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.

Brown in no hurry to leave, Tories and Lib Dems move closer

Conservative 306 (36%), Labour 258 (29%), Liberal Democrats 57 (23%)

So the United Kingdom has a hung Parliament after the general election, with the Conservatives short of the 326 needed for a majority to form a government on their own. On the day after, the defeated prime minister Gordon Brown indicated he would allow the other two main parties to try to form a government and should any other leader want to hold talks with him, he would be available.

Brown appears to be in no hurry to submit his resignation to the Queen. For the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the results have been deeply disappointing, after the initial surge in opinion polls in the wake of the first televised debate. His reaffirmation today that the party with the largest number of seats and the biggest share of the vote should be allowed to try to form the next government appears to rule out the possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem alliance, formal or informal. Brown remaining the Labour leader would pose an added problem.

In an attempt to woo the Lib Dems, Labour has promised to consider introducing proportional representation as an immediate priority, a long-standing Lib Dem demand. But even with Lib Dem support, Labour cannot achieve a majority in Parliament. The Conservative leader David Cameron has also promised to consider electoral reform and cooperation with Lib Dems on the prospect of dropping Labour’s plan to introduce ID cards and other issues of civil liberties. the Lib dem leader specified his conditions for cooperation – fairer taxation system, greener economy and proportional representation. The two sides are talking.

British 2010 election scenarios

After spending six weeks in South Asia, I have just returned to the United Kingdom. We face the most critical general election on May 6 in the last thirty, perhaps more than sixty, years. Like 1979, when I was here, and 1945, six years before I was born, Britain is in the midst of a worldwide crisis. In 1945, the country had to deal with the aftermath of the Second World War, which the Allies had barely won. The crisis in 1979 was caused by the collapse of Labour government’s  relations with the unions and a deep recession. The country faces an economic crisis of much greater proportions this time.

Two things have contributed to Britain’s woes: the collapse in the US economy visiting the rest of the world and here the governing Labour Party’s own arrogance in the way the current prime minister Gordon Brown managed the economy as chancellor of the exchequer for more than a decade.

In 1979, and again in 1997, economic failure swung the public mood decisively and produced a solid majority for the victorious party. In the former case, the Conservatives came to power and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ended up restructuring the British economy and society. After a traumatic period in which the labour unions were defeated and the Soviet Union collapsed marking the end of the Cold War, the Thatcher-Reagan mission seemed to have been accomplished. But those solutions created new problems.

It may be stating the obvious, but it is nonetheless worth noting that the 2010 general election comes at a time when the UK economy is in dire straits: total national debt, money owed to the private sector and other purchasers of UK gilts, £848.5 billion or nearly 60 percent of the gross national product; the public sector borrowing in 2009/2010 around £178 billion or 12.6 percent; the overall unemployment rate 8 percent, the highest since 1996; more importantly, the working age employment rate 72.1 percent. Roads and government buildings in many parts of the country have fallen into disrepair, heath care and education are facing drastic cuts. The outlook is deeply pessimistic and likely to remain so possibly for a decade.

There has been a steady erosion in trust in the mainstream political parties. And, for the first time in memory, there is a real prospect of a hung parliament, or the winner – Conservatives or Labour – emerging with a narrow lead, or a weak majority.

It means one of two possible scenarios. Either a weak Conservative government led by David Cameron, who is young, attractive but inexperienced like Labour’s Tony Blair at the time of his ascent to power in 1997. Or another Labour government, dependent on a resurgent Liberal Democratic Party, without Gordon Brown as prime minister. But any Labour-Lib Dem deal would be difficult if the Labour Party resisted changing its leader – a less likely event after defeat. In any case, the next government faces an enormous task. It will have to raise tax and cut public services, a recipe for growing public discontent.

Uproar in Police-State Britain

Deepak Tripathi

(CounterPunch, November 28-30, 2008 )

The arrest and interrogation of Damian Green, one of Britain’s leading opposition politicians, by the counter-terrorism police (November 27, 2008 ) on ‘suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office’ is an extraordinary event. Counter-terrorism officers searched his homes and offices in London and his constituency. He was questioned for nine hours and released on bail without charge, but must return next February for further questioning. The police action happened when the world’s attention was focused on the terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai.

The Conservative Party, the main opposition in the British Parliament that has been leading in opinion polls this year, is furious at the treatment of one of its star performers. In all probability, Green, a former journalist on the London Times, would be a minister if the Conservatives won the next general election. He had raised some uncomfortable questions for the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his government in the past year. In November 2007, he disclosed that the Home Secretary knew as many as five thousand illegal immigrants had been granted licenses to work by the Security Industry Authority, but decided not to make the information public.

In February this year, Damian Green revealed that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in the British Parliament and raised questions over its security implications. Then there was a letter from the Home Secretary warning that a recession could lead to an increase in crime. He confronted the British government at a time when public concern over crime was rising. The Home Office later admitted that serious crime had been underestimated in official statistics. Green further made public the existence of a list of Labour MPs who could rebel against their own government’s draft legislation to extend the period of detention without charge to 42 days.

As I have already mentioned, the arrest and interrogation of Damian Green came on ‘suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office’. This seems to be related to information passed on to him by a whistleblower in the Home Office – an official who saw government wrongdoing and brought it to the attention of a leading opposition MP. The episode has fuelled worries over the loosely-worded anti-terror laws pushed after 9/11 by Tony Blair, the previous prime minister, and their misuse to suppress information likely to embarrass the government.

A number of senior political figures were informed about the Conservative shadow minister’s arrest shortly before it happened. Among them were the Conservative leader David Cameron, the London Mayor who is responsible for running the Metropolitan Police Force and the Speaker of the British House of Commons. The Home Secretary and others in the government have flatly denied prior knowledge of the arrest. However, an ex-Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, says he cannot believe that ministers did not know in advance what was about to happen. 

Reports and comments on how a prominent politician has been treated under anti-terror laws are all over the British press today. The London Mayor expressed his ‘trenchant concerns’ when told of the impending arrest. David Davies, former shadow home secretary who resigned in protest at the threat to civil liberties earlier this year, has called the situation ‘reminiscent to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe’. The Conservative leader David Cameron has described the action as ‘Stalinesque’ and said the ministers have some serious questions to answer. “If the police wanted answers from him, why did they not pick up the phone,” Cameron asked.

The timing and possible motives of what has happened are worth considering.

Politicians, especially those in power, are very good at engaging in questionable acts when there are bigger events taking place elsewhere. Damian Green’s arrest and interrogation happened when the British public was focused on the terrorist attacks in India – attacks in which there had been hundreds of casualties, including British. There were already numerous examples where anti-terror laws had been used against people who had nothing to do with terror. Journalists and researchers are under unprecedented pressure. Academics at British universities have all but surrendered to the shifting and arbitrary interpretations by the authorities of the meaning and causes of terrorism, to save their careers and to ensure funding for their projects. The picture is bleak. It shows that when governments are able to seize too much power, they abuse it to the detriment of citizens.  

Was the arrest of one of Britain’s leading politicians, possibly a future minister, aimed at sending a message to lesser people in the country to close their eyes, ears and mouths? The good news is that criticism of the police action has been swift, widespread and strong and has only begun. As a front-bench member of the British Parliament, Damian Green has ‘parliamentary privileges’ which would be hard to challenge. His actions are in the public interest. For this reason alone, the government would be foolish to prosecute him in court. Green says it is his job as an opposition politician to hold the government to account and he has every intention of continuing to do so.