Archive for August, 2008:
By: Meir Javedanfar
One of the biggest security factors, which led to the success of the recent surge in Iraq, was the participation of Sunni Arab fighters, from tribes in places such as the Anbar region. They are known as members of the Awakening Council. These people were former enemies of the US. They took part in many anti-coalition attacks. But they decided to switch sides due to a number of reasons. One was the financial reward which the US started paying them. Many had joined the insurgency because they were former soldiers of the Iraqi army or Baathist members, who were kicked out of the Iraqi army by the new administration. Having no work and blaming the Americans, they saw Al Qaeda insurgents as suitable allies.
More important than that, was what they saw as the invasion of Iraq by the “Iranian enemy.” They saw that by working with the government, many Shiite groups such as Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) were achieving political success by having a bigger say in Iraq’s affairs. So by assisting Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maleki’s crackdown against Al Qaeda, they expected to be rewarded politically, by allowing them to have a bigger political say over the country’s affairs. They would then use this to counter the Shiite parties in Iraq, many of whom they see as “agents of Iran“.
The Awakening Council paid a heavy price for turning against Al Qaeda. One example is the assassination of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, former leader of the council by Al Qaeda in September 2007. This was days after he met with President Bush in the Anbar region.
President Bush is very grateful for the support of the council. It took the heat off his administration, especially as the number of attacks against his forces dropped. So was Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, at least until April this year.
However, in a surprise turn around, Al Maliki is now turning against his former allies, by allowing the Tawfigh party, which is a rival Sunni party to enter the cabinet, instead of people from the Awakening Council.
He has also gone against his promise of integrating all of the Council’s members into the Iraqi army. He is now saying that only 25% will be allowed in. Some believe this is because Maliki believes that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the ranks of the Council members.
This is a huge gamble by the Iraqi Prime Minister. He may have turned against his former allies too soon. He has every right to get rid of militias in his country, and to replace them with a single legitimate security force. But I doubt that he currently has the political and security strength to take such a step so soon after beating the Mahdi Army in Southern Iraq.
Should these members turn their guns against the army again, many in Iraq will find that they have lost their recent gains in politics and security.
Al Maliki may have gambled too much this time.
By: Meir Javedanfar
It is not just the question of the approaching beyond oil age, which is worrying some Middle Eastern countries, especially oil producing ones. The prospect of loss of oil and gas as a major source of income and domestic energy, is now compounded by another major problem and that is the rising price of food.
Lack of water is one factor which is making agriculture and food production more costly. This is together with years of government neglect for the agriculture sector. Until now, many Middle East countries could import food cheaply from abroad, and subsidize it in order to make it affordable to their population. But now, as price of food is increasing, this is making the job of importing and subsidizing much more costly.
This is especially true in countries which are not rich in natural resources, such as Egypt and Jordan. Rising food prices have added to instability in both countries. For example, there were riots in Egypt in April this year over rising bread prices (see video). Such instability provides an opportunity for extremist groups to gain more support by offering their own subsidized food services, as has been the case in Jordan. These services bring more support, and credit for such organization, while the government is made to look corrupt and incompetent.
One of the proposals which is being looked at is for such countries to follow the example of Brunei in the 1970s. Realizing that it does not have the capacity to produce its own food on its own soil, the Brunei government bought massive farms in Australia. Whatever food was produced there, it imported, thus making its food production less vulnerable to hostile local weather conditions. The reduction in dependency on foreign markets also enabled the government to become less vulnerable to massive market fluctuations in prices in international market.
Now rich Saudis and Kuwaitis are doing the same, by scouring places as far away as Sudan, to Ukraine. However, this may lead to resentment in such countries, whereby Saudis are seen to be buying up much needed commodity for themselves, while locals struggle.
Developing domestic capacity to locally produce food is the best long term solution. Many Middle Eastern countries are suffering from high unemployment. More want to diversify their economy away from oil. This is especially true as a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that $45 trillion is needed for investment in non-oil sources of energy in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by the year 2050. This will hit the pockets of oil producers even further.
Investing in the food sector could produce the jobs and diversification needed. It could also add to their strategic importance, due to rising importance of food as a strategic asset by governments all over the world. Life without oil would be difficult. Without food, it would be impossible.
By: Meir Javedanfar
Since the invasion of Iraq by pro US coalition forces, the issue of restoring order has been a priority. Initially, there were not sufficient soldiers to put down the insurgency. However, this situation changed after the arrival of extra US forces, who took part in what became known as the ‘surge‘.
However, the improvement of the situation in Iraq is not only down to application of extra military power. The restoration of Iraq’s energy infrastructure is also responsible for the progress made. In fact, it is a major factor.
“Iraq reached a major goal last month. The Iraqi Ministry of Electricity surpassed the power generation levels that it and the Coalition set in 2004 as the benchmark for the sector’s jumpstart. With peak power production in excess of 6,000 megawatts one day last month,
Iraq generated 50% more summer peak electricity than the Saddam regime ever did.”
This excellent article by Ambassador Charles Ries, the Minister for Economic Affairs and Coordinator for Economic Transition in Iraq, in Real Clear World, explains more:
By: Meir Javedanfar
The guns have barely fallen silent in the conflict between Georgia and Russia. The two sides are still squabbling over the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. Yet that didn’t stop President Bashar Al Assad of Syria from becoming the first head of state to visit Russia, where he declared his unyielding support for Moscow’s position regarding Georgia. “We understand Russia’s stance regarding the breakaway regions and understand that it came in retaliation to Georgian provocation,” he said.
Even more interesting was his follow-up statement: “We oppose any attempt to harm Russia’s position.” He even went as far as to generously offer to host Russian ground-to-ground missiles in his country.
Assad could see that Western demands for Russia to withdraw its forces from South Ossetia — and the recent agreement between Poland and the U.S. to place an anti -missile shield on Polish territory — are worrying Russia.
Moscow is concerned that the West, especially the U.S., is using every opportunity to undermine its position. Some Russians have gone as far as to view Georgia’s provocative decision to send its forces into South Ossetia as a Western-sponsored trap, meant to lure Russia into a conflict. The West would then use Russia’s response as justification for the expansion of NATO in the Caucasus, as well as in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. Both are very sensitive points for Moscow.
By throwing in his lot completely with Russia, Assad obviously hoped that he could use the current anti-Western sentiment in Moscow as capital to finance Russia’s support — both militarily and politically — for Syria and its position.
The purpose of his visit and supporting statement was clear. He was basically insinuating to the Russians:
Like it or not, the West has declared a new Cold War against you, and you must respond. I am willing to help you, if you are willing to reciprocate, by giving me the weapons I need, and by using your presence in the Middle East to scare the Americans and the Israelis who are undermining my position.
The motivations of his strategy are understandable. Unlike his father, when Bashar became president he did not have the support of the Soviet superpower. This made the job of purchasing sophisticated weaponry to counter that of Israel much more difficult. The loss of the Soviet Union as a backer also meant that Damascus lost a powerful ally on the international stage, especially in the UN. Although Syria consolidated power in the Middle East through its alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, on a global scale the country remains isolated, with no prospect of the U.S. or the EU giving their support as the USSR once did. Furthermore, the country’s present economic situation under Bashar is far worse than when his father was in charge. Back then, Syria was earning 80% of its income from oil. Now, due to dwindling resources, this figure is down to 20%. The same goes for water resources. There are reports from Damascus that repeated, lengthy cuts in water supply are making life for its citizens extremely difficult, especially in the summer heat.
Despite his efforts, it is unlikely that Assad can get the Cold War revival that he seeks. First and foremost, Russia of 2008 is far more different than Russia of 1988. Its economy is far more intertwined and dependent on Western capital and trade. This was demonstrated recently when foreign investors pulled their money out of Russia in the wake of the Georgia conflict at the fastest rate since the 1998 ruble crisis. According to the Financial Times, Russian foreign currency reserves dropped by $16.4 billion in the fist week of the conflict with Georgia. This was one of the largest absolute weekly drops in ten years, which put pressure on the ruble and on foreign confidence in the Russian economy.
These days, thanks to trade with the West and high energy prices, Russians are used to the good life. “If the Georgians were smart, instead of attacking South Ossetia, all they needed to do was to threaten to bomb the Gucci shop in Moscow,” quipped a Russian businessman I know, who travels regularly between Israel and Russia. “Russians would have agreed to their annexation of South Ossetia in no time.”
Joking aside, Russia’s leadership is all too aware that economic misery could cost them votes and popularity at home. This is why they will not allow their relations with the EU and the U.S. to deteriorate too drastically by entering into another Cold War.
Unfortunately for Assad, the same goes for Russia’s relations with Israel. Level of trade and diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel, compared to the days of the USSR, have increased astronomically. Russia now hosts hundreds of thousands of its citizens who lived in Israel, have Israeli passports, and are now back living in their land of birth. Many more of its citizens live in Israel. Israeli companies have offices and have invested in the Russian economy,. They have also been instrumental in the high tech and jewelery industry. Today, Russians visit Israel in record numbers. The level of bilateral trade between them is estimated to stand at more than $2 billion — and is rising. Russia would have very little to gain by supporting Syria, at the cost of making Israel into its enemy. Furthermore, with the emergence of China as a superpower, maintaining relations with as many sides as possible is considered crucial to Moscow’s foreign policy.
Russia’s cold shoulder to Syria’s hopes for a new Cold War should not worry Iran too much. Its case is different than that of Damascus. Tehran has much larger gas and oil reserves. For now, its economic situations is not dire as Syria’s is. Furthermore, China supports Russia’s stance in the UN vis a vis the Iranian nuclear program. This means that Russia does not have to make any dramatic changes in its relations with Tehran. Even though they would prefer it, Iran’s leadership can live without a Cold War between Russia and the West. For Syria’s leader, it will be much more difficult.
This article was originally published in PJM Media
By: Meir Javedanfar
The Hamas vs PLO conflict has now spilled over into other parts of the Middle East.
In a surprise move, the PLO office in the Yemeni Capital, which was also known as the embassy of Palestine in Yemen, has decided to shut its doors.
This was done as protest against what the PLO representative called “dual Palestinian representation in Yemen”. By this, he was referring to a representative office recently opened by Hamas in the same city.
In reality, despite their support for terrorism, Hamas has more right than the PLO to represent Palestinians abroad. This is because Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections fair and square, by a large majority, in January 2006.
But for now, Hamas’s strategy of confrontation, turning a blind eye towards Gaza initiated terrorism, and being part of it, will keep the organization isolated at home, and abroad. It seems that Hamas is not learning from Hezbollah. The former seems quite good at building local alliances. Hamas seems to be much better at doing the opposite, as shown through its bloody coup against the PLO in 2007.
Should Hamas change its extremist stance towards Israel, and also work with the PLO, it could turn itself into a serious, legitimate political force, with credibility far beyond its borders. This would keep many right wingers who don’t want peace between Israelis and Palestinians up at night. For now, they sleep easy.
By: Meir Javedanfar
In terms of oil income, the government of president Ahmadinejad has been very lucky. Its is estimated that Iran will earn close to $70 billion from the sale of oil this financial year. This is equivalent to more than 3 years of income from the time when Ayatollah Rafsanjani was in charge of the presidential office, from early to mid 1990s.
However, with high income, comes high responsibility. While the government of Ayatollah Khatami created the Oil Stabilization Fund (OSF) for future emergencies, like when oil prices drop, Ahmadinejad, instead of adding, took money from the OSF to finance his projects. This is despite high oil prices.
With presidential elections less than 10 months away, the Iranian president is going on a massive spending spree. This financial year, it is estimated that his government will have accumulated a $10 billion deficit. Some believe that this figure will rise even more. With a budget totaling $296 billion for 2008-2009, that’s less than a 3% deficit figure, equivalent to half of Israel’s 6% deficit. Nevertheless, with runaway inflation rate of 20%, president Ahmadinejad is well advised by his economic consultants, who have called for reduction in spending.
Inflation as well as making Iran more internationally isolated than ever before, are some of the most notable failure of his term. The former is one area which his domestic competitors can publicly use against him, and will.
However public criticism of the latter is the confined to very few politicians, whose word mean very little, unless they have the backing of the Supreme Leader.
By: Meir Javedanfar
Even without tough sanctions, Iran’s infrastructure seems to be falling apart. Its somewhat embarrassing for some Iranians when president Ahmadinejad praises the launch of the recent satellite as a scientific leap, while his government is doing such a lousy job of running Iran’s national infrastructure (and as it later turned out, with the satellite as well).
The problems with the electricity sector are just one example. Although sanctions are responsible for a small part of this, mismanagement and corruption amongst Iran’s ruling elite are the biggest causes. Everyday, Tehran is without power for 2 hours. Although people are given notice, a city of 10 million people can not suddenly stop functioning without any consequences. Also, people travel between neighborhoods, so its difficult for them to coordinate their activities, in order to avoid the blackouts.
As a result, Tehran’s economy is taking a major hit. For example, I have been told that bookings in dentists are down, because people don’t want to go under sedation after several injections, only for the dentist to suddenly realize that he can’t operate any of his tools.
Same goes for traffic. Many a times people have been waiting behind a traffic light, for it to go out with the power cut. Much like drivers in Israel, Iranian drivers also have the obsession of not wanting to be thought of as suckers. So all of a sudden, hundreds of cars, all competing to be the first to get out, create a massive gridlock.
Furthermore, according to the Iranian news agency Tabnak, people have stopped using lifts because so many have been caught out by the outages. To make things worst, there are also water outages as well, thus making things only more unbearable.
According to Advar news, yesterday, 70 people from a Tehran satellite town near Varamin demonstrated against the authorities. One can safely guess that in terms of number of people being fed up with the situation, this is a tip, of the tip, of the iceberg.
Iran’s plans to build extra nuclear power stations would theoretically help, however, this will not solve all the country’s energy problems. For example, when Bushehr goes on line, it will only resolve 50% of the shortfall in energy production. Other power plants are likely to take longer to build, due to sanctions. Therefore the shortfall will remain for a number of years.
With growth in demand for energy reaching 8% a year, Iran needs to import foreign technology and know how to run its industries, especially its energy sector, otherwise its economy will in most likelihood reach crisis point, which could threaten internal stability.
This will mean that the regime will have to markedly improve its relations with the West, especially the US. This may even include full diplomatic relations. It will have no other choice. It is not a question of if, but when.
The more important question is: will this crisis point arrive before the administration reaches it nuclear weapons goal or after? If before, then sanction and diplomacy will have a much better chance. However, with the price of oil being at record highs, and the fact that this enables the Iranian government to spend its way out of the crisis for the time being, in all likelihood, rapprochement from Iran will take place after it has the bomb.
By: Meir Javedanfar
The last number of days have been a roller coaster for Iranian foreign policy. On the one hand, Iran scored a major success by hosting Nechirvan Barzani, who is the prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq. The Iranian educated Mr Barzani (studied three years at Tehran University), comes from a noble, and interesting Kurdish stock. His grandfather Mustafa Barzani, was the founder of KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), and Massoud Barzani, who is his uncle, later became its head.
What is interesting is that Barzanis had a well know relationship with the government of Israel. According to several reports, it was Mustafa Barzani who sanctioned the presence of Mossad in the Kurdish region of Iraq from the early 60s to the mid 70s. Furthermore, recent reports that Israeli companies were helping Kurdish guerillas, talk of the Israelis operating in areas controlled by Massoud Barzani, indicating of an ongoing relationship between the two sides well into mid 2000, if not beyond.
But Nechirvan Barzani followed a different path. He became close to Iran, after his family were exiled by Saddam. He found refuge in Tehran, during the reign of the Shah. After the revolution, in which some Kurdish groups helped Ayatollah Khomeini, he managed to secure his stay in Iran, and was allowed to keep in touch with KDP elements in Iraq. He finally returned home in 1989 and pursued a very successful political career.
In another successful example of Iran’s soft power strategy, he, much like many Shiites who took refuge in Iran, did not forget the help he received. And now, he is repaying the favor.
One of the main goals of his trip to Tehran and meeting with Ahmadinejad is to secure Tehran’s backing, in the dispute over the oil rich city of Kirkuk. The Kurds want to include it in the Kurdish part of Iraq. But the Arabs (Sunnis) and Turkmens want it in Iraq, because they are worried that they may be persecuted, and more importantly, they may lose out on the oil windfalls. This dispute is one of the reasons behind the delay in the election bill in the Iraqi parliament.
Barzani’s request for help shows that now days, Iran not only has a say in oil rich southern Iraq where its Shiite allies live, it now also has a political and possibly economic say in relatively oil rich northern Iraq. Much in line with Iran’s post war strategy, Tehran is backing more than two sides in a conflict, successfully.
But it hasn’t all been good news for president Ahmadinejad. According to his account, during visit, Turkish president Abdullah Gul warned him against the “machinations of the Zionists”. But the Turks give a very different version of the encounter. According to the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, Gul warned Ahmadinejad in the same way that he warned Iraq’s vice president Taha Yasin Ramadan in 2003, about the upcoming conflict with the United States, telling him (Ahmadinejad) to “avoid getting into an unwinnable war”.
The paper goes on to say:
“Gül did not give Ramadan’s name when warning the Iranian leader but reminded him of the Iraq example when he said, We would not want anything to happen to our neighbor.
We would not want Tehran to be Baghdad”.
These are very tense warnings from a president who is close the US, EU, and Iran. This is also a country which needs Iran for its energy resources. The very fact that Gül chose to make his warning public shows that as he said to Ahmadinejad, “the political area for a peaceful solution is getting narrower. We are approaching critical developments”.