Forty years on from the Iranian Revolution, could the country be at risk of another one?



File 20190211 174880 1r6pcj5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The last four decades in Iran have been marked by internal tension due to its political system, which combines theocratic and republican elements.
from shutterstock.com

Naser Ghobadzadeh, Australian Catholic University

Iran’s ruling clergy are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution, during which Shi’ite Islamists, led by religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, toppled Mohammad Reza Shah’s secular monarchy.

The linchpin of the Islamic Republic’s political system is Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Wilayat-i Faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, which makes a Shia religious jurist the head of state. The jurist’s legitimacy to hold the most powerful position in the state is claimed to be based on divine sovereignty.

As its name suggests, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s current system combines theocratic and republican elements. The president and parliament are democratically elected, while the members of powerful institutions such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary are appointed by the Supreme Leader (Walī-yi Faqīh).

The Guardian Council oversees elections and the final approval of legislation. According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, all legislation, policies and programs must be consistent with the observance of Islamic principles.
The Guardian Council has a duty to monitor all legislative decisions and determine whether their implementation would cause a violation.




Read more:
World politics explainer: the Iranian Revolution


This unprecedented political system brought in four decades of internal conflict. The established Islamic Republic of Iran also ceased being a US ally and instead became an enemy. International sanctions, along with the clergy’s mismanagement and endemic corruption, have resulted in a dire economic situation. There is a strong fear the high unemployment and inflation rate will continue to rise.

Under these circumstances, there are now doubts the Islamic Republic can survive. And some wonder whether we may soon see another revolution. So, what is the situation in Iran 40 years after the Shah was overthrown and who is agitating for change?

Decades of unrest

After Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, a more conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, came to power and strengthened the theocracy.

The reformist movement emerged in the mid-1990s to counter the newly established conservative regime. They had little chance of gaining power through theocratic institutions, so they focused on the electoral side. They campaigned for women’s rights, democratic rule and a civil-military divide.

Reformists gained power twice: from 1997 to 2005 and from 2013 – with the election of the relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani – until now. In these years, reformists controlled electoral institutions such as the presidency and the parliament.

For decades, reformers have struggled to limit the power of theocratic institutions – while still broadly complying by the laws of the clergy, and the principles set in place by Khomeini – and expand the power of republican institutions. However, they were no match for the Khamenei-led resistance, and theocratic institutions are more powerful today than they were in the mid-1990s.

Iran has also continually had tense relations with the international community. In addition to eight years of war with Iraq, Iran has been under sanctions for almost all of the past four decades. These have been imposed by the US, the EU, and the United Nations over claims Iran breached its nuclear obligations.




Read more:
Why the Iran nuclear agreement is a deal worth honouring


Today, the Donald Trump-led US government is pursuing an extremely hostile approach to Iran. Crucially, the US has withdrawn from a nuclear deal negotiated with the Obama administration – under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program. The US has reapplied previous sanctions (which were lifted under the deal) and imposed new ones. Iranians are also the most affected of the Muslim majority countries included in Trump’s travel ban.

Reformists have made some progress towards easing economic hardship, loosening social control, and initiating a temporary easing of tensions with the outside community. But the parlous nature of the political structure empowers the theocrats to manipulate the system and stymie any reform effort that promises a path to democratisation.

Reformists or pro-regime opposition

The protests that swept Iran between December 2017 and January 2018 showed that many Iranians don’t consider the reformists capable of bringing about meaningful change. Protestors expressed their anger over increasing economic hardship, as well as Iran’s support and funding for foreign conflicts, namely the civil wars in Yemen and Syria. They also chanted slogans calling for an end to the rule of clerics.

Rampant corruption, the failure of Rouhani to fulfil his promises – such as boosting the economy, extending individual and political freedoms, ensuring equality for women and men, and easing access to the internet – and the return of sanctions have combined to shatter hope of reform. This has been expressed in global protests by the Iranian diaspora calling for a change to the government.

It seems unlikely the reformists will be able to maintain their positions in the country’s electoral institutions. The sad reality is that even if they have another chance, the result will only compound their failures.




Read more:
Why Iran’s protests matter this time


These circumstances have led to another stream of opposition – one agitating for a toppling of the Islamic Republic and regime change – gaining currency. Most members of this group are in exile, including Iran’s ex-prince and son of the Shah overthrown by the revolution, Reza Pahlavi.

But there is profound disagreement between the opposition groups in exile. Although they share a similar goal, they have consistently proven unable to agree on an overarching framework. The profound divisions among the groups has drained both their resources and intellectual capacity, which has rendered them incapable of contesting the country’s ruling clergy.

Those advocating for regime change have also been incapable of articulating a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic. All opposition groups overuse the abstract notion of “secular democracy” without clearly explaining what exactly they have in mind.

Pahlavi’s desire is reportedly not to put himself back on the throne, but to let the people decide what the political system would look like. He has said:

It’s not the form that matters, it’s the content; I believe Iran must be a secular, parliamentary democracy. The final form has to be decided by the people.

While this is a legitimate statement, figures like Pahlavi ought to offer viable alternatives that would help bring opposition groups together. Potential alternatives should also be structured to appeal to the masses, a considerable segment of whom have expressed disillusionment with the ideal of an Islamic state.

Opposition groups are absorbed in delegitimising the Islamic Republic, questioning the way the clergy run the country. In doing so, they forget the the people who have already expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the clergy.

The opposition needs to skilfully craft an alternative to the Islamic Republic and a comprehensive plan for the transition to democracy. Until an alternative political system is formulated and popularised, the opposition will remain impotent and unable to initiate a transformation in the country.

Of course, change is not impossible. A military confrontation with Israel or the US, the departure of 79-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei, or a spontaneous mass uprising could prove a game changer.The Conversation

Naser Ghobadzadeh, Senior lecturer, National School of Arts, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The Syrian war is not over, it’s just on a new trajectory: here’s what you need to know


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Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel will keep vying for power in Syria long after the US is gone.
from shutterstock.com

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.

Turkey’s role

Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The US and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control the area to the east of the Euphrates River.
Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.

But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.

Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”

US policy

Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.

Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.




Read more:
Further strikes on Syria unlikely – but Trump is always the wild card


Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.

Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.

Russia’s game

The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.

One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.

Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.

Russia’s strategy is to please Turkey, but only to the extent that it doesn’t threaten Assad’s hold on power in Syria.
from shutterstock.com

The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.

The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.

These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.

An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.

Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.

Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.

Islamic State

The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.

Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.

Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.

Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.




Read more:
James Mattis: what defence secretary’s resignation means for Syria, Afghanistan and NATO, as Trump leans in to Putin


IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.

Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.

The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran: Persecution News Update


The link below is to an article that reports on persecution news from Iran.

For more visit:
https://christiannews.net/2018/10/06/irans-judiciary-sentences-two-believers-for-affirming-basic-christian-doctrines/

Religious backlash loosens clerics’ grip on legacy of 1979 Iranian Revolution


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The 1979 Iranian revolution wasn’t purely Islamic but the clerics, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, made it so to consolidate their power.
BockoPix/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Naser Ghobadzadeh, Australian Catholic University

This article is part of the Revolutions and Counter Revolutions series, curated by Democracy Futures as a joint global initiative between the Sydney Democracy Network and The Conversation. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


With Iran’s ruling clergy already preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it may be too late to question whether or not the revolution was in fact Islamic. What we can do, at least, is explore the revolution’s degree of Islamicness.

In Iran, like elsewhere in the world, often competing utopian political visions shaped the political landscape of the previous century. Marxism, nationalism and liberalism all played important roles in the 1979 revolution. Yet it was later branded “Islamic” with such insistence that this eventually became its sole adjective.

Most Iranians were religious, which positioned the clergy far ahead of any other political group in being able to mobilise the masses. The clergy benefited enormously from their highly effective religious network, which was both far reaching and fully under their control. By that time, the Pahlavi regime had severely weakened the organising capacities of Iran’s other political groups.

The consolidation of power

After telling reporters and other revolutionary leaders ‘the religious dignitaries do not want to rule’ in 1978, Ayatollah Khomeini ensured the clerics’ rule was unchallenged once in power.
Wikipedia

After claiming a dominant post-revolution position, the clergy under then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini exploited their irreproachable reputation and religious bond with the masses to eliminate their rivals and consolidate their power. They converted Iran’s religious networks into permanent political platforms.

Mosques and other religious spaces and occasions were at the forefront of their propaganda machinery. Mosques were also – and still are – used as polling stations during elections.

The ruling clergy coupled the term “Islamic” with the revolution, calling it a “regime of truth”, to use Foucault’s terminology. More importantly, they impeded the emergence of a non-religious alternative to their peculiar political system. Over the past 39 years, no secular political group has been able to mount a formidable challenge to the Islamic Republic.

Instead, other religious forces have challenged the ruling clergy. They have done so both on the level of practical politics and by way of introducing viable alternatives to the ideal of the Islamic state.

The impetus for Iran’s most significant periods of political unrest in recent decades can be traced to the Islamic reformists. Examples include the reformist movement from 1997 until 2005, and the Green Movement, which emerged after the disputed 2009 elections.

The Green Movement brought the regime to the brink of collapse, and its religious ties were undeniable. Its leaders, Mir Hussin Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi – who are still under house arrest – are both religious figures who have always aligned with the Islamists. The colour green is a religious symbol, hence the name of the movement.

The leaders of the Green Movement, whose supporters are pictured at rally in June 2009, are still under house arrest.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

A new politico-religious discourse is emerging that offers a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic. The Green Movement must still be understood within the broader “Islamist” school of thought, as it promotes a political role for religion. It is, however, unique in that it envisions this role as part of a democratic polity.

Islam lacks a blueprint for government

The reformist movement amounts to a direct backlash against the ideal of the Islamic state. It targets the foundational pillars of the Shiʿi model of the state, which is based upon Khomeini’s doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh.

The reformists intend to strip away the ruling clergy’s proclaimed religious legitimacy. They maintain that Islam does not specify a blueprint for political matters and explicitly avoids providing economic, political, or policy prescriptions. The Qurʾān and many Ḥadīths support the notion that humans have the capacity to determine appropriate solutions for their worldly problems.

A sign at a June 2009 rally in Paris, France, bears the motto used in the Green Movement protests in Iran.
Hugo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Thus, reformists argue that Islam should be actualised in politics through the political contributions of believers rather than the political leadership of the clergy.

Islam does not stipulate a model political system. This makes it impossible to extract the notion of democratic government from Islamic teachings.

However, one could argue that democracy is an appropriate political system for the Muslim world, based on human reasoning. For example, Mohsen Kadivar asserts:

Democracy is the least erroneous approach to the politics of the world. (Please note that least erroneous does not mean perfect, or even error free.) Democracy is a product of reason, and the fact that it has first been put to use in the West does not preclude its utility in other cultures – reason extends beyond the geographical boundaries. One must adopt a correct approach, regardless of who came up with the idea.

Divine sovereignty and Sharīʿa

The religious backlash has been particularly focused on refuting two interconnected claims that form the existential grounding of the Islamic state. These are the claims of divine sovereignty and the necessity of implementing Sharīʿa, or Islamic law.

Iran’s ruling clergy argue that the divine right to political leadership rests not only with the Prophet Mohammad and Shiʿi’s Infallible Imāms, but also with Islamic jurists in today’s world. According to Khomeini:

God has conferred upon government in the present age the same powers and authority that were held by the Most Noble Messenger and the Imāms, with respect to equipping and mobilising armies, appointing governors and officials, and levying taxes and expending them for the welfare of the Muslims. Now, however, it is no longer a question of a particular person; government devolves instead upon one who possesses the qualities of knowledge and justice.

This assertion could be questioned on various levels. First and foremost, it offers a problematic reading of Islamic history. It ignores the reality that the Prophet Mohammad’s governance was a historical occurrence as opposed to a part of his divine mission.

In the same vein, many Iranian religious reformists repudiate the divine source of political authority, not only in the present, but also for the Prophet and Infallible Imāms. These interpretations of the revolution reject the possibility of claiming any sort of divinity in the political realm. This empowers believers to manage their political lives based on their collective rational reasoning.

The second major claim is that Islam is a political religion because Sharīʿa law encompasses important socio-political dimensions. Its proponents maintain that Sharīʿa ought to be implemented to its full extent, thus requiring political leadership by the clergy.

Once in government, Khomenei himself rationalised giving priority to political interests over religious considerations.
Wikimedia

This was a founding maxim of Khomeini’s doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh. But he revised this when he began running a modern state.

Soon after the revolution, Khomeini realised that implementing the many components of Sharīʿa would interfere with the basic tasks of government. In other words, he concluded that full compliance with Sharīʿa law would make it impossible for a state to effectively carry out its core functions and responsibilities.

His response to this predicament was to prioritise political interests over religious considerations. He went so far as to declare Sharīʿa as secondary to governing:

A government in the form of the God-given, absolute mandate was the most important of the divine commandments and has priority over all derivative divine commandments … [it is] one of the primary commandments of Islam and has priority over all derivative commandments, even over prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca.

This was conceptualised as a Shiʿi jurisprudential principle called Fiqh al-maṣlaḥa (expediency-based jurisprudence). It establishes that a state is regarded as Islamic if the head of state is a jurist, a walī-yi faqīh, regardless of whether the state enforces Sharīʿa and Islamic precepts.

Open to the charge of exploiting Islam

Expediency-based jurisprudence leaves the fate of Sharīʿa ordinances, and by extension the entire religion of Islam, to the “personal” understanding of the ruling jurist. Unsurprisingly, it has been challenged for exploiting religion.

Critics say that decisions based on a rational assessment of the circumstances should not be tagged as “Islamic”. Attaching a religious tag to decisions made by the absolute authority of one person, who is not immune to mistakes and failures, will render religion responsible for policy mistakes and failures.

Ultimately, the lived experience of the government born out of the 1979 revolution proved detrimental to Islam. It led to the disillusionment of some Islamists who wished to emancipate religion from the state. As such, reformist discourse failed to propose a tangible alternative to the model of the Islamic state. This, in turn, could partially explain the resilience of the Islamic state in Iran.

Nevertheless, we should not overlook the powerful role of religious backlash in disarming the ruling clergy and delegitimising the theological foundation of the Islamic state. It remains the most formidable challenge to Iran’s ruling clergy to date.

The ConversationStill, the possibility of a major shift in the country’s political landscape is more complicated and depends on factors far beyond religion-state relations.

Naser Ghobadzadeh, Senior lecturer, National School of Arts, Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump’s withdrawal from Iran deal could fracture alliances and jeopardise North Korea negotiations


Tony Walker, La Trobe University

President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the multilateral agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program will inevitably have far-reaching consequences, including the further destabilisation of the Middle East.

More immediately, it risks fracturing a Western alliance that has provided the cornerstone of global security since the end of the second world war.

In a joint statement, the leaders of France, Germany and Britain raised the possibility of the US being in breach of a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the deal. The resolution remained the “binding international legal framework for the resolution of the dispute,” Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Theresa May said.




Read more:
Why Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal may prove a costly mistake


As such, France, Germany and Britain said they would still adhere to the agreement. The other participants – Russia and China – would also be unlikely to abandon the deal. And Iran itself, in a measured reaction to the Trump announcement, said it, too, would stick with the agreement.

This means the Trump administration risks finding itself further isolated from the international community, following his decision to also pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Change accords.

Possible ramifications

It is hard to exaggerate the many negative outcomes that may well flow from the decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, including an escalation of tensions between Iran and US clients in the Middle East. In fact, heightened tensions across the Middle East and an intensification of a regional arms race would seem to be almost inevitable.

Following through on his threats during his 2016 presidential election campaign to tear up the Iran deal, Trump could hardly have been more explicit in his rejection of a foreign policy centrepiece of his predecessor’s tenure in his announcement on Tuesday.

The fact is, this was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made. It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.

What this announcement confirms – if confirmation is even necessary – is that the US leader has unshackled himself from the moderating influences of advisers who have been shoved out of his national security team in recent weeks. These include Harold McMaster, his former national security adviser, and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had both argued strenuously against a withdrawal from the Iran deal.

Trump is now in the hands of what is one of the more bellicose teams of advisers assembled by an American president in recent memory. Where this leaves James Mattis, Trump’s defence secretary is unclear. Mattis has called the verification element of the Iran deal “robust” and has been opposed to actions that would undermine an existing treaty.




Read more:
Donald Trump backs out of Iran nuclear deal: now what?


Understandably, former President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, have expressed dismay over an unravelling of an agreement that took years to negotiate with the aim of forestalling Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons.

In a rare rebuke of Trump, Obama said the decision would make the world less safe. He described it as a “losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East.”

Understandably – as one of the architects of the agreement – Kerry also expressed his dismay. “Instead of building on unprecedented nonproliferation verification measures, this decision risks throwing them away and dragging the world back to the brink we faced a few years ago,” he said.

Possible impact on business

In addition to tearing up the deal, Trump announced a re-imposition – and strengthening – of sanctions against Iran. These will be phased in over 90-day and 180-day periods. What is not clear is what impact these sanctions will have on international companies doing business in Iran.

Under a previous sanctions regime, companies risked being shut out of the US economy if they invested in – or traded with – Iran.

An interpretation of just what is implied for international business will be an early test of America’s ability to make the sanctions stick. This is sure to get messy.

Already, US companies such as Boeing, which had negotiated US$20 billion in aircraft sales to Iran, are finding such business is now in jeopardy.

Further complicating the picture is Trump’s proposed face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to put an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The ConversationKim may well ask himself what value might be placed on negotiations with Trump. Under these circumstances, neither side would be likely to invest much trust in one another.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Yes, Syria’s Assad regime is brutal. But the retaliatory air strikes are illegal and partisan



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Civil war has raged in Syria for seven years.
AAP/ Youssef Badawi

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, University of Newcastle

The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.

Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:

major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.

The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.

Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.

Strikes illegal under international law

Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:

We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.

British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.

Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:

  • Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.

  • Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.

The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).

The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:

  • there was convincing evidence of large-scale and extreme humanitarian distress;
  • there was no practicable alternative to using force in order to save lives; and
  • the use of force in response was proportionate and time-limited to relieve humanitarian suffering.

Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.

The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.

Illegal but legitimate?

The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

According to President Trump:

The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.

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The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.

And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.

In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.

However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.

If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?

Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:

Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?

Jeremy Corbyn | Response to Prime Minister’s Syria Statement.

It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.

Humanitarian intervention or regime change

Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.

The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.




Read more:
How the aid community responds in Syria will dictate its role in future crises


Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:

The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.

Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.

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The ConversationWith the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle and Jason von Meding, Senior Lecturer in Disaster Risk Reduction, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Syrian ‘hell on earth’ is a tangle of power plays unlikely to end soon



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Until the jihadist rebel groups are wiped out, there will be more civilian casualties, like this man and young boy in Eastern Ghouta.
Reuters/Bassam Khabieh

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

Once again, unfortunate civilians are trapped in the “hell on earth” that the Syrian civil war has become. This time it is the turn of the 400,000 residents of Eastern Ghouta, ten kilometres east of the capital Damascus. Latest reports put civilian casualties at 520 and thousands wounded under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces supported by Russian air strikes.

It seems conditions in Syria are getting worse, and there is no end to the conflict.

The end to any violent conflict comes when either the warring sides realise the devastation they cause and make peace; outside intervention sways the warring parties to end the conflict; or there are clear winners delivering a crushing defeat to their enemies.

None of the warring factions seem to care about the devastation of the seven-year civil war. Almost the entire country is rubble – more than 400,000 people have died, there are 5 million Syrian refugees and more than 6 million displaced. Unfortunately, the peace option seems highly unlikely.

There had been international intervention through peace initiatives since 2013, when the then US secretary of state, John Kerry, lamented that Syria “heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos”. It was a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta that prompted the United Nations to pass a resolution in 2013 demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles and giving impetus to peace talks in Geneva. All efforts to make progress on these talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to meet even as late as 2017, painfully expediting Kerry’s apocalyptic prediction.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


The Geneva talks were paralleled by a Russian-led peace initiative in Kazakhstan and later in Sochi. These talks could not have been expected to succeed, given that Russia’s unconditional and active support of the Assad regime hampered any attempt at brokering a peace deal.

Apart from the vested interests and insincerity, the biggest stumbling block has been disagreement over who to include in the peace process. The US does not want Assad or Iran involved; Turkey does not want the Kurdish People’s Defence Unit (YPG); and Russia does not want any of the jihadist rebel groups.

The sheer number of rebel groups is another issue. In the relatively small area of Eastern Ghouta alone, there are three rebel groups, which often bicker with one another.

Since the conflict began in 2011, nearly 200 separate rebel groups have sporadically emerged. Although most of these later merged into larger entities, there are still too many groups. Their inclusion in any peace process has been problematic, because it is unclear who actually represents the Syrian opposition, not to mention the groups’ refusal to sit at the same table.

Then there is the thorny issue of ideological and religious differences. Shiite Syrians and a segment of secular Sunni Muslims support the Assad regime, whereas the largest chunk of the rebel groups are Salafi jihadists. The exceptions are the Kurdish YPG and the largely weakened Free Syrian Army.

All along, Assad’s regime has been claiming it is fighting IS, Al-Qaeda and other Salafi jihadist groups to keep Syria a modern secular state. Putin is pushing Assad to wipe out these groups, spurred by the deep fear they could mobilise radical Muslim groups within Russia’s borders.

The US and Europe are in the cognitive dissonance of wanting neither Assad nor jihadist groups to gain control in Syria. They don’t want Assad, but they like his argument of protecting a modern secular Syria. The unspoken preference is for Assad over any Jihadi rebel group.

So, the lack of an effective peace intervention and the impossibility of parties sitting down to negotiate leaves only the option of fighting it out until clear victors emerge.

This leaves the Assad regime with a free run to assert itself as the only feasible and legitimate government in Syria, a possibility that may indeed eventuate.

This is the strategic line the Assad regime has drawn thick on the ground. It explains why Assad forces have ignored the UN’s 30-day ceasefire resolution. Putin’s disregard for the resolution, by reducing it to a farcical five-hour window, shows that neither Assad nor Putin wants the rebels to regroup and gain strength. They want a quick and absolute victory, even if it is a bloodbath.

Just as it is almost certain that the rebels of Eastern Ghouta will fall, it is equally certain Assad forces will next intensify the siege of Idlib, a northeastern city held by the Salafi jihadist rebel group Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This pattern will continue until all rebel groups are wiped out.




Read more:
Syria is a mess, but the solution is complicated too


It is unlikely there will be any fighting between Assad forces and the Kurdish YPG, as that would mean an open confrontation between Russia and the US. After the US supported the YPG, it successfully ended Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria. The US has made it clear it is there to stay, establishing a 30,000-strong border security force as a deterrent against IS regrouping, but more importantly to stop Assad attacking Kurdish regions once he clears the ground of rebel groups in his territory.

The wild card in Syria is Turkey’s unpredictable president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He aims to establish Turkey in northeastern Syria as a third major player along with Russia and the US, by fighting alongside elements of the Free Syrian Army to capture the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin.

Whether Russia and the US will allow Erdogan to realise his objectives remains to be seen. He may find he is out of his league when things get tough on the ground, forcing him out of Syria.

The ConversationThe Syrian conflict will end only if the Russian-supported Assad regime wipes out all Salafi jihadist rebel groups and regains control of western Syria and its most important cities. This may be before the end of 2018. In the meantime, the international community should be prepared to lament more civilian casualties.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


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Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters in east Afrin, Syria.
Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, the main players are fighting to carve the country into regions of control and influence.

A pivotal turn came in January, when Turkish forces launched the “Olive Branch” military operation targeting Afrin, a 300,000-strong Kurdish city in northeast Syria.

Three key developments in 2017 led to the Turkish operation in Syria.

The first was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in the conflict. In a major victory over the resistance, Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran captured the Syrian economic powerhouse of Aleppo – with the tacit agreement of Turkey.

Subsequently, Assad forces, and Russia, continued to expand their control over western Syria. In December 2017, they launched an intense attack on Idlib – a city neighbouring Afrin and the last stronghold of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by the Nusra Front and supported by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government. Even though HTS launched a counteroffensive, the Assad forces continued to make advances in Idlib.

Second was the bold move for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which accelerated after the Kurdish and central Iraqi forces recaptured the largest northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. In September 2017, northern Iraq’s Kurdish government staged a referendum for independence, with a whopping 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes”. Although the referendum backfired spectacularly, it sent a clear signal to Turkey and others on Kurdish ambitions for independence.




Read more:
Mosul is taken back, but Islamic State is not finished yet


Third was the rise in the prominence of Syrian Kurds. In October 2017, the US launched a successful military effort to depose IS from its stronghold, the capital Raqqa, ending IS as a political force. The main proxy army on the ground was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Despite Turkey’s protests, the US supplied SDF with heavy arms, justifying the move as a necessity in deposing the common enemy, IS. Even after the fall of IS, the return of heavy weapons became the focus of a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey.

Displaced Syrian children look out from their tents at a refugee camp in Idlib province, Syria.
Reuters/Osman Orsal

The last straw for Turkey was the announcement of a 30,000-strong border security force to protect the Syrian Kurdish enclave. Even though the US soon backtracked, it caused outrage in Turkey. This is because the border in question was the Turkey-Syria border, and implied the security force was aimed at Turkey.

Erdogan called the proposed force a “terror army” and wowed to “nip this terror army in the bud”. Within days, the Turkish military operation had begun.

This move came at the same time as a break-up of the uneasy alliance between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, as well as the US, over the future of Syria. Erdogan signalled this in late December, when he accused Assad of “state terrorism”.

What America wants

For the US, Turkey’s presence in Syria complicates things, and harms its plans resting on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. Just as there was no need for Turkey during the offensive against IS, there is no need for Turkey in the future of Syria.

The US sees the UN-led Geneva talks as the solution to the Syrian crisis and insists that Assad is not part of the solution. This goal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Realising this after Assad’s Aleppo victory, the US has shifted its objectives to eliminating IS and supporting an increased Kurdish prominence in Syria.




Read more:
After Islamic State falls, we should expect aftershocks in Syria


According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US will continue its presence in Syria, but as a “stabilising force”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iran and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.

This is a major policy shift by the US administration and has infuriated Erdogan. It means US protection for the Kurdish enclave is permanent, and the US will try to neutralise Russian influence by controlling regions lying east of the Euphrates River. It will also use Kurdish forces and populations as a bargaining chip in any discussion of Syria’s future.

What Russia wants

Turkey’s Afrin operation would not have been possible without Russian approval, as Russia controls the air space in northwestern Syria.

Russia has allowed the operation to go ahead so that it can maintain the fragile alliance that President Vladimir Putin formed with Iran and Turkey, and continue the recent talks Russia led with Syrian factions in Sochi. Russia wants to preserve the hard-won influence it garnered over the past two years and avoid tarnishing its world power status. More importantly, Putin does not want anything to overshadow his bid to win the looming presidential elections on March 18.

Putin has seen Erdogan as an important ally in his strategy to divide the NATO alliance from within, and so would prefer he stayed in power. This is why Putin gave Erdogan a political hand in allowing the Turkish operation to go ahead. In a sense, Putin can tolerate the Afrin operation for as long as it is contained to a small region.

What Turkey wants

Erdogan’s main aim with the operation is to thwart any US and Russian plans to carve up Syria after the IS defeat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erogan’s main aim is to thwart any US or Russian plans to carve up Syria post-IS.
Reuters/Umit Bektas

Turkey insists on being involved in every key negotiation on the future of Syria, to prevent the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which it sees as an existential threat. Having its own 8-10 million Kurdish population in the southeast of the country, Turkey feels it is next on the list of destabilised countries and fears it is only a matter of time before its Kurdish region is excised for a greater Kurdish state.

Turkey wants to establish itself as the third major player after Russia and the US by supporting the Free Syrian Army, the least-powerful Syrian faction composed of Sunni Arab forces. In doing so, it wants to establish a Turkish-controlled corridor north of the Euphrates so that it can move 2.8 million increasingly unpopular Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The speed of the military operation suggests pre-planning rather than a reaction.

Ultimately, Erdogan is playing for internal politics. He needs the support of the nationalist elements in Turkey to win the critical 2019 presidential election, which will give him new powers passed in the 2016 referendum.

Losing the election would mean his political opponent has those powers, and would likely resurrect serious corruption charges against him. While those charges may be forgotten in Turkey for now, they are kept alive in US courts.

This explains Erdogan’s increasing anti-US rhetoric. He is counting on the Syrian operation to increase his bargaining chips in a potential showdown with the US administration.

The ConversationTurkey has made an extremely risky move, which could escalate the conflict in Syria. Over the past three decades, it has launched countless operations across the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Not only has Turkey failed to prevent developments favouring a pathway towards Kurdish independence, it has made matters worse for itself. This time may be no different.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal may prove a costly mistake



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Donald Trump’s justification for decertifying the Iran nuclear deal stems from his view that Iran is violating the deal’s spirit.
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Ben Rich, Curtin University

US President Donald Trump’s decision on Friday to decertify the Iran nuclear deal threatens the future of the landmark agreement, creates greater instability in the Middle East, and weakens America’s position in the wider global order.

Why is the agreement important?

Adopted in October 2015, the agreement was the culmination of 20 months of intense negotiations between Iran and a US-led coalition made up of the UN Security Council P5 nations (the US, the UK, Russia, France and China) as well as Germany. It significantly limited Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and achieve a domestic nuclear weapons capability.

In exchange, a range of longstanding US and EU economic sanctions were removed against Iran. This allowed access to wider export markets for its beleaguered oil industry and permitted greater amounts of external investment – particularly from interested parties in Europe and China.

Iran was permitted to retain a civilian nuclear program for power and medical purposes. However, this was subjected to regular checks by international inspectors to ensure no nefarious activities were taking place.


Further reading: Why now? Understanding the Iranian nuclear breakthrough


The US president is required to certify that Iran is complying with the agreement every 90 days. If non-compliance is detected, the president’s decertification begins a congressional process that can end with the reimposition of sanctions.

Many saw the agreement as a significant and positive foreign policy legacy for former president Barack Obama. It was a rare achievement for an administration that largely fumbled in its approach to the Middle East.

Trump’s bellicosity

Consternation over Trump’s inability to effectively handle the Iran deal began long before he was sworn in as president. On the campaign trail, Trump described it as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” without clearly stating why.

As president, Trump has sullenly recertified the agreement twice. But he always indicated he wanted to assume a more hostile stance toward Iran.

While taking a harder line toward Iran is hardly a desire Trump holds alone among Republicans, he has offered little coherent vision on an alternative. Aside from vague threats of violence and suggestions he could “renegotiate” the agreement, Trump has provided little in the way of viable policy options.

In the case of the former, short of regime change, this would only lead to a more hostile Iran and a greater probability of nuclearisation – just as it did in similar circumstances during the Bush years.

For the latter, Trump is unlikely to be able to mobilise the necessary partners to return to the negotiating table. Nor could he entice an antagonised Iran to trust future US commitments after it feels the US has once again duped it.

The ‘spirit’ of the deal

Trump’s justification for decertification stems from his view that Iran is violating the deal’s “spirit”. This is despite other partners in the negotiations, and his own advisers, indicating that Iran remains compliant with the agreement.

Trump cites Iran’s support for militia groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as its ongoing ballistic missile program and backing of Syria’s Assad regime, as a dereliction of its commitment to the deal.

The problem with this logic is two-fold and interrelated.

First, none of these activities are included in the nuclear agreement. While they are certainly challenges to be responded to with a combination of carrots and sticks, the deal was never designed or intended to resolve them.

Second, Trump seems to expect that the agreement should act as a panacea to the wider challenge of Iran for the US. This attitude ignores the complex, slow and ongoing nature of adversarial diplomacy.

Normalising Iran within the international system – the ultimate goal of US engagement – is a process that will likely take decades. In this endeavour, an all-or-nothing attitude only serves to weaken Washington’s position in any ongoing delicate negotiations, where both parties need to walk away with some sense of accomplishment, dignity and confidence in their partners.

Obama was starkly aware of such realities. He knew that while he might not be able to curtail all of Iran’s regionally destabilising activities, discussions on the nuclear issue in isolation could offer a path forward.

Undermining multilateralism

The decertification also reinforces Trump’s disdain for multilateralism as a key tool for promoting US interests and resolving international problems.

Not only does Trump’s decision incense America’s partners in the deal, it also joins a long list of multilateral frameworks, alliances and agreements he has either abdicated, threatened or weakened. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord, and NATO.

US participation and leadership in these institutions directly serves its own international interests: it helps it shape the norms and standards by which other countries engage in the global arena.

But, by undermining these same structures through such non-consultative and unilateral actions, the US disincentivises other countries from adhering to the rules-based international architecture it has sought to sculpt since 1945.

This has direct relevance for normalising Iran’s behaviour. It has viewed the international system as arrayed against it since at least the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Under such conditions, getting Iran to embrace a less revisionist and disruptive approach to foreign policy through socialisation and co-operation will hardly be helped by undermining a key structure of rapprochement.

At a wider level, such unilateralism harms US relations with its more traditional allies, which view it as a less reliable and predictable partner.

Trump’s transactional worldview may put little stock in national prestige. But such qualities can be just are crucial to the long-term diplomatic relationships of international affairs as short-term material concerns.

The ConversationShould the US wish to maintain its global primacy, it cannot simply devolve into a bully power and expect others to remain in lock-step with its goals. While most US presidents have seemed to grasp this concept to varying degrees, it seems wholly beyond Trump’s neophytic views on grand strategy in foreign affairs.

Ben Rich, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.