The last thing the world needs at a moment of significant trade tensions between the United States and China is a Middle East crisis that would further imperil global growth.
Yet this is what is threatening in the Persian Gulf, where the US and its Arab allies are edging towards a showdown with Iran in a contested waterway through which 20% of the world’s tradeable oil passes daily.
In coordination with its Arab allies, notably Saudi Arabia, and with Israel, the US is ratcheting up pressure on Iran to wind back its support for what it terms “bad actors” in the region.
This includes Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, radical groups in the Palestinian territories, including Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and disaffected anti-regime elements in the Gulf.
While the US denies it is seeking to bring about regime change in Iran, this clearly is its hope.
Conflict is not inevitable, but risks are elevated by combative talk – and actions – from a Washington that seems bent on engaging in the sort of brinkmanship that threatens more serious conflict in a region already on edge.
Is a war coming between the US and Iran?
Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and B-52 bombers in the Gulf region is amplifying concerns.
President Donald Trump is not helping; to the contrary.
On one hand, he invites Iran’s leaders to talk. On the other, he warns of that country’s annihilation.
This sort of bombast, the antithesis of wielding a big stick and talking softly, coincides with tightening US sanctions that are doing significant damage to Iran’s economy.
These measures include sanctions imposed this month on Iran’s industrial metals sector. This sector accounts for about 10% of its export economy.
How Tehran responds to these harsh assaults on its economic lifelines is anyone’s guess, but what is certain is that its response will not be passive.
Already this month we have witnessed two sets of terrorist attacks on Gulf oil interests Iran, or its proxies, are blamed for an assault on four ships in which explosives damaged the hulls. Two of these vessels are Saudi-owned. In the second, Iran proxies are blamed for drone strikes on a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline.
In response to terrorist threats to its eastern oil-rich provinces, Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media have begun calling for “surgical strikes” against Iranian interests.
Such action would provoke a wider conflagration.
What tends to be overlooked in all of this is the ease with which Iran, on a previous occasion, stifled oil shipments from the Gulf.
In 1984, Iran was widely believed to have been responsible for rolling second world war mines into Gulf waterways in the so-called “tanker war” with Iraq. This destroyed several vessels and brought tanker traffic to a halt for weeks.
Adding to jitters are recent reports that a Katyusha rocket fell near the American embassy in central Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias, with their strongholds across the Tigris River in the east of the city, are suspected of launching the rocket.
Washington had already ordered non-essential US personnel out of Baghdad. Oil giant ExxonMobil has begun moving employees out of the region. The US has warned commercial air traffic of increased risks in the Gulf.
This is a movie we have seen before, in the first Gulf War and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iran proved to be a significant beneficiary of the chaos that resulted from a destabilisation of the Middle East following the US-led invasion.
None of this is contributing to a stable oil market, on which the global economy rests.
On top of punitive sanctions against Iran, sanctions on Venezuela and disruptions in Libya caused by a civil war have unsettled markets.
Dramatic cuts in Iran’s oil shipments due to US-imposed sanctions followed Washington’s withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aimed at forestalling Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Until sanctions started to bite, Iran was the second-largest exporter among Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), behind Saudi Arabia. At their peak, Iranian exports were about 3 million barrels a day.
That number has now slid to 500,000 barrels or less, according to oil market analysts. But in its attempts to skirt US sanctions, Iran is no longer reporting production to OPEC and is not providing definitive information on exports.
As things stand, US sanctions are being adhered to by most importers of Iranian crude, with the likely exceptions being China and India. The US removed waivers on countries accepting Iran’s oil in November after withdrawing from the JCPOA in May 2018.
The 2015 agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration in partnership with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, froze Iran’s nuclear program for 15 years. The agreement was designed to provide an opportunity for the West to take counter-measures in case Iran upscaled its production of fissionable material.
By withdrawing from the JCPOA without a fallback position beyond punitive sanctions and threats of military action, the US has separated itself from its allies and left itself few options beyond further sanctions – or military threats.
That is, unless Trump’s offers of direct negotiations with Iran’s leaders bear fruit. At this stage, a tense standoff in the world’s most volatile region is not only dangerous, it could have been avoided by the US adhering to an agreement that was far from perfect, but better than the alternative.
That alternative is estrangement from its allies on Iran, and now real risks of a further security deterioration in the volatile Gulf.
Philip Gordon, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, summed up the dilemma for US policy and that of its allies rendered anxious by risks of adventurism in the Gulf in pursuit of an American goal of regime change in Tehran. He wrote that barring something extraordinary such as the collapse of the Iranian regime,
It’s hard to see how this current conflict could end without the United States backing down or with a further and very dangerous escalation. The Trump administration should have considered all this before it walked away from the nuclear deal in the first place.
Looking back on events 25 years ago, when the Oslo Accords were struck on the White House lawn, it is hard to avoid a painful memory.
I was watching from a sickbed in Jerusalem when Bill Clinton stood between Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for that famous handshake on the White House lawn.
At that moment, I was recovering from plastic surgery carried out by a skilled Israeli surgeon and necessitated by a bullet wound inflicted by the Israeli Defence Forces. (I had been caught in crossfire while covering a demonstration in the West Bank by stone-throwing Palestinian youths.)
That scar – like a tattoo – is a reminder of a time when it seemed just possible Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians could bring themselves to reach an historic compromise.
All these years later, prospects of real progress towards peace, or as American president Donald Trump puts it, the “deal of the century”, seems further away than ever.
As a correspondent in the Middle East for a decade (1984-1993) and as co-author of a biography of Arafat, I had an understandable interest in the outcome of the Oslo process.
In hours of conversations with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s historical leadership, I had tracked the PLO’s faltering progression from outright rejection of Israel’s right to exist to acceptance implicit in the Oslo Accords.
Throughout that process of interviewing and cross-referencing with Israeli sources, I had hoped an honourable divorce could be achieved between decades-long adversaries. Like many, I was disappointed.
In 1993, the so-called Oslo Accords, negotiated in secret outside the Norwegian capital, resulted in mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. This enabled the beginning of face-to-face peace negotiations.
Two years after the historic events at the White House, and by then correspondent in Beijing, I witnessed another episode of lasting and, as it turned out, tragic consequences for the Middle East.
On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated while attending a political rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish fanatic opposed to compromise with the Palestinians.
That devastating moment brought to power for the first time the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has distinguished himself by his unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the Palestinians through four US administrations: those of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump.
Some argue the Palestinians and their enfeebled leadership bear significant responsibility for peace process paralysis. That viewpoint is valid, up to a point. But it is also the case that Netanyahu’s replacement of Rabin stifled momentum.
Under Trump, Netanyahu finds himself under no pressure to concede ground in negotiations, or even negotiate at all. Indeed, the administration seems intent on further marginalising a Palestinian national movement, even as settlement construction in the occupied areas continues apace.
On the eve of the accords, there were 110,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That number has grown to 430,000 today. In 2017, those numbers grew by 20% more than the average for previous years.
The Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem without making a distinction between Jewish West or Arab East Jerusalem could hardly have been more antagonistic.
By taking this action, and not making it clear that East Jerusalem as a future capital of a putative Palestinian state would not be compromised, the administration has thumbed its nose at legitimate Palestinian aspirations.
The administration’s follow-up moves to strip funding for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) and assistance to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem have further soured the atmosphere.
UNWRA is responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. These are the ongoing casualties of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence against the Arabs.
In this context, it is interesting to note that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, has urged that refugee status be denied Palestinians and their offspring displaced by the war of 1948.
In that year, two-thirds, or about 750,000 residents of what had been Palestine under a British mandate became refugees.
Against this background and years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, including two major wars – the Six-Day War of 1967 and Yom Kippur War of 1973 – the two sides had in 1993 reached what was then described as an historic compromise.
What needs to be understood about Oslo is that its two documents, signed by Rabin and Arafat, did not go further than mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO in the first, and, in the second, a declaration of principles laying down an agenda for the negotiation of Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories.
What Oslo did not do was provide a detailed road-map for final status negotiations, which were to be completed within five years. This would deal with the vexed issues of refugees, Jerusalem, demilitarisation of the Palestinian areas in the event of a two-state settlement, and anything but an implied acknowledgement of territorial compromise, including land swaps, that would be needed to bring about a lasting agreement.
Writing in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1994, Oxford professor Avi Shlaim described the White House handshake as:
one of the most momentous events in the 20th-century history of the Middle East. In one stunning move, the two leaders redrew the geopolitical map of the entire region.
Now emeritus professor, Shlaim’s own hopes, along with those of many others, that genuine compromise was possible, have been dashed.
Referring to the recent passage through the Knesset of a “basic law” that declares Israel to be “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, Shlaim recently observed:
This law stands in complete contradiction to the 1948 declaration of independence, which recognizes the full equality of all the state’s citizens ‘without distinction of religion, race or sex’… Netanyahu has radically reconfigured Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, rather than a Jewish and a democratic state. As long as the government that introduced this law stays in power, any voluntary agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will remain largely a pipe dream.
Martin Indyk, now en route to the Council on Foreign Relations from the Brookings Institution, shared Shlaim’s hopes of an “historic turning point’’ in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As Clinton’s National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, Indyk was responsible for the 1993 arrangements on the White House South Lawn. He writes:
The handshake was meant to signify the moment when Israeli and Palestinian leaders decided to begin the process of ending their bloody conflict and resolving their differences at the negotiating table.
Two decades later, in 2014, the funeral rites were pronounced on the Oslo Process after then Secretary of State John Kerry had done all he could to revive it against Netanyahu’s obduracy. Oslo had, in any case, been on life support since Rabin’s assassination.
“Then,” in Indyk’s words, “along came Trump with “the Deal of the Century”. Indyk writes:
His plan has yet to be revealed but its purpose appears clear – to legitimize the status quo and call it peace. Trump has already attempted to arbitrate every one of the final status issues in Israel’s favor: no capital in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians; no ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees; no evacuation of outlying settlements; no ’67 lines; no end of occupation; and no Palestinian state…
Over 25 years, in shifting roles from witness to midwife, to arbiter, the United States has sadly failed to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace, leaving them for the time being in what has essentially been a frozen conflict.
However, as history shows, “frozen conflicts” don’t remain frozen forever. They tend to erupt when least expected.
Twenty-five years ago, I shared a bloody hospital casualty station – not unlike a scene from M.A.S.H. – with more than a dozen wounded Palestinians. Some of them would not recover from terrible wounds inflicted by live ammunition.
I asked myself then, as I do now: what’s the point of it all?
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the incumbent president and main political actor in Turkish politics for the last 16 years, has won yet another election with a majority vote of 52%.
The election was held in the climate of a two-year state of emergency, Erdogan’s considerable weight on Turkish media, and his ruling party’s dominance of the election process. This was no ordinary election and will have historic ramifications for Turkey, its relations with the West and the Middle East.
The election has put in effect the terms of 2016 constitutional changes and ended the fragile Turkish parliamentary democracy that has been in place since 1950. As of June 24, Turkey has ventured into a democratic league of its own.
In the new executive presidential regime, there will be elections and multiple political parties. Once elected, though, the system unifies powers in one person, the president, rather than enforcing the all-important principle of separation of powers in a liberal democracy.
Erdogan will form the government by appointing ministers from inside or outside the parliament. His presidential decrees will be equal to legislation. As the leader of the ruling AKP party, he will hold the majority vote in the parliament – in effect, he will control the legislative branch.
Erdogan will appoint half of the top council, which appoints judges and prosecutors. The other half will be appointed by the parliament he controls. He will have sweeping powers to abolish the parliament and declare a state of emergency any time.
The new constitution stipulates two five-year terms. If an early election is called during the second term, the incumbent president can be nominated for a third term. This means Erdogan could possibly be in power until 2034.
Erdogan wins elections with an Islamo-nationalistic populism that is a cross between Trump and Putin. Like Trump, he promises to make Turkey great again as a global economic and political power, reviving the past glories of the Ottoman Empire.
Similar to Putin, Erdogan follows a confrontational approach in foreign policy, takes bold military steps in Syria and rallying the population behind him in a nationalistic fervour.
The key lies in Erdogan’s almost absolute control of the Turkish media. This not only raises questions about the fairness of elections in Turkey, but also explains the diffusion of a powerful narrative behind Erdogan’s political success.
The formula is simple: undertake large-scale road, bridge and airport building projects and launch them with media fanfare. This makes even the reluctant supporters say about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), “they are corrupt, but they also work”.
Secondly, anything that goes wrong in Turkey is explained as a Western conspiracy. If rating agencies drop Turkey’s credit rating, it is not because of poor economic and political policies controlled by Erdogan for the last 16 years. Rather, it is explained as Western subversion to undermine the Turkish economic success.
A case in point in illustrating the appeal of the Erdogan narrative is the Dirilis (Revival), a state-funded television series that narrates the foundational story of the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century.
The hero of the series, Ertugrul Bey, father of the founder Osman Bey, often clashes and wins against Byzantine and Crusader forces who are determined to pillage Muslim land and kill innocent Muslim populations. It is the Muslim version of Games of Thrones, watched by millions around the world.
Many see Erdogan as the modern-day personification of Ertugrul Bey, fighting imperialistic forces against all odds to revive Islamic civilisation and become a voice for oppressed Muslims around the world.
His supporters are convinced Erdogan is the greatest leader in Turkish history, one who would make Turkey a world power and bring back pride for Turks and all Muslims. The narrative is intoxicatingly attractive to traditionally religious Turks and masses of Muslims around the world.
This sets the scene for what to expect in Turkey-West relations. The West, the European Union and the US are the antagonists in Erdogan’s narrative, and will continue to be so. He is not likely to mend relations with the EU, let alone make the necessary reforms to gain EU membership.
Aiming to have a growing influence in the Middle East, Erdogan will intensify his relationship with Russia over Syria. Putin will use Turkey to undermine the NATO alliance. This will further stretch EU-Turkey relations, which are already in tatters over the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.
Erdogan’s dilemma is that the EU is Turkey’s largest economic partner and he needs funding from Western banks to service Turkey’s growing USD$450 billion foreign debt. This is increasingly worrying Turkish businesses.
During his election campaign, Erdogan travelled to the US and UK to convince lenders and business investors to continue to fund the Turkish government and economy. Erdogan is likely to play out a love-hate relationship with the West.
While Erdogan has no qualms about resorting to anti-Western rhetoric, his supporters forget that it was the same West that hailed Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership as a new hope in the post-9/11 world. Turkey was portrayed as a leader and a model for the Muslim world, where Islam and liberal democracy could harmoniously co-exist.
Turkey could show the world it was possible to stay true to Islamic values and identity while being a first-grade democracy with freedoms and affluence. Other Middle Eastern countries would follow the Turkish success, rising above the seemingly perpetual political turmoil, social discord, economic ruin and inevitable suffering of ordinary Muslim people.
But, 16 years on, Turkey has become just another typical Middle Eastern country.
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