Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

26 April – 3 May 2013

Confusion, contradiction and gridlock within western policy-making and thinking, whether on Syria, Iran or the Arab ‘arising’ has been very much in evidence this week.  In a reflective piece by two former senior US policy-makers, the authors, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, suggest that much of this confusion and contradiction in thinking stems from an accelerating entropy of the international order which was established in the wake of the 1939-1945 war.  Essentially the immediate post-war era laid down a ‘postivist’ global order, whereby the rules of international relations were created through the consent of independent sovereign states and are to be interpreted narrowly; but at the same time, its founders gave a very privileged status to certain states, the US and its allies, in the interpretation of these ‘rules’.  Over time, these ‘special rights’ have led to the ascendency of a ‘goals orientated’ approach, rather than a rules based view, in which the US and its allies increasingly have defined “these goals [of the international order] in defiance of the international legal obligations that western powers once voluntary embraced” – and according to their definition of what their interests suggested would be best, too, for the global order.  The authors’ main concern is Iran, where they argue that the ‘conflict over Iran’s programme is driven precisely by these two different approaches to those ‘international rules’ – or, in this case the NPT.  In a nut shell, the West assumes to itself to interpret the ‘rules’ whereby its goal of non-proliferation simply trumps the other two [once equal] legal pillars of the NPT, including the right to enrichment, thus in practice, abrogating to themselves the right to decide which states may or may not have access to peaceful nuclear power.  The authors point to the push-back, firstly and foremost by Iran to this ‘approach’ to the nuclear ‘rules’, but also by the BRICS and a majority of the so-called, non-aligned states.

But this fault-line, articulated so lucidly in the case of Iran, is not confined to it: it now runs through all spheres of western relations with the Middle East, giving rise to contradictions within western policy and to confusion.  The issue of whether or not to intervene in Syria throws up the same dilemmas:  on the one hand, the west has assumed for itself the international goal of deposing President Assad, but this can be achieved only at the cost of flouting international law and its ‘rules’ (i.e. the UN Charter), and by undermining both. Again we see substantive ‘push-back’ to this ‘goals approach’:  a recent Pew poll shows substantive (approximately two thirds) disapproval in mainly Sunni Arab states for the western ‘green light’ for the arming of an insurgency in Syria – a striking expression of clear differences of opinion between the political élites and the public — a disapproval that spans all confessional categories.  Again, the western ‘goal’ (at least since 2007) of conferring international legitimacy on Sunni states – and particularly the Gulf states as they pursued their (then) cold war against Iran - as somehow being standard-bearers of the international order, could not represent a greater contradiction to the claimed values of the international order, with its implicit acquiescence and reliance on Takfiri jihadist support, in the pursuit of their ‘international goal’ of isolating and weakening Shi’i Iran, Hizballah and their ally – Syria.

The contradictions were well encapsulated in an article by Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli political commentator, which described the recent capture of a foreign jihadist in Mali: the jihadist recounted how he had intended to fight in Syria against Assad, but events went against him and through happenstance, he had ended up in Mali. Barnea noted wryly that if the jihadist had succeeded in catching the flight to join the Syrian opposition, he would have been welcomed in the West as a freedom fighter, but having ended in Mali, he paradoxically became a terrorist.

(The tensions and push-back associated with these three examples of the ‘western goal approach’ intersect with, and are gaining oxygen from, the domestic affairs in the West too, as Mediterranean states have watched how  European élites, facing their internal crisis, imposed their financial ‘goals’ in Cyprus, with cavalier disregard of the legal rules regarding bank deposit-holders. People in the Middle East observe the rising anger in Europe, and see the popular push-back manifesting itself in Italy, Spain and Portugal and draw succour).

Qatar’s controversial and ambiguous role was highlighted during the PM’s visit to Washington this week. Piqued by the criticism of Doha’s embrace of Islamist (including jihadist) movements (both armed and unarmed), a defensiveSheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, denied Qatar was siding solely with Islamist politicians and movements. But strikingly – and sanctimoniously - he also warned Arab states that their political systems were vulnerable if they don't embrace democracy and reform, and underlined his warning by saying that "A big tsunami wave is coming," he said at the Brookings Institute last week. "We cannot choose for the countries who are their leaders or which party should win. But in the end, they will be democracies in my opinion."  The Wall Street Journal author rued the divisions with the pro-American Middle East camp, noting that they imperilled the very US policy toward the Middle East with Doha and Istanbul in one opposing camp and with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan in the other.

More surprising and perhaps more significant was the vehemence of the attack on Qatar’s role in an article by Jeff Goldberg, in The Attention Starved Teen of the Middle East. Goldberg is a highly-favoured journalistic interlocutor of President Obama. In his article, Goldberg described the PM’s visit to Brookings Institute in Washington (Qatar is a prominent funder) as "cringe-worthy", in terms of the sycophancy offered to the Brookings guest by his hosts; but more tellingly he recounts Bin Jassim’s weak responses to questions about Qatar’s true intentions in the region (beyond wrong-footing Saudi Arabia), noting that US officials are equally bewildered about Qatar’s policies.  Goldberg concludes that President  Obama, in a meeting with the Emir on April 23, “is said to have spoken in blunt terms about Qatar’s support for jihadists, and to have warned that Qatari backing of al-Qaeda-like groups would pose a direct challenge to the national-security interests of the U.S.”  Perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Goldberg notes that the Emir was said to have agreed with the president wholeheartedly on the matter – adding, perhaps again in a similar vein, that the Emir was also said to have suggested to the president that stories about “Qatari two-timing” were but mere rumor.

Uncertainty about strategy toward arming the jihadists in Syria clearly is not confined to Washington: the Chief of the British defence staff General Sir David Richards, who is standing down in July, is said to have told senior military officials that any move against Syria, under the pretext of chemical agents use by Syrian government forces, would have to be carried out on a huge scale, which is not advisable, the UK Sunday Times reported. “Even to set up a humanitarian safe area would be a major military operation without the co-operation of the Syrians. In Syria, we have to be prepared to go to war," he warned. Richards also said that Prime Minister Cameron needs to be extremely cautious and decide whether it is sensible to intervene in Syria - even were its security forces to use use chemical agents on anti-government militants — words of caution and warning which appear to be having some effect, as Cameronrecently backed away from earlier calls to arm the Syrian rebels.

With 48 days to go before the Iranian Presidential elections, the very low key lead-in to campaigning in Iran sees no very clear lead candidate being defined to contend the Presidency - from either the side of the Principalists, or the that of the Reformists.  The Principalists essentially are considering three main possibilities: Messers Hadded-Adel, a former Speaker of Parliament, Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, and Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.  It seems unlikely that Larijani, the present Speaker, will be a candidate on this occasion.  What is causing this hiatus in the campaign is that the Principalists seem reluctant to make their choice of candidate before seeing who the Reformists will propose: they await to see whether the Reformists will go with a figure of the standing of Hashemi-Rafsanjani – a decision (still untaken) that would involve considerable political jeopardy for the Reformists were the latter to fare badly in the election outcome - or whether the Reformists will decline this risk and opt for candidates of lesser standing such as Messrs. Rowhani, Jahangiri or Aref, and to accept that such a choice may well lessen their overall prospects at the polls.  If Hashemi-Rafsanjani does stand, the belief is that the Principalists will converge on Qalibaf as their candidate to challenge Hashemi-Rafsanjani.  Western press reporting however still continues to present the Iranian election prospects as somehow a contest between the Supreme Leader’s ‘nominee’ (a choice which the Supreme Leader does not make) and Mashaiee, the former Chef de Cabinetof Ahmadinejad and his protogé. This narrative seems primarily intended to set-up, and then portray, the Iranian Presidential elections as devoid of democracy and ‘a fix’, as and when when Mashiaee’s nomination as candidate is refused by the Guardian Council (as would be likely to happen) – and the Principalists' nominee is described in the western press as the Supreme Leader’s ‘candidate’.  Were Mashaiee to be nominated, his disqualification indeed is highly likely – as the constitution requires candidates to have held a substantive political post, in their own right, to qualify as a Presidential candidate.  It is unlikely that having been head of Ahmadinejad’s office will be held to have fulfilled this criterion.  The expectation is then that this western narrative will take the (false) line of the Supreme Leader having fixed Mashaiee’s exit, in order to ‘impose’ his choice on the Iranian people.