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What does the summit between Barack Obama and Gulf leaders mean? 15, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, The Gulf, Yemen.
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The following article was published by The Daily Telegraph on 14th May and can be found here.

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Anger at America

The US’s refusal to stand by the ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the face of Arab Spring protests was taken badly in the Gulf. If America can break one multi-decade relationship, the Gulf states fear, perhaps America would, if protests erupted, break their own long relationship.

President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ rhetoric amplified and drove home these concerns; here was proof of the US’s focus shifting away. And theObama-led decision to engage with Iran has been greeted with a mixture of scorn and horror as the sum of all their fears – a so-called ‘Grand Bargain’ with Iran – begins, for some, to materialise.

Indeed for years the Gulf states, like a jealous partner fearful of being spurned for another, has fretted that America might seek to come to a widespread accommodation with Iran at their expense. The logic runs that in return for a complete halt to Iran’s questionable nuclear programme, America would somehow defer to Iran’s interests in the Gulf region at the expense of its Sunni Gulf allies. An extra advantage and motivating factor of this ruse would be that Israel’s security would be bolstered without a theoretical Iranian nuclear threat, and thus the US could disengage from the region.

While such a series of events has a certain logic to it, the reality is somewhat different.

Explicitly implicit guarantees

The fact is that the US will be the prime security guarantor for the region for the foreseeable future – decades at least.

The US has constructed for itself or otherwise has the run of a litany of huge and important military bases around the Gulf region that will remain central to US power projection throughout the wider Middle East region.

Though the US may no longer be hooked on Gulf oil as it once was, its own supplies of unconventional hydrocarbons coming increasingly on-line in recent years, the Gulf region remains the linchpin of world hydrocarbon production and as such is of central and critical importance to the world’s economy.

As the state with the largest open economy in the world, America’s interest in securing a broad peace in this region is unshakable and America’s self-image as the world’s indispensable nation also behoves it to quite explicitly provide for the region’s stability.

Indeed, this is another curious aspect of this whole issue. Several Gulf leaders have gone to America to lobby Mr Obama for a greater US role in the region. They would ideally like explicit, formalised US guarantees of protection for their states.

Such explicit guarantees are entirely off the table, but, whether through existing arrangements or the region’s pivotal importance to the world’s economy, America remains – no matter Mr Obama’s preferences – deeply intertwined in the region. It is the same with the UK.

For example, whatever bilateral defensive or security agreements are or are not signed and sealed with Qatar are irrelevant. If something catastrophic happens in the Gulf state, Britain is obliged to send the cavalry if we are to keep the lights on. Qatar’s liquefied natural gas, arriving multiple times per week in the UK via tanker, is crucial in the UK’s energy mix.

Moreover, America has sold tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms to the Gulf states in recent years. This kind of investment is far from a one-time deal: you do not just fly over an F-16, C-130, or Apache helicopter, park it at the airbase and wave goodbye: the necessities of through-life maintenance, upgrades, supplying, and training for such equipment spans decades and is yet another facet of almost inseparable US-Gulf interaction.

This is not to deny some level of US lowering its focus on the Gulf. But after leading two wars in three decades in the Gulf, the latter of which cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, and is widely seen as a failure, a US drawdown is an obvious necessity.

But any domestic rhetoric exhorting the US to leave the region, a fiscally-led preference to drawdown resources, or even a presidential preference to disengage America where possible can all be trumped by the realities on the ground.

Careful what you wish for

The status quo has, therefore, not really changed. America under Mr Obama has shifted its focus away from the Gulf, but remains deeply entangled in the region.

There is an element of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and other Gulf-led unilateral military strikes in recent months that appear to be not-so-subtly aimed at America. “If you won’t secure the region, we will,” seems to be the Gulf retort.

While regional states stepping up and taking more control in their own security affairs may be greeted hopefully in the White House, Mr Obama should be careful what he wishes for.

The Saudi-led seven week bombing campaign in Yemen meandered along being far more effective at causing humanitarian suffering than halting the Houthi advances, with a barely-believable 15.9 million people – 61 per cent of Yemenis – needing humanitarian assistance, according to the World Health Organisation. Indeed, the realisation is dawning that beyond bombing whatever targets it can find, Saudi Arabia really does not seem to have any kind of strategic plan.

The Gulf states are far from wreaking upon the wider Middle East the kind of peace that the US brought to Iraq when it upended and hollowed out the state leaving a brittle, weak state from which no functioning government emerged. But their efforts to forge a coherent, effective opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria or to counter the Houthis in Yemen do not bode well.

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How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war? 8, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen.
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The following article was published by the BBC and can be found here.

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The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.

The Houthi moniker, originally but a clan name, has been associated with the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and, thus, by overly simplified if not erroneous extension, the “Twelver” Shiism predominant in Iran and Shiism in general.

Firstly, Houthis are not all Zaidis, and neither are all Zaidis Houthis. And secondly, Zaidism is considered to be the branch of Shiism least in dispute with Sunni doctrine.

Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.

None of this is to ignore commonalities between Iran and the Houthis.

Map showing Houthi and al-Qaeda areas in Yemen (22 April 2015)

Both display a vociferous anti-American and anti-Israeli streak, and there are obvious instances of the Houthis co-operating in some way with Iran in recent years.

A day after the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in February, an aviation agreement with Iran was signed and an Iranian Mahan Airlines plane landed in the city.

Domestic dispute

But simplistically labelling the Houthis as “Iranian-backed” obscures the domestic nature of the conflict which predates the Arab Spring.

Zaidis ruled parts of Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962 and were even supported by Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

But then the Houthis, who emerged as a Zaidi revivalist movement in the 1990s, fought a series of wars between 2004 and 2010 against the Saudi-supported central Yemeni state led by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also happens to be a Zaidi.

Religious divisions have, therefore, played a surprisingly minor role in the past until they were deepened not least by Saudi Arabia’s attempts in the 1990s in particular to spread its own austere version of Sunni Islam in Yemen.

The Houthis believed that such policies were designed to further marginalise their position, given their historic powerbase of Saada province being right on the Saudi border.

Spoils of war

The numerous wars fought against government forces gave the Houthis all the training and combat experience that they needed to humiliate Saudi forces when they intervened in Yemen in 2009 and to apparently fare so well against the recent air campaign launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

More importantly perhaps, many years of war have festooned Yemen with weapons.

There are plenty of accusations that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons. Some reports lack credibility, like Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV’s insistence that 185 tons of Iranian weapons miraculously made it through the international naval taskforce currently blockading Yemen.

Other stories, like the Iranian dhow that was stopped on route to Yemen in 2013 with a range of advanced equipment, are far more plausibly an example of Iranian weapons shipping.

While one UN Security Council report noted independent verification was unable to confirm the allegations, a more recent, as yet unreleased one, concluded that a pattern of Iranian support had emerged.

Houthi resilience

Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.

External supplies notwithstanding, an obvious source of weaponry for the Houthis came thanks to a new-found agreement with their erstwhile adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seemed to support the Houthis in their takeover of Sanaa in autumn 2014.

This gave the Houthis the opportunity to help themselves to an unknown quantity of US weaponry from army bases captured curiously easily.

Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.

If Iran is the major source of supplies, then an air campaign to destroy stores and interdict resupply might make sense. But this logic is being sorely tested by the complete lack of a collapse of the Houthis (quite the opposite, so far) in the face of the bombing onslaught.

Al-Qaeda ascendant

Similarly, the urgency to combat the Houthis lest some hypothetical Iranian proxy force develops on the Arabian Peninsula means that, as a direct corollary, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has received a free pass to expand its orbit of power.

Recently, the group reinforced its hold on Mukalla in the southern province of Hadramawt taking over an airport, a military base, and a prison, freeing dozens of prisoners including AQAP leaders.

Given that AQAP remains the core US interest in Yemen, such a turn of events will surely have given its leadership pause to reconsider its open support of the Saudi campaign.

It would not be surprising if US cautions about the knock-on effects of the campaign enabling AQAP played a role in Saudi’s announcement on 21 April 2015 that it was ending the air campaign.

But the sense that the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are simply winging their policy in Yemen is inescapable.

In lieu of anything approaching a cogent, strategic plan, the short-termist resort of bombing to win does not inspire hope for the near future.

Linguistic Composition of Iran 26, February 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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I love a nice map. The only thing better than a nice map is a particularly informative nice map, like this one on arab dialects or the one below.

Map Iran Languages.

Hat tip to @blakehounshell for pointing out this map.

On Qatar and Hamas in Gaza 26, October 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Qatar.
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The following article appeared on ForeignPolicy.com

A deeply contrarian streak has taken hold in Qatar these days. Insulated by U.S. security guarantees, eager to use its burgeoning fiscal reserves, and propelled by its elites’ reformist zeal, Doha continues to exert a disproportionate influence on regional politics. Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s latest move was a dramatic visit to the Gaza Strip, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since Hamas wrested control of it in 2007.

Unlike some of its less imaginative Arab rivals, Qatar saw Hamas’s regional isolation as an opportunity rather than a problem. Despite its alliance with the United States, Doha has been nurturing its ties with the Palestinian Islamist group for some time: Its worst kept secret is that Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s leader, has had a house there for many years and has been increasingly seen in Doha since Hamas was forced to leave Syria in early 2012. Doha has also opened its pocketbook to Hamas, pledging $250 million in February — a gift that was increased to $400 million upon the emir’s visit.

The injection of funds, however, is not the most important aspect of Sheikh Hamad’s trip. By breaking Hamas’s regional isolation and explicitly recognizing its rule over Gaza, Doha has strengthened the militant group’s hand against its Palestinian rivals. An official from the Palestinian Authority, which is in charge of the West Bank, begrudgingly welcomed the visit while noting that “no one should deal with Gaza as a separate entity from the Palestinian territories and from the Palestinian Authority.”

Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Israel felt no need to soften its criticism. An Israeli spokesman carped bitterly about the emir’s trip, saying that the emir was “throwing peace under a bus.”

The visit further highlights Israel’s loss of influence with Qatar. Relations between the two countries warmed with the opening of an Israeli trade office in Doha in 1996 (reputedly close to Meshal’s house) as the two sides looked to ship Qatari gas to Israel, with Enron acting as the intermediary. The deal failed, however, and relations ebbed and flowed until December 2008, when Qatar cut ties in protest of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Rumors that Doha was attempting to restart relations were finally put to rest with a leaked memo from Israel’s Foreign Ministry labelling Qatar as a “leading activist” against Israel, decisively cutting whatever informal relations remained.

The Iranian angle

Iran, with whom Qatar maintains cordial official relations, joins Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an unlikely triumvirate watching proceedings in Gaza with glum resignation. Tehran officials are doubtlessly looking back nostalgically to happier times only a few years back, when their proxy Hezbollah all but defeated the Zionist Entity — winning Iran no small degree of Arab support for its material support to the Lebanese militant organization.Back then, Hamas was also still ensconced in Iran’s camp, and Syria was a stable ally that appeared to be gradually increasing its influence in the Middle East.

Indeed, while Israel and the Palestinian Authority may view Qatar’s embrace of Hamas with chagrin, it is Iran that is the central loser in this drama. The emir’s visit is part of a larger Qatari policy to unseat and reorient crucial Iranian allies around the Middle East — and by extension, amputate a long-used, effective limb of Iranian foreign policy. This is a remarkably forthright policy, for Iran will not — and cannot — take it lying down.

This new policy is most evident in Syria, where Qatar is explicitly and unashamedly supporting the 19-month insurgency with money, equipment, and at the very least light weaponry — little less than a declaration of war against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s core ally.

But Qatar’s new activism is also apparent in Gaza, where Doha has likely decided to take action precisely because of Hamas’s break from Iran. When Tehran stopped sending money to Hamas after the group failed to publically support Iran’s embattled ally in Syria, Qatar saw an opportunity to split the Palestinian group from its long-time sponsor. While its $400 million donation is earmarked for humanitarian development, not only is such support fungible, but there are doubtless other financial arrangements being made between Qatar and Hamas on this trip — further strengthening the ties between the Palestinian Islamist movement and Doha.

This move will, of course, catalyze another round of speculation that Qatar is supporting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world. That Qatar’s supports the Brotherhood is not in doubt — indeed, it hardly tries to conceal its efforts at engaging with the Islamist movement in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and now with Hamas, another Brotherhood offshoot. Yet Qatar is not nefariously trying to replace the Shia Crescent with a Brotherhood Banana, curving from Syria through Gaza, Egypt, and on to Libya and Tunisia. Doha is much more pragmatic and less Machiavellian than that: It is leveraging its relations where they exist, and looking to bolster popular, effective, moderate Muslim parties with whom it has relations.

Qatar’s vanguard role in weakening a key plank of Iranian foreign policy indicates that Doha must feel deeply secure with its relationship with Tehran, for it would hardly undertake such aggressive moves if it felt imminently threatened. Indeed, there is an obvious flashpoint between the two regional powers: Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas field, which has been responsible forQatar’s recent spike in wealth. Traditionally, this has meant that Qatar treated Iran with a great deal of respect. Relations were carefully improved in the 1990s as the field was being developed, as Doha sought to avoid an escalation after numerous instances of Iran attacking and stealing equipment from unmanned Qatari gas rigs.

Today, Qatar’s relations with Iran are as pleasant as ever on the surface. However, the fact that Qatar is overturning one of the key tenets of its foreign policy by antagonizing Iran is a surprising and forthright move by the Qatari elite, which clearly does not accept conventional limits on what is and what is not possible in the Middle East.

On the notion of Israel attacking Iran 4, April 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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On 24 April an article in Jane’s Defence Weekly based on intelligence sources claimed that Iran is only two years away from producing an atomic bomb. However, there is no need to start building a shelter yet as this article was written on 24 April 1984. Need it be stated that Iran – unlike Israel that obtained its first bomb sometime around the mid 1960s – did not obtain a nuclear weapon in 1986.  This example is highlighted not to mock Jane’s typically erudite analysis but to note that for decades it has been claimed that Iran has been near production of a nuclear weapon.

In the same year, US Senator Alan Cranston said Iran would have nuclear weapons by 1991; in 1992 Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that 1995-1997 was the right time-frame; Shimon Peres in 1992 plumbed for 1999; a 1992 House Republican Research Committee claimed that there was a ‘98 percent certainty that Iran already had all (or virtually all) of the components required for two or three operational nuclear weapons.’; a 1995 report quoting US and Israeli officials goes for the millennium as the date; in 1997 sources noted that the date had been pushed back to 2007-2009; in 2005 Israel’s Defence Minister warned that a ‘point of no return’ would be passed within two years[1]; in 2007 Mossad went for 2009 as the magical date[2]; in 2009 it was predicted that Iran would be “nuclear-equipped” within one year; and Meir Dagan the former head of Mossad recently suggested that 2015 is the nearest viable date.[3]

The more recent predictions often bypass the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran stating ‘with high confidence’ that Iran had given up on its nuclear weapon programme in 2003; a notion confirmed in 2009 by a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee reports stating that ‘there is no sign that Iran’s leaders have ordered up a bomb.’[4]

While there is most certainly a significant amount of troubling contradictions and concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, many of which found a voice in a damning 2011 IEAE report on the topic, nevertheless, one might expect more scepticism to be shown on this topic that is typically found in the political discourse regarding leaders who have been consistently wrong for decades.

Indeed, there seems to be something of a drum-beat for war building. However, such considerations often ignore the basic concerns of whether Israel could effectively attack Iran; a key piece of information for the debate. If Israel cannot, or if the consequences of an attack would be so dire as to retard Israel’s strategic position, then the questions concerning Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon are rendered moot.

Options

While Israel’s gamut of ICBMs launched either from Israel or their Dolphin Class submarines could be useful to destroy Iran’s anti-aircraft capability, without being armed with tactical nuclear warheads, they are unlikely to be able to degrade significantly hardened targets.

Insertion of special force teams is unlikely given the risks involved with deploying them in sufficient number, the fact that they could only carry what they land with, and the fact that many of the nuclear facilities in Iran lie far inland. The only plausible way to attack Iran’s facilities, therefore, is through air strikes.

Tactically

Attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no ‘surgical strike’ such as Israel conducted in 1991 on the Osirak facility in Iraq, or more recently against secret Syrian facilities in 2007. As Israeli threats have increased, Iran has reacted accordingly and dispersed and hardened its facilities. Today there are at least seventeen known Nuclear facilities, perhaps twelve of which ‘would have to be struck to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear program….some of which is buried deep underground…the new plant at Fordow, for example, is believed to be buried 260 feet under granite.’[5]

There are real concerns as to whether Israel has the weapons to seriously damage such facilities. In 2009 America sold Israel 55 GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs weighing over two thousand two hundred kilograms.[6] Since, however, America has designed a far larger Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP), weighing in at nearly fourteen thousand kilograms, which can only be delivered by the B-2 stealth aircraft which Israel does not possess.[7] Moreover, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta does not even think that these MOP weapons will be sufficient to guarantee the destruction of certain Iranian sites, namely the Fordow enrichment plant.

Whatever the ordinance, delivering the bombs would be difficult. Over one hundred aircraft would be needed to attack the multiple targets. Avoiding Iranian air defences, while not state-of-the-art and even if many could be destroyed in advance, would still be a concern and would likely take up yet more fuel. This is a key concern given that such a journey would push the Israeli F-15s and F-16s outwith their capabilities requiring air-to-air refuelling from Israel’s fleet of seven air tankers. This vastly complicates the mission not only in terms of where the tankers would loiter, but they would certainly need their own fleet of fighter aircraft protecting them further complicating the mission.

The question of over flight is equally vexatious. There are essentially three likely flight plans. The northern path follows the Mediterranean, cutting across five hundred miles of Turkey, then flying hundreds of miles into Iran itself before returning the same way. The central route crosses two hundred miles of Jordan, four hundred miles of Iraq, and several hundred miles within Iran itself. The southern route would cover nearly five hundred miles of Saudi Arabia, three hundred miles of Iraq before getting to the Iranian border.

While Israeli planes took the Turkish route in 2007 when attacking Syria, not only have bilateral relations deteriorated significantly since, but Turkey are believed to have upgraded their radar systems and there is little mood within Turkey to allow this to happen again.

Route two through Jordan and Iraq is technically feasible. While Iraq has no Air Force about which to be concerned and Jordan’s proximity to Israel renders intercepting Israeli aircraft almost impossible, cutting through Jordan in particular could be a diplomatic disaster. Jordan is one of two countries with a peace treaty with Israel and the only Arab bordering country with whom Israel have workable relations. Moreover, such an act, highlighting the impotence of the Jordanian Government and stimulating rumours that the elite consented to the Israeli attack, could potentially ignite the tinder-box that is Jordan today. The last thing that Israel want is for another unpredictable popular-led revote to take place on its borders.

Option three too is far from idea. Saudi Arabia certainly have the capability to intercept Israeli planes with Air Force bases on the north west, north east, and eastern borders with capable F-15s. This means that Saudi Arabia would have to concent to the Israeli action; a deeply difficult decision to make in these revolting times where populism and strong religious trends are wafting around the region, none of which factors would easily forgive such an act, even if it were to weaken Iran. Moreover, acquiescing to Israel’s attack would leave Saudi Arabia itself open to an Iranian retaliatory strike.

Certainly, some combination of, for example, Israeli submarine-launched missiles disabling parts of Iran’s air defences, some agreement could be made with, say, Saudi Arabia for unimpeded air passage, and Israel could indeed destroy numerous facilities in Iran. However, overall, it seems beyond the Israeli capability to launch a sustained campaign against Iran and one that could offer a high degree of certainty that critical facilities could be destroyed entirely.

Legally & Internationally

There is little debate that such an attack, without a resolution from the United Nations Security Council, would be wholly illegal.[8] The retort that it is an option of last resort – a pre-emptive attack – would find no legal favour. Indeed, nor is that surprising given the complete lack of proof that Iran will imminently obtain such weapons and then launch them immediately against Israel.

The notion of Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons and thereby assuring the sure destruction of its major cities in an assured nuclear retaliation by Israel is nothing less than preposterous, no matter what offensive and threatening quotes Ahmadinajad comes out with. Indeed, why people seem to distrust most things politicians say in the West but believe wholeheartedly whatever nonsense Ahmadinajad comes out with is baffling.

Consequences

One of the key lessons from the attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981 is that such a ‘pre-emptive’ attack may counter intuitively actually speed up a country’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons. Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence College and formerly of Harvard University, who has studied and written on the Osikark attack extensively, noted that before the attack ‘Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was both directionless and disorganized.’[9]

Subsequently, the evidence suggests, the regime became convinced of the need to vigorously and single-mindedly pursue such a weapon to the extent that, as the author of a 2005 study on the case notes, ‘the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion’ after the attack.[10]

One certainly needs to be cautious in pursuing policy by analogy, but there is little reason to think that an attack on Iran would not have the same consequences. While there is undoubted ambiguity at the moment as to whether Iran is actually trying to obtain weapons – remembering the 2003 US Intelligence Estimate but also the damning 2011 IAEA report – were Iran to be attacked, pursuance of an Iranian bomb would likely be a fervent, central goal of the Iranian regime for obvious existential security reasons.

Moreover, exactly as occurred in Iraq, the Iranian regime would likely be even more clandestine about their project, burying it further literally and metaphorically underground and away from international inspection. Certainly, it would be false to say that Iran is compliant with international regulations at present, but ceteris paribus they could be much worse.

Indeed, the notion that such an attack would – at best – only set back the programme, should it exist, is powerful. Former Vice-Chairman of the America Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright noted that the intellectual capital would remain even if the facilities were destroyed and
‘they’d just build it back.’[11]

The more direct consequences of an Israeli strike are potentially harrowing. From the potential radioactive fallout wafting across the Gulf to population centres or to the oil fields in eastern Arabia to the thousands of casualties incumbent in any such large-scale attack, the human cost would be high. Internally, the Iranian regime, which has still not recovered from the 2009 election fiasco in which it was widely discredited, would be galvanised in power for the Iranians have their own version of the Israeli mantra of keshe’yorim shotkim (‘silence when shooting’).

Iran would clearly retaliate. Though Hamas has distanced itself from an automatic retaliation, Hezbollah in Lebanon would surely launch a barrage of rockets into Israel. Indeed, the commonly held notion is that there are 200,000 missiles aimed at Israel at any one time.[12] Iranian agents abroad – as incapable as they seem to be at times – may well target Israelis or Western targets; Iran would likely seek to close down the Strait of Hormuz, potentially spiralling the conflict significantly wider; or if Iran feels that America was complicit, it could retaliate against US bases in the Gulf, hitting Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, and Kuwait.

The key corollary of all of these events and a certainty no matter the Iranian retaliation is a prodigious oil price spike, a profound shock for the teetering global economy, and the spectre of recession or depression as a direct economic consequence. Such scenarios are hardly scaremongering, not even unlikely; indeed, for the afore mentioned consequences, it is but a matter of degree.

Experts

Taking all these issues into consideration have been a raft of high-level military and governmental officials from both America and Israel.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has echoed many of the above conclusions, specifically arguing that attacking Iran would:

‘simply delay it [obtaining a bomb]…Of greater concern…are the unintended consequences, which would be that ultimately it would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now…would suddenly be able to re-establish itself…able to get support in the region, and …instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah.”[13]

Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the CIA, bluntly noted that ‘airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear program were “beyond the capacity” of Israel’.[14] He continued to note that overall the Israelis ‘only have the ability to make this worse.’[15] Admiral William Fallon, former commander of US Central Command, suggested that ‘No one I am aware of thinks that there is a positive outcome from a military strike’[16] while General Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that a strike against Iran was ‘premature’.[17]

Former Mossad Chief of nine years, Meir Dagan, has spoken out on several occasions on this topic, offering a logical, educated, and damning case for the attack on Iran,[18] but more recently plainly summed up the notion as ‘a stupid idea’. [19] Another former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy cautioned that a strike could be devastating for the Middle East for a century and that Iran is ‘far from posing an existential threat to Israel’, refuting one of Netanyahu’s fundamental arguments.[20] Former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Lt-Gen Amnon Lipkin-Shahak repudiated what may seem to be received wisdom noting that ‘it is quite clear that much if not all of the IDF…leadership do not support military action at this point.’[21]

A plurality of opinions

Certainly, there are several other high-level officials who argue the opposite. But at the very least the fact that the US Secretary of Defence, several high-ranking intelligence and military officials,  and two former Mossad Directors appear to have serious and rational concerns over the viability and the sense of an Israeli attack on Iran, is a serious cause for concern. These non-political actors, without an obvious political axe to grind [though one may cast aspersions at Meir Dagan] and aware of the intelligence that most are not privy to, pour scorn on many of the key arguments of those proposing or seeking such an action. Also, lest one forget, none are running for elected position in the foreseeable future.

This plurality of opinion and the profoundly concerning history of those adamant that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in two, three or five years time, means that the case for Israel attacking Iran is less than certain, while an examination of the technical possibilities questions whether such an attack is even possible. And surely if one is engaging in such a policy with such profound implications, it would seem to be sensible if not mandatory that a high burden of proof is required. As yet there is – unequivocally – no such consensus.


[1] Ewen MacAskill, ‘Iran nears nuclear ‘point of no return’ The Guardian (27 January 2005)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jan/27/politics.iran

[2] Angus Hohenboken, Iran will soon post N-threat, says Israel’ The Australian (31 January 2009)  http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/israel-iran-will-soon-pose-n-threat/story-e6frg6tx-1111118716317

[3] An excellent round of these dates can be found in Christian Science Monitor. Scott Peterson, ‘Imminenet Iran nuclear threat? I timeline of warnings since 1979’ Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/1108/Imminent-Iran-nuclear-threat-A-timeline-of-warnings-since-1979/Earliest-warnings-1979-84

[4] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/1108/Imminent-Iran-nuclear-threat-A-timeline-of-warnings-since-1979/Israel-s-one-year-timeframe-disproved-2010-11

[5] Eric Margolis, ‘A radioactive situation’ The National Interest (24 February 2012)  http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/radioactive-situation-6566

[6] Eli Lake ‘Inside Obama’s Israel bomb sale’ Newsweek (25 September 2011) http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/09/25/obama-arms-israel.html

[7] Tony Capaccio, B-2 bomber gets Boeing’s new 30,000 pound bunker buster bomb’ Bloomberg (15 November 2011) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-14/30-000-pound-bunker-buster-bomb-now-ready.html

[8] Bruce Ackerman, ‘The legal case against attacking Iran’ Los Angeles Times  (5 March 2012) (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-ackerman-attacking-iran-would-be-illegal-20120305,0,4429323.story

[9] Quoted in Colin Kahl, ‘Before attacking Iran, Israel should learn from its 1981 strike on Iraq’ The Washington Post  (2 March 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/an-israeli-attack-against-iran-would-backfire–just-like-israels-1981-strike-on-iraq/2012/02/28/gIQATOMFnR_story.html

[10] http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/an-israeli-attack-against-iran-would-backfire–just-like-israels-1981-strike-on-iraq/2012/02/28/gIQATOMFnR_story_2.html

[11] Geoff Dyer, ‘Israel faces resistance over Iran strike’ The Financial Times (28 February 2012) http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd386d8e-6161-11e1-8a8e-00144feabdc0.html

[12] Amos Harel, ‘Some 200,000 missiles aimed consistently at Israel, top IDF officer says’ Haaretz (2 February 2012) http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/some-200-000-missiles-aimed-consistently-at-israel-top-idf-officer-says-1.410584

[13] Remarks by Secretary of Defence Leon E Panetta at the Saban Centre US Department of Defence (News Transcript) 2 December 2011  http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4937

[14] Elizabeth Bulmiller, ‘Iran raid seen as a huge task for Israeli jets’ New York Times (19 February 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/world/middleeast/iran-raid-seen-as-complex-task-for-israeli-military.html?ref=elisabethbumiller

[15] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd386d8e-6161-11e1-8a8e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1oWtKPOHn

[16] Patrick Buchanan ‘Will Bibi break Obama?’ CNS News (2 March 2012) http://cnsnews.com/node/519217

[17] http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd386d8e-6161-11e1-8a8e-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1oWtKPOHn

[18] Amos Harel, ‘Former Mossad chief: Israeli attack on Iran must be stopped to avert catastrophe’ Haaretz(1 December 2011) http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/former-mossad-chief-israeli-attack-on-iran-must-be-stopped-to-avert-catastrophe-1.399046

[19] Isabel Kershner, ‘Israeli strike on Iran would be ‘stupid’, ex-spy chief says New York Times (8 May 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/world/middleeast/09israel.html

[20] Yoav Zitun, ‘Iran far from posing existential threat’ Y Net News (11 April 2011)  http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4143909,00.html

[21] ‘Israel’s military leaders warm against Iran attack’ The Independent (2 February 2012) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israels-military-leaders-warn-against-iran-attack-6298102.html?printService=print

Santorum or Ayatollah Khamenei? 1, March 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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The ever interesting ForeignPolicy.com has just the most super article at present; a wee guessing game for you all to try to work out who said what: the GOP’s gift to the Democrats Rick Santorum or Iran’s holy keeper of the flame, Ayatollah Khamenei?

1. “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth.”

2. “We believe in democracy and we also believe in freedom, but we do not believe in liberal democracy.”

3. “Although the literal meaning of socialism is equitable distribution of wealth, it is associated with other concepts which we hate. Over time, socialism has come to be associated with certain things in society that are unacceptable to us.”

4. “The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.”

5. “This is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war. This is a spiritual war.”

6. “This is a war between two willpowers: the willpower of the people and the willpower of their enemies.”

7. “Go back and read what the sirens did once you arrived on that island.… They devour you. They destroy you. They consume you.”

8. “The American people’s hatred for Iran is profound.” Oh wait, we got that one backward. Sorry. It should read:

8. “The Iranian people’s hatred for America is profound.”

 

Answer 1: Santorum, Answer 2: Khamenei, Answer 3: Khamenei, Answer 4: Santorum, Answer 5: Santorum, Answer 6: Khamenei, Answer 7: Santorum, Answer 8: Khamenei

 

Iran’s oil exports map 15, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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Here’s a quick and easy map from CNN showing where Iran sends its oil. I’d be more impressed, though, if it showed what percentage of oil Iran’s sales made in the countries in question.

Hat tip: ScottLucasUK

 

 

 

 

KSA and the Iranian Scientists 12, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia.
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A couple of times recently I’ve been somewhat annoyed with myself for not thinking outside the box. Last night at a lecture by James Piscatori, he quoted someone coining the phrase ‘internal sovereignty’ referring to the place of Islam in society in much of the Middle East. What a wonderful phrase. But why didn’t I think of it? I’ve been reading and writing about sovereignty and the Middle East for years in one form or another yet this notion never occurred to me.

Again today, the superb Times columnist David Aaronovitch asked why no one seemed to be suggesting that perhaps Saudi security services might seek to bump-off Iranian nuclear scientists. What a good point. I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s an excellent point that I feel I ought to have thought up myself. But c’est la vie.

The underlying principle that KSA would want to disrupt Iran’s presumed acquisition of nuclear technology is, of course, sound. Reality aside, KSA’s elite believe that any such change would immeasurably damage their  interests. Indeed, if Iran were to pass the threshold it seems to me a virtual guarantee that Saudi Arabia would buy a bomb ‘off the shelf’ from Pakistan, probably holding it as Israel does: making sure everyone knows they have it, but not announcing it.

However, I am sceptical as to whether in reality KSA security services could launch such an attack.

Like most Gulf States, KSA has outsourced its security to America. This has several key corollaries.

Primarily, this means that there is little pressure on KSA’s defensive forces to actually be good at what they do. This report, though old and referring to the GCC Peninsula Shield, highlights some of the typical problems that befall much of KSA’s armed forces. Problems of communication, motivation and discipline within the armed forces are legion. Indeed, when KSA sent its forces to attack the rag-tag Houthis in 2009-10, they were embarrassingly routed despite decades of expensive military acquisitions.

The key question is whether this attitude has spread to the security services too. Here – I confess – I am in two minds. For certainly KSA security services have reportedly become really rather efficient in recent years, particularly domestically. The Al Qaeda threat which rocked the Kingdom from 2004 onwards has been all but eradicated and the elite’s grip on domestic security appears to be strong.

Yet at the same time there are egregious examples of crass errors and a profound lack of professionalism. One might suspect that at the height of Al Qaeda attacks and at the world’s largest oil processing plant, security would be professional and competent; yet though Abqaiq’s central facilities were not breached in 2006 and the attackers were stopped by security measures, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef subsequently said ‘we did not save Abqaiq; God did’. Hardly a ringing endorsement of KSA’s facility security. Moreover, US wikileak documents are replete with Saudi officials scrabbling to get US help to assuage their various security vulnerabilities. One’s conclusion must be that a direct and real threat is not enough to guarantee meaningful speed and professionalism of action.

Aside from such rationalisation, after having lived, studied and worked in this region for many years now, the notion of the Saudi security agency (the General Intelligence Presidency, for example) meticulously researching, rehearsing, planning and executing such a risky, dangerous and deft mission just seems highly unlikely. Never have I come across any snippet, source or story indicating that Saudi’s security agencies have attempted something like this before or would be capable of doing so. Obviously, this is not to say categorically that they did not, but to note that such an action would be wholly out of character and involve far more subtle and professional skill than is typically ascribed to such organisations.

Lastly, factors such as the proximity between Saudi and Iran, the very real risks that the operation could have gone wrong and the innate conservatism at play within the Kingdom suggest again that KSA was not behind such an action. The potential repercussions were Saudi found to be plotting such an operation are immense and would surely have found ill-favor with the geriatrics running KSA.

 

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