Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 26 July – 2 August 2013

Conflicts Forum

The signal from Iran is unmistakeable:  It seems that Mohammad Javad Zarif will be Foreign Minister. Zarif spent five years as Ambassador to the UN in NY from 2002-2007.  “His English is absolutely perfect. He’s extraordinarily smart, and highly respected in the United States by the people who dealt with him, both in New York and Washington”, according to Gary Sick.  Zarif’s dealings with US diplomacy, in fact, reach back to the eighties’ hostage crisis in Lebanon; but he is better known for his later links with Senator Feinstein, Joe Biden, and Chuck Hegel, from his UN days.  Of course, the final appointment awaits upon Rowhani’s inauguration – and such key Presidential appointments in foreign policy and in the security council, are only made in consultation with the Supreme Leader; but for sure, his candidature already will have been discussed with the Leader (with whom Rowhani enjoys a close relationship).  Such a striking appointment of a pragmatic, tough and independent-minded free-spirit with whom the US can speak with a high degree of ‘comfort’ re-affirms the flashing light emitted by the Presidential election result itself – Iran’s foreign policy is striking out on a new course – and on a path that enjoys a genuinely centrist mandate.

And the US has taken note: Last week, the US Administration eased sanctions applying to medicines reaching Iran (their being sanctioned in the first place has been a source of great bitterness for most Iranians) plus those affecting some humanitarian and agricultural items were also slightly alleviated.  Further, the Administration has quietly been discouraging harsh new AIPAC-sponsored sanctions legislation from reaching Congress, and 113 Congress members have defied AIPAC sufficiently to sign a letter to Obama calling for the reinvigoration of the policy of a negotiated settlement with Iran, and for the seizing of the opportunity offer to the US by Rowhani’s election.  There is a small, but quite assertive chorus of voices in both the US and in Europe (albeit not including France or the UK) echoing the refrain that Rowhani’s election is an opportunity which should not be cast aside.  Strikingly, the NY Times published an op-ed over the weekend by the former French Ambassador to Iran that casts real doubt on the western intelligence narrative that Iran had a government sponsored nuclear weapons programme up until 2003, after which date it was discontinued.  The evidence that the Ambassador presents, suggests that there never was any authorized weapons programme; but that there were scattered instances of unauthorized theoretical weapons research conducted in disparate parts of the defence system, which Rowhani in 2003 tried firstly to find out about, and then stop.  As so often with fragmentary intercept intelligence, it not hard to understand how intercepted communications may have been misread by the intelligence services to imply that there had been a government authorized weapons program me, rather than the more banal picture painted by the Ambassador that the Iranian government at that time did not even know what research was being undertaken in the more obscure parts of the system – let alone can be held to have authorised it.

Of course, any prospective responsive shift by the Administration towards an opening toward Iran will incites opposition, and even open the possibility of a ‘war’ within Congress.  Even this initial AIPAC push to get fresh sanctions through Congress ahead of Rowhani’s inauguration, came directly from a notably belligerent Netanyahu who, in appeal over a widely-viewed US public affairs programme two weeks ago, demanded that the US should substantially escalate the siege on Iran, casting Rowhani as no more than a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ arriving at the Presidency.  It is too early to tell whether the political capacity exists in the US system for it to be able to respond effectively to the opening presented by Rowhani’s election.

In Egypt, neither side seem capable to pull back. The Army and the mainstream Egyptian media are promoting a full-court personality cult: Sisi images are everywhere – sometimes watermarked with the profile of Gamal Abdel Nasser. There is no doubting the burning fervor amongst his supporters.  One woman journalist wrote ecstatically of Egyptian women lining up for the chance to marry him – or ‘even to become his concubine:  He only has to give the wink’.  And the language of these Sisi supporters, as they hoist aloft images of the sunglassed general, with his rows of medals, becomes ever more polarized.  The Muslim Brotherhood are ‘terrorists’,  ‘Morsi had treacherous links to Islamist movements’, Hamas is the existential enemy (displacing Israel).  Sisi, as the icon of a new Egyptian nationalism; Sisi ‘as President’.  (Of the National Salvation Front, of al-Baradai, of the Tamarod almost nothing is heard.  There is no doubting who is in charge; and little doubting that he is relishing it, either)

And in another part of the city, sentiments are hardening too.  ‘The mood is angry’; ‘the army needs to be taught a lesson’.  The Brotherhood leadership remains in disarray, trying as best it can to preserve the one card it holds – the semblance of unity, the ‘big tent’ approach, which characterized Hassan Banna’s strategy at the time of the dissolution of the Caliphate in the 1920s.  But the remnants of  the MB leadership (including former MB liberals, who cannot go home for fear of arrest) can see that preserving this fragile fabric of unity must mean accommodating its own youth, now openly embracing death in the name of the Islamic cause.  And it also means including those other Islamist groups (such as rank and file Salafists) who now are so important to the survival of the Brotherhood, and now the MB’s only reliable allies – even if this means ‘sharing the tent’ with elements who advocate more radical or violent platforms.  In reality, the Brotherhood leaders (those that are still about) have little choice.  It is clear that younger Brothers simply are no longer listening to calls for restraint or to their liberal elders.  In their way the toppling of Morsi may become seen to have been as momentous as the fall of Mubarak.  It will define the future identity of Sunni Islamism:  Whether it can keep its unity, or will splinter; whether it will drift  towards literalism – as one (liberal) Brother remarkedthis week, “this is not the MB that I knew. They are now speaking the language of the Salafis, because that is what is popular on the street now”.

Can the Brotherhood hope to sustain itself against Sisi?  Time will tell; but as Robert Fisk noted pertinently, as you watch those in Tahrir parading the images of the much-medalled general, and listen to the eulogies of the new leader, one notices that they are generally affluent, but as you cross to the masses huddled around the mosque, one notices that they largely are the poor.  In Egypt, the ‘numbers’ of course, lie overwhelmingly with the poor.  Secondly, the MB may hold a different perception of the army.  The army, per se, may not be as quite as popular as the US and western mainstream press presumes.  This is not 1952.  The top echelon of the army are billionaires. They control (and have become enriched) by the 40% of the economy they now hold, and they have not fought a war for 30 years.  In the run-up to the overthrow of Mubarak we saw clear evidence of tension between the lower cadres of officers and the more senior colonels and generals. These junior officers were not on the ‘gravy train’, like their superiors; and many of these junior officers despised those that were – and hated the way that their fine army had become merchants and shopkeepers, rather than the soldiers of yore.

Syria’s slide from off the western agenda has again been in evidence.  A massacre took place in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, with reportedly some 150 civilians killed (many apparently ‘executed’ with a bullet to the head).  Hardly was this event noticed, or mourned, in the mainstream western press, nor even was there any attempt to blame it on the government (as in earlier cases).  Just silence.  (The killings were ‘claimed’ by al-Nusrah and Ansar al-Khalifa groups.). Homs has fallen to the Syrian army; and the insurgents in the north have fallen into a bitter internecine conflict.  The war in Syria peters towards an end.  The strategic war for the future of the Middle East however has moved to Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Qae’da) killed 60 civilians in 17 bombing throughout Iraq this week.  Saudi Arabia wants Maliki out, and it wants the Iraqi Presidency, now held by the ailing Jalal Talabani (a Kurd), to be awarded to the Sunnis as a political entitlement. The security situation in Iraq is not good (and there are signs that jihadis from Syria are beginning to deploy from Syria to Iraq), but politically, Maliki’s position has improved.  Political and economic ties between Iraq and Iran are strengthening (i.e. in the exploitation of shared gas and oil fields to both states’ mutual satisfaction).  And a broad understanding now has been achieved between Maliki and the Kurds (including Barzani) – largely because of Iranian prodding rather than because of closer ties between Iran and the Iraqi Kurds - which has ended the stand off between the Kurds and the Federal Government.  This new understanding was driven in part by the Kurds’ growing fears of radicalized Sunni elements (as evidenced by the fighting between the PYD and al-Nusrah), and through the recent closening of such Kurdish groups to Iran.

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