Friday, December 30, 2011

The Economist-Iraq without America: Sovereignty without security

The Economist has a good piece about how the departure of American troops has led to a return to sectarian conflict. Will Iraq split up along ethnic / religious lines ?

Dec 31st 2011
The Economist

ON DECEMBER 18th America withdrew from Iraq, as the last convoy headed south into Kuwait, where around 4,000 of its troops will remain for an undisclosed length of time. An optimistic Iraqi government had recently begun to remove some of the capital’s checkpoints and blast-walls, easing traffic and boosting morale. But the better mood did not last long. On December 22nd at least a dozen car bombs exploded within two hours of each other in Baghdad, killing more than 60 people and injuring another 200—one of the highest death tolls of the year. With security as patchy as ever and politics entering a new phase of sectarian hatred, few Iraqis now think the American withdrawal heralds a joyful new era. Some even wonder whether, without a ring-holding American military presence, the country will even stay together.

The latest wave of violence followed hard upon a row between Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia who has been prime minister since 2006, and two of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians who were supposed to be helping him maintain a sectarian balance in government. After one of them, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a deputy prime minister, had called Mr Maliki a “dictator”, the prime minister swiftly called for a vote of no confidence in him in parliament; tanks surrounded his house.

Then, even more menacingly, Mr Maliki declared that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of another leading Sunni, Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s vice-president, on charges of terrorism. Mr Hashemi fled to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish area. Mr Maliki told the Kurdish authorities to send him back to Baghdad, which they refused to do. In the absence of an American military presence, the American vice-president, Joe Biden, telephoned Mr Maliki and several other leading Iraqi politicians to urge compromise, evidently in vain. No independent analyst suspects Messrs Hashemi or Mutlaq of involvement in the dozen bombings on December 22nd, which had the hallmark of al-Qaeda, ever eager to exploit sectarian divisions.

Mr Maliki has been gradually consolidating his position and that of Iraq’s new Shia-led establishment since he became prime minister. In March 2010 his mainly Shia front narrowly lost a general election, winning 89 seats out of 325 in Iraq’s parliament; a rival front led by a secular Shia, Iyad Allawi, with broad support from Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, pipped him with 91. But after eight months of drift as various shifting alliances failed to accommodate each other, Mr Maliki eventually managed to patch together a majority a year ago, on the understanding that a number of leading Sunnis, such as Mr Hashemi and Mr Mutlaq, as well as the aggrieved Mr Allawi, would be granted influential posts.

But many key positions were never agreed upon, and the powers of jobs with grand-sounding titles, such as Mr Allawi’s proposed chairmanship of a strategy council, were never clarified. Meanwhile, for the past year, Mr Maliki has been acting as justice, interior and defence minister, concentrating ever more power in his own hands and ensuring that the security forces, in particular, are run by his men. Sunni leaders say that their co-religionists are unfairly singled out for detention and intimidation. Troops loyal to Mr Maliki are said to have recently carried out a string of arrests of people linked to the opposition.

Sunni Arabs, loth to admit that they number only around a fifth of Iraqis, yet still mindful that they ran Iraq since the country’s inception under British tutelage nearly a century ago, are again becoming fearful. In Dora, a mainly Sunni suburb in south Baghdad that is still surrounded by blast-walls and speckled with bullet holes, a woman puts a brave face on the future. Security, she says, is much better than it was a few years ago, when sectarian cleansing was rife and mixed neighbourhoods were torn apart. For sure, she admits, explosive devices still go off occasionally at checkpoints; “sticky” bombs sometimes blow up cars; a mysterious branch of the security forces is still liable to make random arrests. But she is afraid that even this relative calm may not last. “Fear still plagues Iraq,” she sighs. “Honestly, I didn’t want the American forces to go.”

Meanwhile a radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who already holds the balance of power in parliament, is flexing his political muscle anew. It was he who insisted, against Mr Maliki’s initial wish, that all American troops should be out by 2012—or face a new insurgency from his Iranian-armed militia, which Mr Maliki has curbed in the past but which still frightens many Iraqis, especially Sunnis. Mr Sadr’s people now want parliament dissolved and fresh elections held. If he came out on top, Iraq would be even less palatable to the United States and to Sunni powers in the region.

But it is not all gloom. Since the American military “surge” of 2007, which ended the worst period of sectarian bloodshed, security has improved enough to let the economy start growing again. Business is thriving in Sadr City, the most densely populated Shia part of Baghdad. The place is crammed with foreign-made cars. Markets are bustling. Iraq’s GDP per person before the fall of Saddam Hussein was estimated by the IMF at $518. Now it is said to be $3,306.

Iraq’s towns have become richer since 2003, the year of the American invasion. Government salaries have rocketed. Public-sector workers have started to spend more money. Foreign companies have swarmed in. Turks build housing estates, Italian oil-service providers create jobs in Basra, the southern capital. Iranians run new hotels in Najaf, a Shia holy city that pilgrims visit en masse. Foreign and local businessmen complain about corruption, Iraq’s impenetrable bureaucracy and weak work ethic, but concede that such defects are outweighed by the profits. The electricity supply, cited by Iraqis as the worst of all their country’s public-service deficiencies, remains patchy, but imports of such goods as refrigerators, televisions and air-conditioners have soared.

Lubrication at last

In the past two years the world’s big oil companies, eyeing the world’s fourth-largest reserves, have begun to invest heavily as the government has offered old fields for renovation and new ones for exploration and exploitation. Foreign companies are again operating in the oil-rich south. But oil production has yet to match its peak under Saddam Hussein. And foreign firms are taking risks if they make oil deals in the Kurdish north, since the government in Baghdad and the Kurds’ regional authorities have failed to agree on how to divide the spoils, despite years of acrimonious negotiation. After ExxonMobil decided, in frustration, to sign a deal with the Kurds in October, the central government responded furiously, threatening to penalise any company that dealt with the Kurds without its agreement.

Iraq has yet to find its place in the Arab world. Sunnis, who dominate it, are deeply suspicious of the new Iraqi order, often singling out Mr Maliki for derision. The Saudis, most hostile of neighbours, have yet even to send an ambassador to Baghdad, saying that Iraq is already a cat’s paw for Iran, the region’s leading Shia power. Many of Iraq’s prominent political, religious and militia groups are indeed close to Iran, which will surely seek to strengthen its influence with Mr Maliki and his Shia allies. But most of Iraq’s Shia religious and political leaders are keen to stay independent of their theocratic neighbour; ordinary Iraqis often resent Iran’s apparent eagerness to interfere in their politics.

The prospect of Iraq sliding into an Iranian orbit clearly rattles the American administration, which had wanted to keep a residual force in Iraq of at least 10,000 troops. Instead, the Americans will retain one of its biggest embassies in the world, with some 17,000 diplomats and advisers, secured by a military force of fewer than 200 troops. It also expects to sell a lot of weapons, including F-16 fighter aircraft, to the newly sovereign country. America still has some 40,000 troops spread around the Gulf region. But its ability to influence events in Iraq has plummeted.

In a new political departure, some of Iraq’s Sunni leaders in the provinces, such as Diyala, north of Baghdad, are pondering the possibility, provided for in the constitution, of creating autonomous Sunni-led regions, with powers akin to those of Iraqi Kurdistan. Hitherto, most Sunnis have loathed the notion of federalism, much vaunted by the Kurds, portraying it as a Western plot to divide and weaken an Arab nation. But Mr Maliki has made plain his distaste for the idea that Sunnis, despairing of wielding power at the centre, might set up their own federal fiefs.

Iraq’s own government now threatens to undermine the democracy imposed on it by the Americans. Saddam Hussein’s security men, informants and torturers have gone, and several sets of elections have been held that were free and fair within the constraints of civil strife. But Iraqi freedoms look far from guaranteed. Newspapers, magazines and websites abound, but journalists have been imprisoned and beaten, both in Baghdad and in the Kurdish region, for reporting on anti-government protests earlier this year that sought to echo Arab uprisings elsewhere.

One law recently presented to a parliamentary committee proposes life imprisonment and a fine of $40,000 for actions (including on the internet) that “affect the country’s interdependence and unity”. Another would make it illegal for a group to gather in a university or mosque for any reason other than study or worship. Religious laws may also be more strictly enforced. A human-rights activist says that, during Ramadan in August, rules were brought in to punish anyone who publicly broke the daylight fast, with brief jail terms. As the Arab spring spread, an Iraqi protest movement flourished briefly but fizzled in part because of intimidation and curfews that prevented demonstrations.

Many Iraqis, however much they hated Saddam Hussein, would surrender some of their hard-earned freedoms and comforts in exchange for real security. On balance, the Shia Arab majority that numbers some 60% probably prefers the new status quo. And the Kurds, safer than other Iraqis in their autonomous zone, are enjoying a golden age, albeit amid growing corruption and now without Americans to watch over Kurdish-Arab fault lines. But Iraq will not be fully democratic or truly prosperous until its three main components—Sunni Arab, Shia Arab and Kurdish—genuinely come to terms with each other. That prospect is still woefully remote.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

America’s Drive for Middle East Dominance Sets the Stage for Attacking

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett,
December 28, 2011
THE RACE FOR IRAN

Throughout our work on U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the more fundamental themes is the corrosive impact that America’s post-Cold War quest for unadulterated hegemony in the Middle East has had on the strategic calculations of successive U.S. administrations (Democratic and Republican) and, by extension, on U.S. standing and influence in this vitally important region. Instead of dealing soberly and effectively with the Middle East’s complex political and security dynamics and defending its legitimate interests there, the United States has, for the past two decades, tried to coerce political outcomes across the region, with the goal of bringing it under a U.S.-led, highly militarized political and security “umbrella.” Of course, the United States was certainly not above trying to do this sort of thing before the end of the Cold War (witness the CIA’s 1953 coup in Iran). But the Cold War definitely imposed limits on American initiative in the Middle East that effectively disappeared 20 years ago.

From this perspective, the big problem with the Islamic Republic is not that it is irrevocably and aggressively anti-American (it is not). The problem is that the Islamic Republic refuses, as a matter of both principle and strategic interest, to accept and endorse American dominance in the region.

By our reckoning, the evidence of the damage that America’s determination to assert hegemonic dominance over the political and strategic orientation of key states in the region has done to its strategic position, in the Middle East and globally, is already overwhelming. And yet bipartisan attachment to the illusory and demonstrably counter-productive goal of Middle Eastern hegemony persists; currently, its most salient manifestation is the rising crescendo of voices advocating U.S. military action—we will call it what it would be, an illegitimate U.S. attack—against the Islamic Republic, ostensibly over its nuclear activities.

One of the more prominent current specimens of this sort of argument is an article in the forthcoming, January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs; authored by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Matthew Kroenig, the article is entitled, “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option”, see here. Here is the thrust of Kroenig’s argument:

“[S]keptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease—that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.”

Needless to say, as thoroughgoing “skeptics of military action”, we are not persuaded by Kroenig’s piece. His article has already been critically dissected on strategic and military grounds by Steve Walt, see here, in a blog post delightfully entitled “The Worst Case for War With Iran”. As Steve points out, “There is a simple and time-honored formula for making the case for war, especially preventive war”, which Kroenig’s article exemplifies:

“First, you portray the supposed threat as dire and growing, and then try to convince people that if we don’t act now, horrible things will happen down the road. (Remember Condi Rice’s infamous warnings about Saddam’s ‘mushroom cloud’?) All this step requires is a bit of imagination and a willingness to assume the worst. Second, you have to persuade readers that the costs and risks of going to war aren’t that great. If you want to sound sophisticated and balanced, you acknowledge that there are counterarguments and risks involved. But then you do your best to shoot down the objections and emphasize all the ways that those risks can be minimized. In short, in Step 1 you adopt a relentlessly gloomy view of the consequences of inaction; in Step 2 you switch to bulletproof optimism about how the war will play out.”

Steve takes it from there, in bracing fashion. We largely agree with his more specific criticisms of Kroenig’s article, although we take issue with his drive-by assertion that some of the Iranians who would be victims of a U.S. attack on their country “despise the clerical regime (and with good reason)”. This uncritical repetition of a seemingly de rigeur acknowledgement that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is dubious actually contributes to the case for a U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic, which we do not believe Steve wants to do. Paul Pillar, see here, has also offered an arrestingly sharp critique of Kroenig’s article, describing it as “so far removed from anything resembling careful analysis that one would hardly know where to start in inventorying its flaws”. Paul then performs outstandingly in doing precisely that—inventorying the article’s myriad flaws.

With Steve and Paul’s pieces on the table, we will not devote much attention to reviewing Kroenig’s article ourselves, save to highlight one of its dimensions that is virtually omnipresent in current “bomb Iran” discourse, but does not get discussed nearly as much as it should. This element is noted in passing by Paul, in his critique, when he raises “a further disturbing thought, or rather a question: how did mainstream discourse within the American foreign policy establishment come to include proposals to launch a war of aggression?” Answering Paul’s question takes us back to our opening point about hegemony and the enormous damage that its pursuit has imposed on American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Just consider what Kroenig himself writes regarding the real motive for a prospective U.S. attack on Iran: “a nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East.” Let’s translate that into more concrete terms: in the view of many advocates of U.S. aggression against the Islamic Republic, a nuclear Iran might raise anxiety levels in Washington the next time a U.S. administration plans to invade another Middle Eastern country in a quixotic effort to install a secular liberal (and pro-U.S.) political order that its people do not want and, ultimately, will not accept (see Lebanon, post-Saddam Iraq, and Egypt on this point, for starters). Kroenig and others like him argue that, in order to keep those anxiety levels at manageable levels in the future, the United States needs to attack Iran now.

Now that is a hegemonic program, if ever there were one. It’s not about American security or the defense of real interests. It’s about the preservation of imperial prerogatives in the Middle East—prerogatives whose reflexive and persistent exercise actually diminishes American security and makes it harder for the United States to assure its tangible, material interests in the region.

In this regard, we were powerfully struck by, and want to discuss here, a recent article authored by John Yoo. Yoo, currently a University of California law professor, is one of the more striking figures to emerge from the George W. Bush Administration’s assault, in the name of prosecuting its self-proclaimed “global war on terror”, on the U.S. Constitution and American adherence to international law. Perhaps most notoriously, it was Yoo who, as a member of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, authored the so-called “torture memo” in August 2002; this document set the bar for what constitutes torture so high that U.S. government agencies could get away with a lot of stuff that most of the rest of the world (including some brave lawyers serving in the U.S. military) thought was torture.

Yoo has now turned his legal acumen and moral judgment to assessing the optimal American posture toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. On this subject, National Review’s year-end issue features a piece by him, arguing that—as its title proclaims—“Now is the time to make the case for military action against Iran”; see here. It opens as follows:

“Our political calendar and one of our nation’s greatest threats have synchronized. In the upcoming year, the American people will render their judgment on Barack Obama’s presidency. Meanwhile, if the International Atomic Energy Agency’s November report is accurate, Iran will soon join the ranks of the world’s nuclear powers. Because of the Obama administration’s reluctance to confront this looming threat, others—such as the Republican presidential candidates—must begin preparing the case for a military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.”

In Yoo’s assessment, President Obama’s “reluctance” to confront the Iranian nuclear “threat” has “left the public uninformed about the nature and possible consequences of military action, which must be serious and sustained enough to destroy complex, protected, and dispersed facilities”, for “pinpoint bombing of a single facility will not end Iran’s nuclear program.” He “has also failed to explain the heavy costs of containment, which would involve a constant, significant conventional and nuclear military presence on Iran’s perimeter.” (That strikes us as, more or less, the status quo.) Moreover, “Obama has compounded this political negligence by failing to build the legal case for attacking Iran”, instead tethering “American national security to the dictates of the United Nations.”

On this latter point, Yoo—who lists international law as one of his academic and professional specialties—accurately lays out the current state of international law regarding the use of force and the UN Security Council’s role in international decision-making on this highly consequential matter:

“The UN Charter guarantees the ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘political independence’ of each member nation, and prohibits the use of force except in self-defense, which many scholars and international officials interpret to mean that force is prohibited except when an invader has attacked across a border or is about to do so. It does provide an exception for war to prevent threats to international peace and security, but only if approved by the Security Council…Not surprisingly, UN authorizations to use force are rare.”

Nothing objectionable in this summary, as far as we can see. And by this standard, a U.S. attack on Iran would be blatantly illegal—a point that Steve Walt makes well, in his assessment of Kroenig’s article:

“[L]et’s by crystal clear about what Kroenig is advocating here. He is openly calling for preventive war against Iran, even though the United States has no authorization from the U.N. Security Council, it is not clear that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, and Iran has not attacked us or any of our allies—ever. He is therefore openly calling for his country to violate international law. He is calmly advocating a course of action that will inevitably kill a significant number of people, including civilians…

Kroenig tries to allay this concern by saying that the main victims of a U.S. attack would be the ‘military personnel, engineers, scientists, and technicians’ working at Iran’s nuclear facilities. But even if we assume for the moment that this is true, would he consider Iran justified if it followed a similar course of action, to the limited extent that it could?” Suppose a bright young analyst working for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs and concluded that there were well-connected people at American universities and in the Department of Defense who were actively planning and advocating war against Iran. Suppose he further concluded that if these plans are allowed to come to fruition, it would pose a grave danger to the Islamic Republic. Iran doesn’t have a sophisticated air force or drones capable of attacking the United States, so this bright young analyst recommends that the Revolutionary Guards organize a covert action team to attack the people who were planning and advocating this war, and to do whatever else they could to sabotage the forces that the United States might use to conduct such an attack. He advises his superiors that appropriate measures be taken to minimize the loss of innocent life and that the attack should focus only on the ‘military and civilian personnel’ who were working directly on planning or advocating war with Iran. From Iran’s perspective, this response would be a ‘preventive strike’ designed to forestall an attack from the United States. Does Kroenig think a purely preventive measure of this kind on Iran’s part would be acceptable behavior? And if he doesn’t then why does he think it’s perfectly OK for us to do far more? ”

Aptly put—and, from John Yoo’s description of the current state of international law regarding the use of force, one would think that Steve, though not a lawyer himself, is on impeccable legal footing. But Yoo then provides an answer to Steve’s question as to how one could manage to think that “it’s perfectly OK” for the United States to act illegally.

More specifically, Yoo argues that the United States is entitled to ignore the arrangement he succinctly described—the Security Council and all the rest—on the grounds that it “lacks political legitimacy” and “is contrary to both American national interests and global welfare because it subjects any intervention, no matter how justified or beneficial, to the approval of authoritarian nations.” In other words, America need not consider itself bound by international legal mechanisms that it played a central role in creating because it is a global hegemon:

“The United States has assumed the role, once held by Great Britain, of guaranteeing free trade and economic development, spreading liberal values, and maintaining international security. An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, though it would impose costs in human lives and political turmoil, would serve these interests and forestall the spread of conflict and terror. The Republican presidential candidates should begin preparing the case now for this difficult but unavoidable challenge.”

And just in case the next (presumably Republican) president should harbor some residual attachment to the quaint idea that the United States might want to get its wars legitimated by the Security Council, Yoo argues that he should “make a case much like the one that the Bush administration made regarding Iraq. It can argue that destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons is a combination of self-defense and protecting international security” (sic).

Frankly, we are hard put to think of anyone other than on-duty British officials, a few other subservient Europeans, and Israel who would be willing, in public, to hold up the George W. Bush Administration’s legal justification for its illegal invasion of Iraq as a model for future U.S. decisions to initiate otherwise wholly illegitimate wars in the Middle East. But that is exactly what John Yoo has done. And he could end up with a position of considerable importance in the next Republican administration.

We note that John Yoo earned his law degree at Yale. During the 1950s and 1960s, Yale Law School was the locus for what came to be described as the “New Haven School” of international law. Closely associated with long-time Yale law professor Myres McDougal, the New Haven School disdained “positivist” conceptions of international law as a body of rules defined by the consent of sovereign states, which then has some standing apart from individual states’ whims as a guide for and constraint on states’ decision-making and actions. For McDougall and his associates, working in a Cold War context, such a conception of international law might prove unacceptably limiting on the United States.

So, they came up with an alternative: international law, in their version, aims to promote human dignity, by encouraging the development of free, democratic society. Therefore, what matters in determining the legality of any particular international action is not its compatibility with some body of rules that “evil” states as well as “good” states (like the United States) have some say in; what matters are the “values” motivating the action in the first place. (Yes, one could get an endowed chair at one of America’s most prestigious law schools writing this kind of stuff.) And who specifies these values? Those powerful states (like America) that have some capacity for independent international action.

This is, of course, a recipe for the United States doing whatever it wants to and can get away with, without being bothered by trifles like internationally-agreed (including by the United States) rules and norms. Though originally defined in a Cold War context, this perverted notion of international law has gotten a new lease on life in the post-Cold War era, in an America “liberated” from Cold War constraints to intensify its pursuit of hegemonic standing in places like the Middle East. John Yoo is too young to have studied with McDougall, but he has clearly imbibed the “New Haven School” mindset.

We find one additional aspect of note in both Kroenig and Yoo’s articles. If one takes their language literally, their arguments rest on an assumption that the Islamic Republic is going to build nuclear weapons; their analyses then purport to build a case for war against an Islamic Republic in possession of assembled nuclear devices. But what if Tehran never gives the Matthew Kroenigs and John Yoos of the world the satisfaction of actually building atomic weapons? Would they still argue for a U.S. attack against an Iran with what some would construe as, at most, a theoretical nuclear weapons “option”?

One hopes that Kroenig, Yoo, and other advocates of U.S. aggression against the Islamic Republic might be willing to make at least this distinction. But, then, the truth about Iraq’s WMD programs did not seem to matter much to the Administration that John Yoo served so assiduously in 2003.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The oil markets and Iran in 2012

According to the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, "between the implications of the most recent Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) conference on Dec. 14 and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) concern regarding Iran’s nuclear program, January is poised to open the New Year (at least in the energy markets) with a bang." As tensions build up in the Persian Gulf about possible oil embargo on Iran, we are heading toward a very uncertain future with Iran. According to this commentary, "the coming year may resemble developments of 2003."

Study Opportunity in Kuwait

Date: December 26 2011

Dr. Mohammed Akacem
Metropolitan State College of Denver
Faculty Director, Kuwait Study Abroad program

The University of Colorado Boulder is offering students at all universities the amazing opportunity to earn 6 credits of coursework on an intensive study abroad program to Kuwait. This 3-week summer Global Seminar gives students an inside look at the economy, politics & society in the Middle East through meetings and visits with bankers, politicians, oil executives, families, and students. The small group size allows for one-on-one interaction with these experts, giving students a chance to make connections in their field of interest.
http://studyabroad.colorado.edu/?go=KuwaitGS

Students are welcome to contact Sarah Westmoreland (Program manager at CU-Boulder Study Abroad Programs) with questions or for additional information: Sarah.Westmoreland@colorado.edu.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

CONFERENCE: Language and Identity in Central Asia, UCLA, May 4-5,

The UCLA Program on Central Asia is pleased to announce that it will be holding a conference on language and identity in Central Asia on May 4-5, 2012. We are seeking the participation of graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and junior faculty to take part in a two-day workshop to present and discuss their work in this area. These participants will be joining a group of four invited established scholars in the field and faculty discussants.
CONFERENCE: Language and Identity in Central Asia, UCLA, May 4-5,

Friday, December 23, 2011

Foreign Policy Magazine: The Arab Spring in 2012

According to Greg Gause, a University of Vermont's Political Scientist, "Four important regionwide trends have become clear one year into the upheavals of the Arab world. The first is the increasing sense that there is no viable alternative to democratic politics (if not completely democratic) as the basis for regime legitimacy and stability. This does not mean the triumph of democracy in the Arab world, much less the triumph of liberal democracy. It does not necessarily mean stable governments; in many cases, it means just the opposite. Nor does it necessarily mean “good government.” But it does mean, even in nondemocratic regimes, greater moves toward elected representative bodies. Authoritarian regimes will be
more subject to the pressures of public opinion and less stable and predictable than in the past." You can read the whole article here:

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!
by F. GREGORY GAUSE III
DEC. 21, 2011

As the upheavals that have made 2011 a historic year in the Arab world look to stretch into 2012, a few regional trends are coming into clearer focus: The Arab world is going to be more democratic, more Islamist, and more volatile than ever.

The challenge for the United States is how to navigate this new regional environment. There is no shortage of advice about how the United States should be handling the changes. Almost every pundit calls for Washington to do more — talk more, threaten more, spend more, advise more. Foreign Policy contributor Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy is representative of this trend. In his “America’s Second Chance and the Arab Spring,” after appropriately humble bows to the idea that reform should “grow from within, rather than be imposed from without,” Pollack then calls for Washington to “articulate a vision of change … that lays out a path forward that they [the Arab
governments] could be persuaded to tread, even if grudgingly at first.”
How to persuade them? Pollack lays out an activist blueprint for Washington to use aid, diplomacy, the bully pulpit, and pressure on allies and enemies to follow his reform path.

I do not disagree with Pollack’s contention that “the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America’s vital national interests.” But just because something is important to the United States does not necessarily mean that the United States can affect it. In fact, the record of the last decade indicates that the more resources the United States pours into a country (see: Iraq) in an effort to make it a stable, pro-American democracy, the further away that goal recedes.

Rather than approach this fluid moment by jumping in with both feet, Washington would be better advised to take the sage advice that the White Rabbit gave Alice in Disney’s 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Although American interests are at stake in the Middle East, there is no immediate threat to any vital national concern. We can count on the structure of the regional system to thwart efforts by any regional power, Iran or some other state, to play a hegemonic role. America can afford to wait and see how the democratic and
Islamist wave plays itself out. Self-restraint is not a typical American virtue, particularly when it comes to telling other people how to organize their own politics. But given America’s track record in the Middle East, it is called for now.

What We Learned This “Spring”

Four important regionwide trends have become clear one year into the upheavals of the Arab world. The first is the increasing sense that there is no viable alternative to democratic politics (if not completely democratic) as the basis for regime legitimacy and stability. This does not mean the triumph of democracy in the Arab world, much less the triumph of liberal democracy. It does not necessarily mean stable governments; in many cases, it means just the opposite. Nor does it necessarily mean “good government.” But it does mean, even in nondemocratic regimes, greater moves toward elected representative bodies. Authoritarian regimes will be
more subject to the pressures of public opinion and less stable and predictable than in the past.

This is true even in oil states. No major oil-exporting state suffered a regime change in the upheavals of 2011 except Libya, and that required outside intervention. As long as oil prices remain relatively high (as they are now), oil exporters will have the means to maintain patronage networks and fend off, with greater or lesser degrees of success, demands for political reform. Saudi Arabia placated its citizens with promises of $130 billion in spending over the next few years, including salary increases and a new unemployment benefit. Kuwait gave every citizen 1,000 dinars (about $3,600) and a year’s worth of basic food items. (That kept things quiet at the beginning of 2011, when regional upheaval was at its
height, though it did not prevent political mobilization later this year that led to the resignation of the prime minister and new parliamentarynelections in early 2012.) Algeria increased government workers’ salaries and subsidies for food. Good old-fashioned patronage politics helped all the Arab oil producers (save Libya) avoid the challenges their oil-poor neighbors have faced.

But the demands for greater political voice are not going to go away. Even the richest oil exporters will have to face them. The push for democracy will run up against the privileged position of entrenched elites in both oil and non-oil states — military elites, minorities with disproportionate power, ruling families — but those holding power will not be able to make arguments against democratic reform that will be taken seriously by their publics. They will be fighting rear-guard actions. Their success or failure will depend on the skill of their leaders and
circumstances, but the trend will be clear. The idea that there will be a credible anti-democratic argument — based on Islam, culture, or the hereditary principle — to legitimate an Arab regime is fading fast.

The reason that only democratic arguments will be available to legitimate regimes is due to the second trend that has become clear this year: the growing acceptance by Islamist groups of the idea that democratic politics is both tactically wise and ideologically compatible with an Islamist state. The Muslim Brotherhood and its variants (al-Nahda in Tunisia, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco) have been moving in this direction for some time. So have Shiite Arab political groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The surprise of 2011 has been how willing some
Salafi Islamist groups — extreme religious conservatives — have been to embrace democratic politics. The most obvious case is Egypt, where the al-Nour Party did extremely well in the first round of parliamentary voting, winning some 25 percent of the vote and 20 percent of the seats. But Salafi involvement in democratic politics has also been a reality in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen for some time now. Even in Saudi Arabia, important Salafi activists have signed petitions calling for an elected legislature.

This is a major change in the Salafi movement, which in the past was vehemently anti-democratic. Whether this change among Salafis is purely tactical (and there are plenty of Salafis who still argue against democracy) remains to be seen. But the general movement among Islamists of all ideological stripes toward democratic politics undercuts the one serious alternative to democracy as the basis for regime legitimacy in the Arab world. Now, the only Islamists who argue against democracy are al Qaeda, the official clergy of Saudi Arabia, and the Shiite advocates of
velayat-e faqih, who are now increasingly limited to the Iranian supreme leader and his circle. This is not a winning coalition in the battle for regional hearts and minds.

The third, most obvious, trend of 2011 is the success of Islamists at the ballot box. Islamist parties won pluralities in the Tunisian and Moroccan elections and might secure an absolute majority of the seats in the new Egyptian parliament, if trends from the first round of voting hold up. This is not necessarily a bad thing for their societies. Islamists might provide better governance in Arab states than their more secular predecessors. They might be real democrats, willing to accept rotation in power based on regular elections. They might make such mistakes in power
that their citizens, over time, turn away from them. We will have to see how they govern. But Islamists most certainly will be less willing to cooperate with the United States on a whole range of U.S. foreign-policy goals in the region than the autocrats they are replacing. Islamists are suspicious of American goals in the region and American cultural influences in their countries. There is no getting around the fact that a more Islamist Arab world will be one that is less willing to cooperate with the United States.

The fourth trend that became clear in 2011 is that the Arab world remains a political community. The push for integral unity that characterized politics from the 1940s through the 1960s, whose high point was the 1958-1961 United Arab Republic, is long past. Arabs, however, still look to one another for political inspiration and experimentation. The diffusion effect of the Tunisian protests, accelerated by old (television) and new (social) media, has given new evidence of the importance of Arab political identity across borders. This does not mean that foreign-policy issues were the drivers in the uprisings the region witnessed this year. It does mean, however, that on foreign-policy issues, Arab public opinion
will be affected not just by domestic politics but by regional politics as well — the Palestinian issue, the fate of other Arab democracy movements, solidarity against outside pressure. How far this will go remains to be seen, but a more empowered Arab public opinion will have a regional, not just a local, view of problems.

American Policy in the New Arab World: What Not to Do

Given these new regional realities, how should the United States read just its Middle East policies? If it were to follow the advice of Pollack cited earlier, and with him most American observers of the region, Washington should be developing all sorts of means to affect, even guide, the domestic political development of Arab states. It should be using foreign aid, military-to-military relations, international organizations, democracy-promotion programs, and rhetoric to push the Arab states toward liberal, democratic political reform. Domestic politics in the Arab world should be Washington’s major focus, equal to if not superior to more
classic definitions of American regional interest — oil access and Arab-Israeli peace. As Pollack argues, this is a “second chance” for America in the Middle East.

Following this path would be a mistake. Americans have amply demonstrated that they are not very good at remaking the domestic politics of Muslim states. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq, where America has committed the greatest amounts of its power and resources, has turned out as Americans would have liked. (All those who think America can help build a strong, competent state in Yemen after Ali Abdullah Saleh exits the scene, for instance, are directed to reread the preceding sentence.)

America’s proclivity to assume that all democratic movements share its overall policy goals should have been exploded by the results of the Iraqi elections of 2005 and 2010 and by Hamas’s victory in Palestine in 2006, but the enthusiasm with which the American political class met the Arab upheavals of 2011 indicates that these naive assumptions die hard.

The likelihood that Islamists and populists will do very well in free elections in the Arab world — as they have in Tunisia and Egypt just recently — will complicate U.S. relations with these countries to the extent that U.S. policy focuses on pushing these new democracies toward social and political liberalism and “Washington Consensus” economic policies. If America is focused on remaking the domestic politics of transitioning Arab states in its own image, U.S. policy will inevitably
fail.

Not only should the United States not make the domestic politics of Arab states the focus of its foreign policy, but it should also not try to tailor its policies toward public opinion in these countries. This is counterintuitive, because I readily concede that public opinion will be more important in the foreign policies of Arab states, even those that remain authoritarian, as a result of the events of 2011. It is not that public opinion is not important. It is that it is fickle and thus not worth chasing for short-term gains. The returns are not worth the
investment.

This is not something particular to the Arab world. Public opinion everywhere on foreign-policy issues is fickle, easily led by governments and reactive to immediate events. And the United States, because of certain policies into which it is locked, is always going to be taking positions that will run against Arab public opinion. Whatever gains it might make will shortly be lost by other policies it will adopt, as
President Barack Obama has already learned the hard way.

The obvious obstacle in front of an American policy aimed at ingratiating the United States with Arab public opinion is Israel. Given demographic and political trends in Israel, we can expect more hard-line Israeli governments in the future, not fewer. Islamists in general have a very negative view of Israel. They have not gone through the painful process of defeat and loss of territory that secular and local nationalist movements have regarding Israel. They are going to be harder on Arab-Israeli questions than preceding governments. Thus we have a likely future of
hard-line Israeli governments facing Islamist Arab governments, or at least Arab governments more concerned about their own public opinion than in the past. America will always side with Israel. It cannot do otherwise, given its politics. So any effort to tailor American policy toward Arab public opinion will always come a cropper on this issue.

But the Arab-Israeli conflict is hardly the only such obstacle. The United States advocates liberal policies on a range of social and political issues. Even if the U.S. executive suppresses America’s natural liberal inclinations, its Congress will not. The American political class will also opine, loudly and often, about the superiority of America’s social mores and not hesitate to tell Arabs how they should conduct their affairs. Islamist governments and movements in the Arab world will
vigorously disagree with American positions on women’s issues, the role of religion in the public sphere, and a host of other things. Social issues are a minefield in American-Arab relations as the Arab world becomes both more democratic (thus increasing the number of political entrepreneurs looking to strengthen their positions by stirring up controversy) and more Islamist.

Americans as a country are also wedded to an economic model that, to some extent, has been rejected by the Arab uprisings of 2011. Tunisia and Egypt were the Arab countries most often praised by the World Bank and the IMF for adopting Washington Consensus economic policies (though both were foot-draggers compared with neoliberal success stories elsewhere, such as Turkey). Their presidents were also the first two Arab leaders to fall. A Washington preaching neoliberal economic policies toward democratic Arab regimes might be right on the merits, but is unlikely to win many converts on the street.

Public opinion is going to be more important in Arab states’ foreign policies as those states become more democratic. Even the authoritarians will be more concerned about it. The United States should be careful not to alienate it gratuitously, but a policy based on the idea that America should make appealing to Arab public opinion a primary policy goal is bound to fail. America just cannot win their hearts and minds.

An Argument for a Modest and Self-Restrained American Policy

If we back away from the domestic politics of Arab states (as well as those of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan) and look at the region in classic balance-of-power terms, we need not be so concerned about American regional interests. This is a multipolar region where balancing dynamics operate. Those balancing dynamics are complicated by the appeal of cross-border identities and ideologies, a factor that can be exploited by ambitious regional powers (as with Nasserist Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s or Iran’s ties with Islamist groups in the Arab world today).
But the modern history of the region indicates that no local power can achieve a dominant position and thus put at risk American interests in oil access. If the United States, the most powerful country in the history of the world, could not impose its hegemony on the region, then it should not be too worried about Iran, even an Iran with a few nuclear weapons, doing so. In this case, system dynamics work in America’s favor.

Those systemic dynamics are strengthened by the fact that the most powerful state in the region militarily, Israel, and the richest state in the region, Saudi Arabia, are opposed to regional hegemonic plays and are both allied with the United States. Each is an uncomfortable ally in its own way: Saudi Arabia for the obvious reasons and Israel, increasingly, because of its obstinacy regarding a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But their power helps to serve American geopolitical
interests in the region during a period of enormous change and uncertainty. Turkey’s re-entry as an active player into regional politics also works in America’s favor. While the AKP government will occasionally cause headaches, particularly in its stance toward Israel, having another strong (both domestically and internationally) state playing the regional game makes it even more unlikely that Iran, or any other state, can achieve a position of regional hegemony.

Thus, the United States should approach regimes in the region, new and old, autocratic and democratic, with a minimalist agenda based on state-to-state interests. New democratic regimes will be as concerned about balancing dynamics as their old authoritarian predecessors. They will turn to Washington for help in their own balance-of-power games (to some extent, this is already happening on Syria). If one state chooses to adopt a hostile position toward the United States, its neighbors will probably seek out U.S. help. America can afford to take a less involved, less intense interest in the region and step in as needed to prevent the
worst outcomes — which can be done without a large U.S. land-based military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else. The term of art in the international relations scholarship is “offshore balancing.” That should be the overriding guide to American Middle East policy, not intense involvement in the domestic politics of regional states.

I am not advocating a complete U.S. political or military disengagement from the region. Maintaining U.S. bases in the small Gulf states is a relatively cost-effective way of sustaining a military capability in an important area. (Bahrain is becoming more problematic on this score; the United States has no interest in having bases in unstable countries and getting caught up in their domestic politics.) Washington should engage with all regional governments, even Iran, on a regular basis. It should encourage balancing dynamics, bolstering those threatened by America’s regional enemies. If circumstances are propitious (though I think this will be rare in the immediate future), Washington should push for progress
on the Arab-Israeli front.

But America should avoid plunging into the domestic affairs of Arab states, even when it thinks it has influence there. Egypt is the perfect example. America’s $1.3 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military certainly gives the United States some leverage over it. But America should not use that to try to micromanage what will inevitably be a complex and drawn-out process of negotiations among the Army, the newly empowered Islamists, other factions in the new parliament, and the body
selected to write a new constitution about just what the relationship between the Army and new political order will be. The United States should simply make it clear that continued aid to the Egyptian military depends on Egyptian foreign-policy decisions toward America and on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Of course, the ground rules of U.S. foreign policy have changed, even for an offshore balancer. The United States needs to communicate those ground rules to allied Arab governments and their publics: Washington cannot provide aid to militaries that brutally suppress nonviolent popular demonstrations as a matter of regular policy. Washington will issue statements in support of democratic reform and human rights across the board, affecting allies and adversaries equally. If allies do not like that, tough for them. But these minimal guidelines are far different from
the interventionist programs being put forward by both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists in an effort to guide the politics of the Arab world.

The United States is well positioned to restrain itself in this period of flux in the Middle East. It needs only to make the choice to do so. U.S. vital interests are not threatened. America’s power to prevent such threats is still significant. Regional balance-of-power dynamics work in America’s favor. The United States can afford to let developments play out, not getting too exercised by the Islamist wave in the region but not encouraging it through active democracy promotion either. America can husband its resources rather than waste them in the pursuit of chimeras,
like liberal democratic Arab states at peace with Israel and strongly allied with the United States. It can take the moral high ground in a way that neoconservatives and liberal interventionists do not appreciate, by not interfering in the domestic politics of Arab states. America can confidently stand aside and wait for regional states, driven by regional dynamics, to come to it for assistance and support. A decade of failed efforts to remake the politics of the region should be enough. Washington needs to learn the wisdom of the White Rabbit and just stand there in the
Middle East.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

FT: Iranian currency plunges to record low

Financial Times
December 21, 2011 3:58 pm

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

Iran's currency has plunged almost 10 per cent to a record low against the US dollar in recent days amid concerns over the impact of international sanctions and speculation the government is devaluing the rial to help narrow a massive budget deficit.

One US dollar bought 15,300 rials on the open market on Wednesday, from 13,800 on Saturday. The Iranian currency is down 30 per cent against the dollar this year.

But the 9.8 per cent decline in just a few days is fueling fresh anxiety, not only among ordinary Iranians worried about the sharp fall in the value of their rial-based savings but also among businessmen who say the currency volatility has made their lives difficult.

Over the past decade, Iran’s Central Bank, which channels more than 90 per cent of hard currency into the local market, has employed a managed float system to support a single rate against hard currencies, notably the US dollar.

Usually when the rial shows signs of weakening the bank pumps foreign currency into the market to intervene. But sometimes the authorities choose to weaken the national currency intentionally by withholding the supply of hard currency to earn more rial-denominated income when the government faces a budget deficit.

The managed float mechanism has collapsed for much of this year. The central bank's adoption of a multiple-rate system has also failed to bring back stability to the market and to foil the impact of international sanctions aimed at Tehran's nuclear programme. Sanctions have caused the cost of financial transactions to increase, by forcing them to go through numerous back channels, and have hit foreign currency markets by reducing the supply of cash.

But there are also domestic dynamics at play. While the market remains anxious about the possibility of a European Union oil embargo and the US imposing sanctions on the central bank, local media have accused the government of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, president, of engineering a deliberate devaluation to boost the rial value of its oil income in the final months of the fiscal year to March.

Economists and parliamentarians have predicted this year's budget deficit could be as high as $30bn, or 7 per cent of the country's GDP.

The government is due to present its budget bill to parliament soon and some analysts believe the government is allowing the rial to weaken to reset the official exchange rate to the dollar in the budget, which has traditionally sat around the 10,000 mark.

But Iran's minister of economy and finance, Shamsoddin Hosseini, on Wednesday denied any such intention…

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

WP: New Realities after Arab Spring

It was a year ago this past Saturday that a fruit salesman named Mohammed Bouazizi put himself on fire in Tunisia bringing attention to the rising tide of popular revolutions about to spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen and Bahrain. Journalists started comparing the uprisings to protests against Eastern European regimes of 1989, and it seemed logical to expect similar outcome for the Middle East. However, as this article by Marc Fisher points out, the realities of this so-called Arab Spring are very different, and while it seems to have had results in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, others like Bashar Assad of Syria and the Bahrain's ruling family have decided to fight to the end. No one knows who the killings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain will end, and if there will be a peaceful transition in these countries.


Arab Spring yields different outcomes in Bahrain, Egypt and Libya

By Marc Fisher
December 20, 2011
The Washington Post

At the dawn of the first winter after the Arab Spring, Bahrain is an island of sadness. Every few minutes, U.S.-made Apache helicopters buzz Rula al-Saffar’s suburban walled community, a collection of pleasant, sand-colored stucco houses that is home to teachers, engineers, nurses and other middle-class families. Black armored vehicles filled with commandos stand guard at checkpoints along quiet lanes.

On a bucolic December morning, sun-drenched and warm, Saffar steers her Mazda SUV past the evidence of last night’s confrontations — fresh graffiti denouncing the king; spent tear-gas canisters fired at the teenagers who take to the streets in protest each night.

Saffar, 49, is a petite nurse who spent 18 years working at a Dallas hospital and came home to Bahrain with more than a little Texas twang to her English. She wears a brave smile with her jeans and favorite Christmas shirt from Dallas, but any day now, the security police could show up to take her away. Her crimes, best she can tell, were to join multitudes of Bahrainis who demonstrated for democracy early this year and then to treat protesters injured by police and military forces.

The Arab Spring arrived in this island nation with picnics and parades. Saffar, who works at the country’s biggest hospital, reveled in “the beauty of the Pearl Roundabout,” a reference to those days in February and March when tens of thousands — young and old; rich, poor and in between — gathered at the vast traffic circle in the center of the capital, Manama, encouraged by their own crown prince, who had declared protests a worthy expression of democracy.

Nine months later, in a country only slightly bigger than the District of Columbia, hopes are dashed, the uprising is crushed, and the royal family is still in charge — though deeply damaged by its own crackdown. Trust has been vaporized.

In the Arab world this year, starting in Tunisia and flowering in Egypt, a movement of people frustrated by oppressive government, corrupt leaders and a lack of jobs suddenly felt safe to take to the streets. As with all revolutions, they would live days of euphoria followed by more sober times, when the burdens of history and reality weigh heavily against the prospect of change.

A journey to three countries where ordinary people risked everything to reach for a better future reveals three very different outcomes. In Libya, perhaps the least likely of uprisings has led not only to the ousting and killing of longtime ruler Moammar Gaddafi, but also to a fast-moving, well-organized push toward elective democracy. The fall of the government has kicked up tribal rivalries and exposed a vein of religious extremism, but there is a powerful sense of optimism on the streets of Tripoli, the whitewashed capital on the Mediterranean.

In Egypt, by far the largest of the Arab nations to experience a revolt, the despised Hosni Mubarak finds himself deposed and on trial. But despite a swift move to elections, power remains in the hands of the military and the oligarchs whose economic domination was one of the protesters’ chief grievances.

With its sparkling glass skyscrapers and broad modern highways, Bahrain looks peaceful and prosperous. It is a wealthy nation that refines much of the Persian Gulf region’s oil. But, like Tunisia, Egypt and the other Arab countries where people took to the streets this year, it is a place where the government is viewed as corrupt and distant, where in recent years the rich got richer, the poor grew poorer and the middle class increasingly lost its sense of possibility.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become a worldwide symbol of the power of ordinary people to bring down tyranny. Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, by contrast, has been erased from the map — literally. The government brought in bulldozers to demolish it.

The revolt in Bahrain resulted not in elections or new leaders but in 3,000 arrests, an epidemic of torture and innumerable crushed souls. The Sunni-led government and private employers fired thousands of workers, nearly all of them Shiite Muslims. A people united in a spring of hope were by fall spurning friends who descended from a different sect.

In each country, revolution brought disparate groups together in a burst of people power organized through social media. But the second, slower phase of change has exposed and highlighted religious, ethnic and class differences. Young, secular liberals who were instrumental in the Arab Spring revolts have been pushed aside as Muslim groups long suppressed by secular autocrats won favor from voters who associated them with honesty and community service.

In Bahrain, the government and its media allies stoked sectarian conflict, stirring fears among the country’s Sunni elite of an Iranian-controlled Shiite takeover. Many Bahrainis grew up knowing little or nothing about the historical division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but after the protests began, the government put out word that the mostly Shiite demonstrators — Bahrain’s population is about 70 percent Shiite — were acting on behalf of Iran, the much-feared neighbor across the Persian Gulf.

Just days after the demonstrations began, the country’s security police joined with masked thugs to break up the protests with metal batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot.

Saffar and her colleagues worked round-the-clock tending to injured protesters. But in the next days, dozens of doctors and nurses — nearly all of them Shiites — began to vanish from the hospital, taken away by masked security men. One day in March, Saffar got a call at home: Come to the police station for questioning or we will come get you. She dressed in a suit and heels and called her attorney. Change into jeans and a shirt, he told her.

When Saffar arrived at the police station, the nurse, like dozens of other medics who had treated injured demonstrators, was blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into an ice-cold cell. For five hours, she was forced to stand ramrod straight, interrogated by people she could not see. A policewoman hit her about the face with her hands. A man slapped her, pulled her hair and poked at her with an electric prod. They called her a whore. They accused her of inciting hatred at a public gathering. They called her “filthy Shia.”

Guards threatened to rape Saffar. She was made to shout, “Long live the king and crown prince!”

The medics stood, blindfolded and cuffed, for three days without sleep, food or water. On the third day, the guards hung a sign on Saffar’s back that invited kicks and slaps. They walked her down a hallway where people in uniform accepted the invitation.

After seven days, the still-blindfolded Saffar was allowed to dictate a statement about what she had seen and done at the hospital during the uprising. Then her interrogator tore up the document and burned her hair with a cigarette lighter.

The blindfold ordeal lasted 15 days. When Saffar came home in August after 143 days in detention, she had lost nearly a third of her weight. She looked in the mirror “and I saw an old woman.” When she tried to return to work, she was told that she had been suspended — no reason given.

A military court sentenced her to 15 years in prison. An appeal is to be heard in criminal court next month.

At the bottom of the police summons that each arrested medic received from the Interior Ministry, a slogan in large type says, “With your cooperation we will achieve security and stability.”

An investigation by an international panel of jurists last month verified the accounts of torture and indiscriminate arrests. The king promised to hold those responsible to account and to restore the jobs of thousands. But the promises have yet to be met.

Saffar, who like many Bahrainis with money went to an English-language school as a teen, grew up not knowing whether she was Sunni or Shiite. She said her mother would tell her, “You’re a Muslim Bahraini, and that’s it.”

In fact, she is what Bahrainis call a “Su-Shi,” with a Sunni mother and Shiite father. Such intermarriages are common in Bahrain.

Just a few minutes’ drive from Saffar’s house, in a walled community where some of the country’s investment bankers and other beneficiaries of oil wealth live, four couples gather for dinner and a chance to see how far along their friends are in creating Plan B — their escape from the country they love.

These are not the kind of people who go to protests, but some were rooting for the demonstrators. Others around the table were put off by the protesters’ disruptive tactics, such as pouring motor oil on highways.

All of the couples have started planning their departures. If the kids miss a month of school because of disturbances, we’re out of here, one businessman says. If investment here continues to drop, we’ll have to move, another says.

They wonder how their country can climb down from the heated Sunni-Shiite confrontation: At their children’s school, a sixth-grader asked her friends not to talk to Shiite girls. In another grade, a child handing out invitations to his birthday party inquired whether his friends were Sunni or Shiite; only the Sunnis got invitations.

Some Sunnis understand the royal family’s decision to play hardball: Being across the gulf from Iran — which sponsored a coup attempt in Bahrain three decades ago — the king is spooked by the Shiite Islamist theocracy. But the independent commission found no evidence of involvement by Iran in Bahrain’s protests. Organizers of the uprising say that they may be Shiite but that they are committed to pluralism, secular rule and even the ruling family — if it grants the people a bigger voice.

Change is coming, says blogger and businessman Suhail Algosaibi, who is close to the royal family: “You don’t think the family has seen what’s happening in Egypt and Libya? They know they must reform or they won’t be here anymore. We’re not ready for full democracy; at this stage, we’d very likely have guys with big beards and big turbans and that would be very bad. But they will reform — they have to to survive.” (The Washington Post repeatedly sought interviews with Bahraini government ministers; despite promises that an official would be made available, none was.)

Back home with her husband, Saffar has taken out her Texas Christmas baubles and her porcelain cowboy boots. She will always be part of Texas, but “this is my home. I will never leave it,” she says. “The government created this conspiracy story about the Shia to scare the Sunni, making them believe Iran is planning a revolution here. But ours was never a revolution — it was an uprising to make Bahrain a better place for all of us.”

The morning paper, ever supportive of the royal family, announces that the king has moved to rehire all of the fired Shiite workers. But on a dusty parking lot across from the Labor Ministry building, no one has passed that word to hundreds of terminated workers holding a rally. Ministry officials stay inside the gates, watching from behind a billboard that displays portraits of the king, crown prince and prime minister. The text under their smiling faces reads, “Our full loyalty and allegiance is to our wise leadership.”

An hour or three away from Cairo, depending on the Egyptian capital’s world-class traffic jams, huge white letters in the style of California’s famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign spell out “DREAMLAND.” What Ahmed Bahgat built in the desert beyond the pyramids during the reign of Hosni Mubarak is a manufacturing, real estate and entertainment empire beyond the imagination of most Egyptians. It was the perfect target for a revolution in a country where four in 10 residents get by on $2 or less a day.

So when the revolution swiftly spread out from Tahrir Square in February, Bahgat’s dream darkened. The magnate says he spent the Arab Spring in shock as police vanished from the streets, his factory workers stayed home and his photo was carried by a major newspaper depicting him as the archetypal fat cat who prospered under Mubarak.

Bahgat had plenty to lose. Dreamland covers 150,000 acres and includes 5,000 villas and apartments. It houses office complexes for the Egyptian arms of Microsoft, IBM and other multinational companies. It has a Hilton and a Sheraton; a shopping mall; three schools; a golf course; the studios of Bahgat’s TV network, Dream TV; and an amusement park designed by the company that planned the Universal Studios theme park in California.

In those first weeks after Mubarak’s ouster, critics went to the state prosecutor and accused Bahgat of getting a sweetheart deal for the vast tract of desert he acquired in the early 1990s. In four court cases, debtors and prosecutors challenged his control of his empire.

Bahgat’s Dream Park is mostly empty these days. At his hotels, occupancy rates are half what they were before the revolution. The sales office for Dreamland’s sumptuous villas and apartments rarely gets even a nibble anymore, says Mohamed Fathy, the sales director. “No one wants to invest in real estate in a country whose future is so cloudy,” he says.

But as the first anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests approaches, Bahgat says he’s on the verge of winning back complete control of his empire.

The revolution was indeed televised, but after the cameras moved on, Egypt’s most powerful men remained very much in charge. Mubarak is gone, and Egyptians have come out in huge numbers in the first rounds of parliamentary elections, with about two-thirds of voters selecting Islamist parties, either the more-moderate Muslim Brotherhood or the fundamentalist Salafists. But from the poorest slums to the most luxurious of gated communities, Egyptians agree with Bahgat that very little has changed in their daily lives: The military still controls much of Egyptian life and shows few signs of ceding power, and the billionaires who made out like bandits under Mubarak are still doing splendidly — a reality no one expects will change anytime soon.

“For three months, everyone was shouting about thieves, meaning people with money,” Bahgat says. “But they will get tired of hating us. This is a wave, and we are nearing the end of the wave.”

At the birthplace of the revolution, it’s hard to argue with Bahgat’s view. A few tents remain in Tahrir Square, but the encampment of protesters no longer reflects a cross section of Egyptian society. On most days now, only a few fringe fundamentalist Muslim preachers manage to muster even a small crowd.

In Dreamland, the boss’s frontline managers see a similar desolation. “We used to have freedom, but not anymore,” says the general manager, Hefni Higazi, who misses Mubarak’s firm stand against Islamists. “Our last hope is that the army will protect our secular life. Otherwise, we’ll become another Iran. The core of our economy is tourism, and now we have people voting for Islamist parties that want to ban alcohol and bikinis on the beach. It’s just crazy.”

Bahgat liked Mubarak. It was Mubarak who personally appealed to Bahgat to move back to Egypt from a professorial stint in Atlanta. The two loved to think big. Mubarak was very good to the developers who built Cairo’s satellite cities over the past two decades.

But Bahgat’s relationship with the Mubarak family soured in the months before the revolution, especially after a popular talk-show host on Bahgat’s Dream TV dared to opine that the president’s son Gamal should not be allowed to succeed his aging father. Bahgat fired the host, but that did not mollify Mubarak. Two days after that show aired last year, Bahgat got a call from the presidential palace: He could sign over to the regime a big chunk of his assets, or he could find himself in jail. Bahgat signed.

So he was glad to see the Mubarak family fall in February. But Bahgat had no illusions that the revolution would bring about fundamental change. Neither do the customers at the tiny “Men 2000” barbershop in the cacophonous, congested, working-class Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba: “The rich still have their fingers in everything,” says Hisham Kamassim, who repairs air conditioners for a living.

A few blocks away, at the Church of the Virgin Mary, Father Sarabamon Abdo tries to calm his Coptic Christian parishioners, the more financially stable of whom are considering leaving Egypt because of attacks against churches by Salafists since the fall of the regime. “What has changed is that some Muslims now openly accuse us of being infidels even though Muslims and Christians have lived together here for 1,400 years,” the pastor says. “If the Muslims take over the government, will they apply their sharia law on me, a Christian? In the Koran, it says the Christians should be ruled by their own book, the Bible. So what do I do now? Do I trust you if you call me an infidel, or do I trust the Koran that respects us as a people of faith?”

Fifteen miles south, in a scruffy corner of the affluent Maadi neighborhood, Salafists shop for votes just blocks from a Nile River party boat that thumps dance tunes while Egyptian teens — boys and girls together — boogie on the deck.

The Salafists’ Nour party is drawing about 20 percent of the vote so far, thanks to campaigners such as Ali Muhammad, a 35-year-old with a trim beard, a master’s degree in Islamic history and a novel concept of democracy. When Islamists become the majority in the new parliament, he says, “those who do not like the laws we enforce will be contravening democracy because in democracy, the majority creates the law. Behavior opposed to the prophet’s words will be banned. The state will punish those who disobey. If a current emerges that is contradictory to the religious ideology, the people will rise up against this current.”

Islam is also central to Bahgat, a tall, lumpy engineer who was living in Atlanta when he got his start by inventing a digital alarm clock that alerts Muslims to their five daily prayer times. But he is adamant that mixing religion and government is a mistake his countrymen will come to regret.

“The Muslim Brotherhood tells the people: ‘Choose me and I will get you a car and money and medical help.’ Then the people will get nothing,” Bahgat says, “and they will see that these Islamists are not qualified to run the country.”

The revolution “has had a devastating impact on everything,” Bahgat says. The government confiscated most of his assets; he’s suing to get his money back. “Egyptians believe you cannot have money unless you stole it. Americans admire rich people and celebrities. In Egypt, they hate them.”

Still, Bahgat sees a return to normality on the horizon. Most of his companies — the real estate holdings, the TV manufacturer that is the largest in the Middle East, the plastics company that churns out parts for his home appliance enterprise — are showing improved numbers, and Bahgat is confident that what the world viewed as a revolution will soon be revealed as a passing fancy.

“Everything in Egypt will continue as is,” the magnate says.

Supplicants enter the grand marble Italian palazzo on one of Tripoli’s once-elegant squares, gingerly stepping into a lush lobby decorated with wooden cutouts from the Ottoman era. For 42 years, most Libyans entered such buildings only on command and with fear. Now, smiling men in suits invite them to wait on velvet thrones to meet with the man who as of a few weeks ago runs their city.

In moments, they are ushered into the huge corner office of Abdul Rezzaq Abuhajar, who until last spring sold bedsheets in a Tripoli shop.

Under Moammar Gaddafi, there was no local government; the dictator ran everything. Now, Abuhajar — a hero to many residents of the Libyan capital because he organized opposition to Gaddafi from exile in Egypt for many years — is head of the interim city council. That makes him responsible for the city’s trash, sewage and thousands of refugees, who fled towns destroyed in the battles between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists. “I have to open schools for the children who’ve come to the capital. I need shelters, a food supply. And I’ve got to get the police back on the streets,” he says.

Tripoli is still nursing its wounds and celebrating its liberation. Gaddafi’s palace, bombed into a concrete shell, has become a macabre playground for children. At major intersections, ragtag gangs of militiamen — teenagers with automatic weapons, really — hang out, supposedly protecting the people. Abuhajar has little, if any, sway over the boys in camos. But he is confident that the militias will come under civilian control soon, because money talks and Libya has it by the barrel.

Libya looks disorganized, but its small population is united — in their euphoria over the demise of Gaddafi, in their hunger for jobs and in a more wholehearted embrace of Islam than their dictator allowed.

“We are only 6 million people, and we have this oil and a 2,000-kilometer coastline,” Abuhajar says. “We can use the oil money to help people with their needs now, buying us time to build a government and create new sources of jobs and income.”

“We will be patriotic and efficient and open to the world,” he said, “like Europe and America. And Islam will keep people peaceful.”

Except that when night falls, gunfire pierces the calm along the Mediterranean shoreline. Salafist extremists conduct drive-by shootings on mosques that house tombs of much-admired Islamic scholars who died centuries ago — a tribute that the Salafists believe violates the faith’s ban on idolatry.

Abuhajar’s deputy, Hisham Krekshi, is dispatched to a 13th-century seaside mosque to see whether he can help. A banner outside the whitewashed stucco house of worship announces “Yes to National Unity, No to Religious Extremism.”

Krekshi assures the imam that his police forces will come by from time to time but adds that there’s not much more he can do — or wants to do. “I’m not so worried about these extremists,” he says. The deeper problem is that “there’s nothing here. We don’t have parking lots, we don’t have parks. We have such basic needs that we don’t have time for religious differences.”

Back at city hall, those needs keep Abuhajar’s aides streaming in and out of his office, directing visitor traffic, funneling documents to the boss. A man arrives to plead the case of an ailing relative who cannot be treated at Tripoli’s ill-equipped hospital. Abuhajar opens a drawer, takes out a stack of cash and peels off enough for the sick man to travel to Turkey for proper care.

Abuhajar is a respected elder now, but in a quiet moment, the 71-year-old recalls how he was arrested in 1973 and spent 18 months in prison, accused of having started an unauthorized Islamic organization. “They accused me because I have a beard and pray in a mosque,” Abuhajar says. “We never had any group. We talked about it but never did it.”

Day after day for more than a year, Abuhajar was interrogated, often while hanging upside down. When he finally saw a judge, his case was dismissed.

He’d had enough of Gaddafi’s Libya, so he moved his family to Cairo, where he sold furniture and helped organize an exile opposition group called the Seventh Front. In 1984, the group launched an assassination plot against Gaddafi, but the dictator’s security force discovered the scheme, killed some of its operatives and sent others to prison. Abuhajar turned to raising money for poor Libyans in Egypt.

In 1996, Abuhajar returned to Tripoli. There was no plot this time, just a deep and abiding homesickness. He was hauled in for questioning every few months, but in the last few years of the Gaddafi regime, they left him alone — an old man selling bedsheets didn’t seem much of a threat anymore.

Then, in February, in the eastern city of Benghazi, the first rumblings of an ­anti-Gaddafi uprising led Abuhajar to start raising money from Muslim Brotherhood allies in Tunisia and Europe, as well as from trusted friends in Libya. “I need medicine for my daughter,” Abuhajar would say on the phone, hoping Gaddafi’s secret police wouldn’t catch on to the code for “I need guns for the rebels.”

Now, he’s reading memos rather than running guns. An assistant leans over Abuhajar’s shoulder, whispers a few words and hands over a summary of a case he must adjudicate: Revolutionaries searching for Gaddafi loyalists found 1.4 million dinars — about $1.1 million — in one man’s house. Assuming it was ill-gained, the revolutionaries confiscated the money and now claim the 10 percent bounty that the new government offers to those who reclaim any of Gaddafi’s plunder. The council chief must decide what to do with the cash. He reads testimonials to the honesty of the man whose house was raided.

With a swift signature, Abuhajar returns the money to its owner. “He’s well respected, a good man,” Abuhajar says. “We only want to punish those who killed and tortured for Gaddafi. . . . The others, like this man, they are Libyans. If they were pro-Gaddafi, or they were bought by money, they are still our neighbors. Time heals. If we make enemies of our neighbors, we will get nowhere.”

Abuhajar stares down at his hands. There is so much to do, and so many years were wasted. Gaddafi, he says, “stole 40 years of my life.” It is a sentiment heard throughout the city.

In the old city’s warren of alleys lined with shops selling gold, copper and spices, Rashid Alhamadi sits in his open-air stall, bundled in sweater and coat, hunched over his manual typewriter. He is a scribe, serving customers who need someone to type up court documents or letters. Alhamadi, 59, has been here for three decades, ever since Gaddafi’s men had him imprisoned and tortured. His crime: As a high school teacher, he chastised Gaddafi’s son Mohammed for bringing to school a wooden device used to hang people by their feet. The teacher lost his job and house for daring to question the dictator’s son.

“We all lost something,” Alhamadi said. “Now, we start with a blank white page. We are thirsty for work and education. We can be like Europe or America; we can talk back and say this is good, this is bad. Like Watergate — we can take someone in power who has done wrong and change them out.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Yale Global Online: Iran Frustrated Attempting to Take Charge of Arab Rising

Repressing Democracy, With American Arms:

The New York Times' columnist Nicholas Kristof has a very good piece in today's New York Times about how a pro-American regime in Bahrain is using American-made weapons to crush the pro-democracy uprising in the country. Even though "people here admire much about America and welcomed me into their homes, but there is also anger that the tear gas shells that they sweep off the streets each morning are made by a Pennsylvania company, NonLethal Technologies." America's contradictory policies of voicing support for democracy while at the same time providing weapons of repression will only undermine the credibility of Washington.


Repressing Democracy, With American Arms
December 17, 2011
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
SITRA, Bahrain

WHEN President Obama decides soon whether to approve a $53 million arms sale to our close but despotic ally Bahrain, he must weigh the fact that America has a major naval base here and that Bahrain is a moderate, modernizing bulwark against Iran.

Yet he should also understand the systematic, violent repression here, the kind that apparently killed a 14-year-old boy, Ali al-Sheikh, and continues to torment his family.

Ali grew up here in Sitra, a collection of poor villages far from the gleaming bank towers of Bahrain’s skyline. Almost every day pro-democracy protests still bubble up in Sitra, and even when they are completely peaceful they are crushed with a barrage of American-made tear gas.

People here admire much about America and welcomed me into their homes, but there is also anger that the tear gas shells that they sweep off the streets each morning are made by a Pennsylvania company, NonLethal Technologies. It is a private company that declined to comment, but the American government grants it a license for these exports — and every shell fired undermines our image.

In August, Ali joined one of the protests. A policeman fired a shell at Ali from less than 15 feet away, according to the account of the family and human-rights groups. The shell apparently hit the boy in the back of the neck, and he died almost immediately, a couple of minutes’ walk from his home.

The government claims that the bruise was “inconsistent” with a blow from a tear gas grenade. Frankly, I’ve seen the Bahrain authorities lie so much that I don’t credit their denial.

Jawad al-Sheikh, Ali’s father, says that at the hospital, the government tried to force him to sign papers saying Ali had not been killed by the police.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has recently distanced himself from the killings and torture, while pledging that Bahrain will reform. There have indeed been modest signs of improvement, and a member of the royal family, Saqer al-Khalifa, told me that progress will now be accelerated.

Yet despite the lofty rhetoric, the police have continued to persecute Ali’s family. For starters, riot policemen fired tear gas at the boy’s funeral, villagers say.

The police summoned Jawad for interrogation, most recently this month. He fears he will be fired from his job in the Ministry of Electricity.

Skirmishes break out almost daily in the neighborhood, with the police firing tear gas for offenses as trivial as honking to the tune of “Down, Down, Hamad.” Disproportionately often, those tear gas shells seem aimed at Ali’s house. Once, Jawad says, a shell was fired into the house through the front door. A couple of weeks ago, riot policemen barged into the house and ripped photos of Ali from the wall, said the boy’s mother, Maryam Abdulla.

“They’re worried about their throne,” she added, “so they want us to live in fear.”

Mourners regularly leave flowers and photos of Ali on his grave, which is in a vacant lot near the home. Perhaps because some messages call him a martyr, the riot police come regularly and smash the pictures and throw away the flowers. The family has not purchased a headstone yet, for fear that the police will destroy it.

The repression is ubiquitous. Consider Zainab al-Khawaja, 28, whose husband and father are both in prison and have been tortured for pro-democracy activities, according to human rights reports. Police officers have threatened to cut off Khawaja’s tongue, she told me, and they broke her father’s heart by falsely telling him that she had been shipped to Saudi Arabia to be raped and tortured. She braved the risks by talking to me about this last week — before she was arrested too.

Khawaja earned her college degree in Wisconsin. She has read deeply of Gandhi and of Gene Sharp, an American scholar who writes about how to use nonviolent protest to overthrow dictators. She was sitting peacefully protesting in a traffic circle when the police attacked her. First they fired tear gas grenades next to her, and then handcuffed her and dragged her away — sometimes slapping and hitting her as video cameras rolled. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights says that she was beaten more at the police station.

Khawaja is tough as nails, and when we walked alongside demonstrations together, she seemed unbothered by tear gas that left me blinded and coughing. But she worried about her 2-year-old daughter, Jude. And one time as we were driving back from visiting a family whose baby had just died, possibly because so much tear gas had been fired in the neighborhood, Khawaja began crying. “I think I’m losing it,” she said. “It all just gets to me.”

Since the government has now silenced her by putting her in jail, I’ll give her the last word. I asked her a few days before her arrest about the proposed American arms sale to Bahrain.

“At least don’t sell them arms,” she pleaded. “When Obama sells arms to dictators repressing people seeking democracy, he ruins the reputation of America. It’s never in America’s interest to turn a whole people against it.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How much did the Iraq war cost ?

"Reckoning the costs of war in Iraq will take years, especially the impact on US prestige and power in the world. Historians, political scientists, and economists will write doctoral dissertations on the subject, and some will devote careers to calculating and analyzing the data and each others’ conclusions – as continues to be the case with the Vietnam War. Analysts Matthew Duss and Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress have taken a first cut at calculating the costs of the American war in Iraq."


The center is a progressive, nonprofit think tank and advocacy organization in Washington, founded in 2003 by former Clinton administration chief of staff John Podesta.

Iraq ledger: War by the numbers
The Christian Science Monitor
By Brad Knickerbocker
December 17, 2011


Here are some of the main points:

Human Costs

Coalition deaths totaled 4,803, of which 4,484 (93 percent) were American. The number of Americans wounded was 32,200. At least 463 non-Iraqi contractors were killed.

Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated to total between 103,674 and 113,265.

The UNHCR says the war resulted in 1.24 million internally displaced persons and more than 1.6 million refugees.

Financial costs

The Congressional Research Service puts the dollar cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom at $806 billion.

In their book “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate the projected total cost of veterans’ health care and disability payments to be between $422 billion and $717 billion.

Veterans


More than 2 million US service members have served in Iraq or Afghanistan (many in both wars).

The total number of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care is 1,250,663, half of whom (625,384) have used VA health care since 2002.

The number of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is at least 168,854 – more than a quarter of those who have used VA health care.

The suicide rate for Iraq/Afghanistan veterans using VA health care in FY 2008 was 38 suicides per 100,000 veterans – more than three times the national suicide rate for the previous year.

Iraq reconstruction

Total funding: $182.27 billion.

Iraqi government funds (including Coalition Provisional Authority funding): $107.41 billion.

International funds: $13.03 billion.

US funds (2003-2011): $61.83 billion. As a basis for comparison, the US after World War II spent $34.3 billion in Germany and $17.6 billion in Japan on post-war reconstruction. (All figures in 2011 dollars.)

The cost of war is more than numbers, of course. Losing a family member or a lifetime of disability are incalculable.

“The end of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime represents a considerable global good, and a nascent democratic Iraqi republic partnered with the United States could potentially yield benefits in the future,” Duss and Juul of the Center for American Progress write. “But when weighing those possible benefits against the costs of the Iraq intervention, there is simply no conceivable calculus by which Operation Iraqi Freedom can be judged to have been a successful or worthwhile policy.”

That’s a political and historical judgment that no doubt will be debated for years.

The National: Iran tries to mend fences in region

According to Michael Theodoulou, Iran has launched a charm offensive with key regional powers in order to reduce tensions and conflict. It provides a list of initiatives undertaken by Tehran recently.



The National: Iran tries to mend fences in region

Michael Theodoulou (Foreign Correspondent) and Ola Salem
Dec 16, 2011

Iran has launched a charm offensive to ease tensions with key regional powers and US allies amid increasingly tough sanctions and growing isolation over its nuclear programme.

The intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, made a rare trip to Saudi Arabia to deny “absurd” and “baseless” US claims that Tehran planned to assassinate the kingdom’s ambassador to Washington.

Meanwhile the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, assured Turkey that threats by some Iranian political and military figures to strike at Nato missile bases in Turkey if Iran is attacked by Israel or the US did not represent official policy.

And the foreign undersecretary, Dr Hossain Amirabdullahian, in Abu Dhabi on a tour of Gulf states, said relations with Tehran were excellent. “In many fields the relationship with the UAE has developed, and will continue,” he said.

Mr Moslehi, who met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Tuesday, wanted to convince his hosts that the US and Israel are trying to sow discord between Riyadh and Tehran, Iranian officials said.

And Tehran is seeking assurances from Riyadh that it will not pump extra oil to make up for Iran’s market share if US and European sanctions affect Iran’s petroleum exports.

The Islamic republic knows it cannot confront the West and regional powers at the same time. But Tehran’s overtures to its wary neighbours are being blurred by conflicting signals from divisions in Iran’s fractious regime.

Mr Salehi told Turkey’s state-run Anatolian news agency on Wednesday that those who made the “irresponsible and senseless” threats against Nato bases had been warned.

“The official view of the Islamic republic of Iran towards Turkey is based on deep brotherhood and friendship,” he said. “Other statements are considered personal views.”

Only a day before, however, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, denounced Turkey’s model of “secular Islam”.

It was a version of western liberal democracy that was unacceptable for countries that are going through an “Islamic awakening”, he said.

Iran, which is competing with Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence in a changing Arab world, says the Arab uprisings are inspired by its 1979 Islamic revolution.

But it suppressed mass pro-democracy protests that erupted after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election as president in 2009. And despite its vast oil wealth, Iran is struggling to control double-digit inflation and unemployment while Turkey’s economy is booming.

Even though Mr Moslehi’s trip to Saudi Arabia was apparently at the behest of Ayatollah Khamenei, it did not stop others in the supreme leader’s camp from criticising his attempts to ease strained relations with the kingdom.

Hossein Shariatmadari, an aide to the ayatollah and editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, wrote on Wednesday: “Unfortunately, it must be said that our diplomatic apparatus unintentionally has given the collapsing Saud family a gift it badly needed.”

The Iranian regime has shown similar divisions over the recent storming of the British embassy in Tehran, which has badly soured relations with Europe.

Iran’s foreign ministry criticised the brief embassy takeover and expressed regret, while some in Ayatollah Khamenei’s camp hailed it as a well-deserved blow to the “colonial old fox”.

Tehran and Ankara have mutually beneficial trade relations, and Turkey has opposed Washington’s uncompromising stance on Iran’s nuclear programme, arguing for a diplomatic solution to the protracted standoff instead of sanctions.

But the Arab Spring is stoking regional tensions. Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia, has condemned Syria’s brutal crackdown on its opposition while Iran is a staunch supporter of the president Bashar Al Assad’s regime, Tehran’s only Arab ally.

Saudi Arabia accused Iran of fomenting unrest in Bahrain this year and angered Tehran by sending troops into the emirate to help to crush protests.

Despite its public bravado, Iran appears jittery about the possibility of an attack on its nuclear facilities: Tehran said on Wednesday it may move some of its uranium enrichment work to more secure locations.

Influential voices in Washington, meanwhile, have warned that the US, if it relies solely on compulsion, could stumble into a catastrophic war with Iran.

Zbignew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, warned on Wednesday: “If we slide into a conflict with Iran, in this or that fashion, the consequences for us all will be disastrous, disastrous on a massive scale and also globally at the same time.”

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae.