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On Inside Story et al 5, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran, Qatar.
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Belated seasons greetings to all as well as a happy new year.

Blog posting has been thin on the ground recently, which is most annoying. What can I say? I’ve been profoundly mugged by the realities of a new job and lament the loss of the days when I was only very busy.

Still, I’ve been spreading the good word on a range of topics in recent weeks. Here’s a selection:

On Inside Story, not exactly at my most erudite [‘bits and pieces’? oy vey] but making some sense, inshallah, about Iran.

On BBC World waxing intellectually about Qatar and the Taliban office.

On Aussie radio rambling about Qatar’s history.

In the FT and AP wittering about Qatar and Paris St. Germain.

And in some random publications elucidating the finer aspects of something or other.


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

Iranian encirclement 12, December 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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Each star is a US base.

An excellent map from Juan Cole.

On Inside Story 4, September 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Qatar.
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So here’s me on Inside Story. Not at my most erudite or convincing, but, frankly, I’m just mostly pleased that I didn’t swear.



French & US Embassy in Damascus attacked 11, July 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Syria.
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Reports are emerging that pro-Assad protestors have been attacking the US and French Embassies in Damascus, Syria.

Guards at the French Embassy apparently had to shoot into the air to drive back the crowds.

I cannot see how the US Embassy in Damascus could possibly have been ‘stormed’ as some of the more incorrigible reports have been claiming. Countless security assessments would have been carried out in recent weeks on this exact topic and it’s not like the US don’t have a rather bitter recent-ish memory of such incidents. Moreover, from what I remember, the US Embassy in Damascus is a fortress in a cage: it would take a lot more than some protestors to break it, methinks.

Still, attacking the Embassy and damaging it in some way, shape or form will likely have serious repercussions for Assad, despite the fact that he will surely claim it as a spontaneous reaction of loyal Syrians.


Reuters notes that the attackers have now left the Embassy complex. In other words, they perhaps got through the outermost layer of security. I’d venture to guess that they stood no chance of getting through any more layers. Apparently, the Syrian police response was “slow and insufficient’. Shocking.

US establishing Jewish state in Kashmir 10, July 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, China.
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It’s been a while since I heard a really good, really daft conspiracy theory. Many thanks to @blakehounshell for sharing this rather special specimen.

So, I can reveal to you what the U.S. government has been up to in recent years, specifically in China and in Pakistan. Bet you didn’t know that they have – in fact – been secretly trying to ferment rifts in key army and “other sensitive departments” to weaken and destabilise the regimes in these countries.

Why would the CIA be doing such nefarious things? Obvious! To establish another Jewish state, as if you needed to be told.

I feel that anyone who reads this article and actually thinks that that is what the CIA has been up to needs to be shot. However, this pushes me uncomfortably towards the crazies that write and believe these things, so I hereby issue a tepid retraction of said comments.

Stunning photo: Hornet breaking sound barrier 10, June 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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I’m no aviation aficionado whatsoever, but think that this photo is just wholly stunning.

It’s taken from the superb UPI, a site that never fails to have something interesting, new and different, as compared to its competition.

The photo is of an F/A-18c Hornet breaking the sound barrier somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

Arab involvement in Libya 23, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Qatar.
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On 12 March the Arab League, having suspended Libya’s membership, voted in favour of supporting a United Nations (UN)-backed military action against Libya in the form of enforcing a no-fly zone. Limited and careful as their wording was – Syria and Algeria balked at the phrase ‘foreign intervention’ – it is still extraordinarily rare for Arab states to come together to support any kind of international military campaign against a fellow Arab state.

The official reason that the Arab League supported some kind of intervention or involvement was for the need to ‘protect the civilian population’.[1] Yet this is hardly an adequate explanation. Humanitarian concern is rarely – if ever – the ultimate arbiter of decisions in the international arena, where notions of absolute sovereignty are habitually prized above all else.

Shifting Focus

The more international and local media focuses on shots of a Libyan plane crashing to the ground or Tomahawk missiles being launched from Western battleships off the Libyan coast, the less the media is focusing on other simmering conflicts around the region. For example, because Saudi Arabia voted for some kind of action against Libya there has been, ipso facto, less coverage of its own sporadic domestic protests and intervention in Bahrain.

Moreover, at a time of ferment throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it may be considered opportune and useful for leaders, wary for their own sake, to show that they are aware of the prevailing mood and will ‘combat injustice’ when they see it. As long as these sentiments can be harnessed and focused externally, it may be felt – rightly or wrongly – that such actions will go some way to establishing revolutionary credentials with minimal domestic reforms. Or, more to the point, given the near-universal popular support for the opposition against Qadhafi’s onslaught, maybe Arab leaders were afraid of not supporting some kind of action and the potential domestic ramifications thereof.

A leader cognisant of the prevailing mood, aware of the potential dangers of fighting against the current of international opinion and consequently supporting action against Qadhafi, may also garner support from America and other Western countries. This, in and of itself, given Western proclivities for favouring change in Iran but not Saudi Arabia, in Libya but not in Bahrain, would be a savvy path to tread.

Qatar and the UAE

Initially, American officials noted that the Arab League would have to ‘participate’ – simply offering rhetorical support would be insufficient.[2] Curiously, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates emerged as the Arab states taking the lead in supporting the no-fly zone.

Most assumed that Qatar, for example, would support efforts by allowing America to use Central Command – based near Doha – to oversee operations. However, it now appears that Qatar is contributing six of its Mirage 2000 fighter-jets along with two cargo planes. The UAE was also expected to contribute twelve F-16s and twelve Mirage jets for use against Libyan targets.


It is theoretically easier to understand the UAE’s desire to join in with this operation. In recent years the UAE has spent tens of billions of dollars on importing a wide variety of armaments, so much so that from 2006 to 2010 it accounted for nearly a quarter of all major weapons deals in the Middle East.[3] Given the UAE’s strategic location, it is logical to assume that these weapons were bought explicitly for defence purposes. Therefore, a high-profile demonstration of their potency may, in addition to their acquisition in the first place, contribute to the UAE’s deterrence.

In contrast, Qatar’s security is not based on the deterrence value of their own military, which has received but a fraction of materiel as compared to the UAE, but on the presence of America’s Central Command. Rather, in sending fighter aircraft to Libya, Qatar is pursuing its default policy of the past fifteen years, consistently seeking the international limelight, usually in a humanitarian or educational context. Certainly, this is the first time that Qatar has used such raw, hard power, for it typically concentrates on far softer methods, but the underlying reasoning is the same: to take part in a popular action to assuage, for example, a humanitarian crisis.

Cold Feet

Yet as Qatari jets near Libya, Arab support wavers. Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, complained on 20 March about the scale of the attacks on Libya.[4] The loss of Arab support, given existing issues with Russia and China, would be highly damaging. However, the very next day Moussa, in conjunction with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, reaffirmed Arab support for the action. His earlier wavering has been widely ascribed to his expected candidacy for the Egyptian Presidency, hence decrying the loss of civilian life from Allied attacks for domestic Egyptian consumption.

Even with Moussa’s renewed support of the mission, there are growing murmurs of discontent throughout the Arab world and beyond.[5] Fundamentally, in addition to growing casualties, even with the need to appear to ‘understand’ and ‘support’ the will of the people in the face of Qadhafi’s onslaught, many governments fear the precedent that they may be setting by allowing – nay supporting – regime change.

Moreover, the latest reports to emerge regarding the UAE deployment suggest a key shift in policy. The National, the UAE’s flagship English language newspaper, reported that the UAE would limit its support to humanitarian aid and not military action over ‘disagreements with the West over Bahrain.'[6]

This is an interesting move. Despite the official reasoning, the core motive of this change has nothing to do with the West’s attitude towards Iran’s involvement (or lack thereof) in Bahrain’s troubles, but instead highlights just how sensitive the Emirati government is towards the prevailing sentiment. When the Arab consensus was pro-intervention, they supported it. Yet now that such sentiment is wavering and – crucially – civilians are being inadvertently killed, the calculus has evidently changed. The cost of Emirati pilots mistakenly killing civilians in an increasingly unpopular conflict where Qadhafi is reportedly ‘recruiting’ civilian shields for installations means that they will eschew the potential benefits (bolstering their deterrence, etc.) for fear of prompting domestic unrest.

Qatari Contribution

Qatar has a similar calculation to make. Yet not only has the state historically been quite a contrarian, often eschewing the typical consensus, but it is not a federation with demonstrably poorer relations within it. In short, there is a greater opportunity for unrest in the UAE, specifically in the northern Emirates, than there is in Qatar. The risk of causing civilian casualties must be weighed against the potentially iconic and positive footage on Al Jazeera of a Qatari jet spearing through the air on a ‘humanitarian mission’, acting as the very personification of Arab support.

Moreover, it is important to point out that Qatar’s contribution is far from token. Though specific figures are difficult to obtain, Qatar’s deployment probably accounts for the majority of its operational fast-jet wing and the transport wing of its Air Force. Clearly, Qatar is making a strong, public and Western-oriented statement in joining in with the military operations.

Nevertheless, there are risks. While Western allies will be extremely grateful for this significant show of support and there is much kudos to potentially garner, Qatari jets causing collateral damage could be highly damaging. Indeed, it would make sense for, if operationally possible, the Qatari Mirage jets to attack the most inanimate of inanimate targets or to strictly enforce the no-fly zone, minimizing the risk of civilian casualties. Such an outcome would be best not only for Qatar and the coalition, but potentially for Libya as well.


[1] Ethan Bronner & David Sanger ‘Arab League Endorses No-Flight Zone Over Libya’ New York Times 12 March 2011

[2] Ibid

[3] Gavin Davids ‘UAE is top weapons importer in Middle East’ Arabian Business 16 March 2011

[4] Donald Macintrye ‘Arab support wavers as second night of bombing begins’ The Independent 21 March 2011

[5] Colin Randall & Kareen Shaheen ‘Cracks begin in international anti-Qaddafi coalition’ The National, 23 March 2011

[6] Kareen Shaheen & Ola Salem ‘Ex-airforce chief says no to UAE planes in Libya’ The National, 22 March 2011

Debunking Stuxnet 23, February 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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The Stuxnet story has gone through numerous revisions in the last year or so.

First there was confusion with no-one seemingly knowing what was happening. Second was an assumption that it was perpetrated by US and or Israeli operatives to derail Iran’s nuclear programnme. Third came hyperbole-ridden prose, typified by this NYT article, stating that this heralded a new age of cyber warfare etc etc. Fourthly and most recently has come the backlash against such reports. This blog article is one of the most thorough that I’ve come across and it eloquently eviscerates the NYT’s article and poses some serious questions. Draw your own conclusions.