Major changes under way in US Middle East politics

by Claude Salhani

Two US presidents ago, politically speaking, the Middle East was a very different place than it is today. For better or for worse, alliances among foreign powers and certain Mideast countries have shifted or are in the process of doing so.

Long-standing relationships, such as the one between the United States and Saudi Arabia, are on shaky ground as Russia appears to have made inroads with the Saudis as never before. This is just one example.

A large part of the blame for the Middle East’s deep-rooted conflicts continuing can be attributed to major foreign powers that have consistently intervened politically, economically or militarily to better position their country and their interests.

The most noticeable change in the Middle East is the gradual decline of US influence in the region, influence that has been replaced by that of Russia or Iran and Turkey, the latest of unholy alliances to emerge from the chaotic climate that prevails in the region.

Russia fought a hard battle during the Cold War years to maintain a strong footing in the region. More recently, weak and undecided US foreign policy regarding the Middle East left the door open for Moscow to step in. Russia’s strong-headed president, Vladimir Putin, wasted no time in filling the void created by the absence of the United States in the region.

The never-ending tug of war played by various political blocs seeking to extend their influence either directly or via proxy has changed the geopolitical map. If not forever, at least until the next major adjustment in the region takes place, which in this part of the world typically runs for about 40-50 years. Understandably for the people living under the authoritative whims of those in power, it can certainly feel as though it was forever.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was a brief opportunity during which the United States and its NATO allies could have helped Russia make a healthier transition from a socialist, communist state towards a free-market economy, with a democratic form of government. It was a period when Russia felt it was at its most vulnerable with its protective satellite countries that were designed to act as a buffer zone between the borders of NATO countries and Mother Russia.

Instead, NATO members went after countries of the former Soviet Union and former members of the Warsaw Pact, welcoming them into the European Union and NATO. In the process, upsetting Moscow more and more.

Adding insult to injury, the United States and its NATO allies set up missile and radar systems in the Czech Republic and Poland.

As could be expected, this worried the Russians, who were struggling with a tattered economy and a public’s morale as low as it could be. The average Russian awoke one morning to find his currency practically worthless and watched in horror as a new class of millionaires emerged selling bits and pieces of the country to the highest bidder.

From nuclear weapons to biological agents to humans, everything was on sale for the right price.

The West cherished the moment and conducted its policy in the Middle East by ignoring Russia, leaving it out in the cold. It was one thing to continuously undermine Moscow when it was under Soviet rule but it became very personal when the West continued to consider Russia an enemy. So Putin decided to hit the West where it would hurt the most. He would go after the money, such as convincing the Turks to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defence system.

The North Atlantic defence perimeter was breached through Russia’s inroads with Turkey. What is at the same time fascinating and quite worrisome is how history seems to repeat itself. What led Germany to national socialism and the outbreak of the second world war were the harsh conditions that France and Britain demanded in reparations from Germany for the disaster of the first world war. While the conditions are not exactly the same, nevertheless, let us hope there is no repetition of history.

Israelis need no new software to realise Palestinians have a dream

By Claude Salhani

If anyone should have no trouble recognising and realising the injustice committed daily against Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, it is the Israelis. History books are filled with chapter upon chapter of injustice committed against the Jewish people, dating from biblical times through the modern era.

Yet they seem oblivious to the suffering of an entire nation.

Jews understand what it means to crave for a land they can call their own. They struggled against overriding odds, suffered terrible discrimination. Over the centuries they have been victims of pogroms and bore the brunt of the madness of Nazi Germany, whose leaders wanted to impose a “final solution” — the Holocaust — intended to exterminate the Jewish people.

The Jews survived. From the death camps of Europe, many made their way to Palestine. Jews had long dreamed of having their own state where they could live in peace and without fear of being persecuted for their faith. From practically nothing, they built a modern, functioning state.

However, they have done such wonders to the detriment of another people, the Palestinians, who, forced by economic realities of the occupation, provide Israel with cheap labour that has helped it become a modern state.

The Arabs tried defeating Israel militarily and economically and have come up short.

Militarily, they waged five major wars against Israel: 1948, upon the creation of the state of Israel; 1956, the Suez crisis; 1967, the Six-Day War; 1973, the October (Yom Kippur) War; 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. There have been limited confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah and two intifadas. Still, peace between Israel and the Palestinians is nowhere on the horizon.

On the economic front, the Arab League’s boycott bureau may think its actions serve the greater good of the Arab cause. Like most other Arab League initiatives, its effectiveness could only be measured by the number of bureaucrats it has created. Nothing else.

It would periodically issue a news release announcing a new target of its boycott but that action hardly ever saw the light of day.

Palestinians have been abused by their occupiers at the same time they were exploited by their brothers. It is one thing to shout support for the Palestinians from the minarets of Tehran and to threaten the Jewish state with extinction and to throw out slogans of hate at an enemy a few thousand miles away but it is a very different thing to have to deal with the harsh facts of having to live with a military occupation on a day-to-day basis.

Israel prides itself on its technological prowess and has been referred to as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East but it falls short in recognising the needs of its neighbours: the Palestinian people.

Israel might have harnessed new technologies better than other countries in the region but, as its use of facial-recognition technology to control the movement of Palestinians across its borders shows its scientific knowhow, it failed to recognise one basic fact: Injustice to a whole people under its occupation. No sophisticated technology is needed to see that. Only the old-fashioned ability to detect human suffering.

The sad irony for thousands of Palestinian day labourers lies in the realisation that the only work they are likely to find is in helping build a better world for the very enemy they have to contend with on a daily basis, at least until there is a political solution allowing the Palestinians to establish a full-fledged independent state.

The Palestinians, like the Israelis, also have a dream. A dream of being in their own country where they would not be subjected to constant military checkpoints, searches, detention and arbitrary arrest.

Israel might turn to its technology where perhaps it may find an application or upgraded software that tells it that the Palestinian people also have the right to live freely and with dignity.

The Israelis can use Palestinian labour for economy with minimal security risks. Hardly the stuff that will guarantee them peace and tranquillity. For that, there is a need for seeing the Palestinians as more than digitised faces. There is a need to see them as human beings with histories, dreams and national aspirations.

More than just the transactional arrangements envisioned by Jared Kushner and the Trump administration, realising such basic facts would be a crucial step for peace, real peace.

Bracing for Boris Johnson’s next shock statement

by Claude Salhani

The man who railroaded Britain into leaving the European Union is to be the country’s next prime minister, replacing Theresa May, who lost her job along with the Conservative Party’s confidence.

A situation largely brought about by the Brexit dilemma, something to which Boris Johnson, who handily won the Conservative Party election on July 23 that put him in position to be Britain’s prime minister, largely contributed.

Even as a reporter for the British press reporting on the European Union from Brussels, Johnson showed disdain for it in his articles and even made up quotes to suit his stories. That cost him his job at the London Times.

He specialised in exaggerated yarns about the European Union’s plans to truss Britain in red tape. Officials in Brussels who must deal with Johnson as prime minister have not forgotten his role in demonising the European Union.

Johnson thinks of himself as a modern-day Winston Churchill, who will ride into 10 Downing Street and whisk Britain out of its woes, industrial, economic and other.

A more realistic view of Johnson is that he is more likely to turn out to be a British version of US President Donald Trump. May God save the Queen and what is left of the British Empire.

Johnson followed Trump’s example on the road to becoming a political celebrity by copying much of what Trump does, political provocation and having a loose relationship with the truth.

Like Trump, he is fervently pro-Israeli, something that is not likely to help the Palestinians, specifically as long as Trump is in the White House and Binyamin Netanyahu remains in power in Israel.

Much like Trump, Johnson is expected to adopt a staunch hard-line position vis-a-vis Iran but not exactly Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach.

One of the first major issues Johnson will have to confront on assuming leadership of the country is the seizure of a British oil tanker by the Iranian Navy in the Strait of Hormuz. This came about as retaliation for the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar by British Royal Marines. The Brits said the tanker was carrying contraband oil to Syria.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif congratulated Johnson on his party election win with a warning that Tehran will “protect” its waters. Johnson understands that in Iran’s dictionary “protection” includes seizing vessels and activating proxies. He is likely to try to de-escalate tensions. A British envoy is said to be in Tehran negotiating the release of the seized tanker.

Commenting on the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal signed between the United States and several European countries, an agreement from which Trump withdrew, Johnson has said that, while the nuclear deal was looking “increasingly frail” and ways need to be found to constrain Iran’s “disruptive behaviour,” engaging with the Iranians and seeking to persuade them not to pursue a nuclear weapons programme is the right way forward.

At least where Iran is concerned, he has shown little sign of moving closer to Trump’s hard-line approach, instead saying he agreed with the position of European countries to encourage a return to diplomacy. He has said he would not currently back military action.

“I am not going to pretend that the mullahs of Tehran are easy people to deal with or that they are anything other than a disruptive, dangerous, difficult regime, they certainly are,” he said during a leadership debate.

Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, wasted no time voicing support for Johnson, saying he was looking forward to having a close working relationship with Johnson. No doubt another bitter bullet or poisoned pill for the Palestinians.

Then again, much like Trump, Johnson’s statements are best taken with a grain of salt, at times with a very large grain.

Historian Max Hastings, Johnson’s former editor at London’s Daily Telegraph, has called him “a man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple.” He could have been just as easily talking about Trump.

Another similarity he has with the American president is that he has no qualms in blaming journalists for “distorting his words.”

Johnson is achieving the dream of a lifetime by moving into 10 Downing Street. Observers warn that it may be a shock.

“Working a crowd is very different from working a government,” historian Peter Hennessy told the BBC. “He’s a remarkable attack journalist. He’s a kind of written version of a shock jock, I’ve always thought, and you can’t govern that way.”

On Islam, in particular, Johnson might be a “shock jock.” The United Kingdom’s Muslim community is bracing for his next outrageous comment about their religion.

Once, he wrote about Islam: “It is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers.”

“Islam is the problem,’’ he said in an article he wrote for a British newspaper.

His treatment of Islam and Muslims could be a more serious problem.

Iran flexes muscles while Trump sees logic in Obama’s Iran deal

By Claude Salhani

The Iranian government and the Trump administration are playing a dangerous game of chicken in the waters of the Gulf. Why the sudden escalation that has brought the two countries, and others, to the brink of an all-out war?

It began in 2011 at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, an event where movers and shakers of the political, entertainment and media worlds are present.

US President Barack Obama made fun of Donald Trump — five years before Trump was elected president — that evening, calling him “The Donald,” playing along with the event’s tradition to poke fun at the president or anyone else you or the designated host for the event may want to roast.

It was obvious that Trump did not appreciate the humour. While every guest at his table was laughing heartily, “The Donald” was livid. It is believed by many who report on the White House that Trump made up his mind that evening that he would undo anything Obama did.

Jarrett Blanc, a former US State Department official who helped oversee the 2015 agreement between the West and Iran, said: “Trump got rid of the Iran nuclear deal because it was Barack Obama’s agreement.”

“If you were to present to Trump the same deal, he’d be thrilled,” said Blanc.

After pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal principally because it was achieved under Obama’s presidency, Trump, today, has indicated that the Obama-era deal might not be so bad after all.

For Trump, the Iran situation is rapidly becoming a no-win situation.

Diplomats familiar with it say that what Trump is proposing today echoes the 2015 deal reached by the Obama administration.

Trump has repeatedly urged the Iranian leadership to negotiate, saying that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are his chief concern, talking points that experts say echo the 2015 accords.

Trump has long trashed the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement as “the worst deal ever,” a “disaster” that didn’t cover nearly enough of the Islamist-led country’s nefarious behaviour.

But look at where he has taken the United States and its allies. White House insiders say there appears to be two factions inside the White House with one saying the United States should be flexible and the other wants an even stricter policy adopted.

Iran has reverted to its aggressive mode by unleashing its sea-borne Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or proxies, who have attacked at least one British oil tanker.

Both sides claim they do not want to escalate the situations.

That being said, the Pentagon ordered 500 US troops to Saudi Arabia, where they will be part of a 1,000 strong force based just south of Riyadh.

US troops in Saudi Arabia? What a grand idea!

Perhaps if Trump bothered to read some history he might realise that part of Osama bin Laden’s original gripe with the king of Saudi Arabia in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, was the anger of Muslims to have US soldiers — read “infidels” — on the land of the two holy mosques.

Bin Laden asked the king to have the American and other foreign forces withdraw and he, bin Laden, with his combat-hardened Afghan Arabs, as his Afghan war veterans were known, would take it upon themselves to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi Army.

A Saudi official present in this exchange said the king’s reply was to laugh, reminding bin Laden that the Iraqi Army was the largest Arab army and hardened by an 8-year war with Iran. Many say this was the turning point for bin Laden when he declared holy war on the Americans and the Saudi royal family.

Now Trump wants to send more US troops to Saudi Arabia.

W= = – ==================================================

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs.

Why conspiracy theories thrive in the Middle East

by Claude Salhani

Conspiracy theorists are found in every country but they seem to thrive most in the Arab world. There are possibly valid reasons for that.

It can be linked to the region’s politics and evolution of its societies. Yes, the region’s politics can and do influence believers in conspiracy theories.

Such theories diminish scientific reasoning, taking over as the main interpretative mode. People in the region can reclaim their destiny once they steer away from conspiracies and perceptions of overwhelming powers they cannot fight.

At its apex, Arab-Islamic civilisation shone all over the world based on the primacy of science and reason. An almost lost legacy.

There is a widespread belief today across the Arab world, often shared by the region’s social media networks, that just about anything that happens in the region is part of a greater plot concocted by the CIA to undermine the people and governments of the region.

The words “conspiracy theories” are immediately thrown in any debate with the hope of providing some rationale to an otherwise unintelligible — and demoralising — political reality.

No topic is too small or inappropriate to such treatment. Issues such as private lives of celebrities — be they in the business world, entertainment or sports — are fair game for conspirators.

One topic seems to come in at the top in the Arab world — politics — and the whims of US politics and Washington’s role in determining the destinies of countries of the region. Once that role comes into focus, the CIA is not far behind.

Whether it be US missions to the moon or sending spacecraft to Mars, many Arabs remain sceptical of US motives.

The US mission to the moon ranks high on conspiracy theorists’ list of topics. They are convinced that Americans never walked on the moon and that the entire moon landing was fabricated inside a Hollywood-style studio.

Some governments in the region, as well as Islamist movements, encourage the conspiracy spin because it has proven a valuable tool for explaining actions beyond their control or contrary to their narratives, especially if it has to do with Israel or the West.

It spares many the trouble of admitting much of the blame could go to mindsets that remain detached from reason and reality. Conspiracy theories enable those who espouse them not to deal with their inability to handle real issues and real problems.

Among the favourite topics prevalent in the region — from Morocco to Yemen and from Syria to Egypt — is anything related to US regional clout and, to narrow it down a bit, any CIA-inspired plot.

Any major political event — and often if the rumours are juicy enough these conspiracy theories do not need to be limited to major events — is said to be the work of the spy agency.

If one tries to reason with conspiracy theorists, they reply that the CIA has the resources to hire as many people as it wants and is authorised to spend as much money as it deems necessary, given that its operating budget is classified.

Almost on an equal pedestal as the CIA in carrying the blame for the shortfalls and associated calamities that visit the Middle East is the Israeli external intelligence agency, Mossad, aided by the powerful Zionist lobby in the United States.

Too many Middle Easterners continue to believe that Zionists, combined with the power and influence of the CIA, can appoint or remove an American president as well as install or remove leaders around the Middle East as though they were pawns in a giant chess game.

Combine rumours, conspiracy theories and war and what comes about is an even more powerful vehicle by which to disseminate crude, but highly effective, “fake news.”

Only bringing back the primacy of reason will save the Arab world from the distorting prism of conspiracy theories.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs

Iran and the US are playing a different game

By Claude Salhani

Tehran and Washington are at it once again, exchanging fairly heavy-duty insults. The hope is, for the benefit of mankind, they remain at the insult level and refrain from escalating the crisis.

This is not the kind of talk you expect from heads of state nor what you expect to find under the heading of diplomatic exchanges.

Then again, these are not your typical heads of state and the diplomacy practised by Iran does not resemble what one finds in Whitehall, the Quai d’Orsay or in Foggy Bottom.

In one corner is a Shia cleric, who reports to a senior cleric who views the world through a very narrow prism set by a particular sectarian interpretation of religion and of what happened several centuries ago. It is a regime that considers terrorism as a normal way of conducting the affairs of state.

In the other corner is an egocentric re-election-obsessed leader who says he knows all there is to know about everything under the sun. US President Donald Trump does not have the reputation of an erudite expert on world affairs. Said one late-night comedian recently: “If you want to hide a book from Trump where is the one place you can rest assured he will never look?”

Answer: in a library.

When he signed an executive order freezing Iranian assets, Trump declared that more sanctions would be levied on Iranian leaders, starting with “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini” as in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died 30 years ago.

Trump no doubt had meant Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who replaced Khomeini, the founder and spiritual guide of the Islamic Revolution, in 1989, but, what the heck, to Trump, one Iranian supreme leader sounds and looks much like the next one, even if Khomeini is no stranger to Iran’s fanatical drift into disaster.

Trump wields the United States’ military might, bullying his way in a manner unbecoming the leader of the free world.

It goes without saying that the United States is militarily better armed, equipped and trained than Iran. In an all-out war the United States would, as the Trump put it, “obliterate parts of the country.”

However, the Iranians are driven by a deep-rooted Islamic fervour that blinds them to the balance of power and instills them with delusions of victory here and in the hereafter that are difficult to comprehend by the West.

That’s on the military side of things. On the political side of the dispute, things are more complicated.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the governing mullahs have not changed the path they initially set out to follow. They have not deviated from their objectives by a single iota. They have followed the same foreign policy from day one.

In the West, with every change of government comes a change of policy. For the Iranians, long-term planning means plotting out their next 100 years if not more.

In contrast, the United States changes its foreign policy every four or eight years. A first-term president often wastes about a year getting his feet under his desk, finding the right people to run the government’s key positions and having them approved by Congress.

The Iranians have been playing complicated political games in which you say one thing and do something else for 2,000 to 3,000 years.

With the Trump administration, a high turnover rate deprived the administration of anyone with more than a couple of years, at best, of experience. Except maybe for John Bolton. All he wants to do — if he had his way — is press the button that says “Tehran.”

The Iranians are aware of Washington’s changing power cycles and that’s why they are banking on the 2020 election to place someone new in the White House on whom they can test the next phase of their long-term strategy.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs

Peace in the Middle East requires more courage than handling North Korea’s nukes

By Claude Salhani

Once again the Middle East, in its own predictable way, is outshining other troubled regions of the world by proving to be a harder egg to crack, even more so than reclusive North Korea.

Finding a solution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weaponry, until recently, was believed to be an impossible mission, yet it may turn out to be not so impossible after US President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

It is far too early to make concrete predictions as to what may ensue from these timid first steps taken by an American president into North Korea, 20 small steps in the DMZ. One certainty is that the outcome will be looked at through very different lenses in the Middle East, particularly in Iran and the Palestinian territories, two very different sets of problems.

Iran is struggling to develop its own nuclear programme, despite strong objections from the international community, particularly the United States and Israel, which worry that a country accused of supporting terrorism should acquire nuclear arms.

Any step towards the peaceful resolution of a conflict is highly commendable. Nevertheless, one should not give the store away in exchange for the opportunity to take some very expensive selfies with one of the worst dictators in history.

If Iran had any doubt about the value of obtaining a nuclear capability, Trump’s visit with Kim dissipated those doubts. As Trump proved by his stopover to meet with the North Koreans, having nuclear weapons buys a certain amount of respect.

However, Trump’s visit to the Korean Peninsula, for the sake of publicity for himself, belittles the symbolism and the prestige of the American presidency. Besides, taking such first steps into politically unchartered territory and in the charged atmosphere of global tensions will not go unnoticed.

There is no escaping that, had the North Koreans not had nuclear weapons, the United States — and Trump in particular — would not have given them the attention they received.

There are two ways one can look at Trump’s brief incursion into North Korea.

One is whether this highly publicised photo opportunity is just that, a brief re-election campaign stop made by a publicity-hungry presidential candidate? Or two, as one observer put it, “is it just political theatre” that may or may not lead to significant and serious diplomatic follow-up?

The jury is still out but the clear lesson from Trump’s Korean foray is the more means you have to scare others the more attention — and respect — you will get.

There should be no denying that the only reason that North Korea managed to wriggle itself onto the world political stage is because of its nuclear arsenal. As imperfect as it might be when compared to US and Western European nuclear arsenals, it still represents a great peril to the international community.

When it comes to a nuclear weapon, it does not matter how perfect or precise the device may be. One bomb is more than enough. One can serve as a “dirty bomb” and, within seconds, a city the size of Washington, Paris or London can be incapacitated.

“This could have implications for Trump’s attempt to break the logjam in the Middle East,” wrote Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post.

There may be some comparisons with North Korea when looking at Iran and its nuclear ambitions as well as the reasons that pushed both countries to pursue this highly volatile path.

It may be harder to detect any such similarities in the Palestinian territories where Trump has taken away what few cards they may have held in future negotiations with the Israelis.

The only real similarities in both conflicts is that, unlike the Korean Peninsula, where Trump will be pushing to remove all nuclear weapons, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli dispute the American president will join the rest of the international community in hiding their collective heads in the sand if attention is drawn to the fact that the only nuclear power in the Middle East is Israel. That is one very big taboo subject. The international community should not embarrass Trump about it.

In the long term, Trump’s North Korean whistle stop could give him much to brag about. Between now and Election Day he will embellish his achievement tenfold, even if this North Korean photo-op may or may not win him additional votes.

However, securing a fair and lasting settlement of the Palestinian issue will certainly not endear Trump to his ultraconservative and Evangelical support base. That kind of achievement might require more political courage that a last-minute adjustment of his Asia tour’s itinerary.

Can anyone gain from tensions in the Gulf?

by Claude Salhani
You would think that with all the super-sophisticated gadgetry available to the military, with modern satellite technology that can photograph the time on your wristwatch from space or the amazing drones that have been miniaturised to the size of fruit flies, there would be no ambiguity about who is responsible for the attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf.

Yet, here we are, once again, playing that old game of saying we don’t know, with fingers pointing in all directions. With all the eyes on the region — both electronic and human — we still don’t know. The United States and Israel accuse Iran, which accuses the United States and Israel.

Let’s see who stands to benefit and who stands to lose from the mayhem and the escalation of tension to the possibility of all-out war in the region.

The United States does not need to become involved in another war in the Middle East, yet it might well provide US President Donald Trump with an opportunity to escape his ever-growing problems at home regarding the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and all the sideline issues that have emerged and continues to do so.

Having exchanged verbal accusations with Iranian leaders, Trump might find it desirable to engage in open warfare. Indeed, this hypothesis becomes more possible as each side ups the ante.

When asked June 17 whether he thought the United States would be going to war with Iran, Trump replied, “I hope not.” As the United States enters election season, a war in the Middle East could go either way. If the war goes well and is quick and objectives met, Trump would claim credit for getting Iran to comply and this would likely win him the election.

The worst-case scenario would be Trump thinking he can get a quick, clean war but instead ends up with a long and costly conflict, such as the one in Iraq.

Iran might find that going to war with the “Great Satan,” as the ruling mullahs typically refer to the United States, would allow Tehran to clamp down on those calling for greater reforms. Additionally, having picked up real war experience in Syria, the leadership in Tehran might be tempted to put their hard-learnt lessons to the test.

However, Iran could face unpredictable developments at home. Its domestic front could give in under pressure even if the rulers’ common wisdom is that the population is most likely to focus its animus on the villainous Americans and not on the mullahs or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The attacks on oil shipping “put Asian and European powers on notice that the US-Iran crisis could affect their bottom line. The threat to move away from the nuclear deal also puts the P5+1 on notice that the crisis with the US might unravel the work that European powers, along with Russia and China, achieved with Iran back in 2015,” said Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Saudi Arabia has been telling anyone willing to listen about the dangers that Iran, with its expansionist desires to dominate the region, represents to the stability of the Gulf. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, see themselves as the only real deterrent to Iranian ambitions in the region, albeit with the help of the United States.

Russia would like to see the United States embroiled in another Mideast conflict because it would further drain US resources and weaken Washington’s standing in the region, leaving the field open for Moscow to step in, as was the case in Syria.

Israel can only benefit from a US war with Iran because it would relieve much of the pressure that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, much like the US president, is facing, including accusations of corruption.

Western powers stand to gain through military sales. France, for instance, is making a killing — pun intended — selling arms to Gulf countries. French arms exports increased 27% in 2013-17 compared to 2008-12.

As long as the United States and Iran have their horns locked, the calculus of war gains stands, provided the showdown does not generate a direct confrontation that spins out of control. That’s another story.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs

Trump Mideast peace plan adds to confusion

by Claude Salhani

US President Donald Trump’s much-awaited Middle East peace plan may be in trouble before it is even presented to the parties concerned.

Trump’s first attempt at delving into the thorny Middle East peace process by looking at the problem through an economic lens rather than the usual political filters appears to have lost traction before its official start.

The plan concocted by his son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, offers financial incentives with the administration’s logic being it would succeed where others have failed.

Even before it was presented to the parties concerned, the man who in principle is supposed to be out pushing the plan for his boss, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was uncertain of the perception it might have as a workable plan.

Indeed, if Pompeo feels that way about the plan, its chances of making it out of the starting gate with any hope of success are greatly diminished.

Pompeo’s doubts deal a clearly unneeded self-inflicted wound to the initiative. It can only further handicap an already stuttering process.

That’s not even counting the Palestinians who said they are not interested in working with the Trump administration, which they say is openly biased in favour of the Israelis.

The Palestinians, already wary of the Trump administration, were dealt three big blows by the current White House even before negotiations got under way.

They point to moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the administration recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the closing of the Palestinian Authority office in Washington and the administration giving its blessing to the occupied Golan Heights as being Israeli.

The document was meant to be released after the Israeli elections and at the end of Ramadan. However, a rerun of the Israeli elections means a delay in releasing the documents, not necessarily a bad thing because it buys the administration time to fine-tune points it wants to present.

The remarks by Pompeo, first reported by the Washington Post, were reportedly made during a private meeting of Jewish leaders and show that even the plan’s backers expect the latest US blueprint for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be met with deep scepticism.

The economic components of the proposal are to be unveiled at a conference June 25-26 in Bahrain.

“It may be rejected. Could be in the end, folks will say, ‘It’s not particularly original. It doesn’t particularly work for me,’ that is, ‘It’s got two good things and nine bad things, I’m out,'” the Washington Post reported Pompeo as saying, citing an audio recording of the meeting it obtained.

When asked about the recording in an interview June 3 with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Pompeo did not deny its authenticity.

“I think there will be things in this plan that lots of people like,” he said.

Trump, asked about Pompeo’s doubts on the plan gaining traction, said: “He may be right.”

“I think we have a good chance but we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Kushner, in an interview with news site Axios said the Palestinians “should have self-determination” but suggested they were not ready for a full state.

“The hope is, is that over time, they can become capable of governing,” Kushner, who has close family ties to Netanyahu, said when asked if he believes the Palestinians can govern themselves without Israeli interference.

Kushner said the Palestinians “need to have a fair judicial system… freedom of the press, freedom of expression, tolerance for all religions” before the Palestinian territories can become “investable.”

The Palestinians have rejected US mediation and are boycotting the Bahrain conference. They don’t see Trump as capable of being an honest broker.

Trump, whose evangelical Christian base strongly backs Israel, has broken precedent by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Jewish state’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The US administration will have to bear in mind that many Arab countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are unlikely to back an initiative that appears meant to satisfy on only one side of the conflict.

Misgivings and divided stances within the administration itself can only hamper any attempts to sell the deal.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly and senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs.

Rising Tension in the Gulf Could Have Dire Consequences

By Claude Salhani

On June 20, 2019

In Op-eds

There is real fear that the current face-off between Iran and the United States in the Persian Gulf can lead to war. While seemingly unthinkable, as was war in the heart of Europe roughly a century ago, many of the same ingredients are present. The mistrust and hate each side harbors inevitably lead to fear, which can lead to violent confrontation. All that’s necessary is a spark to ignite a destructive conflagration.

Do not underestimate the potential for disaster in the region.  Once again, the antagonists are at it accusing one another of violations of treaties and agreements and finger pointing in all directions. Despite all the reporting about recent events, we still don’t know for certain who is behind the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The US and Israel accuse Iran, who in turn accuses them. The Iranian downing of a US drone has just raised the tension level several degrees.

Perhaps we should examine which countries stand to benefit and which stand to lose from mayhem and escalation of tension in the region.

The list of usual suspects is long, and includes the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and France, and to a lesser degree Iraq. These are all key actors with vital strategic, political and economic interests in the Gulf region. They all stand to gain, to a certain extent, from escalating the tension and possibly even going to war. Yes, one more war in the Middle East, regrettably, is a possibility.

Some in the region believe that another war might well provide the American president with a golden opportunity to escape his ever-growing problems at home and deflect attention from the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Iran too might find that going to war with the ‘Great Satan’ will allow the mullahs to clamp down on those calling for greater reform. Additionally, with substantial war fighting experience in Iraq and Syria, hawks in Tehran might be tempted to put hard learned lessons to the test.

When asked by a reporter on Monday if he thought the United States would be going to war with Iran, President Trump replied, “I hope not.”  Both sides have good reason to be wary.

Anyone with knowledge of the region can guarantee that another violent conflict will be highly destructive and very costly.

Saudi Arabia has been telling anyone willing to listen about the dangers that Iran presents to the stability of the Gulf. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emirates, see themselves as the only real deterrent to Iranian aspirations in the region, albeit with the US playing a central role.

Russia would like to see the US embroiled in another Mideast conflict because it would further drain US resources and ultimately weaken Washington’s standing in the Middle East, leaving the field wide open for Moscow to step in, as was the case in Syria.

The regime in Israel can only benefit from a US war with Iran because it would relieve political pressure on the current leadership and potentially boost its standing among voters in a new round of elections. And, finally, France is making a killing selling arms to Saudi Arabia and to the UAE, amongst others. According to figures released this week, France’s weapons sales to Saudi Arabia rose 50 percent in 2018 despite the government calling for an end to the “dirty war” in Yemen.

As happened in the Balkans a little over a hundred years ago, a seemingly small incident can set off an unanticipated chain of events with calamitous consequences.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior associate at the Institute of World Affairs