The Balance of Power in the Middle East Just Changed

Peter Van Buren - July 31, 2015


Don't sweat the details of the July nuclear accord between the United States and Iran. What matters is that the calculus of power in the Middle East just changed in significant ways.

Washington and Tehran announced their nuclear agreement on July 14th and yes, some of the details are still classified. Of course the Obama administration negotiated alongside China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany, which means Iran and five other governments must approve the detailed 159-page "Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action." The U.N., which also had to sign off on the deal, has already agreed to measures to end its sanctions against Iran.

If we're not all yet insta-experts on centrifuges and enrichment ratios, the media will ensure that in the next two months -- during which Congress will debate and weigh approving the agreement -- we'll become so. Verification strategies will be debated. The Israelis will claim that the apocalypse is nigh. And everyone who is anyone will swear to the skies that the devil is in the details. On Sunday talk shows, war hawks will fuss endlessly about the nightmare to come, as well as the weak-kneedness of the president and his "delusional" secretary of state, John Kerry. (No one of note, however, will ask why the president's past decisions to launch or continue wars in the Middle East were not greeted with at least the same sort of skepticism as his present efforts to forestall one.)

There are two crucial points to take away from all the angry chatter to come: first, none of this matters and second, the devil is not in the details, though he may indeed appear on those Sunday talk shows.

Nuclear Deal With Iran: Time to Restart EU-Tehran Relations?

Mose Apelblat - July 30, 2015

On 14 July the P5+1 powers (US, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany) and Iran agreed on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program. Iran reaffirmed that it under no circumstances will ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA specifies how Iran's nuclear program will be reduced and constrained under the next 10-15 years in terms of number of centrifuges, stockpile of enriched uranium and advanced nuclear research. As a result Iran's breakout time for producing a nuclear weapon will increase from the current two months to one year.

In return the international community will lift most of the economic sanctions against Iran. The arms embargo will remain in place for a number of years. However, the sanctions relief will not start immediately.

The JCPOA includes an implementation plan which states that the adoption date of the agreement is 90 days after its endorsement by the UN Security Council.

Obama's Equilibrium Fantasy

Tony Badran - July 29, 2015

With the nuclear deal finally out of the way, President Obama can now get down to what, for him, has always been the real business-engaging Iran on regional issues. As one administration official has acknowledged, the US president sees Iran as "the key to peace" in the Middle East. But first, as Obama told Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in one of his letters, the formality of the nuclear deal had to be concluded.

Obama wants to integrate Iran into a regional concert system presumably based on "equilibrium." However, this would be akin to establishing equilibrium in Europe at the height of Napoleon's power. Such a "balance" would naturally have been dictated by Napoleon, to the advantage of his imperial power. In other words, it doesn't stand a chance.

But the president's mind is set. Obama's likely next step will be to openly engage Iran on Syria. Indeed, the president addressed the matter in his first news conference after the deal was announced: "We're not going to solve the problems of Syria unless there's buy-in from the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, our Gulf partners... Iran is one of those players, and I think that it's important for them to be part of that conversation."

In fact, the administration was already laying the groundwork to bring Iran formally to the Syria table even before the conclusion of the deal. Earlier this month, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that during his recent trip to Russia, Secretary of State John Kerry raised the subject of establishing a Syria "contact group" consisting of regional and international actors, whose task would be to provide support for a political settlement. According to the paper, Kerry proposed including Iran in the group, alongside the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Kerry reportedly also expressed willingness to "recognize Iran's vital interests in Syria and the need to include it in seeking a solution." The report maintains, however, that Kerry told the Russians the deal would need to be signed first before bringing Iran in, "then there would be more readiness to discuss regional political issues."

Speech to the African Union

Barack Obama - July 29, 2015


THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Madam Chairwoman, thank you so much for your kind words and your leadership. To Prime Minister Hailemariam, and the people of Ethiopia -- once again, thank you for your wonderful hospitality and for hosting this pan-African institution. (Applause.) To members of the African Union, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen -- thank you for welcoming me here today. It is a great honor to be the first President of the United States to address the African Union. (Applause.)

I'm grateful for this opportunity to speak to the representatives of more than one billion people of the great African continent. (Applause.) We're joined today by citizens, by leaders of civil society, by faith communities, and I'm especially pleased to see so many young people who embody the energy and optimism of today's Africa. Hello! Thank you for being here. (Applause.)

I stand before you as a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of an African. (Applause.) Africa and its people helped to shape America and allowed it to become the great nation that it is. And Africa and its people have helped shape who I am and how I see the world. In the villages in Kenya where my father was born, I learned of my ancestors, and the life of my grandfather, the dreams of my father, the bonds of family that connect us all as Africans and Americans.

As parents, Michelle and I want to make sure that our two daughters know their heritage -- European and African, in all of its strengths and all of its struggle. So we've taken our daughters and stood with them on the shores of West Africa, in those doors of no return, mindful that their ancestors were both slaves and slave owners. We've stood with them in that small cell on Robben Island where Madiba showed the world that, no matter the nature of his physical confinement, he alone was the master of his fate. (Applause.) For us, for our children, Africa and its people teach us a powerful lesson -- that we must uphold the inherent dignity of every human being.

Quantum Geopolitics

Reva Bhalla - July 29, 2015

Forecasting the shape the world will take in several years or decades is an audacious undertaking. There are no images to observe or precise data points to anchor us. We can only create a picture, and a fuzzy one at best. This is, after all, our basic human empirical instinct: to draw effortlessly from the vivid imagery of our present world and past experiences while we squint and hesitate before faint, blobby images of the future.

In the world of intelligence and military planning, it is far less taxing to base speculations on the familiar - to simulate a war game that pivots on an Iranian nuclear threat, a seemingly unstoppable jihadist force like the Islamic State and the military adventurism of Russia in Eastern Europe - than it is to imagine a world in which Russia is weak and internally fragmented, the jihadist menace is contained by its own fractiousness and Iran is allied with the United States against a rising Sunni threat. In the business world, it is much simpler to base trades and strategies on a familiar environment of low oil prices and high interest rates. Strategists in many domains are guilty of taking excessive comfort in the present and extrapolating present-day assumptions to describe the future, only to find themselves unequipped when the next big crisis hits. As a U.S. four-star general once told me in frustration, "We always have the wrong maps and the wrong languages when we go to war."

So how do we break out of this mental trap and develop the confidence to sketch out plausible sets and sequences of unknowns? The four-dimensional world of quantum mechanics may offer some guidance or, at the very least, a philosophical approach to strategic forecasting. Brilliant physicists such as Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie and Erwin Schrodinger have obsessed over the complex relationship between space and time. The debate persists among scientists over how atomic and subatomic particles behave in different dimensions, but there are certain underlying principles in the collection of quantum theories that should resonate with anyone endowed with the responsibility of forecasting world events.

Quantum Principles and Political Entities

Turkey, Syria, and the United States: Quagmires Are Us

Steven Cook - July 28, 2015


This weekend Turkey and the United States took steps toward getting more heavily involved in the Syrian quagmire. First, after a year of protracted negotiations, Turkey agreed to allow the United States to use Incirlik airbase to conduct operations against the so-called Islamic State. In return, the Obama administration has agreed to the establishment of a "safe zone" in northwestern Syria that "moderate Syrian opposition forces" would protect along with Turkish and American airpower. Second, Turkey undertook airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and the forces of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

The early reaction has focused almost exclusively on Ankara's sudden interest in combatting the Islamic State and the establishment of safe zones as potential "game changers" in the fight against Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Assad regime. In reality this effort is likely to achieve much less than expected. It is true that the Turks have gotten more serious about the threat of the Islamic State, especially since the Suruc bombing on July 20, but Ankara, which has grown increasingly uncomfortable as the Kurds have made gains against Islamic State forces in Syria, is primarily interested in suppressing Kurdish nationalism. This has placed Washington in the odd position of having essentially given the go-ahead to its most reluctant ally in the fight against the Islamic State to combat some of the most effective fighters in that conflict -the Kurds, both the Turkish Kurds of the PKK and the affiliated forces of their Syrian cousins, the People's Protection Units, known by the acronym YPG-under the guise of combatting the same enemy. This seems like a steep price to pay for the use of Incirlik while threatening to draw the United States into a war with no end.

Why now? The United States and Turkey have until now disagreed over how to deal with the Islamic State. The Turks have maintained the position that bringing down the Assad regime in Syria would go a long way toward defeating the Islamic State. It is also a position that is politically self-serving since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have made it a matter of principle that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad "must go." The Obama administration has taken the view that Ankara was overlooking the possibility that Assad's demise might actually benefit al-Baghdadi, whose forces would take advantage of the additional chaos and bloodletting that would surely ensue. The White House has also been more focused on Iraq than Syria, much to Turkish chagrin. As the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly reported today, a number of recent developments altered Turkish and American calculations including the Islamic State's threat to the Azaz border crossing along the northwest of the Syrian-Turkish frontier and Kurdish control of the Tel Abyad border crossing near Kobani. There was also the apparent Islamic State suicide bombing last Monday, which killed thirty-two people in Suruc, demonstrating the Islamic State's ability to do damage inside of Turkey. All three developments have combined to convince the Turks that it was time to act, but for Ankara it is not just about the Islamic State.

What are the Turks up to? Ankara clearly has an Islamic State problem, but it also has a Kurdish nationalism problem. The former is new while the latter has been central in the politics of the Turkish Republic since its founding in 1923. Consequently the Turks have made combatting the Kurds their priority. Over the thirteen years since it came to power, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to resolve this historical challenge through a variety of initiatives that would diminish the appeal of Kurdish nationalism for Turkey's Kurds. These included a $12 billion investment-the AKP insists it was $25 billion-in the predominantly Kurdish southeast in 2005 and 2006, an ill-defined "Kurdish opening" in 2009, and, for the last three years, a peace process with the PKK. Yet the political pressure has become too much given that Syria's Kurds have sought to establish an independent canton along the Turkish-Syrian frontier and that they have become partners of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. In the background, of course, is the advanced state of Iraqi Kurdistan's drive for independence, the failing peace process with the PKK, and the recent strong showing of the Kurdish-based People's Democratic Party in Turkey's parliamentary elections. The Turks quite obviously fear that these developments will encourage the fourteen million Kurdish citizens of Turkey to seek changes that threaten the republic. This is in part why the Turks stood by and watched when the Islamic State laid siege to the Kurdish-Syrian town of Kobani last year. For Turkey, taking part in coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State and rounding up suspected supporters is a side benefit to the actual goal of disrupting Kurdish plans in Syria and hitting the PKK. If there is any doubt about Turkish aims, Erdogan declared in late June, "We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria's north and our south."

After the Nuclear Deal, a Region Recalibrates

Stratfor - July 28, 2015

Summary

The six world powers and Iran have come to an agreement about the curbing of Iran's nuclear program. But it would be a mistake to assume that this agreement will result in an immediate, or even short-term, decrease in violence or competition among the Middle East's strongest powers. In fact, the opposite will be the case. Iran will use its newfound international legitimacy to attempt to realize its ambitions to become the regional hegemon. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a host of small countries and even smaller religious and ethnic groups will all compete and at times align for influence.

Analysis

Though reams of bureaucratic red tape remain to be cut in the coming months, it seems likely that the joint accord will pass the U.N. Security Council. Furthermore, it will be extremely difficult for both houses of the U.S. Congress to muster the two-thirds votes necessary to prevent the lifting of certain U.S. sanctions levied against the Islamic Republic. Normalization with the West will give Iran the chance to improve its economy and recruit foreign investment, and will also open up potential relationships that sanctions prevented from developing. Proxy battles and diplomatic rapprochements on the periphery of the Middle East will continue apace, but Iran's primary focus will be on Baghdad. Control of Iraq is the necessary condition for Iran projecting force in the Middle East, whereas lack of control or, worse, control of Iraq by another outside power, would constitute a direct threat.

Are We on the Threshold of a United States of Europe?

Matthew Del Santo - July 27, 2015

Four days ago, French President François Hollande declared his in-principle commitment to the creation of a 'euro government, with the addition of a specific budget and a parliament to ensure democratic control.'

This is more an opening gambit in a debate about the terms of putative federalisation (a term Hollande was careful to avoid), than a statement of French commitment to it at all costs.

If some form of federalisation comes about, it will not be because the French especially desire it, but because the logic of the Euro ultimately demands it.

There has been talk of political and fiscal union since the crisis erupted five years ago. It was one of two options for resolving the Euro crisis that the German Government seriously considered, before ultimately rejecting it in favour of the inter-state negotiations that produced the treaties creating the European Fiscal Compact and the Single Supervisory Mechanism, or banking union.

Italy's Olive Tree Tragedy

Pierre de Gasquet - July 27, 2015

This article first appeared in Les Echos

ALLISTE - The so-called "Giant of Alliste" suddenly appears at the bend of a path. This imposing olive tree is 32-feet-high with a base of twisted trunks measuring 25 feet in circumference. It is said to be 1,500 years old.

Its shadow appears like a sleeping pachyderm, cast onto the Italian brown earth. But at the top of the tree, several branches appear stunted and desiccated, and have lost their colors. "Have you heard the news?" a local police officer Francesco Manfreda mutters. "The Giant is dying."

It is not alone. Some researchers estimate that as many as one million olive trees in the province of Lecce, in the southeastern region of Puglia, are affected by the same potentially lethal bacterium, Xylella. The disease striking the "green gold" goes beyond southern Italy, affecting regions around the country, as well as some other parts of Europe.

Israel's New Reality

Gilad Sharon - July 23, 2015

The agreement between Iran and the world powers is a done deal. The main issue before us now is the never-ending and unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

The nursery school children sat in a circle and sang merrily: "They punished me too harshly, they sentenced me to death and then / I sat in the electric chair and said goodbye Mercedes-Benz." It's highly doubtful they understood any of the words other than "sat" and "chair." Some of them might also have known what "punished" meant. As they raised her chair in the air, the girl whose birthday they were celebrating looked down happily at her excited friends - children.

Our country isn't run by children, and those who do run it ought to understand that when something is over, it's over. Like a burst balloon, it will never again be what it once was, no matter how loud a kid yells. The agreement between Iran and the world powers is a done deal. Whining won't make a balloon whole again, and won't undo the agreement.

The question of how Israel conducted itself in the run-up to the agreement is an interesting one. Did our leaders behave wisely? Could they have done better? This will undoubtedly be a matter of considerable debate. But the more important issue now is how to deal with what is to come. Up to now, the government defined the campaign to prevent the agreement as its primary concern, its flagship policy. But that's behind us now. The main issue before us is the never-ending and unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

On Weapons, Arab States Hold a Massive Lead Over Iran

Anthony Cordesman - July 23, 2015


Much of the criticism of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran has focused on the fact that it would allow conventional arms transfers to Iran in five years if Iran fully complies with all other aspects of the agreement. In practice, this does not obligate any country to sell arms to Iran, nor does it affect U.S. and European constraints on arms sales.

It could, however, lead to significant arms sales on the part of Russia and China, and potentially other states. Iran badly needs to modernize its aging air force, surface-to-air missile defenses, and many other elements of its weapons systems - as well as acquire the technology for a wide range of new sensors, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other improvement in its war fighting capabilities.

It is important, however, to keep such risks in perspective. Iran is already able to exploit a large network of purchasing offices and cover organizations to buy critical technology, parts, and other military equipment. It takes time to absorb arms transfers even when they come, and Iran faces a massive backlog of obsolescence, worn systems, patchwork improvements, and awkward efforts at systems integration.

In the real world, Iran is anything but the hegemon of the region - as a new CSIS study of the Gulf military balance shows. This study is entitled The Arab-U.S. Strategic Partnership and the Changing Security Balance in the Gulf.

The Turkish Enigma

George Friedman - July 23, 2015

In my "Net Assessment of the World," I argued that four major segments of the European and Asian landmass were in crisis: Europe, Russia, the Middle East (from the Levant to Iran) and China. Each crisis was different; each was at a different stage of development. Collectively the crises threatened to destabilize the Eurasian landmass, the Eastern Hemisphere, and potentially generate a global crisis. They do not have to merge into a single crisis to be dangerous. Four simultaneous crises in the center of humanity's geopolitical gravity would be destabilizing by itself. However, if they began to merge and interact, the risks would multiply. Containing each crisis by itself would be a daunting task. Managing crises that were interlocked would press the limits of manageability and even push beyond.

These four crises are already interacting to some extent. The crisis of the European Union intersects with the parallel issue of Ukraine and Europe's relation to Russia. The crisis in the Middle East intersects with the European concern over managing immigration as well as balancing relations with Europe's Muslim community. The Russians have been involved in Syria, and appear to have played a significant role in the recent negotiations with Iran. In addition there is a potential intersection in Chechnya and Dagestan. The Russians and Chinese have been advancing discussions about military and economic cooperation. None of these interactions threaten to break down regional boundaries. Indeed, none are particularly serious. Nor is some sort of inter-regional crisis unimaginable.

Sitting at the center of these crisis zones is a country that until a few years ago maintained a policy of having no problems with its neighbors. Today, however, Turkey's entire periphery is on fire. There is fighting in Syria and Iraq to the south, fighting to the north in Ukraine and an increasingly tense situation in the Black Sea. To the west, Greece is in deep crisis (along with the EU) and is a historic antagonist of Turkey. The Mediterranean has quieted down, but the Cyprus situation has not been fully resolved and tension with Israel has subsided but not disappeared. Anywhere Turkey looks there are problems. As important, there are three regions of Eurasia that Turkey touches: Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.

I have argued two things in the past. The first was that Turkey was an emerging regional power that would ultimately be the major power in its locale. The second was that this is a region that, ever since the decline and fall of the Ottomans in the first quarter of the 20th century, has been kept stable by outside powers. The decision of the United States to take a secondary role after the destabilization that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq has left a vacuum Turkey will eventually be forced to fill. But Turkey is not ready to fill that vacuum. That has created a situation in which there is a balancing of power underway, particularly among Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Eurasian Big Bang

Pepe Escobar - July 23, 2015

Let's start with the geopolitical Big Bang you know nothing about, the one that occurred just two weeks ago. Here are its results: from now on, any possible future attack on Iran threatened by the Pentagon (in conjunction with NATO) would essentially be an assault on the planning of an interlocking set of organizations -- the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), the EEU (Eurasian Economic Union), the AIIB (the new Chinese-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), and the NDB (the BRICS' New Development Bank) -- whose acronyms you're unlikely to recognize either. Still, they represent an emerging new order in Eurasia.

Tehran, Beijing, Moscow, Islamabad, and New Delhi have been actively establishing interlocking security guarantees. They have been simultaneously calling the Atlanticist bluff when it comes to the endless drumbeat of attention given to the flimsy meme of Iran's "nuclear weapons program." And a few days before the Vienna nuclear negotiations finally culminated in an agreement, all of this came together at a twin BRICS/SCO summit in Ufa, Russia -- a place you've undoubtedly never heard of and a meeting that got next to no attention in the U.S. And yet sooner or later, these developments will ensure that the War Party in Washington and assorted neocons (as well as neoliberalcons) already breathing hard over the Iran deal will sweat bullets as their narratives about how the world works crumble.

The Eurasian Silk Road

With the Vienna deal, whose interminable build-up I had the dubious pleasure of following closely, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his diplomatic team have pulled the near-impossible out of an extremely crumpled magician's hat: an agreement that might actually end sanctions against their country from an asymmetric, largely manufactured conflict.

How We Will Fight Extremism in Britain

David Cameron - July 22, 2015

The following is a transcript of a speech delivered by British Prime Minister David Cameron on July 20, 2015

It's great to be here at this outstanding school, Ninestiles School. Your inspiring teachers and your commitment to British values means you are not just achieving outstanding academic success, but you are building a shared community where children of many faiths and backgrounds learn not just with each other, but from each other too.

And that goes right to the heart of what I want to talk about today.

I said on the steps of Downing Street that this would be a ‘one nation' government, bringing our country together.

The European Project, from Riches to Rags

Henry Ergas - July 18, 2015

It isn't only for Greece that hope has proven the handmaiden to misery, as it always does in the classical tragedies. Rather, after the turmoil of the last month, what little remains of the European ­project also lies in tatters.

Once a widely held aspiration, the "ever closer union" promised by successive European treaties has degenerated from a slogan into an embarrassment, which even Europe's leaders are now hesitant to embrace. As that promise's unravelling fuels a poisonous populist reaction, the prospects for the European Union, whose share of world gross domestic product has fallen from 30 per cent in 1980 to 17 per cent today, seem fraught with risks.

The problems the EU faces are far from being solely economic, though the prolonged crisis has made them more pressing and more intractable. After nearly a decade without economic growth, whatever sense there may have been of a common European ­polity has given way to bitter divisions. Accused of forcing its will on its weaker counterparts, Germany has become the lightning rod for resentments that are being expressed increasingly openly.

The accusations themselves are hardly new. Already in 1990, as German reunification loomed, the eminent German philosopher Jurgen Habermas lamented the rise of a "chubby-faced deutschmark nationalism", which, he argued, was inherently undesirable and could only damage the federal ­republic's standing. By the time the well-known economic commentator Martin Wolf, writing three years ago in London's Financial Times, claimed that instead of being a monetary union, the eurozone was "more like an empire" (with little question as to who was the imperial power), he was ­repeating a long established trope.