Elias Canetti, in his extraordinary book Crowds and Power, would have defined “incited crowds”.

 Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood that has always been at the origin of  “Arab springs” – also for induction and interferences from abroad – is particularly active in Algeria.

 Hence the classic paradigm of the quasi-spontaneous people’s rebellion is ready, but probably Bouteflika will agree-albeit only after his fifth reelection (probable because his regime is seen as a factor of stable economic and civil growth) – on a new name, although always representing the old elites. A new leader that will build new and good relations with China (which has reduced its oil and gas purchases), but above all with Japan and the EU, which could really change the whole production formula of future Algeria, by changing and expanding the terms of economic trade between Algeria and the European Union.

 Provided said leader will have the necessary skills and strength, attitudes about which I am doubtful.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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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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A survey of Arab youth highlights gaps between policies and aspirations

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Results of a recent annual survey of Arab youth concerns about their future suggest that Arab autocracies have yet to deliver expected public services and goods, explain autocratic efforts to promote nationalism, and indicate that jobs and social freedoms are more important than political rights.

The survey provides insights that should inform autocrats’ quest for social and economic reform. It also suggests, together with the intermittent eruption of anti-government protests in different parts of the Arab world, that Western and Middle Eastern interests would be better served by more nuanced US and European approaches towards the region’s regimes.

Western governments have so far uncritically supported social and economic reform efforts rather than more forcefully sought to ensure that they would bear fruit and have been lax in pressuring regimes to at least curb excesses of political repression.

Critics charge that the survey by Dubai-based public relations firm asda’a bcw focussed on the 18-24 age group was flawed because it gave a greater weighting to views in smaller Gulf states as opposed to the region’s more populous countries such as Egypt, used small samples of up to 300 people, and did not include Qatar, Syria and Sudan.

The results constitute a mixed bag for Arab autocrats and suggest that squaring the circle between the requirements of reform and youth expectations is easier said than done and could prove to be regimes’ Achilles’ heel.

A majority of youth, weened on decades of reliance on government for jobs and social services, say governments that are unilaterally rewriting social contracts and rolling back aspects of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, have so far failed to deliver.

Even more problematic, youth expect governments to be the provider at a time that reform requires streamlining of bureaucracies, reduced state control, and stimulation of the private sector.

A whopping 78 percent of those surveyed said it was the government’s responsibility to provide jobs. An equal number expected energy to be subsidized, 65 percent complained that governments were not doing enough to support young families while 60 percent expected government to supply housing.

By the same token, 78 percent expressed concern about the quality of education on offer, including 70 percent of those in the Gulf. Yet, 80 percent of those in the Gulf said local education systems prepared them for jobs of the future as opposed to a regional total of 49 percent that felt education was lagging. Nonetheless, only 38 percent of those surveyed in the Gulf said they would opt for a local higher education.

There appeared to be a similar gap between the foreign and regional policies of governments and youth aspirations.

Assertive policies, particularly by Gulf states, that have fuelled regional conflicts, including wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the Saudi Iranian rivalry and the two-year-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar run counter to a desire among a majority of those surveyed to see an end to the disputes. In favour of Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini rulers, 67% of young Arabs see Iran as an enemy.

The survey also suggests that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contrary to common wisdom, is an issue that resonates. With 79 percent of those surveyed saying they are concerned about the dispute, the question arises whether the Gulf’s rapprochement with Israel and support for US president Donald J. Trump’s peace plan that is widely believed to disadvantage the Palestinians enjoys popular support.

The suggestion that Gulf policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be wholeheartedly supported is bolstered by the fact that the number of people surveyed this year that viewed the United States as an enemy rose to 59 percent compared to 32 percent five years ago.

Similarly, Arab leaders’ reliance on religion as a regime legitimizer and efforts to steer Islam in the direction of apolitical quietism are proving to be a double-edged sword and one probable reason why men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have sought to reduce the role of the religious establishment by promoting hyper-nationalism.

Some two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role, up from 50% four years ago. Seventy-nine percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed while half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.

Publication of the survey coincided with the release by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) of its 2019 report. The report designated Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s “worst violators” of religious freedoms, highlighting discrimination of Shia Muslims and Christians.

“Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary, and lack access to senior positions in the government and military,” the 234-page report said.

Leaders of the United Arab Emirates, accused by human rights groups of systematic violations, are likely to see a silver lining in the survey and a reconfirmation of their policy of economic and relative social liberalism coupled with absolute political control.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed named the UAE as their preferred country as opposed to less than 22 percent opting for Canada, the United States, Turkey or Britain.

In a white paper accompanying the survey, Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, concluded that the survey showed that “the demands and dreams of young Arabs are neither radical nor revolutionary” and that they were unlikely to “to fall for the false utopias or ‘charismatic’ leaders their parents fell for.”

In the words of Jihad Azour, the International Monetary Fund’s top Middle East person, “what is needed is a new social contract between MENA (Middle East and North Africa) governments and citizens that ensures accountability, transparency and a commitment to the principle that no one is left behind… The latest youth survey makes clear that we have a long way to go,” Mr. Azour said in his contribution to the white paper.

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Middle East

US-Iran Tension: Avert any big disaster to humanity

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US-Iran tension is growing to a dangerous level. Irrespective of who is right and who is wrong, but everyone agrees that it is leading toward a big disaster. Human life and natural resources are at stake. Irrespective, who will suffer more and who will suffer less, but it is human life, which is the most precious thing in this world, is at stake.

Middle-East is an oil and gas-rich area and meets the major portion of world energy demand. Any disturbance in this region will have a severe impact on the global economy. Whether one is right or wrong, will be the victim of this crisis directly or indirectly.

This war will be not like the Iraq war or the Libya War. As at that time, there was only one superpower and the world was unipolar. There was no resistance from any corner of the world. US and allies, without any resistance, conducted the war and achieved their desired results. But a lot of resistance was witnessed in case of Syrian War. The whole scenario has been changed, the calculated results were not achieved yet. Finally, the US has decided to pull back its troops. Similarly, Afghanistan case is not ideal, after spending trillion dollars, and fighting for 17 years, not gains on the ground and finally has to pull back.

It may not be limited to only US-Iran but may engulf the whole region. As traditional rivals are waiting for an appropriate opportunity to settle their old disputes. Whether, it is Arab-Iran, or Israel-Iran, or Arab-Israel enmity, may it spread to a much wider sphere than expected. It is in control of a few countries to start or refrain the escalation, but once it has been broken, it may be beyond the control of either country.

Especially, Russia and China are not sleeping at this time. They are in a strong position to offer resistance. It should not be taken an easy task like Iraq or Libya war. It is difficult to predict the exact reaction of Russia or China, but anticipated resistance.

If we expect, US or Iran to avert this foreseeable war will be not a realistic approach. As if they were to avoid any disaster, they should not have created so hype and should not have moved to this stage. They may not accept total hegemony of the US in this part of the world. They have heavy stakes in the middle-East and cannot be spectators only.

Geopolitics has been changed, regional alliances have emerged, and nations have re-aligned themselves. Much more complex changes have been witnessed after the war on terror. Public awareness has been enhanced, maybe some of the governments in this region have a different outlook, but public opinion is much more realistic and may play a vital role in the days to come. Old time’s friends may stand on the other side of the table. Some radical changes may be visible on grounds.

UN role was ineffective in the past and a little is expected in the future. In fact, the UN has been hijacked and curtailed to a very limited role practically. While one of its major mandates was to resolve the disputes among nations and avoid wars or war-like situations.

Under this serious scenario, there is a hope that all peace-loving nations and individuals, may peruse the UN and International Community do something to avert this bid human disaster.  We all share one world, we have the responsibility to save this world. Any loss of human life in any part of the world is considered the loss to the whole of humanity. And the destruction of natural resources may be considered a loss to humanity. Any damage to Environment or ecology or biodiversity may be a net loss to humanity. We all are son and daughter of ADAM and share a common world, common environment, common resources. We need to protect humanity, environment and natural resources.

It is strongly appealed to the UN, International Community and all individuals who believe in Peace, must act, and must act now, and must act strongly, to avert any bid disaster to humanity.

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