A Persian Response to Brinkmanship

CounterPunch, 5 December 2011

Perils of brinkmanship with Iran are now on open display. As Libyans struggle after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and the rebellion against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria continues, the campaign of sanctions against Iran has triggered events which echo the 1980s crisis between post-revolution Iran and the West. The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report, a controversial document censoring Iran, Britain’s decision to severe links with Iran’s central banking system and further sanctions by France, Canada and the United States were all too much.

The Iranian parliament retaliated by downgrading relations with the United Kingdom and told the new British ambassador to leave. Soon after, angry protesters stormed two British embassy compounds in Tehran. Property was damaged and documents were reported to have been taken away. What secrets they may contain is a matter of speculation. They are likely to fuel the Iranians’ anger and may cause embarrassment to the British government if revealed.

Aware of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Iranian foreign ministry expressed regret and promised to protect the British diplomatic staff. But Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that the student protesters’ action reflected the anti-British sentiment in Iran. Other Iranian MPs expressed similar views. The British government had little choice but to withdraw its staff and order the closure of the Iranian embassy in London within 48 hours.

Britain’s announcement falls short of a complete break, but relations between the two countries have surely sunk to the lowest point in more than three decades. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague says that he wants to remain engaged with Tehran on the nuclear issue and on human rights, an astonishingly hypocritical statement to make.

Iran is no longer the same country as it was just after the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi, America’s close ally and widely detested by his own countrymen. There is not the same religious fervor in Iranian society. The structure that now rules Iran has evolved over three decades. No doubt there are factions and power struggles, but the hierarchy of clerics led by Ayatollah Khamenei and an elected president, parliament and the judiciary, brings some stability in the country.

Violence during and after Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009 showed that the regime can use considerable force when faced with a serious challenge. Accusations of Western powers backing opposition forces appear to unite the country’s ruling structure. At the same time, Iran has emerged as a major power in a predominantly Sunni region which is led by Saudi Arabia.

Pressures over centuries have made the Iranians rather like the Chinese. They can wait for a long time before giving a typically Persian response. Last month’s IAEA report accusing Tehran of operating a nuclear weapons program began the latest escalation. The timing of the report looked expedient, coming immediately after the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and at a time when the conflict in Syria was intensifying.

More punitive sanctions followed, triggering an ominous chain of events. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy, not to be outdone, called on European governments to stop buying Iranian oil, a self-destructive proposition. Britain, too, pushed for an oil embargo on Iran, but the idea failed to gain wide agreement within the European Union. There were wiser heads than those of Sarkozy and Hague.

As the Middle East threatens to explode and the crisis between Iran and the West escalates, one question which policy makers in London and Washington do not seem to ask themselves is: What lies behind Iran’s deep suspicion of the West? Writing in the Independent, Robert Fisk reminds us of the essential answer. A country humiliated and pushed again and again is a country radicalized and distrustful.

Iranians have been repeatedly humiliated, their resources stolen and they blame the West. In 1941, the British and Soviet armies invaded the country for oil and a supply line to the Allied forces in the Second World War. Then a plot by the British intelligence agency MI6 and the American CIA overthrew Iran’s elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953.

For more than a quarter century thereafter, the West enabled Shah Reza Pahlavi to rule the country with an iron fist. He was finally deposed in the 1979 Islamic revolution. The West then helped Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, who invaded Iran, in a war in which as many as a million Iranians died or were wounded and chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi army on Iranian troops.

More than two decades on, we know where the recent sanctions are coming from. Killings of scientists and academics and mysterious explosions in different parts of Iran are much more difficult to explain. In Britain, the regulators have threatened Iran’s Press TV broadcasts with closure whereas the Chinese and Russian channels operate freely. Iran’s national character has been shaped by many traumatic experiences for which the country holds the West responsible.

Explosive drivers in international relations such as these have a high price tag. Many diplomats seem to know it, politicians do not. The world after the Cold War is driven by crises largely because skilled diplomacy has been sidelined by rough politics. We live in a world where leaders are many, but leadership is scarce. Having spent their moral and material capital, war is an increasingly desperate option for declining powers. History of savage conflicts follows an all too familiar pattern. Leaders who do not heed what happened before is to guarantee childish decision making.

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Afghanistan: The Beginning of the Endgame?

Deepak Tripathi

CounterPunch – Palestine Chronicle 

The British government’s decision to withdraw troops from Sangin in Helmand province marks a watershed in the relentless conflict in Afghanistan. The military mission has been very costly for the United Kingdom, with a third of the total casualties sustained in one district alone. More than a hundred lives of soldiers lost and many more wounded coming home is a sign of how difficult the mission has been. In a classic display of guerrilla tactics of asymmetrical warfare, the armed opposition has refused to fight a modern army equipped with high-tech weaponry on its enemy’s terms. Instead, the insurgents have fought on their terms, using rudimentary explosive devices and small weapons with devastating effect. Reaction of Afghans in Sangin will shock many in Britain.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph (July 7, 2010), Ben Farmer reported local residents saying little that is complimentary about the British. One resident openly complained that, in their four-year deployment in Sangin, the British brought only fighting and too little development. The previous Anglo-Afghan wars have left a particularly bitter legacy, although there is also a tendency that things look far better on the other side. Afghanistan remains a fragmented country like it has been for centuries. Rubbing salt in British wounds, an Afghan from a small neighboring settlement said that areas under American control had done better. Ask people in US-controlled areas and their reaction would likely be the opposite. Afghans regularly protest against civilian deaths at the hands of US-led occupation forces all over the country, although many die in suicide attacks directed against people supposed to be cooperating with NATO and the US-installed government in Kabul. Among the latest this month were anti-US and anti-government demonstrations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Residents came out to protest against civilians killings in the south and the east. News travels fast in that devastated country.

‘Afghanistan: Now It’s America’s War,’ said the Independent newspaper’s front-page story loudly in black. For eight years, the British people’s growing unease had been ignored. The United Kingdom, with a population of 62 million and fewer than 200000 regulars (and 42000 volunteers) in the armed forces, had been punching way above its weight. Former prime minister Tony Blair’s personal kinship with George W Bush in his ‘war on terror’ cost the United Kingdom dearly, in economic, political, moral terms. With Blair’s New Labour losing the May 2010 general election, it was relatively easier for the emerging Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to face up to the reality of the Afghan conflict. The inevitable was bound to happen.

There has been a distinct cooling in the relationship between London and Washington since President Obama’s inauguration. Partly it is because President Bush and Prime Minister Blair are no longer in power. But equally significant, Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, and Obama have not made a good start. The Conservative Party is generally pro-military and, in opposition in parliament, voted for war against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The Liberal Democratic Party, with a much more democratic structure, has significant sections in its membership opposed to, or circumspect about, war. The overall effect of a coalition between the two parties now runs counter to Britain’s continuing involvement in the Afghan conflict that has taken a heavy toll. The rhetoric about continued military involvement in Afghanistan is gloomy. Official statements emphasize the need for British troops to come home as soon as Afghanistan is ‘stable’. What it means remains undefined. The timescale often mentioned is 3-4 years, meaning before the next election.

Initial encounters have a determining effect on relations between leaders. From this perspective, Obama and Cameron did not appear to connect well. Of course, diplomatic niceties were maintained. The British are particularly adept at that. But the difference of emphasis in Washington and London over Afghanistan cannot be hidden. And the megaphone diplomacy over the BP oil spill laid bare the reality that the days of ‘special relationship’ – an exaggerated claim – were decidedly over. President Obama did not hesitate to resort to raw nationalism undermining that ‘special relationship’ to deflect domestic criticism of his handling of the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In doing so, Obama stepped back a decade into the past before British Petroleum and Amoco merged to form an international oil giant that was regarded as much American as it was British until the accident. He resorted to new rhetoric, way below his previous standards, to speak of an assault on US shores (not true because the rig that broke down was extracting oil within US continental waters). The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig leased by BP was owned by Transocean, a company that traces its origins to Alabama in the 1950s. With its headquarters now based in Switzerland and offices in the United States and other countries, Transocean quenches the business ethos of ‘drill baby drill’ very well. And Obama’s ‘kicking ass’ remark was not the sort of political language heard in Europe. Senior figures, including ex-diplomats and politicians, began to react publicly, calling for the need to ‘send a message’ to the Americans. A telephone call from the British prime minister David Cameron followed. The conversation was courteous, the message clear. The oil disaster was saddening and frustrating. But it would be in no one’s interest to crush BP and to let the temperature rise any further. Obama responded that he had no interest in undermining the value of BP, but that was precisely the result. Obama was accused of holding ‘his boot on the throat’ of pensioners whose incomes depended on investments in the company.

Expediency, always a strong motive, propels political leaders to do the unexpected. They are not averse to injecting political venom into the body of an ally when they want to deflect domestic criticism. Eight years on, the ‘coalition of the willing’ President George W Bush assembled following his infamous threat ‘you’re either with us, or against us’ to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq, that alliance is unraveling. And we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of yet another phase of great power adventurism in Afghanistan.

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Bye bye Thatcherism

In one of the most perceptive commentaries on the outcome of the recent general election in the United Kingdom, Anthony Barnett (openDemocracy) describes it as marking the end of Thatcherism.

After defeating the tired Conservative government, which itself had been in power for 18 years, Tony Blair’s New Labour continued the Thatcherite policies for 13 more years after the 1997 election. Blair was an admirer of the ‘Iron Lady’. Labour’s economic policies, presided over by Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, contributed to a widening gap between rich and poor, despite an array of stealth taxation and the much publicized objective of reducing the gap. The defeat of Brown brings the New Labour project to an end.

The indecisive result of the May 6th election, in which no party won an absolute majority, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (successor to Britain’s old Liberal Party) has formed a new government. Some progressives are lamenting a liberal force in British politics entering a marriage with the party associated with harsh economic policies in recent memory. They are warning that the Liberal Democrats will have to pay a high price for their decision. The prospect of being in power for the first time since 1945 was certainly very tempting for the Liberals.

But, as Anthony Barnett argues, what we have is a ‘distinctly more progressive government’ in the United Kingdom. Labour’s re-election under Brown would have meant a continuation of the same failed policies at a time of unprecedented economic and social problems. The British electorate could not make a clear decision about who should govern. But the people clearly did not want the old order to continue.  

The two coalition partners are having to compromise on policies. But the Liberal Democrats, despite their 57 seats out of a total of 650 seats in parliament, will have 5 cabinet ministers and nearly two dozen in junior posts. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is the new deputy prime minister, working with the Conservative prime minister David Cameron.

Liberal Democrats in the cabinet are: Nick Clegg (deputy prime minister), David Laws (treasury secretary, in effect deputy chancellor of the exchequer), Vince Cable (business), Chris Huhne (environment and climate change) and Danny Alexander (Scottish secretary).

The appointment of Kenneth Clarke, an old stalwart on the Conservative Party’s liberal wing, as justice secretary will be welcomed by many people across the country who have been highly critical of the erosion of civil liberties. And Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim cabinet minister, becomes the Conservative Party chairman. Her appointment is intended to assure Britain’s Muslim community.  

The new coalition government will be tougher on the bankers and more focused on helping the very poor with the promise to gradually raise the limit at which people begin to pay the income tax. It is committed to ending Labour’s assault on civil liberties, although, like President Obama, it will not investigate Britain’s use of torture since 9/11. Some kind of electoral reform re-enters the arena of constitutional debate. And the introduction of greener policies is in prospect.  

But the most pressing task for the new government is to deal with the economic crisis. Public expenditure must be cut drastically. The consequence will be many government workers losing jobs. It will add to the unemployment and social discontent. The Conservative-Liberal government says it is committed to governing Britain for the full five-year term of the current parliament. The road ahead is going to be rocky.