12 March 2011

Why the Arab Revolt is Unlikely to Spread to Iran

The author of the attached report in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn, is one the very best observers of the conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia.  He spends most of his time in the field, away from government handlers.

How Iran keeps revolution from flowering on streets of Tehran
After a week inside the Islamic state, Patrick Cockburn reflects on how Ahmadinejad's subtle game has kept regional unrest at bay

Patrick Cockburn, Independent, Tuesday 8 March 2011

Iranian protesters will try to take to the streets of Tehran this morning in an effort to revive opposition to the government, but those demonstrators who do appear are likely to be chased, beaten or arrested by thousands of riot police and baton-wielding militiamen.
The attempt by the Green movement, as anti-government activists are known, to emulate the protests across the Arab world is failing to shake the Iranian authorities, still less overthrow them. Over the past week the centre of Tehran has been calm with protesters making a negligible impact.
"The regime has got good at calibrating the exact amount of force necessary to frighten people without creating martyrs," lamented a critic of the government. "The Greens showed that they can still mobilise support by their first big protest for over a year on 14 February, but since then fewer and fewer people are taking to the streets."
The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose allegedly fraudulent election in 2009 led to three million people joining protest marches, has been playing its cards carefully. Its officials say they have put the leaders of the Green movement, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the defeated candidates in the election, under a highly restrictive house arrest. They cannot communicate with the outside world and their families are not allowed to see them. The government insists they are not in jail, a move that might provoke serious demonstrations.
Given that the present system of Islamic government in Iran is the outcome of the street protests of 1978-79 it is hardly surprising that it has always been edgy about anybody else trying to take the same route to power.
Overall the uprisings in the Arab world have greatly strengthened Iran because they have disrupted the political and economic siege that the US has succeeded in imposing on Tehran in recent years. Hostile leaders of Sunni Arab states closely allied to the US such as President Hosni Mubarak, who was always seeing an Iranian or Shia Muslim hand behind every development, have either lost power or are wondering how long they can cling to it. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state rulers who, according US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, had been quietly egging on the US to attack Iran, now have troubles closer to home to worry about.
Sanctions against Iran have never been as suffocating as those imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990 but they do inflict damage. Transferring money in and out of the country is a problem. One foreign student complained how she had spent weeks trying to bring a few hundred dollars to Tehran. Sellers of luxury goods such as carpets and caviar are once more victims of a US embargo reimposed last year. On the other hand one result of the crisis is to increase Iran's oil revenues to $80bn over the past year.
More importantly, Iran is suffering from a shortage of the petrol that it is no longer allowed to import because of sanctions. The government has limited the amount sold to car owners at a subsidised price. It has also diverted some of its petrochemical plants to making petrol, claiming the country is self-sufficient. But the petrol produced is low quality and highly toxic, ensuring that Tehran's 15 million people live in one of the most highly polluted places on earth. On some days recently it has been difficult to see the snow-covered mountains just to the north of the city.
In almost every way recent Iranian experience differs from that of most of the Arab world. The "revolutions" in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s, though they initially might have had popular support, were military coups. In contrast to its neighbours Iran had a genuine revolution, followed by the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, which has meant that Iranian politics are conducted with all the hatred and bitterness of an armed conflict.
President Ahmadinejad, whose own career was shaped by his experiences in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), sees his electoral opponents as potential traitors plotting against the Islamic Republic. He has the advantage over Arab rulers that, even though the vote for him in 2009 may have been fixed, he and his government have a core of militant and fanatical supporters. Moreover, this support is organised in para-state bodies such as mosques, the IRGC and the much feared Basij militia.
Political and religious differences in Iran often run along class lines. Supporters of the Greens in Tehran admit that they have never expanded their support base to the urban and rural poor, unlike protesters in Egypt and Tunisia. This does not mean that reformers do not pick up votes among the poor – but their militants tend to be the educated and the middle class.
One professor at a university in Tehran describes how, during the 14 February protests this year, students belonging to the Basij tried to stop fellow students joining the Green demonstration. He said: "The Basij only have about 10 per cent support at the university, but maybe 40 per cent or even a majority outside."
Repression is likely to prevent protests gathering support on the street though there is evidently a body of courageous activists willing to take great risks. But opposition postings on YouTube mainly show police and basij while the most dramatic pictures of protesters show young men wearing shirts without coats, an unlikely choice of clothing in the chill air of Tehran. The pictures look as if they may date from the mass demonstrations in the summer of 2009.
The clamp down on street protests is accompanied by the government doing everything it can to control Iranian and foreign media. The flourishing world of reformist newspapers has disappeared. Foreign television broadcasts in Farsi are disrupted. On the internet many sites cannot be obtained. Foreign journalists are largely excluded from the country and Iranian contributors to the foreign media are tightly controlled. Censorship is not complete but the mutually supporting relationship between protests and the media seen in the Arab uprisings is unlikely to flourish.
Many militants who supported reform in 2009 have now moved abroad. Opposition websites put out news about demonstrations, arrests and imprisonment. But the regime looks as if it has successfully outlasted the furious reaction to the 2009 presidential election, that so many Iranians regard as fraudulent.
Part of the strength of protests then was that the Iranian establishment, including the clergy, were divided. Powerful traditional power brokers such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has so often been accused of corruption, supported the opponents of Mr Ahmadinejad. Now these establishment figures are being forced to break with the Greens if they want to remain within the ruling elite.
US diplomats are hopefully spreading the word that the success of the broadly secular uprisings in the Arab world shows that Iran's Islamic revolution is out of date. But Iranian leaders will be happy enough that the political landscape of the Middle East has so unexpectedly and dramatically changed in Iran's favour.
The marginalised opposition
Mirhossein Mousavi
* The presidential candidate in 2009 whose defeat by the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to an explosion of rage and mass street protests across Iran claiming fraud.
* The 68-year-old Mr Mousavi, from east Azerbaijan, was a student radical under the Shah and an admirer of Che Guevara. He became prime minister of Iran between 1981 and 1989 and was seen as being on the left of the Islamic movement.
* On the death of Ayatollah Khomeini he left politics and confined himself to architecture, painting and poetry for 20 years. The government says he is under house arrest, while the opposition movement say that he is in fact in jail.
Mehdi Karroubi
* The 73-year-old reformist cleric was one of the defeated presidential candidates in 2009 and also alleges fraud.
* Twice speaker of parliament, he has remained outspoken as an opponent of the government since the election. He was a candidate for the presidency in 2005 when he alleged that the vote had been manipulated. He accused the government of raping and sodomising opposition activists, causing a scandal within the Iranian political establishment.
* His unexpectedly low vote in the 2009 poll, even in his home province, is cited as strong evidence that the election was fixed.

07 March 2011

Obama asks Saudis to airlift weapons into Benghazi

The Obama administration's desperate struggle to evolve a coherent reaction to the Arab Revolt that shores up the crumbling pillars of US policy in the Middle East is getting very messy, as Robert Fisk reports below.*  

Note that Fisk does not even mention oil, but Libya has oil, and just about everything US does with Saudi Arabia does involves oil (and recycling petrodollars to buy US weapons). 
* Inside inside the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac, the sinister-sounding buzzword du jour for evolving policies to cope with the Arab Revolt is regime alteration. 

America's secret plan to arm Libya's rebels
Obama asks Saudis to airlift weapons into Benghazi

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent
The Independent, Monday, 7 March 2011

Desperate to avoid US military involvement in Libya in the event of a prolonged struggle between the Gaddafi regime and its opponents, the Americans have asked Saudi Arabia if it can supply weapons to the rebels in Benghazi. The Saudi Kingdom, already facing a "day of rage" from its 10 per cent Shia Muslim community on Friday, with a ban on all demonstrations, has so far failed to respond to Washington's highly classified request, although King Abdullah personally loathes the Libyan leader, who tried to assassinate him just over a year ago.

Washington's request is in line with other US military co-operation with the Saudis. The royal family in Jeddah, which was deeply involved in the Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, gave immediate support to American efforts to arm guerrillas fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan in 1980 and later – to America's chagrin – also funded and armed the Taliban.

But the Saudis remain the only US Arab ally strategically placed and capable of furnishing weapons to the guerrillas of Libya. Their assistance would allow Washington to disclaim any military involvement in the supply chain – even though the arms would be American and paid for by the Saudis.
The Saudis have been told that opponents of Gaddafi need anti-tank rockets and mortars as a first priority to hold off attacks by Gaddafi's armour, and ground-to-air missiles to shoot down his fighter-bombers.
Supplies could reach Benghazi within 48 hours but they would need to be delivered to air bases in Libya or to Benghazi airport. If the guerrillas can then go on to the offensive and assault Gaddafi's strongholds in western Libya, the political pressure on America and Nato – not least from Republican members of Congress – to establish a no-fly zone would be reduced. ... continued

06 March 2011

Regime Alteration: Obama's Emerging Response to the Arab Revolt

The Obama administration could end up in a very dicey situation if/when the Arab Revolt spreads to Saudi Arabia.  The House of Saud is likely to crack down on demonstrators with a very heavy hand.  Oil prices could explode, and Israel would go bonkers.  The Wall Street Journal just published a detailed report describing how the Obama Administration is wavering in its support for democracy demonstrators, urging patience, and hoping the protesters will work within existing monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, etc.) as well as Yemen for gradual reforms (Libya excepted, of course).  The curious euphemism for the emerging desperation to stiffen the three pillars* of our crumbling Middle East policy is "regime alteration."

The attached essay by veteran middle east correspondent Robert Fisk puts the theory of regime alteration into a moral and economic perspective.
* The three pillars of our ME foreign policy are - 
  1. Uncritical support, protection and subsidy of Israel, including providing aid/defense money to buy Jordanian and Egyptian cooperation in the Israeli suppression of Palestinians.
  2. Manipulating oil flows and rigging prices, by [a] protecting Saudi Arabia (and the Persian Gulf Arab states) in return for Saudi adjustments (up and down) of oil production to assure a high and stable world oil prices, and by [b] limiting oil exports from--and/or preventing sales of oil drilling/producing/refining/pipeline equipment to--countries that don't cooperate in US control policies, most notably Iraq and post-Shah Iran. (Note: the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq has destroyed our 20 years of successful restriction of Iraqi oil exports and, even worse for U.S. control of oil prices, resulted in leasing of huge Iraqi oil reserves to Russia, China and others.)
  3. Recycling of petrodollars via weapons sales to oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, etc. (i.e. countries that cooperate in assuring high world oil prices) and via petrodollar flow to U.S. banking/investment houses and  into U.S. Treasury paper.
Additional point: Since the end of WWII, these pillars have been supported and masked by efforts to limit Soviet and Iranian influence in the Middle East and N. Africa.

Chuck Spinney & Pierre Sprey

Saudis mobilise thousands of troops to quell growing revolt

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent
Independent, Saturday, 5 March 2011
Saudi Arabia was yesterday drafting up to 10,000 security personnel into its north-eastern Shia Muslim provinces, clogging the highways into Dammam and other cities with busloads of troops in fear of next week's "day of rage" by what is now called the "Hunayn Revolution".
Saudi Arabia's worst nightmare – the arrival of the new Arab awakening of rebellion and insurrection in the kingdom – is now casting its long shadow over the House of Saud. Provoked by the Shia majority uprising in the neighbouring Sunni-dominated island of Bahrain, where protesters are calling for the overthrow of the ruling al-Khalifa family, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is widely reported to have told the Bahraini authorities that if they do not crush their Shia revolt, his own forces will.
The opposition is expecting at least 20,000 Saudis to gather in Riyadh and in the Shia Muslim provinces of the north-east of the country in six days, to demand an end to corruption and, if necessary, the overthrow of the House of Saud. ... continued

01 March 2011

Kosovo: A Template for Bungling and Blowback in the Wars of Empire

Advocates of humanitarian intervention like to remember Kosovo as an example of a "good" war to distinguish it from Bush's bad war in Iraq and the Bush/Obama bungles in Afghanistan.  But Kosovo was really a template for bungling and blowback in the wars of empire that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The attached article summarizes some of the reasons why this is so.*
* For a summary of the military's lessons in Kosovo, see the discussion beginning on page 61 at this link.

Wrong choice in Kosovo
By GREGORY CLARK,  Japan Times, 1 March 2011
A recent Council of Europe report says that during and after the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict, militia leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) tortured and killed hundreds of Serbs and political rivals in secret Albanian hideouts, removed their organs for sale and dumped their bodies in local rivers.
The report added that these people were also heavily involved in drug, sex and illegal immigrant trafficking across Europe. Yet while all this was going on, the NATO powers had decreed that Serbia should be bombed into accepting the KLA as Kosovo's legitimate rulers — rather than the more popular Democratic League of Kosovo headed by the nationalist intellectual Ibrahim Rugova advocating nonviolent independence. 
Recent years have not been kind to Western policymakers. They have shown an almost unerring ability to choose the wrong people for the wrong policies. Think back to the procession of incompetents chosen to rescue Indochina from the communist enemy. Does anyone even remember their names today? Yet at the time they were supposed to be nation-savers. ... continued.

Can there be any question why the US is in decline when ...

we reward the kind of incompetence and/or lying as that described below in the essay by Robert Parry?

Gates Agrees, Bush's Wars Were Nuts
By Robert Parry, Consortiumnews.com, February 27, 2011
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets that you’d have to be crazy to commit U.S. troops to wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, media commentators quickly detected a slap at his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who oversaw those conflicts.
But what about everyone else in the U.S. power structure who went along with those insane and bloody wars? Shouldn’t such people – whether they acted out of ideology or opportunism – be kept away from levers of authority that might get others killed?
For instance, what about the top editors at the Washington Post, the New York Times and a host of other establishment publications and TV outlets who hopped on the pro-war bandwagon and mocked anyone who suggested that negotiations or some less violent means might be preferable?
If even a long-time war hawk like Gates recognizes the obvious – that committing U.S. land forces to such conflicts is nuts – then what’s to be said about the Post’s editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt or the Times’ executive editor Bill Keller or a host of other senior media executives and pundits who endorsed the wars and have suffered no dents in their shiny careers?
These hot-shots got the biggest stories of their lives dead wrong – and countless thousands have paid with their lives, not to mention the $1 trillion-plus drain on the U.S. Treasury – yet they float along as if nothing happened. Amazingly, Keller even got a promotion to the top editorial job at the Times after he was bamboozled by President George W. Bush’s bogus case for invading Iraq. ... continued