Saturday, July 25, 2015

A question of US energy independence

What would happen if and when America becomes energy independent in the next decade or so? Would Washington escalate its pivot to Asia and place less emphasis on relations in the Middle East? How would such an outcome affect the region? Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?

These questions were put to me after my last article. I attempt to answer them here.

Energy independence
The first answer is that American energy independence would not significantly change American interests in the Middle East. America did not guarantee the security of its allies in the Middle East for the last four to six decades to secure oil for America. Rather, America did this to secure oil for the world. American security guarantees are designed to allow energy resources to flow from the Middle East and—importantly—arrive safely in far off destinations (including the ports of its economic competitors).

Were America not to use its global maritime dominance to guarantee the safety of oil leaving the Persian Gulf and arriving in Tokyo, for instance, then Japan would develop a blue water navy for this purpose. And that would make Japan’s neighbours nervous, who would further develop their own defences, and so on.

All this means that if the ‘shale oil revolution’ means America no longer has to import even a single barrel of oil from anywhere, it and the world will still look to America to guarantee the safe passage of oil from the Middle East to foreign ports.

The pivot to Asia
The pivot to Asia was announced at a time when the Middle East was relatively stable. American forces had tamed Iraq and Iran was relatively weak. Since that time, the Arab Spring erupted and produced a revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Libya, a few wobbles in the Arab monarchies and, most devastatingly, a civil war in Syria. Iraq has also gone to pieces.

These developments have not prevented a disengagement, of sorts by America from the Middle East. But I think this is more a function of what appears to be a two-pronged Obama Doctrine than a pivot to Asia. I have previously written about the Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don't do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby cause a change in their behaviour to become more compliant.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

Thus, and entirely separate to the bloody events of the Arab Spring, the US has purposefully taken its foot from Iran’s neck. However, there is little evidence that America’s extended hand has resulted in an unclenched Iranian fist. Iran continues the same regional policies that caused it to become a pariah in the first place, with the exception that it’s now a legitimate nuclear threshold state instead of an illegal nuclear threshold state.

The problem for the Obama Doctrine, is that while it might work well on paper, the results on the ground are that the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies.

How does the American pull-back affect the region?
It would appear that the main outcome of the Obama Doctrine and the apparent American pull-back from the Middle East is a new awareness among all players that locals (or other interested parties) will have to get their hands dirty—America is no longer coming in to save the day. That’s why the Saudis have so heavily bankrolled what amounts to a military dictatorship in Egypt since the counter-revolution overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Sisi Government. It’s why the Saudis organised a coalition to bomb the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen. And it’s why the Saudis have so heavily backed the Sunni Islamist groups in Syria that are fighting both Islamic State and the Iranian-aligned Syrian Government. After decades of not having to take any responsibility for the region, the Arab world’s leadership is now beginning to do so. But the problem is, it is still unprepared to do so and will take some time to learn the ropes.

In the meantime, Iran is very well organised, and will also benefit from the US distancing itself. This is especially the case since, as above, Iran’s maleficent regional policies (of arming, funding and supporting proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen) didn’t change during the nuclear negotiations and haven’t changed since the deal was signed. And even more so since the West will be so keen to have the nuclear deal work that it will not seriously challenge Iran on these regional policies (to be clear, I totally reject the arguments that now that America has signed the nuclear deal, it can and will go hard against Iran’s other nasty efforts).

All this means that Iran will be emboldened by the fact that the US is distancing itself from the region and its enemies in Riyadh are too unorganised to effectively balance Teheran. Expect Iran to push the envelope in the coming months to see if my theory is correct!

Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?
There will likely never be a formal Saudi–Israeli rapprochement, even in the face of a rising Iran (unless, of course, a peaceful, viable Palestinian state is created and the Saudis establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. This is a possibility but, in the short- to medium-term, at least, unlikely). However, unofficial contacts have been ongoing for many years and will only be strengthened as America pulls back. Others are more optimistic than me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Does the Iran nuclear deal advance or undermine US and Western interests?

The P5+1 and Iran
Tom Switzer in the Weekend Australian paraphrased Lord Palmerston’s “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…” Switzer was writing that the recent Iran deal is a good thing, and might change the Middle East for the better.

While I disagree with parts of Switzer’s analysis, the Palmerston quote made me put aside my instinctive reactions about the nuclear deal and analyse it in light of Western and, principally, US interests.

I have previously written that American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

The wider West, which is far less loyal to Israel than the US, has only one principal interest: the continued flow of energy sources. Secondary interests, such as regional stability, help further the primary interest. There are also subordinate interests, such as human rights and the development of democratic mechanisms.

As a result of the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA,) UN sanctions against Iran will be dropped. Countries, such as Australia, that have autonomous (that is, additional) sanctions against Iran will likely also quickly drop these. This will allow Iran’s massive oil and fuel deposits to be better developed and exported. On the surface, interest achieved!

But there are ramifications. Iran is engaged in a region-wide hegemonic struggle against the Sunni-dominated status quo, led by Saudi Arabia. This ‘Status Quo Bloc’ (which I have previously written about) consists of Arab countries with pro-Western dictatorial leaders who have long looked to the US for their security. That is to say, Iran is opposed to the US and is the enemy of the US’s client states in the region.

Iran has proxies or clients in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and has come to hold considerable influence—if not veto power—over those countries’ strategic decision-making. It was once, and is once again becoming a significant sponsor of Hamas. Iran has used Shi’ite militias to undermine Western interests in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, and is now reportedly aiding the Taliban to do the same in Afghanistan.

The massive injection of cash Iran will receive as a result of the JCPOA will significantly help it pursue its regional agenda. It will use this money to consolidate its hold on Baghdad and could use it to foment trouble in the Shi’ite-populated, oil-rich parts of Saudi Arabia. That is, Iran will use the benefits of the JCPOA to harm US interests.

This is all conjecture, of course (based on Iranian statements and Iranian precedent). Perhaps an Iranian-dominated Iraq will become stable, better run and able to export much more oil than the current mess (which is, in large part, the result of the West being blind to Iranian undermining efforts.)

The issue of trust
When considering interests, another factor to take into account is trust. There is now less trust of America in the region than there was 10 or 20 years ago.

In recent decades, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to view the US as their principal defender (and the US has made clear it is a partner in this understanding). However, from the moment negotiations with Iran were mooted, both Israel (very publicly) and the Saudis (behind the scenes) have strongly communicated that a nuclear Iran would be a danger to them and the region, and that any accommodation with Iran would both embolden Iran and pave the way nuclear weapons capability.

These increasingly strident warnings were ignored by the Obama Administration, because, in regards to the nuclear negotiations, the priority for the West and especially the US was for a deal to be signed. Far-reaching concessions were made to achieve that priority. (The priority for Iran was to maintain its nuclear infrastructure. It stuck to its guns and achieved its priority, at the cost of stalling its nuclear development by a few years at the most. It was a win-win deal because both sides achieved their priorities!)

In ignoring the warnings of its allies, the US will guide its allies (and not just in the Middle East) to the understanding that the US cannot be trusted. The US earned incredible trust around the world because it has been the guarantor of global stability since the end of the Second World War. It is this stability (particularly that which has allowed the extraction of oil and its transport across oceans) that has allowed the phenomenal growth in the global economy from which we have all benefitted.

However, like good reputations, trust is hard to obtain and relatively easy to lose. I’m sure Lord Palmerston would agree that having allies and enemies believe what you say is a permanent interest, but under Obama’s watch, this interest has been significantly eroded. To be clear, this decreasing trust did not spring from the July 2015 signing of the JCPOA. IT is a result of American mistakes in the Middle East that began with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (under Bush) but were significantly compounded by the Obama Administration since that time (such as when the US abandoned Egyptian President Mubarak and walked back from ‘red lines’ threats in regards to Syrian use of chemical weapons). This is especially the case in its relations with Iran.

There are three separate but linked ramifications of the US word no longer being worth what it once was in the Middle East. First, countries like Saudi Arabia do not believe that the US will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, and so are already looking to become nuclear themselves. Second, US allies are no longer absolutely convinced the US will protect them if their enemies attempt to undermine them, and so will be tempted to seek other friends. This lets Russia back into the Middle East, and potentially provides an open door to China, as well. Third, if US security guarantees are no longer thought rock-solid, parties might be more willing to pursues their interests violently. All three of these ramifications lead to a more dangerous region.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Tide Is Rising for the House of Saud's House of Sand

House of sand
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the principal actors in the Middle East's spreading Sunni-Shi’ite battle. The two have for the past decade been the respective heads of the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, but the competition between them was more Great Game than Game of Thrones. However, the related phenomena of the Syrian civil war spiralling out of control and the apparent US decision to pull back (note: not withdraw) from the Middle East has forced the Saudis to a realisation they need to be more hands-on.

Mostly, both parties act to empower proxies, much like the US and Soviets did during the Cold War. The problem for Western interests (because Western interests continue to lie with the Saudis) is that the Saudi product, with which it hopes to encourage proxies and the ‘Arab Street’, isn’t very good—Saudi Arabia is having trouble winning hearts and minds.

The message the Iranians are selling is:
  • Iran is the defender of Shi’ites
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Shi’ites and will either kill them (e.g. Islamic State, al-Qaeda), oppress them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can or wants to protect the Shi’ites, but Iran can supply Shi’ites with weapons and aid
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Shi’ites putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Shi’ites live (unless you live in Iran!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!
The message is easy to sell because most Shi’ites in the Middle East believe it. Indeed, cut out the Shi’ite-centric message, and it’s effectively the same message the various Sunni Islamist groups are selling:
  • We [name of group—e.g. al-qaeda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood] are the defender of the Sunnis
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Sunnis and will either kill them (e.g. rival groups), oppress them (e.g. every Arab government, plus Iran) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can protect Sunnis (some groups are able to promise arms)
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Sunnis putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Sunnis live (unless they live in areas under our control!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!
The problem for the Saudis (and, for that matter, every Status Quo Bloc member) is that they are corrupt and aligned with the US (which is, of course, aligned with—and widely seen as subservient to—Israel). The Saudis also back many of the other corrupt states in the region, including Egypt. Although they are the guardians of the two holy mosques (i.e. Mecca and Medina), they struggle to present themselves as representative of the true Islam. The various Salafi groups out there also present themselves as such but their message is easier to sell because it is much closer to the message of Muhammad. The Saudi message is entirely flawed because what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell is, essentially, hypocrisy.

To mollify their own Islamists, the Saudis have spent billions investing in Wahhabi religious education throughout the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, for several decades. The Middle East has become more devout—and more extreme—because of this.

There is little wonder that, faced with corrupt, basically secular political leaders, extremist Sunni Islamists felt they needed to take things into their own hands. Al-qaeda and the various militias that were organised after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 really started the process. But the Arab Spring and, particularly, the Syrian civil war let the cat out of the bag. And there’s no stuffing it back in now.

The problem for the Saudis is that unrestrained and popular Sunni Islamist movements are a real threat for the Saudi regime. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Islamic State will continue expanding southward until it overruns Riyadh, but that continuing successes of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East could sufficiently embolden Saudis to rise against their political masters.) The Saudis think that the way to resolve this problem is to have all manifestations of successful Islamist groups fail. That’s why Riyadh has been arming and funding groups in Syria that are opposed to both the regime there and Islamic State (for now, these groups are still under Saudi control, but I would expect that to change after a while). The Saudis have directly interfered in Yemen, in a badly-thought through attempt at defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. And they’ve been propping up the Egyptian military dictatorship in Egypt (which overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). Doing so is expensive, as Egypt is hopelessly corrupt, provides endless subsidies to its people, does not garner much tax from them and has no possibility of turning things round any time soon. Pouring money into an endless hole that is Egypt shows how much the Saudis want the Muslim Brotherhood to remain out of power. The Saudis have also tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) backed Israel in every war it has fought against Islamist movements Hezbollah and Hamas since 2006.

The Obama Doctrine and the rising tide
But it increasingly feels as if the Saudis are fighting the rising tide. To a certain extent, the US has realised this (consider President Obama’s April interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, where the former pointed out that the biggest threat to Saudi existence was lack of democracy within its borders).  That said, I don’t believe the US effectively abandoning the field, as it has been progressively doing during the Obama Administration, is a reflection of this realisation (were it so, it could only be described as Machiavellian strategic daring rarely seen in the real world). Rather, I think this US pull-back is part of the two-pronged Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don't do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby change in their behaviour into being more complying.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

While the Obama Doctrine might work well on paper, to those it affects, it feels as if the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies (especially since it is happening at the same time as the Middle East is aflame in violence). Iran has not been more conciliatory as a result of softening US policies. It continues to call for the destruction of the US and Israel; it continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment and to deny UN nuclear inspectors the right of entry to suspect sites; and it continues to aid proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As a reward for this behaviour, it appears to be on the brink of the US and international community removing many of the crippling international sanctions against it. These sanctions, I would add, were applied because of illegal Iranian behaviour which hasn’t actually changed.

Saudi Arabia is, indeed, panicked by US distancing. But its reaction isn’t to run, pleading, into American arms, promising all the while to undertake the internal democratic reform that Obama wants it to. Rather, it has been rolling up its sleeves and getting involved—by funding its own anti Syria, anti-Shi’ite and anti-ISIS proxies in Syria, by heading a coalition against Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, and by agreeing to buy nukes from Pakistan.

The Obama Doctrine feels as if it’s a decade too late; it might have worked when the Middle East was stable (even then, it probably wouldn’t have).

The tide is rising faster and faster
Were the Saudi product a good one, the implementation of the Obama Doctrine probably wouldn’t matter so much. The Saudis could have ridden out the two terms until Hilary Clinton arrives in the Oval Office (an early prediction!) without too much bother. But because the product the Saudis are selling is flawed, and because the Middle East is so unstable at the moment and, especially, because Iran is rising so quickly (with Western acquiescence), the tide will rise faster for the Saudis.

We will see more and more frenetic activity by the Saudis, and more and more money being thrown at unsolvable problems. But the Status Quo Bloc will become progressively weaker relative to Iran, and their respective governments progressively less legitimate in the eyes of their people, to the point where some of the stable countries that were not adversely affected by the Arab Spring might go under (quite possibly including Saudi Arabia itself).

The fact that the governments of Saudi Arabia and every other Arab country are endemically corrupt, with a near total lack of representation (and support the same throughout the Middle East), with the only people presenting a ‘solution’ being the Islamists (since secular democrats are both gaoled by the regime and discredited because secular democracy is seen as a trait of the hated/resented West) means there has always been an air of inevitability about the House of Saud’s house of sand crumbling from within.

I’m not blaming the Obama Doctrine for this approaching calamity, but it has certainly sped up the process.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Will Bishop be Iran's pawn?

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will be visiting Iran on 18 April. The visit comes in the wake of the nuclear framework deal initialed on 2 April. Australia did not have a role in the ‘P5+1’ team of negotiators, but will look to benefit from any positive outcomes of the ongoing negotiations, if and when a final agreement is signed at the end of June.

Like every other country, Australia seeks to advance its own interests. However, it ought to be mindful of the Middle East strategic equation, and not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term gains.

On Ms Bishop’s list of talking points will be Iranian asylum seekers, Islamic State, sanctions relief, business interests, and a mandatory, light wrist-slapping about human rights and Iran’s long-running policy of undermining regional countries through proxies.

There are a lot of Iranian asylum seekers in Australia or on Nauru and Manus Island. Most of them have been or likely will be judged as not being owed protection (i.e. as not being genuine refugees). When an individual has had their asylum seeker claim rejected, Australia can forcibly return them to their home country—but only if that home country is willing to accept them. Until now, Iran has refused to accept Iranians forcibly repatriated from Australia. And since most failed Iranian asylum seekers refuse to return voluntarily, this puts Australia in a bind. Ms Bishop’s priority in Iran will be to secure an agreement from Iran to receive failed Iranian asylum seekers from Australia.

With the prospect of UN sanctions against Iran being withdrawn, Ms Bishop will be seeking opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Iran (especially in its decrepit fossil fuel infrastructure), buy from Iran and sell (especially livestock) to Iran.

Both of these issues—though especially the first—put Australia in the position of supplicant. Iran will thus have considerable leverage over Bishop to push for what it wants. And what it wants is an end to its international isolation without having to pay the price of giving up its nuclear program or stopping its drive to achieve regional hegemony. In the context of the Australian visit, it will want Australia to praise Iran’s good intentions in the nuclear negotiations and in regional politics. It will want Australia to lean on its Western friends to accept Iranian assurances about its nuclear ambitions. And, of course, it will want Australia to drop or considerably lessen its own sanctions against Iran (which are separate and additional to the UN sanctions).

Will Bishop accede to some or all of these demands? The answer lies in the determination of whether Australia wants to return all those failed asylum seekers more than it wants to hold Iran to account for its actions (which don't directly affect Australia).

But the strategic equation is highly important. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has now repeatedly warned, it appears that the US has shifted its strategic objective of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capability to constraining that capability. This is a fundamental shift, and is already having considerable impact on the Middle East and, particularly, those countries that have looked to America to guarantee their security (and who are increasingly feeling like they're being hung out to dry).

Ms Bishop’s trip to Iran so soon after the framework deal means that Australia is playing a small but important role in the developing Middle East dynamic. How will history look upon this footnote?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Iran and the Arab press

Yemen (like this pic? I found it here)

I have written previously (most recently here) about how the Status Quo Bloc (which consists of most Sunni Arab countries) are fearful of Iranian intentions. Israel and its prime minister might be very vocal about Iran (perhaps too vocal, to its detriment), but they largely mimic the thoughts of the Status Quo Bloc.

The following reports - just from the month of March - by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) shows just how concerned the Arab countries are about Iran.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Iran, sanctions and the nuclear negotiations

Nuclear talks between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ are once again in the news, with the sides having initialled a framework agreement (with a final, more detailed agreement to be negotiated over the next three months). The complexity of these negotiations boils down to a Western desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and an Iranian desire to have the crippling sanctions against it removed.

As I have written previously, the West appears to want an agreement more than the Iranians, so seems willing to offer larger concessions. This is unfortunate, because the Iranian march toward nuclear weapons capability is bad for the region.

But there is a bigger picture here, and it remains that keeping the sanctions regime in place is more important for Western interests than reaching a deal—whatever its terms—that removes those sanctions.

Iran wants to exert its influence over the region. It supports, arms and trains regional Shi’ite or heterodox Muslim militias and countries (such as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Zaidi Houthis and the Allawite Syrian government) in order to advance Iranian interests. What are these interests? Principally, to undermine the countries of the Status Quo Bloc (and the US, which supports them).

Due to its efforts, Iran now possesses significant control and/or influence over four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. But there are other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations—not least Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which Iran could also use to destabilise its neighbours.

Israel’s position on the nuclear talks with Iran is well known. But Israel isn’t the story here. It remains that other Western friends in the Middle East see Iran as their principal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two leading Arab countries, and both see Iran—and, particularly, Iranian foreign policy—as a threat to their countries. Remember, the Middle East is divided into the Status Quo Bloc (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran). (There is also a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc, which both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc fear, hence the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian cooperation with the US in fighting Islamic State.)

While the Status Quo Bloc has long relied on American support, it sees current American policy as distancing itself from its Middle Eastern friends. It sees American willingness to agree to a nuclear deal well-short of original American goals not as a sign of the US pragmatically achieving what is possible, but proof that America wants to get out of the Middle East. This perception has the effect of undermining regional stability. Their thinking goes that if the West won’t protect the Status Quo countries, then those countries will have to protect themselves. On a very high level, it means they will look to start their own nuclear programs, to balance Iran. But it also means they will look to counter Iranian actions on the ground—hence the recent Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ recent takeover of Sana’a was seen in Arab capitals as a victory for Tehran.

The sanctions regime against Iran over the past few years has crippled the Islamic Republic economically (as has the current low price of oil), meaning Iran is increasingly having to choose between paying for services inside its borders or servicing its proxies in foreign wars.

Regardless of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, removing or lessening the sanctions against it will significantly improve the Iranian economy. Not only will Iran be able to export oil and other commodities, but foreign companies will be able to invest in Iran, and its banking sector will once again have access to international markets.

This will strengthen Iran and the Resistance Bloc, and further worry Iran’s enemies, adding to regional tension.

Sanctions are a tool used by the international community to force a country to change its behaviour. The Iranian attempts at nuclear weapons capability—which I believe will continue regardless of whatever deal is reached at the and of June—is not the problem, but only a symptom. The West should maintain a clear-eyed, strategic view of the region in the context of Western interests, to determine what it wants. I fear that, in its rush to sign a deal with Iran so as to notch up a foreign policy achievement, it is in the process of scoring a dangerous, strategic own goal of emboldening Iran and scaring the Status Quo Bloc, thereby further reducing regional stability.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Time as a factor affecting the big picture

We often think of time as more than a commodity; time can be a threat. And in the Middle East, time is used as a weapon to the detriment of the West.

Time can be perceived in different ways—objectively (by measuring its passage with a clock) and subjectively, where time slows down or speeds up, is precious or cheap, depending on one’s outlook and personal situation. For instance, two hours with friends seems to fly by, but a two-hour meeting can feel like an eternity.

Just as time can fly or lag, depending on circumstances, so can the importance of time change. Put bluntly, in negotiations or conflict, if a party believes that time is on their side, there is less pressure on them to reach a conclusion than the party who believes that time is against them. A party that believes time is against them will be willing to make concessions to conclude the process they're in, to ensure that the passage of time doesn’t make things worse.

It is therefore important to be the party with whom time rests. Put differently, it is important to make the other party believe that time is not on their side. In this way time can be weaponised. There are different ways to weaponise time. Broadly speaking, they fall to three categories: military, political/diplomatic and nature.

While there are many variations of this theme, if you can make your enemy believe that your overwhelming military power will create a major problem for them if they do not do something (or do not desist from doing something) by a certain date, then you will have made your enemy aware that time is not on their side.

If you can make your enemy aware that increasing numbers of third parties are against them and, for as long as your enemy maintains its current course of action, this trend will continue, then your enemy will gain the impression that time is not on their side.

While it is difficult to categorise with one word, if you can make your enemy aware that nature – be it in the form of demographics or climate change or the rising tide – will make it worse for them as time goes on, then their perceptions of what their options are will be duly affected.

With these things in mind, we can turn to the Middle East. The three issues in the Middle East that are currently attracting media attention are: the perennial Israeli–Palestinian dispute; the Iran nuclear negotiations; and Islamic State (the actual Syrian civil war, of which Islamic State is only one party, has seemingly fallen off the radar, to be replaced by videos of Islamic State barbarity).

In regards to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe that Israel is time-poor and that Palestinians have time on their side. This is for diplomatic and natural reasons. On diplomacy, the international community is increasingly critical of Israeli positions and increasingly accepting of Palestinian decisions. Opinion polls show the same trend among the general public in Western countries. These trends are reflected in growing diplomatic recognition of ‘Palestine’ and growing public support for boycotting Israel, despite the moral bankruptcy of doing so.

On nature, most Israelis and Palestinians believe that the ‘demographic threat’ of, within a few decades, there being more Arabs west of the Jordan River than Jews has the ability to considerably change the equation.

Because Israel believes that time is against it, it has made increasingly large offers to compromise in search of Israeli–Palestinian peace. Palestinians, on the other hand, have barely changed their negotiating positions since 1993. A long as everyone thinks time is against Israel, don't expect the Palestinian position to change.

Israel’s friends should want to change this time perception equation. They could do so by making Palestinians aware that the generous international aid it receives without (enforced) conditions will end by a certain date if Palestinians don't start acting responsibly in haste.

As to the Iran negotiations, the Islamic Republic is confident that time is on its side. Broadly speaking, it knows that the West (in particular, US President Obama) wants a negotiated outcome more than Iran does. So it can afford to wait, and obfuscate, and delay and otherwise keep on drawing out the negotiations so the Western offers come more and more palatable. The West occasionally rattles a sabre (‘no option is off the table’), but these are not considered credible by Iran. Were the West or Israel to make a credible military threat based on an unmovable deadline, Iran’s perception of the time up its sleeve might change dramatically. But this is unlikely to happen.

Countries like Saudi Arabia – which perceive Iran as a threat – also believe time is against them. That is why many are beginning their own nuclear programmes.

Islamic State is where one can see time on the side of the West (or, at least, against Islamic State). As I wrote previously, it is inevitable that Islamic State will recede with time. Indeed, these signs are already coming to pass. (That said, in Islamic State’s wake will be only chaos and ruin. This will likely be filled with another party or many parties squabbling over the right to rule—particularly the right to rule the oil fields in the areas Islamic State currently controls. Without a significant amount of money and US troops on the ground—neither of which will likely be made available—it is unlikely that conditions can be put in place that will allow for peace and security to be restored for the people of the area in the foreseeable future.)

As time goes on, things are becoming more difficult for the West’s Middle East allies. Time cannot be stopped, but perceptions of how much time one or the other side has can be changed. Unfortunately, neither the US nor the Europeans have the will to slow down the Middle East’s current trajectory toward further instability and conflict.