Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 16 – 23 May 2014

Conflicts Forum

Are we heading towards a hot ‘summer of discontent’?  It seems so. The geo-strategic political situation certainly has its needle wavering towards escalating tensions, and is pushing towards ‘red’ on diverse fronts. Clearly the volatile, chaotic unpredictability of the Ukraine crisis will continue as the possible trigger to a US confrontation with Russia – an ‘unwanted and needless’ conflict, as the strongly pro-Atlanticist Russian PM Dmitri Medvedev bitterly notes.

The American surge towards isolating and sanctioning Russia – taken in parallel with America’s ‘passive-aggressive’ conduct toward China (such as charging Chinese officials with – of all things – cyber crimes) – has finally actualised President Putin’s strategic ‘pivot’ to China. And (despite much western a priori scepticism), it seems that the globally insignificant affairs of a bankrupt Ukraine may prove to be the straw that breaks the back of the post-war global order: It brings together, in a single force, Russia and China in a oppositional alliance to the US monopoly over the international order and financial system and marks the end of the US’ triangulation by which America has been able to play off one power against another.

The mega gas contract signed between Russia and China will not change Europe’s energy situation (the gas for China mostly will come from eastern Russia, whereas Europe’s gas comes from sources in western Russia), but the significance for Europe lies more with the type of currency in which it is denominated (dollars or not), and also whether Russia intends to link its putative new financial settlement system to the existing Chinese UnionPaysettlement system (Russia’s second biggest bank has already signed a deal with the Bank of China that bypasses the international settlement system). If the Russia-China gas contract transpires truly to crystallise the move by these states away from the US dominated financial system, then the implications are indeed huge.

President Obama may well instinctively and intellectually sense the heating-up occurring in the geo-political order and understand its potential risks better than many, but he is evidently on the back foot politically (under heavy domestic pressures). Consequently, he needs to pay obeisance to the myth of how America’s Cold War came to be won, particularly in dealing with such domestically emotive issues as Russia’s reactions in Crimea and Ukraine.

Trita Parsi, writing in the narrower context of the Iran negotiations, begins by noting that, in “what is perhaps the central myth of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy is said to have stared down Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and refused to give an inch…forcing [Khrushchev] to capitulate…[In the American meme] Khrushchev gave everything, and Kennedy gave nothing … In reality, of course, Kennedy did compromise. Only by quietly withdrawing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey, did the United States avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union”.  But for several decades Kennedy’s concession remained secret.  And by the time it became known, the myth had grown so strong that the truth could not unseat it. “This false standard”, according to Leslie Gelb of the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), has become “the ‘gold standard’ for American statecraft going forward: Never compromise, just stare down your enemies and force them to capitulate”.  Obama, and other ‘non-believers’ such as Dempsey, may take a more nuanced view of America’s capabilities, but they are nonetheless necessarily politically captive to this pervading myth.

The Russian people naturally have their own (very different) account of this seminal Cuban crisis, and do not at all feel that the USSR ‘capitulated’, either then (during the Cuban crisis), nor indeed in the wake of the Cold War. Most would not see themselves to have been vanquished by the superior merits of the American model for society (see our Weekly Comment here). And, just as Germans resented the post-First World War settlement (the Versailles dispensation), so too Russians bridle at the terms of the post-Cold War dispensation and their treatment as a defeated people.

French analyst Phillipe Grasset has correctly observed in response to this point that, albeit in very different conditions, the same sentiments apply to China: the sense in China, he writes, is one of “facing irresistible and antagonistic dynamics, to which, neither one nor other of the two powers (China and Russia) can find the key [to mitigating its effects]”. “God knows, in common with Russia, the Chinese wish to do everything feasible in order to avoid such confrontation! But nothing, absolutely nothing, seems to help”.

The present threats against Russia seems to have galvanised both into action: we have the long postponed thirty-year gas deal between Russia and China, and at the same time, we have General Fang (unusually for a Chinese official, and a guest in Washington) outspokenly rebuffing US involvement or mediation in the South China Seas, telling Washington firmly, “We [in China] do not make trouble. We do not create trouble. But we are not afraid of trouble”.  All this has led Forbes magazine, quoting a raft of other informed analysis, to predict thatA Russia-China Alliance Is Emerging, And It Will Be A Disaster For The West.

“For much of the past two decades, Russian liberals have been telling their Western interlocutors that pushing Russia too hard or ignoring its interests would provoke Moscow to seek a closer relationship with China”, writesDmitry Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, adding that their warnings all have been dismissed.  “[Now] faced with U.S.-led geopolitical pressure in Eastern Europe and East Asia, Russia and China are likely to cooperate even more closely … Such an outcome would certainly benefit China, but it will give Russia a chance to withstand U.S. geopolitical pressure, compensate for the EU’s coming energy re-orientation, develop Siberia and the Far East, and link itself to the Asia-Pacific region. The surviving Russian liberals of the 1990s [i.e. the Atlanticists] will have the last laugh—before withering away”.

And here – with the liberals having one last wry laugh, “before fading away” – precisely lies the link to the Middle East. Here too, it promises to be a long ‘hot’ summer.  The US Administration will allow more weapons to reach Syria, yet the Administration does not believe this action will achieve its primary objective of defeating thetakfiri jihadist groups. (Finding a solution to the Syria issue now has fallen down the list of US priorities).  Adding more weaponry is all about assuaging swelling US domestic criticism of America’s Syria debility (i.e. of American non-assertiveness being felt to sit uncomfortably with its Cold War myth of ‘demanding and getting’).

The Administration’s true understanding of the situation however is more clearly reflected by its (now) collateral priority to keep the army and institutions of Syria unimpeded and intact. In short, this tells us that US policy-makers believe that only the Syrian army can defeat the jihadists (as is happening) – and the extra weapons for “moderates” are merely props for a piece of political theatre (but nonetheless carry portents of further real suffering for Syrians).  The Syrian “moderates” will likely have their rising cynicism confirmed – before they too are made to fade away: Collateral damage in the new larger US game-plan of defeating the jihadists.

With respect to Iran and the negotiations with the P5+1, there are both similarities with the trend of sentiment in Russia and China about how to manage this American ‘gold standard of statecraft’, but also some dissimilarities.  Here too, there very much is the prospect of a ‘summer of discontent’, and here too is the likelihood of strategic realignment — or rather, more accurately, alignments that are already under way.  For generally in Iran, the consensus is that the longer the tensions over Ukraine persist, the greater the crisis works to Iran’s advantage and interest.

In much of Washington however, the narrative is read inversely: that the crisis in Ukraine (i.e. any isolation of Russia) is an opportunity for the West to wrest Iran out from the Russian sphere, and thus to magnify and deepen Russia’s ‘isolation’.

And although Russia’s supposed ‘isolation’ maybe more wish than reality, the implied misreading inherent in the notion of Ukraine representing a Western ‘opportunity’ to reshape Iran geo-strategically constitutes another landmine primed to explode this summer.

What was true for Russia, in terms of the myth of Khrushchev’s ‘capitulation’ is true in spades for Iran:  As Parsiwrites, “Today, another, equally destructive myth is being forged”. That myth is that crippling sanctions brought the Iranian regime to its knees, forcing it to rush to the negotiating table to beg for mercy. In this narrative, the breakthrough in nuclear talks is credited to the Obama administration’s unprecedented economic pressure, which has essentially locked Iran out of the international financial system. And like JFK before him, Obama did not compromise with Iran. The mythical gold standard [of American tradecraft] was met”.  (Parsi goes on to make an important case in explaining why the myth that sanctions brought Iran to the ‘table’ is not true).

But the American ‘narrative’ is more than just one of having ‘stared down’ the Iranian leadership, and of the Iranians being a ‘defeated people’. And here perhaps well-intentioned Iranians have added their own contribution and twist: a nuance intended to help, maybe, but which may end by contributing to the ultimate failure of the talks – and to their own political ‘fading away’ too.

The additional Iranian liberal narrative as heard in the US and Europe (broadly) is that in spite of the “fraudulent” 2009 elections, the Reformists managed a startling ‘comeback’ – thanks largely to the unexpected good fortune of the conservatives having engaged in a misguided bout of ‘strategic voting’ – a cross-voting strategy that spectacularly backfired against them.  In short, the Reformists are presented as ‘Greenish’, pro-western, economic pragmatists, with whom the West must cut a deal. It is in the West’s interest to do this, they argue, because a successful nuclear negotiation, would enthrone ‘pro-Atlanticists’ in power in Tehran for the next decade or so.

To be fair, many of these interlocutors who undoubtedly do have connections in Tehran are sincere, and believe that this ‘spin’ will help Iran achieve the settlement which ultimately will lift sanctions – as well as allowing for better and more cosmopolitan ‘lifestyles’ for them and their colleagues. But the flaws to this narrative are obvious: the data on which the narrative relies to mount its ‘strategic Reformist comeback’ thesis (i.e. University of Tehran polling) paradoxically is drawn from the same reputable polling institute that earlier had demonstrated that Ahmadinejad had won his election legitimately – and not fraudulently.

But more fundamentally, this narrative functions by over-polarising Iranian politics into two camps. It does this by conflating the Greens (who have been largely discredited in the wake of 2009) with Reformists.  Today’s Reformists largely are not Greens. They encompass a much wider spectrum of political thinking and distinct currents.  And the Reformists are not at all ‘Atlanticist’ by inclination – as the narrative of Rouhani emerging as the “tense completion of the 2009 Chapter” might suggest.  In fact, the same polls used to show Rouhani trumping the conservatives, more significantly also showed him drawing increasing support from the principal-ist camp as the election approached. President Rouhani is not a Reformist.  He genuinely drew broad support from all sides. The claim that he emerged, as it were, from out of the 2009 Green dissidence, therefore is both too polarised and risks causing further misinformation, and therefore mistrust.  Informed observers can see for themselves that the current Iranian government is not some outgrowth of the Green movement. To claim otherwise will only exacerbate suspicions of duplicity.

This ‘liberal’ narrative is, in short, that of the ‘please help us to help you’ genre, long used by Fateh with the Israelis. More worryingly, this narrative – though well intentioned – does give western interlocutors the impression that the Iranian negotiating team is getting desperate for a deal.  The danger here is that the myth of having ‘stared down the Iranians’ into conceding negotiations is being further compounded by an additional narrative of weakness and desperation: No wonder the Americans are hardening their position. Signs of weakness are more likely to result in further pressures on Iran, rather than yielding ‘understanding’ concessions from the Americans. Thus, the ‘no short-term breakout potential’ argument is becoming ever more attenuated, as the New York Times avers, into a position whereby Iran will be permitted ‘symbolic’ enrichment only – sufficient only for the negotiators to make (the bogus) claim that they secured Iran’s nuclear rights, but not enough to produce the energy necessary to meet Iran’s industrial requirement.

This formula simply will not work.  It will not bring a solution: It is simply incompatible with the industrial-scale enrichment that Iran requires for the generation of electricity.  It is not the case that the talks will fail because the conservatives are ideologically opposed to any settlement reached with the US.  The argument advanced by those opposed to the present negotiations is not based on refusing any negotiations with America per se, but on the terms and framework of the talks (see CF’s previous Weekly Comment here).

What is missing in the analysis (understandably obscured by the narrative ‘spin’ outlined above) is this:  Just as Russians who advocated better relations with America and Europe have seen their position erode and collapse over the years in Russia, so too in Iran (and China) this identical dilemma is pushing Iranians as whole towards closer strategic ties with Russia and with China.  All these states share the inability to find a workaround to circumvent the dynamic of America needing ceaselessly to repeat its Cold War ‘myth’ – and as this becomes more and more evident, Atlanticists and liberals in the non-Western world (as in Russia) are being marginalized and weakened.

The Russian pivot away from seeking better relations with the US is the reason why most Iranians see Ukraine as benefitting their interests: they understand that the consequence of this will be increased support and a closer strategic link with Russia and China. There is some evidence too, that events already are pushing China and Russia into greater support for Iran and its stands (RIA Novosti, for example, is reporting that Russia has plans to build a further eight nuclear reactors in Iran).

And if the talks break down … will Iran be blamed? Will sanctions then simply continue as they are?  The answer to both is almost certainly ‘no’ (although, of course, the US and Europe will blame Iran). But the very failure of the talks will deeply affect sentiment in the Middle East towards America and the P5+1, and will cement Iran and Syria (and others) to any emerging pole that leads the struggle against a uni-polarity rooted in America seeking to endlessly repeat its Cold War mythology.

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