27 November 2013

Iran and the New American Plan for the Middle East

This is my 200th post.

It falls on a momentous event, namely the international accord on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

This provides me with the opportunity to retrace my starting hypothesis and use it to explain the new agreement from a contrarian perspective.

First, let me ask a question.

For as long as remember, we have been told that the US will never do anything against Israel's and Saudi Arabia's wishes. For the former, we are given have a mixture of explanations, ranging from AIPAC's power and the prevalence of the so called Israel firster politicians to a genuine desire to protect Israel, a vulnerable island in the middle of an Arab sea.

For the latter, we are usually offered one word, oil.

Last week's agreement with Iran was vigorously and vociferously opposed by both Israel and Saudi Arabia and they failed miserably. How did that happen?

All the commentary I read suggested that the US is now charting a whole new course in the region. But no one was sure why. Moreover, no one offered a framework that explains both the old and the new.

Let me give it a try.

Starting Point: Rethinking the Arab Spring

When I started this blog, my goal was to provide an explanatory framework for seemingly contradictory events, actions and statements in the larger Middle East. I was especially concerned about the Arab Spring and the attempts to present it as a spontaneous revolution. The yearning for more freedoms might have been genuine. But the fact that, in key instances, the "Spring" was brought forward by traditionally oppressive institutions, gave me pause. And it made me doubt the spontaneity and the revolutionary nature of the upheaval.

A long time ago, I learned from Thomas Kuhn that when an explanatory framework cannot provide answers to all your questions, it might be best to look for a framework that does. The mainstream Spring narrative could not explain why the US trained and equipped Tunisian and Egyptian armies stood by complacently and allowed the autocratic rulers of their respective countries to be deposed within a short period of time. In Egypt, the man who earned the nickname of Mubarak's Poodle for his obedient suppression of people, ordered his troops to protect the protesters against Mubarak's thugs.

When the New York Times reported that the Egyptian army was working closely with the Muslim Brotherhood from the beginning of Tahrir events, I knew that I needed a new perspective.

It was clear that the US was somehow involved especially since I knew that these armies would not act in a manner to jeopardize their relationship with Washington. It is not just the money they have been getting from the US; there is also the equipment, training and privileged relations with American armed forces, including long term exchange and cooperation structures.

But why would the US support an Islamist regime and ostensibly put the security of its closest ally in the world, Israel, in jeopardy?

The American Plan for the Middle East

What if, I said, the US was attempting a massive nation building exercise in the region in order to bring stability to it.

From an American perspective, this begs two questions.

One, why would you want to stabilize the Middle East in the first place, if you are not actually dependent on their oil? The US does import quite a bit of Saudi crude but it does not have to. Contrary to what you might read in corporate media, between Canada, Venezuela and its own oil production, the US does not need other sources. In fact, with the expansion of dubious practices like fracking, very soon, it is likely to be fully energy-independent.

That's why I never understood "X country in the Middle East is important because of US dependency on oil" type of arguments to explain America's blind devotion to Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, its determination to invade Iraq.

In my eyes, the mark of a superpower is not its military might. Its dominant position in areas that are critical for the economies of other powers is much more important. What makes the US a superpower is its dominant position in capital, technology and energy.

Consequently, as far as I am concerned, the real importance of the region stems from what it represents to other rising superpowers like China and India. A little over 70 percent of the world's oil and gas supplies move through this region. Whoever controls their distribution controls the current and future energy needs of China and India and of course, the European Union.

There is no other way of explaining the Iraqi misadventure and the bogus weapons of mass destruction pretext that led to it. Even Wolfowitz later admitted that WMD line was just to get public support for the invasion. What a Wall Street oil analyst said at the time is much closer to the real reason: "Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath."

The second question is, how do you go about stabilizing the Middle East? The two main sources of instability are the Palestinian and Kurdish statehood questions. The first one inspires most of the Jihadis to join the fight against the US. It functions as a limitless source of suicidal terrorists. The second creates massive internal frictions, if not civil wars, in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, as the contiguous Kurdistan is composed of parts of these countries.

These are the two most intractable ethnic problems in the world. How do you solve them?

To solve the Palestinian problem, the US needs to convince Israel to work in earnest towards a two-state solution. In essence, it is a move to save Israel as a Jewish state. Without a two-state solution, within a little over a decade Arabs will be the majority in the combined Israeli and Palestinian territories, leaving Israel with two equally unpalatable solutions. Accept a Palestinian government to run the country or turn Palestinians into second class citizens.

But it is a well-known truism that no American president can push Israel. The evangelicals are solidly behind Israel (awaiting the return of Jesus to the Holy Land), the Republican Party is utterly devoted to the Likud-wing of Israeli politicians and the Democrats are either too afraid of AIPAC (which is completely aligned with Likud) or genuinely supportive of Israel's conservative politicians. Papa Bush tried to nudge Israel by threatening to withhold loan guarantees and paid a price for it.

When you look at the issue this way, it appears that Israel could only be pushed towards solving the Palestinian problem, if the situation in its own neighborhood dictated a different approach than allowing ever larger settlements in Palestinian territory and hoping the problem would go away miraculously by itself.

As for the Kurdish problem, the US needed to push Turkey towards making peace with the PKK. And gently move them to form an alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan. Grabbing some land from Iran and Syria would come later and that would be a bonus, as it would weaken these two regional troublemakers. Fortunately for the US, pushing Turkey is a lot easier than pushing Israel.

What else do you need in this stabilizing mission? Since the Jihadis are mostly the product of ultra-conservative Wahhabi and Salafist schools, you need an alternative brand of Islam, one that emphasizes worldly achievements over the the next world, like economic success, education, a sense of duty to one's nation and a peaceful social conservatism.

Enter Turkey

After the Iraq debacle, the Obama Administration knew the US could no longer hope to become a regional actor. Too much bad blood in every sense of the term. Military bases with oil reserves underneath was no longer a viable option for stability. So they looked for a stand-in. There is only one country in the region that can challenge Iran. Turkey. As luck would have it, it was perfect for the job, as it had several other trump cards up its sleeve.

One, Turkey already had several pipelines going through its territory, including a major one from Iraq. And, having no significant oil reserves of its own, it really, truly, desperately wanted to be the energy hub for the region. So, they had an excellent incentive to work with the US.

Two, as the heir to the former Ottoman Empire, it has the same cachet (and the accompanying love and hate relationship) in the region, as Britain does in Commonwealth countries. But, at the time, Turkey, after 60 years of carrying NATO's and America's water, did not look like a credible actor. Worse even, it was one of the first six countries to recognize the state of Israel in 1949 and until the 1973 oil crisis, it was the only Middle Eastern country to have a diplomatic presence in Israel. The Turkish and Israeli armies and security agencies cooperated closely and since 1996 they had a mutual defense agreement in place.

In short, Turkey looked like an American agent in the Middle East. Even its Islamist government could not change that perception. However, if something could be arranged to make Turkish PM Erdogan like he was standing up to Israel (and therefore to the US), the love part of the Ottoman legacy might be actualized.

In 2009, the man who, until then, never made any statement about Israeli occupation or lifted a finger for the Palestinian cause, stood up in Davos and accused Shimon Peres of being a child killer and stormed off their joint panel. Within minutes, he was the new hero of the Middle East. (In fact, his posters were up within two hours which prompted some Turkish journalists to wonder how this could have been done without preliminary preparation.)

Turkey's third asset was its largely pragmatic Islamist government. Economically, it was very successful. At the time, it avoided overtly religious social policies and maintained a commitment to secular system. The AKP government with its this-worldly emphasis and economic success could be very nicely presented as a model for Muslim countries. You know, democracy, economic prosperity and a reasonable dose of piety.

The final trump card in the deck was a preacher by the name of Fethullah Gulen. And as I mentioned recently, he was (and still is) living in the US. His school of thought appears to be the only coherent Islamist philosophy that could stand up to Wahhabi and Salafist schools. He emphasizes education, economic success, a Calvinist sense of duty to one's society, allegiance to a nation (as opposed to a wider religious community) and a fairly moderate (next to the Salafists) understanding of what a Muslim society should look like. (Essentially, he wants women to cover their heads but wants them as educated as men and has no real problem with women being in the labor market.)

Initial Success

If you have been reading this blog or following events in the Middle East, you might know that the arrangement of using Turkey as America's stand-in was a resounding success initially.

Turkey and Israel maintained what I call the Kabuki theater (for a more detailed discussion go here, here, here, and here). As a result, Erdogan (and the AKP) became the darling of Arab streets.

Turkey signed up many pipeline projects and appeared to be on the verge of realizing its dream of becoming the most important energy hub in the world. It pursued a policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors.

After the "Spring", Egypt made the transition to an elected government. The new Muslim Brotherhood administration was extremely careful not to offend Israel and went to great lengths to express its dedication to Camp David accords and regional peace. The Egyptian army seemed like a decent security guaranty for Israel in case President Mursi lost his way and turned against Israel.

Hamas began to make conciliatory noises. It moved its HQ to Doha, Qatar and Khaled Meshaal seemed genuinely interested in a reconciliation with al Fatah. And even in an eventual peace with Israel.

Another "Spring" movement took off  in Syria and that one seemed to be moving in the direction of partitioning the country according to a certain Pipelineistan logic. It was also poised to repeat the Kurdistan formula that worked so well in Northern Iraq.

Turkish government grudgingly announced a peace initiative with its Kurdish population and their largest organization, the PKK.

Iran became gradually more isolated in the region, with only the Hezbollah and Syrian President standing by it. Extensive sanctions seemed to contract its economy, jeopardizing its domestic stability.

When Israel finally decided to go back to the negotiating table, from where your humble blogger stood, it all made perfect sense.

The American plan was working.

The Saudi Wrench

Except, some people were not happy with that plan. Starting with the Saudis. They were fine with Turkey acting as a stand in. But that was not enough. Turkey was not capable of resolving what they perceived as the most pressing and important problem in the region, namely the Sunni-Shia rivalry. Only the US could destroy one side and make the other side victorious.

So, they urged the Obama Administration to bomb Iran into a giant parking lot, as the favorite neocon saying goes, and to put boots on the ground to overthrow the al Assad government in Syria. Even though they had the help of an unusual (and normally very persuasive) ally in making their case, the US did not budge. They had a working plan and they wanted to stick to it. The Saudi alternative was nothing but risk with no upside in terms of ending turmoil in the region.

The Saudis also did not like this democratic and economically vibrant Turkish model rubbish. Worse still was the idea of a moderate Islam. The new Brotherhood government in Egypt seemed to align themselves with the Turkish government and together they appeared to have taken the upper hand in Syria. The House of Saud and the House of Wahhab could not tolerate something like this. They also hated the Muslim Brotherhood with a passion, as they suspected them (if you can believe this) radicalizing the Saudi youth.

So, they decided to take the matter in their own hands and approach the Egyptian military. The Supreme Commander General al-Sisi was well known to the Saudi Royal family as he was Egypt's military attache in Riyadh for a long time. Normally, the Egyptian army's ties to the US are too important for them to take this bait. But the Saudis came back with an offer General al-Sisi could not refuse. $12 billion dollars in funds, a promise to give some more and a possibility of backing General Sisi as president. As the old adage goes, everyone has a price and this was al-Sisi's.

With the Brotherhood on the run, they no longer had any presence in Syria. Instead, the Hezbollah moved in to help al-Assad and suddenly the rebels were losing ground. Saudi Arabia increased its support for hardcore Jihadis and they gradually sidelined the Free Syrian Army to take the de facto leadership of the Syrian uprising.

Israel lost all interest and incentive to work with Palestinians towards a peace agreement. They met several times with absolutely no progress. Instead Netanyahu announced new settlements.

As for Turkey, it was the biggest loser in this process. Erdogan's harsh rhetoric against the Egyptian army turned him into a meddlesome villain for those Egyptian who welcomed the coup d'etat. Its relations with Saudi Arabia (source of a lot of incoming hot money) faltered. With al-Assad winning battles, Syria began to look like it could turn a major problem in the near future.  Moreover, Syrian Kurds seemed capable of resisting both the government and the Jihadi rebel forces. With massive help from Barzani, they moved to control their own region.

That left Erdogan with only undesirable choices. Pressuring Barzani to stop helping Syrian Kurds could lead to al-Assad remaining in power and making life difficult for Turkey for years to come. Working with Syrian Kurds would require working with the PKK in Turkey as they are closely aligned. This in turn could lead to bigger demands from Ocalan in exchange for his cooperation. Maintaining his covert support for Jihadis has a terrible PR price as these fanatical fighters relished their own horrendous actions so much that they put them up on Youtube.

On top of all that domestic situation in Turkey took a turn for the worse and Erdogan seemed incapable of controlling the agenda for the first time since he came to power.

The New American Plan

Let's assume that my working hypothesis is valid and the US has been trying to bring stability to the Middle East. And for that it created a situation where Israel felt pressured to solve the Palestinian problem and Turkey was given enough incentive to handle the Kurdish statehood issue.

What would they do if some regional powers worked to circumvent this plan by promoting a regime change in one of the key countries in that plan?

If I were the American decision makers, I would go and find another country that represents even higher stakes for the actors who destroyed my plan.

If you read my post on Iran, you know that the dynamic duo Rouhani and Zarif were clearly aided and abetted by the White House in their effort to bring Iran into a whole new setting. After three decades of isolation, Washington changed the narrative completely. The media were mostly positive and accepting, despite articles by neocons. And Netanyahu was sidelined and ostracized.

When France (to please both Saudi Arabia and Israel) sort of sabotaged the nuclear talks in Geneva, both Kerry and Obama dismissed Netanyahu's demands for further sanctions. And they quickly renegotiated with Zarif to agree to a partial (if temporary) lifting of the sanctions.

If Saudis and Israelis were unhappy about the Brotherhood government in Egypt and the leverage it provided to the US, a rapprochement between Iran and the US should scare the living daylights out of them.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Netanyahu quietly shelved recent plans for more settlement building in Palestinian territory in an effort to placate the US. When that did not happen, he gave the go ahead again.

But now it is too late, Iran is back as the regional power and they have a direct line to the White House. Despite the sound and fury I expect Israel to return to the peace talks with some renewed urgency.

I also expect Turkey to begin assisting the Syrian Kurds and return to the peace initiative with Ocalan. The Minister of Foreign Affairs already announced that Turkey would no longer tolerate Jihadi arms shipments. I expect them to grab the olive branch Rouhani held recently.

Iran does not pose an immediate security threat to Turkey. But an Iran in strategic partnership with the US could easily undermine Turkey's rising regional power status. Iran could also influence pipeline locations and damage Turkey's aspiration to become the region's energy hub.

To be sure, the American overture towards Iran is very cautious. They are making sure that no one reads it as a full-fledged support. But they are using it to signal to their stubborn allies that they could make life difficult for them.

After all, they really don't need the oil.

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