IRGC sanctions

So, US President Trump has signed into law a Congressional bill that sees the US sanction the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp from October this year. 

Of course, sanctioning the IRGC is one thing, and enforcing those sanctions is another. I’m sure the Trump Administration has the stomach to go after them, but doing so will cause a lot of discomfort in the Europe–US relationship.

The IRGC controls a significant part of the Iranian economy, and has its fingers in lots of different pies – from hotels and football companies, to banks, construction companies and the energy sector and other heavy industries. Read this article for a bit more information

Fully sanctioning the IRGC would do one or more of a couple of things: bring the Iranian economy to its knees; force Iran to modify its behaviour; or force the IRGC out of the economy, thus allowing for an increase in foreign investment and a significant lessening of corruption in Iranian society.

If the third option is the one that eventuates, the subsequent lessening of IRGC influence would help reformists in Iranian society become bolder.

But the only way that will happen, is if the US ensures the sanctions extend to third parties doing business with Iran. Until then, this law will just be a hindrance and not much more. Remember, Iran withstood decades of US sanctions and years of UN sanctions without changing its policies. But when the US put pressure on the SWIFT network (the international banking network for currency transfers) to shut Iran out, Iran very quickly came to the nuclear negotiating table. And the way the US did this was by threatening to block SWIFT from the US market.

Meanwhile, a hefty group of US thinkers have weighed in, suggesting the US does not sanction Iran, but focus on deflecting Iranian activities throughout the region. I thought that sounded good, until I got further down and read that they think there should be regional grouping, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, to hold ‘regular exchanges on the major disputes in the area’. To me, that shows a basic misunderstanding of why the major disputes in the area exist. I think the suggestion is a little naïve, but I’m most interested in your opinion.

So, the long and the short of it? Don’t place sanctions on Iran unless you really mean it. And, ultimately, decide what it is that you actually want to accomplish. Have a regional strategy!!

Kissinger speaks

This blog frequently refers to Kissinger’s machinations in the Middle East during the 1970s. Kissinger recently delivered a speech about the state of the world, including commentary on Russia, China, the Middle East and the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance. In the speech, he urges the West to create a strategic vision. Because, if it doesn’t, others will fill the vacuum, and we might not like the consequences. I couldn’t agree more.

Multi-disciplinary lessons

I’m reading The Complete Secrets of Happy Children, by Steve Biddulph. What has this got to do with the Middle East, I feel you wonder. Not a lot, but it does remind me that my honours thesis—A Discussion of Pragmatic Implementation of Peace Agreements—was inspired by a conversation I was having in a pub in Jerusalem. My interlocutors and I were discussing the Israeli–Palestinian dispute and the bad behaviour of each side. ‘We should treat them like children’, I said. ‘Put the offending party in a corner until they are willing to behave themselves!’ 

While I’m happy to report the resultant thesis was a tad more nuanced than that, it’s motivating principle remained the same! The arrogance of youth…

A pattern emerges

I’m reading Dennis Ross’s Doomed to Succeed, which examines the Israel–US relationship since Israel’s establishment. Starting with Truman, I’m up to the Clinton Administration.

A consistent pattern has emerged across the 70-year history. During those administrations that were more friendly to Israel, the ‘moderate’ (that is, pro-Western) Arab states did not drift away from America. And during those administrations that were more critical of Israel, those Arab countries that were antagonistic towards the US did not grow closer. Which is to say the closeness or distance an American administration has with Israel does not really impact on Arab relations with the US. 

According to Ross, the main motivating factor that the Arab states have displayed is security. Those states that look to the US for their security have grown closer to the US when the latter has shown both willingness and ability to provide that security. This pattern has been shown in regards to every administration I have read about in Ross’s book, and it is obvious the same pattern will be described in regards to Obama’s and Trump’s records—a persistent theme of this blog.

The other pattern that has emerged is that State and Defence officials have persistently suggested that America distance itself from Israel in order to draw the Arabs closer. Where American presidents have done so, they have usually been following this logic, but the result has never been subsequent friendliness of non-friendly Arab states.

As a post-script, I don’t mean to suggest that the pro-Western Arab states are not concerned about Israel, or that they haven’t suggested what America should do on many occasions. Rather what I am (well, Ross is) is suggesting, is that Israel has never been the determinant of the warmth or otherwise of Arab–US relations.

Iran in Iraq

I have frequently remarked—most recently on Monday this week—that the loss of Iraq to Iran, after all the blood and treasure the US poured into the country after 2003, was a stunning defeat to the US. In fact, I think it is as important in terms of the strategic reality of the Middle East as the decision by Egypt to leave the Soviet sphere of influence for the US sphere of influence in the 1970s.

This excellent feature article in the New York Times indicates just how deeply Iran has positioned itself in Iraq. To push back is vitally important to US interests. And it will be hard, but kicking the can down the road will make it so much harder in the future.

Are the Kurds starting to trust us?

There is another sign that the wider Middle East trusts Trump.

Syria’s Kurds have been fairly shy during the civil war as to which side they fall on. Mostly they’ve taken the stance of, if you try to kill us, we’ll attack, but otherwise we’ll leave you alone—and they’ve forged for themselves two areas in Syria where they hold the monopoly on power. The Syrian government hasn’t bothered to try to take the territory back, both because it has bigger fish to fry, and also because the Kurds aren’t attacking Syrian forces. Moreover, the Kurds have been the most effective regional force against the Islamic State.

So the Kurds have adopted a wait-and-see approach. They want the best deal for them, and are unsure how the Syrian civil war will end, or who will be the victor. Why get in solidly behind the US if they think the US will ultimately leave and Iranian-backed forces will win the war? Or why do the opposite, just in case the US-backed forces win?

But this article makes it look like the Kurds are starting to think that the US is in for the long haul, and is determined to not let Iran and the Resistance Bloc win. That’s a good thing, because, as Osama bin Laden put it, locals will back the strong horse. 

The Accidental Strategist 

Despite his best efforts, it’s just possible that President Obama accidentally stitched together the makings of a new Middle East favourable to Western interests. 

Let’s consider Obama’s record. During his administration: the distrust among Israelis and Palestinians became complete; Syria descended into civil war; Saudi Arabia and Iran began conducting a proxy war in Yemen; Egypt went from military dictatorship to Islamist ‘democracy’ to military dictatorship; Iraq went from mostly stable to failed state to Iranian client; the Islamic State rose out of nowhere and took over a third of Iraq; Iran became emboldened and free of UN sanctions (all the while continuing to pursue a nuclear option and missile technology), and is now openly supporting militias that defy Western interests in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Syria. So, yes, he left the region worse than he found it (which, given his predecessor’s record, is impressive), but the conditions Obama created in the Middle East are ripe for meaningful improvement. 

This is because a key gripe of US strategists—and Trump as candidate—is the assumed expectation among America’s partners that because the US guarantees their security, they need have little responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof). But Obama provided the Middle East with new assumptions. The lessons he imparted is that America is not trustworthy and can no longer be relied upon to guarantee regional security. This created throughout the Middle East a mood that actors would have to help themselves. A wise Trump Administration would not reverse this mood, but rather guide it—a carrot and stick approach along the lines of ‘we will help those who help themselves, but thwart all those who defy us’. 

In order to understand how this policy might work, we first need to understand the region’s strategic environment, as this will explain why each actor acts as they do. 

In a long process beginning with the First World War and culminating during Obama’s presidency, the Middle East coalesced into three main groups of interest. The first is an unofficial ‘Status Quo Bloc’, consisting of most Arab states (Qatar, Syria and Oman being the exceptions). The Status Quo Bloc is Sunni and Arab. It wants things to stay as they are—monarchical or military dictatorships whose security is guaranteed by the US. These states have long experience in swatting away clumsy Western attempts to improve their human and civil rights record, and increasingly accept Israel (which shares their objectives and enemies) as a proxy member. 

The second group is the ‘Resistance Bloc’. Although its members have different end-goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Shi’ite, Persian Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, Hezbollah and, until 2012, Hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly Arab, and most of its Arabs are Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq was allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for the US, given all the blood and treasure it spent from 2003). 

The third group is harder to define, which is why I describe it as the ‘Sunni Islamist Continuum’, rather than Bloc. The common end-goal among all adherents is the establishment of a Sunni caliphate over the Middle East and, eventually, the world. But that’s where the commonality ends—some want to start with internal religious reform, others with the ruthlessly-enforced imposition of new rules over areas obtained militarily. Some are willing to work with the West in the short term, others are not. Few cooperate with each other and some fight each other. However, their common end-goal allows us to place them on a continuum from non-violent, political Islamist groups like Hezb u-Tahrir, to increasingly strident groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Islamic State and its successors. Turkey and Qatar are also on the Continuum, and act accordingly. 

In a fascinating series of events sparked by the Arab Spring, this continuum almost coalesced into a genuine bloc. Turkey under Erdogan would like a Sunni Islamist Bloc to emerge, and so, after being snubbed by Assad in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, came out strongly against Syria and the Resistance Bloc. In the same period, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. This saw Egypt leave the Status Quo Bloc. Sunni, Arab Hamas—part of the Resistance Bloc and based in Damascus—was so embarrassed by Syria killing so many Sunni Arabs that it pulled out of both Damascus and the Resistance Bloc. It had the courage to do so because of Egypt’s then-Sunni Islamist government. With Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt (actively backed by Turkey) and Sunni Islamists on the rise throughout the region, it was thought by many that their time had come. 

However, in July 2013, the Egyptian military regained control of the country and re-joined the Status Quo Bloc. Turkey was on the outer (again) and Hamas realised it had lost badly, which is why it has become so reliant on Qatar. 

The existence of three distinct groups of interest both explains regional actions and the confusion of those commentators that appear to assume the region has only two main blocs, typified by Iranian–Saudi tension. 

The Status Quo Bloc sees the Resistance Bloc as an existential external threat, but the Sunni Islamist Continuum as an existential internal threat. The Status Quo’s diplomatic actions against Qatar is not so much because of Iran, but because Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Jazeera, which is intent on highlighting the Status Quo dictatorships’ myriad shortcomings. (If Qatar’s isolation continues, look for Hamas to seek to re-join the Resistance Bloc and Iranian patronage.) 

As above, as a direct result of Obama’s choices, such as pressure on America’s friends (e.g. Israel), a deliberate lack of pressure on America’s enemies (e.g. Iran in 2009 and the nuclear talks), the pivot to Asia, no help to friendly regimes in need (e.g. Egypt in 2011), and entirely hollow threats (e.g. over chemical weapons), America’s enemies learned that they could defy American interests without consequence. And America’s friends learned that that would have to learn to take care of themselves. 

Iran’s undisguised activity in Iraq and Syria is the most obvious example, as is its missile testing and the recent admission—after years of obfuscation—that it was arming Houthis in Yemen all along. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s military intervention in Yemen, to thwart Iranian interests, is another example, as is their willingness to countenance attempts to create an ‘Arab NATO’. The isolation of Qatar has provided Fatah (a Status Quo Bloc member) with the perfect opportunity to squeeze Hamas—hence the recent cessation of payments for Gaza’s electricity and the thousands of people still on the PA’s payroll ten years after Hamas kicked the PA out of Gaza. 

So, what is to be done? The new can-do spirit in the Middle East only works in our interests if those so doing are doing things in our interests. A Middle East strategy needs to be developed, one based on a realistic understanding of the Middle East, what our interests there are, and who helps us advance them (and who doesn’t). To put it bluntly, America and the West must thwart our enemies (the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum) and help our friends (the Status Quo Bloc and Israel). 

I know it’s not a popular view, but I think Trump is on the right path, mostly. He expresses support for those countries willing to act, and pressures those countries intent on defying America’s will. But he needs to refine this policy, and quickly.  

Take Syria. The West’s focus has been defeating Islamic State. But IS is a symptom of the wider Sunni Islamist Continuum, not the cause of instability. Remove IS and others will step up to the plate. More importantly, the Resistance Bloc is heavily involved in Syria, and is the group most likely to achieve its objectives there. Like it or not, the West’s long-term priorities are to thwart Iranian activities in Syria (and Iraq), not kill a few thousand bloodthirsty jihadis. While Trump (and Congress) are placing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, it’s all rather ad hoc. I’m not advocating regime change, but a strategic-level policy of thwarting—diplomatically, economically, and militarily (preferably by proxy)—as many Iranian actions as possible that are against US interests.  

Further, the current and unprecedented (though under the radar) security, intelligence and economic cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc is an unintended outcome of Obama’s policy of turning his back on America’s friends. Trump must be very careful that, as he demonstrates that America is once again engaged in the region, the Status Quo Bloc doesn’t become so comfortable as to hate Israel again. 

Likewise, Trump has to make sure that by rewarding good behaviour, he does not accidentally recreate the conditions where countries in the region once again become ‘free riders’, and head back to the position they were in before Obama stuffed things up / created the pre-conditions for a new Middle East. When America’s friends defy American interests (such as with unwanted settlements or funding yet more Wahhabi mosques), America must use its considerable leverage to put them in their place. 

This is all rather difficult to pull off, but Trump has two things in his favour. First, despite his personal erraticism, his Secretaries of Defence, State and Homeland Security, appear—mostly—to have the correct strategic view of Middle Eastern realities. Second, Trump appears to have the will to implement policies that aren’t domestically or internationally popular. If convinced the strategy outlined above would make America great again (and they would), he just might put them into action.  

Throw-back Thursday (a day late)

Way back in 2002, I had the privilege of attending a lecture delivered by Bernard Lewis, in honour of his 80th birthday. He had just published a book – What Went Wrong? An article summarising the book was published in The Atlantic. 

Lewis’s article has a look at the roots of Islamist rage against the West. It’s as valid today as it was 15 years ago, and rewards reading: What Went Wrong?

Can Trump channel Kissinger?


With US President Trump about to embark on a Middle East tour, the conditions exist for a grand bargain, but does the US have the strategic vision to achieve it?

In the 1970s, US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger identified a rare alignment of the planets and re-ordered the Middle East. Consider the context; a Soviet-backed war against Israel in 1973 (the fifth such war in 25 years) was pushing the Jewish state to the precipice. The oil weapon, unsheathed by Saudi Arabia, produced the first great oil shock for the American economy. President Nixon, mired in the Vietnam and Watergate crises, was otherwise distracted. The American brand was in retreat across the world. 

By the end of Kissinger’s machinations, Israel had decisively won the war, embarrassing the Soviets; Egypt had been plucked from the Soviet camp (the US’s biggest Cold War win) and signed a peace treaty with Israel; a balance of arms was established whereby the 1973 war became the last state-to-state Arab–Israel war; and the Saudis were on their way into America’s fold, allowing for the uninterrupted flow of oil, which has underpinned the global economic rise over the last four decades. 

Now consider today’s Middle East. The policies of the last two US presidents have been dismal. Hundreds of thousands have died. The Arab Spring became an Islamist Winter, and at least four Arab states are currently either failed or nearly there. Countries that once relied on the US to protect their interests now have little trust in Washington. Russia, largely excluded from the Middle East because of Kissinger, has returned in dramatic fashion. Iran has risen from annoying supporter of global terrorism to the most important actor in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Its repressive regime faces little risk domestically. And, on top of that, it now has the license, signed by Barak Obama, to be a nuclear state in a decade. 

But amidst this chaotic outcome of shambolic policy lies the seeds of a grand bargain. That’s because all the parties that have once or might again heed the US want something, and only the US can deliver.  Let’s take a look at the main actors.

Saudi Arabia, most other Arab states and Israel want Iran contained. This includes less influence in Iraq and a defeat in Syria. Israel wants security from Palestinian terrorism (with or without a Palestinian state). The Palestinian Authority wants a state, though isn’t politically strong enough to deliver the minimum concessions, and it wants Hamas contained. Many Arab state leaders want a relationship with Israel, but cannot until the Palestinian question is answered. And the entire Arab leadership wants Islamists undermined, even though they offer little alternative.

Without being too prescriptive, here’s what Trump should be aiming for. Nothing can happen until the Iranian–Russian relationship is effectively severed. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). Russia should be assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, it should be granted a ‘privileged sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe, by stopping any hints of NATO expansion and removing support for Ukraine, as well as the removal of anti-ballistic missiles from Poland and the Czech Republic. In return, the US should make clear that the Middle East is its own privileged sphere of influence.

Iran wants to upturn the regional order and replace the US as regional hegemon. Its strategic objective, not its religion, makes it an ideological enemy of the West, and it should be countered, by sanctions, by proxy wars and by funding opposition groups. Remember, it wasn’t UN sanctions that brought Iran to the nuclear negotiation table, but a European Union decision (forced by American action) to exclude Iran from the SWIFT international finance regime.

Saudi Arabia and Israel each have a role to play in countering Iran.

The other group of interest ideologically committed to undermining the West is the Sunni Islamists. The public and private financial support for violent Islamist groups—including those fighting in Syria—needs to end. The Saudis have come a long way since September 2001, but they have a long way to go. By acting against Iran, the US will create considerable leverage over the Arab states to make demands.

On Syria, the US needs to realise that Islamic State isn’t the principle enemy, and needs to make clear that the only way to prevent an Iranian win is a Saudi-led Arab occupation of the country, with US support—a policy of ‘we will help those who help themselves’. With American assistance, Arab country troops should enter Syria and fight all groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’. Syrian soldiers will stand down very quickly. Any other group, such as al-Qaeda, that fights this Arab–US coalition, must be swatted aside. Once stabilised—and it wouldn’t take long—the Arabs and the world would be in a position to determine what to do next while Arab (not American) troops occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent by any means, but it would be better than the status quo, and it would mark an undeniable defeat for Iran by its principle enemies.

Despite finally getting some real aid from the US, the Kurds are drifting towards the Iranian camp, because Iran might give them want they want—independence, or at least greater autonomy in Syria. Kurdish support must be won to the West, and the West, notwithstanding Turkish objections, should promise the Kurds a homeland.

In exchange for action against Iran, Israeli settlement activity must be restrained, and some helpful unilateral moves (such as small withdrawals or issuing of building permits in Area C of the West Bank) should be encouraged. The Palestinian leadership lacks popularity for two reasons; peace with Israel has not brought tangible benefits and endemic corruption. With the threat of reduced aid, corruption must be made to end, and pressure on Israel to make the unilateral moves will help Abbas’s popularity. (But Israeli moves cannot be seen as occurring because of violence, as that will benefit Hamas and harden Israeli attitudes.) Official Palestinian celebrations of violence, such as naming youth events after suicide bombers, must end immediately.

Only the US has the ability to achieve these ends. Pursuing this strategy will not create Utopia. People will still be killed. The losers—Iran and its proxies—will respond with terrorism. But what the above represents is a strategy, not merely a collection of ad hoc tactics. What has been missing for the last 20 years is strategic vision in the US and the right constellation of events on the ground. The latter is now in place. Will Washington step up to the plate?