Sunday, January 29, 2012

Are we headed for a war with Iran?

The following Op-Ed article was published in the Newark, NJ, Star-Ledger and the Newhouse Papers on January 29, 2012. It can be found at:

As Iran defies the world and works toward building nuclear arms, Washington is turning up the heat in an effort to get the Iranians to back off. President Obama last week convinced Europe to impose economic sanctions on Iran — which some have called an act of war.

The United States doesn’t buy oil from Iran, but Europe is its No. 2 market. Europe’s embargo, with a push from America, could be crippling. And Obama is trying to convince Iran’s customers in Asia — China, India, Japan, South Korea — to join in.

The attack on Iran’s already wounded economy could push its leaders to retaliate: Iran is threatening to use military force to close the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and cut off the flow of oil to the United States and its allies.

Obama has moved more U.S. warships into the gulf — just in case — while he tries to find a diplomatic solution.

Tensions with Tehran are getting worse: Did Israel assassinate an Iranian nuclear scientist? Did the United States know about it? Will Japan and South Korea join the oil embargo? Will Iran execute a U.S. spy?

In the background, meanwhile, Obama’s Republican challengers are talking tough and pushing for a show of U.S. force.

Where’s it all heading? Star-Ledger editorial writer Jim Namiotka last week spoke with Eric Davis, a political science professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Middle Eastern affairs.

Q: Let’s start here: What are the odds of a U.S. war with Iran in 2012? 2013?

A: I would say that the odds are relatively small because neither side would benefit.
Iran would find itself isolated even more internationally. A war would increase support for Iran’s isolation by increasing the number of countries willing to impose sanctions.

For the U.S., war would have a very damaging impact on foreign relations in the Middle East, where it already has a poor image and is viewed as a bully and imperialist power.

Domestically, a war would lead to a drastic increase in gas prices. There are warnings that oil prices would go up to $300 or $400 a barrel or even higher. It would undermine the already tepid economic recovery we’re seeing here now in the U.S.

Q: Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Is that a real possibility?

A: Closing the Strait of Hormuz would be a violation of international law, which might justify action by the United Nations — paralleling the kind of action that was taken against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War over violations of international law. The Iranian regime couldn’t predict what the outcome of closing the strait would be, but it certainly knows that the U.S. wouldn’t allow that to happen.

Q: Europe has now said it will boycott Iranian oil if Iran’s leaders don’t halt their nuclear production. How can we expect Iran to react?

A: International sanctions have already wreaked havoc on Iran’s currency and forced the government to dramatically increase interest rates. The more significant effect is that the deteriorating economic situation is going to affect the parliamentary elections this coming March. It was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has rejected calls to raise interest rates, which is necessary to protect the value of the Iranian rial.

As a result, his parliamentary candidates could suffer in the March elections.
So the sanctions are having both an economic impact and a political impact, as well.

One of the few options available to the Iranians is to try and increase their rhetoric on closing the Strait of Hormuz to force an increase in oil prices. This would have the effect of at least temporarily increasing the price of oil.

Even if Iran sold less oil, what it did sell would bring a higher price.

Iran can saber-rattle and it can threaten certain actions. But the Iranians can only go so far — they’re not about to start attacking tankers and laying mines because that would be considered an international act of war.

Q: What if other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, join in?

A: You might see perhaps — not a collapse of the Iran economy; that would be too extreme a prediction — but severe economic problems.

Q: Will sanctions convince Iran to stop developing nukes?

A: The Iranian regime might get serious about allowing international inspections, and then start playing games with the inspections while they keep working on their uranium enrichment program at underground facilities. But the regime can’t have it both ways and Iran’s leadership is going to have some real decisions to make in the very near future.

If Iran backs down in the face of U.S. and international pressure, that would constitute a real loss of status and prestige for Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

If Iran doesn’t respond to international demands for inspections of what it says is only a nuclear energy program, it’s going to continue to suffer economically.

Q: Is Iran a worrisome power? Compared with, for instance, Saddam’s Iraq?

A: No, Iran is not a major military power. But, as we saw in the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian forces have units ... such as their Revolutionary Guards that can inflict great harm if there was a land war as a result of an invasion by an international coalition, such as occurred in Kuwait in January 1991. Iran doesn’t have a powerful air force or navy. While Iran does have missiles that could reach parts of Europe, these aren’t serious military threats because Iran would not dare attack Europe.

Iran’s military power would only manifest itself if there were a land invasion of Iran, which I don’t see happening.

Iran’s greatest threat is using its rockets to attack Israel, which would result in an overwhelming Israeli response. Iran realizes such an attack would have serious consequences for the regime.

Q: Republican presidential candidates are talking tough about Iran. What are the practical results of such rhetoric?

A: Certainly, they are providing Iran’s regime tremendous grist for their propaganda mill. I don’t think any of the candidates are doing the U.S. any favors by threatening to attack Iran.

Q: Is Iran’s nuclear program a real threat?

A: I think they really want to develop nuclear weapons as part of their vision of becoming one of the main powers of the Middle East, primarily to compete with Israel and Turkey, even though they have a good relationship with Turkey. The Turks and the Persians have, historically, been enemies.

Q: What are the worldwide impacts of U.S.-Iran tensions?

A: The Saudis are threatening to start development of a nuclear program, perhaps to preclude Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Q: Describe the changing face of the Middle East with a nuclear Iran.

A: It would be incredibly unstable. There would always be the threat of a pre-emptive attack by Israel.

Turkey sees itself as the emerging model — it’s an Islamist government, but it’s democratic and politically moderate. ... I think the Turks would have to think twice about becoming a nuclear power if Iran became a nuclear power.

It would not be very easy for Turkey to try to do that. Turkey is part of NATO, and a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. But treaties can be broken.

Q: Is there any way for the U.S. to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power?

A: There are only two ways: Either to make the cost of sanctions so high that Iran decides to allow for meaningful international inspections, which will prevent them from doing anything apart from what they say they want to do, namely use nuclear materials for power and civilian purposes … or to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear program. That would involve a ground war because a lot of their facilities are underground. You’d run into a lot of casualties by any invading army.

You could not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program simply through the use of air power.

Q: What don’t we know about Iran that we should?

A: The impression that readers will take away from this article is that Iran is kind of a radical country on the model of North Korea. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Iranian public is very much in support of democratization. For evidence of that, see the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, when thousands of Iranians demonstrated against his stealing of the presidential election. Public opinion polls and the opinions of scholars are that Iranians are very supportive of democracy. They also see a nuclear program as part of their sovereignty as a nation, but there’s no support for starting a nuclear war by attacking Israel.

One thing that doesn’t come across in the press is that there’s a lot of competition within the political elite: between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the secular wing — and their spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who represents the clerical wing. The rhetoric we see is part of each far wing’s attempt to mobilize its base — much like the current political process we’re seeing in the U.S.

So there’s an intense political struggle going on inside Iran, which is why no one can really predict what the outcome will be in the effort to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Many Moving Parts of Iraq's Current Political Crisis

What are the key components of the current Iraqi political crisis and what does it tell us about the future of Iraqi politics?

The most important dynamic is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's effort to marginalize his political opponents and centralize power in his own hands. This effort was discussed in an earlier post (Dec. 23, 2011) and is described in great detail in a recent report by Human Rights Watch that has received a high profile in the Arab Press (see al-Hayat, Jan.23).

Maliki’s efforts to impose a new form of authoritarian rule has been incorrectly analyzed in purely sectarian terms. The processes in motion are much more complex and go well beyond sectarian politics. Maliki’s arch enemy, Ayad Allawi, is a fellow Shi’i as is his other nemesis, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri).

Maliki is trying to eliminate Allawi’s al-Iraqiya Coalition (which received many Shi’i and Kurdish votes in the March 2010 parliamentary elections) through a campaign of arrests in which those detained are accused of having engaged in terrorist attacks. Many of those arrested are former members of the Ba’th Party as well as members of the al-Iraqiya Coalition.

The core dynamic is the ongoing struggle over Iraq’s political identity. Will Iraq become a state dominated by Shi’i Islamists such as those in Maliki’s Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da’wa al-Islamiya) which controls the broader State of Law Coalition (I’tilaf Dawlat al-Qanun)? Or will Iraq return to the legacy of the Iraqi nationalist movement which was dominated by secular politics?

Secular politics was the norm from Iraq's independence in 1921 and through at least the first decade of Ba’th Party rule between 1968 and Saddam Husayn’s seizure of power in 1979. Fearing the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 might spread to Iraq, Saddam began to promote sectarianism after invading Iran in September 1980.

While all Iraqi regimes (except that of Abd al-Karim Qasim between 1958 and 1963) favored Sunni Arabs for cabinet positions and positions in the state bureaucracy, Maliki seeks to impose the obverse of that system which now privileges Iraq's Shi’a. The difference with former regimes is that Maliki’s model is Islamist and anti-secular and thus precludes the type of cross-ethnic coalitions - such as represented by al-Iraqiya - that rose to prominence in the Arab Provincial Legislature elections of 2009 and the March 2010 parliamentary elections.

The most high profile case of those accused of terrorism is Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi who currently remains under the protection of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Most Iraqis feel that Maliki’s attempt to arrest al-Hashimi is political since the charges against him have been known since 2006. The KRG government is loathe to turn over al-Hashimi because that would both increase Maliki’s power and implicitly recognize Baghdad’s judicial authority within the KRG.

An important complicating factor is Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani’s declining health since he is al-Hashimi’s most important patron in the KRG. Talabani is increasingly worried about the sectarian policies that Maliki is pursuing. If Maliki is able to eliminate the secularists’ power, both Sunni and Shi’i Arab, Talabani and the KRG leadership realize that the Kurds will be the next target on Maliki’s list of political opponents.

Second, the struggle with his political opponents is not limited to Maliki’s dispute with secularists and al-Iraqiya. The Iraqi prime minister has been under constant attack by the Sadrists who have castigated him for his unwillingness to bring government corruption under control and to improve the quality of government services. Since the Sadrists represent poor Shi’a in Sadr (Revolution) City in Baghdad and throughout Iraq’s southern provinces, social services are the core factor in attracting support for their movement.

Maliki is also trying to undermine the power of the Sadrists by giving support to its arch-enemy, the League of the Righteous (‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq). Now that US forces have left Iraq, the Iraqi government is negotiating to have the League put down its arms and enter the political process. This was a brilliant move by Maliki because it increases the League's power and visibility and power and has forced the Sadrists to shift their attention from attacking his government to fending off the League’s new found strength.

The League of the Righteous developed within the ranks of the now disbanded Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) beginning in 2004. That year the JAM challenged US forces by mounting an assault in the holiest Shi’i shrine city, al-Najaf. The Najaf uprising led to its defeat but created resentment among fighters that the JAM failed to mount further major offensives against American forces.

JAM units in a number of provinces and cities were gradually transformed into units loyal to the newly created League. These units included the "Abu-l-Fadl al-'Abbas" brigade in Amara Priovince, the "Musa al-Kadhim" brigade in Baghdad, the "Imam al-'Askari" brigade in Samarra, and the "Imam Ali" brigade in al-Najaf. The League has also received assistance from Iran where its fighters have received training (al-Hayat, Jan 4)

Under the leadership of Shaykh Qays al-Khaz’ali, the League grew to the position of influence it now holds. al-Khaz'ali studied under Sadr's father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq alp-Sadr (assassinated by Saddam's regime in 1999) which enhances his legitimacy among poor Shi'a. With Iranian help, and given added legitimacy by the Maliki government, the ranks of what we may call “populist Shiism” are divided between those who support the Sadrists and those who support the League (or a number of smaller militias that have formed in the south).

Over the past few months, Muqtada al-Sadr’s attacks on the League have escalated. The underlying theme of al-Sadr’s attacks have been that the League is a criminal organization which has nothing to do with religion (qutla la din la hum). Sadr has called for making the organization illegal. In a recent interview, Qays al-Khaz’ali indicated that he does not see the League reconciling with the Sadrist Trend. He also rejected assertions that his return from Iran indicates that he seeks to become the “Nasrallah of Iraq.”

The struggle between the Sadrists and the League of the Righteous not only enhances Maliki’s power but also that of Iran, which has given training and military support to both organizations. As their conflict intensifies, Iran always maintains the option of serving as an important mediator between these organizations as well as among competing Shi’i factions in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq.

A third level of struggle reflects the impact of “neighborhood effects” on Iraq's domestic politics. Recently a scandal ensued in response to remarks supposedly made the Ali Solimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, before a large gathering of youth in Tehran, including those from several Arab countries. According to those at the gathering, Solimani indicated the Iran maintains decisive influence over the politics of Iraq and southern Lebanon (al-Hayat, Jan. 22).

The response in Iraq to Solimani's remarks was immediate. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad for an explanation. Iraqi politicians were quick to attack Iran for interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs and for its failure to respect Iraq’s sovereignty.
At the same time, Turkey has criticized the Maliki regime for its sectarian policies and the possibility that they could lead to new instability. These remarks infuriated Maliki leading him to to protest to the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad. The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded by saying that nations which are friends are allowed to comment on theri respective politics and that Turkey’s criticism of Maliki’s policies were entirely appropriate (al-Hayat, Jan 21).

A fourth “moving part” is Maliki’s efforts to circumscribe the power of the Hawza, particularly that of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shiism's most prominent religious figure. Maliki despises al-Sistani for his continued criticism of the rampant corruption in the state bureaucracy and the prime mister’s unwillingness to prosecute corrupt elements in his government. Maliki is also angry that al-Sistani has consistently refused to meet with him or any of his representatives (al-Sharq al-Awsat, Nov. 26, 2011)

It is no surprise that Maliki welcomed the Iranian government's decision to send Iraqi born Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi to al-Najaf to become Guardian of the Jurists (Wali al-Faqih) for Iraq, ostensibly to oversee the thousands of Iranian pilgrims who visit Shiite shrines in south central Iraq, especially in al-Najaf and Karbala’.

By appointing Shahroudi, a prominent cleric who once headed Iran’s judiciary, Wali al-Faqih for Iraq, the Iranian regime has mounted a direct challenge to the Najafi Hawza and its efforts to keep Shiism out of Iraq's daily politics. It also indicates that there will be intense competition over the successor to al-Sistani, who is in poor health.

The struggle for control of Iraqi Shiism pits the "quietist" clerics, who seek to keep power politics out of religion, and those who adhere to Iran's politicized form of Shiism, evident in the concept of State of the Jurisprudent (Wilayat al-Faqih). Maliki hopes that the Najafi Hawza will be forced to spend more time trying to contain Iranian influence being spread through Shahroudi’s office and thus have less time to criticize his government.

Maliki’s political decision-making is “penny wise, and pound foolish,” to use an old adage. He has put his opponents on the defensive and ingratiated himself with Iran. His political calculation is that he can ignore Turkish and American protests against his recent actions. Turkey will not go beyond criticism of his government because the Erdogan government does not want to jeopardize the Nabucco Pipeline project which will carry Iraqi natural gas through Turkey to Europe. For its part, the US does not want to loose lucrative arms contracts as Iraq rebuilds its air force and navy.

The longer term scenario is not as promising for Maliki. Marginalizing al-Iraqiya and continuing arrests of Sunni Arabs could easily lead to a renewal of violence, especially as the Sunni community sees Maliki working to create a sectarian based army in which Sunni Arabs (and Kurds) have little influence. A renewed insurgence in the so-called Sunni Arab triangle of north-central Iraq would have severe consequences for Iraq’s political stability.

The attempt to reduce the power of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Najafi Hawza is likewise poorly conceived. Certainly, it will alienate many pious Shi’a who consider al-Sistani much more than just their spiritual leader. al-Sistani’s efforts to promote social justice and democracy has made his beloved among large segments of Iraq’s Shi’i population (and Shi'a outside Iraq as well).

The Turks may decide to place more of their political eggs in the KRG basket and back off from investments in the Arab south, especially if political unrest and violence increase. If the Kurds feel Turkey is a solid ally, they may be encouraged to declare independence, especially if they see no change in Maliki’s unwillingness to make more concessions to the KRG. The current Iraqi budget, for example, has come under criticism from the Kurds (and local provincial legislatures) for not devolving government revenues to the KRG (al-Hayat, Jan. 23)

As Maliki attempts to consolidate power, he is becoming ever more dependent on the Iranian regime. The sensitivity of this issue is evident from Iraqi responses to Ali Solimani’s comments mentioned above. If attacks from the Sunni Arab community, the Sadrists and the Kurds increase, Maliki may find himself isolated and even more dependent on Iran. If he does become largely an Iranian puppet, his regime will face constant instability.

Democratic politics is not just a normative desideratum. It is ultimately the most stable and effective form of governance. If Maliki had decided after the March 2010 parliamentary elections to share power with al-Iraqiya, and to negotiate seriously with the KRG, he could have retained the prime ministership and put Iraq on the road to meaningful political and economic development. Maliki certainly has not learned the lesson that has led to the ouster of multiple autocrats in the Middle East. The processes he has set in motion can only lead to disastrous outcomes, both or Maliki and for Iraq.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Pakistan’s Current Crisis: Institutional Maturation or Manipulation?

Guest author - Farah Jan

Over the past few weeks, Pakistans army has been faced with the quandary of whether to take over through a coup or not, while the rest of us are left wondering if this fragile democracy will survive, or once again be defeated by its formidable challenger – the army.

Since the start of the year, civil-military relations have taken a nosedive, with no recovery in sight, and with each side threatening serious consequences. The initiation of this cat and mouse chase between the military establishment and the democratically elected government began back in May 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed by the American forces in Abbotabad. The government’s initial response was to condemn the blatant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but the rupture between the army and the civilian government was already set in place.

The recent "Memogate" scandal/affair is a testament to the army’s mistrust of the civilian regime, along with the Supreme Courts order of reopening the corruption cases that were suspended in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Hussain Haqqani, seems to be the first victim of the memogate scandal, who is accused of being the author of the so-called memorandum. This scandal is based on a confidential memorandum addressed to Admiral Mike Mullen after the bin Laden raid seeking American help to avert a military coup in return for nuclear transparency. The memorandum was delivered to Admiral Mullen by a Pakistani-American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, on behest of Hussain Haqqani.

The analysis here is based on two issues; first, a post-U.S. scenario in the region, and, secondly, on the rising influence of the red dragon, China. Both are crucial for the Pakistan army and its future choices and options. In a post-U.S. region, along with the decline in American supremacy globally, the patron client relationship that Pakistan has maintained with the U.S. is also dwindling. Thus any party, person or group connected with it is also out of the game. The army from the very beginning has perceived the Zardari-Gillani enterprise as an American client regime, albeit the army would like to play that role itself and traditionally it had done so. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is conventionally associated with the West (particularly the U.S.) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif’s (PML-N) link seems to be more with the Gulf states (Saudi Arabia). Yet both have maintained and respected Pakistan’s ties with China.

The emerging player in Pakistani politics is cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Threek-i-Insaaf (PTI), who has maintained an anti-American stand, in addition to an anti-foreign aid stance. Nevertheless, Khan has been astute enough not to air anti-China sentiment, and instead he insists on strengthening the already strong Sino-Pak ties. In recent months, Imran Khan also received an unprecedented invitation by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to visit Beijing. Up until now, only elected prime ministers have been granted such honors, and this shows Beijing’s commitment to Pakistan’s future, as well as affirming its own regional position vis-à-vis India. Hence, for the army establishment it would be bearable to accept someone like Imran Khan, to keep the public content and the army in the barracks and not on the streets. The question is, would Imran Khan be able to keep his promises and contain this army-cum-leviathan that is immersed in every aspect of the Pakistani society.

Pakistan is clearly linking itself exclusively with China, and Sino-Pakistan relations have remained strong since 1962. Both sides claim that this all-weather friendship has endured political and economic shifts, but their partnership has remained strong. This brings us back to our earlier question: would the army once again enter the political arena or not? Historically, the army allows democracy to come into play only to please its Western clients, and with the power balance shifting towards the Chinese side, the army is not concerned with Western appeasement.

At this point, it is pivotal to keep in mind that the current political institutions in Pakistan are very different from the previous times when martial law was declared. The rules of the game have changed, with the judiciary and the media both playing a robust role in the political system. Albeit, the army might not care to placate the West, but to play it safe and not face a threat of mass revolt, it would not commit a coup for two reasons. Firstly, it is not prepared for a repeat of anything similar to the Long March of 2008-09. More importantly, if it can easily get its way by exploiting institutions like the judiciary and the media, why bother with instating martial law. In addition, General Kayani seems to be comfortable in being only the Chief of Army Staff, and not interested in being the president or the chief executive.

Pakistan has grappled with three and half (Yahya khan’s regime being the half) military regimes lasting for almost four decades. The military has exploited the India security threat for most of Pakistan’s existence in order to gain full access to all institutions. Thus, over the years it has strengthened its reach, and is used to getting rid of any civilian leader by conveniently declaring martial law. But with the recent events in the Middle East, it will play it safe and would not like to start a new wave, or the South Asian version of winter revolution/uprising.

Thus the army this time is more calculated, by playing one branch of the government against another. The judiciary seems to be in a head on collision with the executive branch with the army establishment in the control position. The reopening of NRO cases (corruption cases) is an attempt to purge the society of the old guard and pursuing the memogate scandal has already left the government weak and discredited.

Predictions are often embarrassing, yet as political scientists, we attempt to make enlightened guesses, and the present situation in Islamabad is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. The aim here is not to predict, but to contend that the army has always claimed to be the defenders of Pakistan’s borders and the protectors of their motherland, yet their record shows that they have not been the guardians of Pakistan’s constitution or the preservers of democratic institutions. As it was famously joked about, ‘every country has an army, and in Pakistan’s case the army has a country.’ If the army establishment is interested in the future of Pakistan as an economic success story, it needs to back off and let the political process take place. The army needs to heed from Henry Kissinger advice, ‘that Pakistan needs to think long term and needs to find a national identity that is not based on the fear of India.’

Farah Jan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Rutgers University – New Brunswick, NJ.