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Decoding Iran’s Missile Tests 4, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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Over the Christmas and New Year holidays Iran undertook a series of naval exercises in Gulf waters, which included the test firing of a range of missiles, one of which could theoretically reach as far as Israel. While Iran’s military elite claimed that the tests were successful, given their record of exaggeration and the attempted manipulation of photos of missile launches, it is difficult to take such statements at face value.

Yet such tests are not really about tactical military preparations or the meaningful testing of a new missile. Instead they are designed to once again rattle the sabre, to remind both the Gulf states and in particular Europe and America of Iran’s military threat. In particular, these exercises and other bellicose statements in recent weeks about Iran’s ability to “close down the Strait of Hormuz” are aimed at pressuring European states not to back America’s new tough round of sanctions on Iran.
In other words, the exercises and the threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz are mostly a PR diplomatic bluff; yet this is not to say that they should be ignored.

The greater tensions in the Gulf and the more exercise that Iran feels it needs to put on, the greater the chance of a conflagration occurring by accident. Recent instances of the kidnapping of British Marines in 2007 and of Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) boats “buzzing” US warships in 2008 could easily have escalated quickly and were enormously incendiary and foolish actions by Iran.

US election season being underway may have prompted President Obama’s tougher new sanctions on Iran to shore up his “strong man” credentials and though America certainly does not want to instigate an actual confrontation with Iran in this post-Iraq era, provocative actions and miscalculations from Iran in the context of pressure from domestic, Gulf and Israeli lobbies could prove difficult to resist.

At the same time, Iran does not want a “hot war” in the Gulf either. Despite the constant inflammatory rhetoric emanating from Tehran, the elite knows full well that were a conflict to occur with US or Gulf forces in the region, even were Iran’s asymmetric forces to strike a blow or two, given the profound technological mismatch between Iran and America and its Gulf allies, overall it is not difficult to imagine Iran’s entire Navy, significant portions of its air force and any number of its petroleum installations being summarily destroyed. While this would temporarily solidify the Iranian elite’s position given the likely subsequent rallying of public support, such blows could be profoundly crippling.

While some suggest that Iran’s elite is intrinsically unstable or “irrational” and may actually seek such a conflict given that they are beholden to their religiously inspired Revolution, one only need recall that at the height of Khomeini’s rule in the 1980s, despite typically nasty rhetoric to the contrary, Khomeini engaged and traded with Israel. Iran needed spare parts for its fighters and Israel wanted oil: rhetoric is one thing; realpolitik is another.

Despite neither side wanting serious escalation, neither America nor Iran appear able to escape their cold war. Aside from a deep history of mistrust and proxy conflicts for more than three decades, today Iran feels profoundly encircled and afraid. It sees tens of US bases and tens of thousands of US troops to its north, south, east and west, not to mention US allies laden with advanced military equipment across from Iran in the Gulf.

Wholly unable to cope with such a conventional military challenge, Iran has instead engaged in augmenting its asymmetric forces both in terms of the IRGC and by supporting groups such as Hezbollah. This, in turn – in addition to persistent US claims that Iran has been involved with the supplying of, for example, IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq to kill US forces – has entrenched US implacability to Iran.

Thus today the “Great Satan” is a mainstay of Iranian politics and Iran is a byword for perfidy in US domestic politics, making reaching any accommodation difficult. Iran’s recent overture for diplomacy is cleverly timed for Tehran knows perfectly well that the Obama Administration will find it all but impossible to engage during the election season. Therefore, when America rejects this attempt, Iran can claim that it tried the diplomatic route but was rebuffed, much as President Obama did with his initial overtures after he was elected.

There are no easy exits on the horizon from this vicious cycle. Both sides know fundamentally that they need to talk, but both are constrained by their domestic climates, where accommodation and even discussion is seen – absurdly – as weakness. So too are Gulf states constrained in their relations with significant antipathy across the region to Iran. Yet the immutable relations between Iran and the Gulf states born of their unalterable proximity is perhaps the best hope for a future accommodation. Both HH the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, HE the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, and most recently Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the UAE, have voiced sporadically reasoned and moderate views on Iran; yet much work and time is yet needed – not to mention a partner in Iran – for such sentiments to prevail and for a new Gulf security architecture to replace the current failing framework.

Published in The Gulf Times

The Taliban and Qatar 4, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Central Asia, Qatar.
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After months of negotiations it has been announced that the Taliban will open a representative office in Qatar. Initially, Afghan President Karzai rejected Qatar as the location of the office and even removed the Afghan Ambassador from Qatar, accusing the Doha Government of not consulting the Afghan Government on the matter. Yet at the end of December 2011, Karzai relented, no doubt having extracted some price for his acquiescence.

No details are known about the office yet, but it is unlikely to take on the role of a Consulate or retain any significant official diplomatic capacity for many years and even then not without the explicit approval of the Government of Afghanistan, which would simply not be given under current circumstances.


The benefits

Numerous previous efforts have been launched but failed. Two of the most recent forays for peace resulted in Western allies being swindled of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a Taliban impostor in November 2010 and a similar scam led to the assassination of the lead Afghan Peace negotiator in September 2011. This event in particular was a further catalyst for the opening of this office.

Now that a Taliban base is established, if it can be staffed effectively it should enhance the chances for finding some kind of an accommodation in Afghanistan. Without the dangerous and difficult spy-games of locating Taliban spokespeople; without the pressures of the in-country dynamics of the Taliban being a furtive, fugitive organisation and with a physical and metaphorical distance from the Afghan Taliban and their associated baggage – not to mention profound ISI-Pakistani influence –  hopes are that all will find negotiating easier.

Aside from causing problems for American Diplomatic Service Protection Officers, the representative office in Doha is likely to be a boon for America with negotiating made significantly easier. Indeed, the Taliban themselves will likely seek out the Americans for discussions; they want five of their comrades incarcerated in Guantanamo to be released, perhaps for the quid pro quo of the release of a captured US serviceman.

Why Qatar?

Qatar is something of a natural choice as a location for the office. The small Gulf State now has a long history of offering up its services in the name of peace. For many years it has supported peace negotiations in Darfur through funding an inexhaustible number of Sudan-Qatar flights along with unlimited hotel accommodation and facilities in Doha as well as getting deeply involved in the negotiations themselves. Also, in 2007 Qatar sought to find an accommodation between the Houthis and the Yemeni government and, with echoes of today’s decision, offered the Houthi leadership accommodation in Qatar in return for concessions.

Moreover, as a small Gulf country, Qatar clearly has no vested interests in supporting the Taliban or the Afghan Government and can be taken by both as a reasonably neutral mediator. Lastly, Qatar is also likely to be funding this entire venture, from the office itself to the numerous return flights that will be needed. Taken together these qualities and Qatar’s pedigree mean that the list of potential countries to host – and likely fund – the office was exceedingly short.

Qatar’s motivation is – as ever – to maintain its place at the centre of the world’s attention. There comes with such attention a certain safety in the glaring lights of the international scene, not something that can be scoffed at by a tiny, exceedingly rich state hemmed in by significantly larger neighbours with whom they do not have the best of relations, in a region of profound instability. More specifically, this exact role that Qatar is playing with this issue is the personification of Qatar’s recent strategy of positioning itself as the key interlocutor between the West and Muslim actors with whom the West has trouble dealing. This exact dynamic can be seen in Qatar’s recent role in Libya, where it hopes to place itself between Western states and the emerging Islamic government, after cultivating relations with, for example, Ali Al Salabi – one of Libya’s most prominent clerics – for many years. So too can one discern such a relationship with Qatar’s attempts to build and use relations with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen.

Step towards peace

Overall, while this move is certainly a step towards brokering some kind of peace in Afghanistan, opening up far greater possibilities of meaningful interaction between all sides, it is but the first step along a long and winding road. Qatari facilitation can be exceedingly useful, but it will still take courage on all sides to take the necessary concessionary steps incumbent upon all actors seeking to close violent conflicts.

Published on RUSI.org