The American objective of isolating Iran continues to be a failure

Recent days have been witness to important events; The Middle East Conference at Warsaw, co-hosted by Poland and the US State Department on February 13 & 14, and the Munich Conference. Differences between the EU and the US over dealing with challenges in the Middle East, as well as Iran, were reiterated during both these events.

The Middle East Conference in Warsaw lacked legitimacy, as a number of important individuals were not present. Some of the notable absentees were the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, and the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, and Italy. Significantly, on February 14, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Sochi, Russia to discuss the latest developments in Syria and how the three countries could work together.

Personalised aspect of Trump’s Diplomacy

In addition to the dissonance between EU and US over handling Iran, the dependence of Trump upon his coterie, as well as personalised diplomacy, was clearly evident. Trump’s son-in-law and Senior Aide, Jared Kushner, spoke about the Middle East peace plan at the Warsaw Conference, and which Trump will make public after elections are held in Israel in April 2019. The fact that Netanyahu may form a coalition with religious right wingers could of course be a major challenge to Trump’s peace plan. But given his style of functioning, and his excessive dependence upon a few members within his team who lack intellectual depth and political acumen, this was but expected.

EU and US differences over Iran

As mentioned earlier, the main highlight of both events was the differences over Iran between the EU and Israel, the US and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. While Israel, the US, and the Arabs seemed to have identified Iran as the main threat, the European Union (EU), while acknowledging the threat emanating from Iran, made it amply clear that it disagreed with the US method of dealing with Iran and was against any sort of sanctions. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to the degree of stating that the goal of stability in the Middle East could only be attained if Iran was ‘confronted’.

The EU differed not just with the argument of Iran being the main threat in the Middle East, but also with regard to the methods to be used to deal with Iran. The EU, unlike the US, is opposed to the US decision to get out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and is all for engaging with Iran.

At the Warsaw Conference Vice President Mike Pence criticised European Union member countries for trying to circumvent sanctions which were imposed by the US. Pence was referring to the SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) launched by Germany, France, and Britain to circumvent US sanctions against Iran. The US Vice President went to the extent of stating that the SPV would not just embolden Iran, but could also have a detrimental impact on US-EU relations.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton has, on earlier occasions, also spoken against the European approach towards the sanctions imposed upon Iran.

Differences at Munich Conference

The differences between the US and the EU over Iran were then visible at the Munich Conference as well. While Angela Merkel disagreed with Washington’s approach to the Nuclear Deal, she agreed on the threat emanating from Iran but was unequivocal about her commitment to the JCPOA. While commenting on the importance of the Nuclear Agreement, the German Chancellor said:

do we help our common cause… of containing the damaging or difficult development of Iran, by withdrawing from the one remaining agreement? Or do we help it more by keeping the small anchor we have in order maybe to exert pressure in other areas?

At the Munich Conference too, the US Vice President clearly flagged Iran as the biggest security threat to the Middle East. Pence accused Iran of ‘fueling conflict’ in Syria and Yemen, and of backing Hezbollah and Hamas.

GCC Countries at the Warsaw Conference

It is not just the US and Israel, but even representatives of the GCC which took a firm stand against Iran. (A video leaked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed this.)

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Khalifa went to the extent of stating that it is not the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but the threat from Iran which poses the gravest threat in the Middle East. Like some of the other delegates present at the Warsaw Conference, the Bahraini Foreign Minister accused Iran of providing logistical and financial support to militant groups in the region.

Similarly, another clip showed the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Adel al-Jubeir) saying that Iran was assisting and abetting terrorist organisations by providing ballistic missiles.

Iran was quick to dismiss the Middle East Conference in Warsaw, and questioned not just its legitimacy but also the outcome. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that the conference produced an ‘empty result’.

US allies and their close ties with Iran

First, the US cannot overlook the business interests of its partners not just in Europe, but also in Asia such as Japan, Korea, and India. India for instance is not just dependent upon Iran for oil, but has invested in the Chabahar Port, which shall be its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. New Delhi in fact has taken over operations of the Chabahar Port as of December 2018. On December 24, 2018, a meeting – Chabahar Trilateral Agreement meeting — was held and representatives from Afghanistan, Iran, and India jointly inaugurated the office of India Ports Global Chabahar Free Zone (IPGCFZ) at Chabahar.

The recent terror attacks in Iran as well as India have paved the way for New Delhi and Tehran to find common ground against terror emanating from Pakistan. On February 14, 2019, 40 of India’s paramilitary personnel were killed in Kashmir (India) in a suicide bombing (the dastardly attack is one of the worst in recent years). Dreaded terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad claimed responsibility. On February 13, 2019, 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide attack in the Sistan-Baluchistan province which shares a border with Pakistan. Iran has stated that this attack was carried out by a Pakistani national with the support of the Pakistani deep state.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Aragchchi en route to Bulgaria. In a tweet, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister stated that both sides had decided to strengthen cooperation to counter terrorism, and also said that ‘enough is enough’. This partnership is likely to grow, in fact many strategic commentators are pitching for an India-Afghanistan-Iran security trilateral to deal with terrorism.

Conclusion

So far, Trump’s Middle Eastern Policy has been focused on Iran, and his approach suits both Saudi Arabia and Israel but it is being firmly opposed by a number of US allies. It is important that the sane voices are heard, and no extreme steps are taken. As a result of the recent terror attack in Pulwama, geopolitical developments within South Asia are extremely important. Thus, the US and GCC countries will also need to keep a close watch on developments in South Asia, and how India-Pakistan ties pan out over the next few weeks. New Delhi may have its task cut out, but will have no option but to enhance links with Tehran. Trump needs to be more pragmatic towards Iran and should think of an approach which is acceptable to all, especially allies. New Delhi-Tehran security ties are likely to grow, and with China and Russia firmly backing Iran, the latter’s isolation is highly unlikely.

Nightcap

  1. The Chinese governance system: impressive strengths and appalling flaws Pradnab Bardhan, 3 Quarks Daily
  2. Time to make good on the US-Philippine alliance Poling & Sayers, War on the Rocks
  3. Secession and international alliances go together Edwin van de Haar, NOL
  4. Maps and legends John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Pres. Trump and Me After Two years

I voted for Donald Trump for two clear reasons. First, his name is not Clinton. Second, he promised to nominate Supreme Court Justices from a published list of conservative judges. I have been amply satisfied on both counts.

Accomplishments

Then, I watched pleasantly surprised as the Trump administration engineered a tax reform that could only improve economic growth. Then, it quickly dismantled hundreds of federal regulations, a strategy that could only benefit entrepreneurship and business activity. Sure enough, there was a sudden rise in Gross Domestic Product growth. I don’t have any proof of causality here but the temporal coincidence is gratifying! At the same time, the unemployment rate – which had been going down even in the waning days of the Obama presidency, it’s true – continued to nosedive. It reached an all-time low for African Americans and for Hispanics. That fact illustrated nicely the basic conservative idea that results count more than intentions. (Remember, that Adam Smith wrote the same in 1776 but who reads Adam Smith nowadays?)

Soon, there was the blessed withdrawal from the comedy of the Paris climate “accord.” Then, there was the abrogation of the weak-kneed, poisonous agreement (not a “treaty) with the totalitarian and aggressive Islamic Republic of Iran. I applauded both with both hands. I was pleasantly surprised later by the initiative toward North Korea although I reserve judgment because nothing much has actually been accomplished on that front, except, possibly (possibly) a better mood. I do think President Trump has gone farther on the road to disarming that kingdom of cruelty and madness than any previous president. Yet, Continue reading

Afternoon Tea: “The Johor-VOC Alliance and the Twelve Years Truce: Factionalism, Intrigue and International Diplomacy, C.1606-1613”

Using published and unpublished documents of Dutch, Portuguese and Malay provenance, the present study explores how news of the Twelve Years Truce in December 1609 negatively impacted politics and commerce at the court of the Kingdom of Johor. Since 1603, Johor had emerged as one of the principal allies of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the region of the Singapore and Melaka Straits, and after 1606 it had proven itself as a worthy ally in the company’s war on the Iberian powers across Southeast Asia. It will be argued that confusion resulting from the news of the truce on the ground in Asia exacerbated factionalism at the court. The Johor ruler, Ala’udin Ri’ayat Shah III, and especially his younger sibling Raja Bongsu, were incensed and evidently felt they had been left to carry on the struggle against Portuguese Melaka on their own. Unable to continue the war effort without Dutch funds, subsidies and ammunition, the pro-Portuguese faction at the Johor court brokered a peace with the Estado da Índia in October 1610. This deal led to the fall of Raja Bongsu and his pro-Dutch faction at the court. This essay provides the political and historical backdrop to the writing and revision of the Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals, in or around 1612.

This is from Peter Borschberg, a historian at the National University of Singapore. Here is a link.

NATO, Kendrick Lamar, and the answer to free riding

Edwin’s post giving one cheer to NATO brings up the old rift between European and American libertarians on foreign policy and military alliances. As usual, it’s excellent and thought-provoking. Here’s what he got out of me:

International relations splits the classical liberal/libertarian movement for a few reasons. First, consensus-building on both sides of the pond is different, and this contributes strongly to the divide over foreign policy. American libertarians lean isolationist because it aligns closer to the American left and libertarians are desperate to have some sort of common ground with American leftists. In Europe, leftists are much less liberal than American leftists (they’re socialists and communists, whereas in the States leftists are more like Millian liberals), and therefore European libertarians try to find different common ground with leftist factions. Exporting the Revolution just doesn’t do it for Europe’s libertarians.

Edwin (and Barry) have done a good job convincing me that trans-Atlantic military ties are worth the effort. But we’re still stuck at a point where the US pays too much and the Europeans do too little. Trans-Atlantic ties are deep militarily, culturally, and economically. Tariff rates between the United States and Western Europe are miniscule, and the massive military exercise put on by NATO’s heavyweights highlights well the intricate defense connections between both sides of the pond. Night clubs in Paris, London, Warsaw, and Los Angeles all play the same Kendrick Lamar songs, too.

Politically, though, the Western world is not connected enough. Sure, there are plenty of international organizations that bureaucrats on both sides of the pond are able to work in, but bureaucracy is only one aspect of getting more politically intertwined with each other (and it’s a damn poor method, too).

In 1966 economists Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser wrote an article for the RAND Corporation showing that there were two ways to make NATO a more equitable military alliance: 1) greater unification or 2) sharing costs on a percentage basis. The article, titled “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” has been influential. Yet almost all of the focus since it was published over 50 years ago has been on door number 2, sharing costs on a percentage basis. Thus, you have Obama and Trump bemoaning the inability of Europe’s NATO members to meet their percentage threshold that had been agreed upon with a handshake at some sort of bureaucratic summit. You have Bush II and Clinton gently reminding Europe’s NATO members of the need to contribute more to defense spending. You have Nixon and Carter prodding Europe’s NATO members to meet an agreed-upon 3-4 percent threshold. For half a century policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have tried to make NATO more equitable by sharing costs on a percentage basis, and it has never panned out. Ever. Sure, there have been some exceptions in some years, but that’s not okay.

What has largely been lost in the Olson & Zeckhauser article is the “greater unification” approach, probably because this is the much tougher path to take towards equitable relations. The two economists spell out what they mean by “greater unification”: replacing the alliance with a union, or federation. I’m all for this option. It would make things much more equitable and, if the Europeans simply joined the American federation, it would give hundreds of millions of people more individual freedom thanks to the compound republic the Americans have built. Edwin, along with most other European libertarians/classical liberals, acknowledges that Europe is free-riding, but are Europe’s liberals willing to cede some aspects of their country’s sovereignty in order to make the alliance more equitable? Are they ready to vote alongside Americans for an executive? Are they ready to send Senators and Representatives to Washington? Or are they just pandering to their American libertarian friends, and telling them what they want to hear so they’ll shut the hell up about being ripped off?

One Cheer for NATO

The largest military NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War will start shortly in Norway. About 50.000 troops and 10.000 vehicles from all 29 NATO countries plus Sweden and Finland will commence ‘Trident Juncture 2018’ on October 25.

Before the actual exercise starts, there are already logistical tests. As the news release of NATO explains:

Over the next few days, 70 Foxhound, Husky and Landover vehicles will make the 2,000km journey from the Hook of Holland harbour through northern Europe to Norway. The UK convoy’s move through the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden will test how efficiently soldiers and equipment can move between European countries. It will also test customs, border regulations and infrastructure’s ability to cope with rapid and heavy troop movements.

“Military mobility is vital, especially to reinforce in a crisis. That’s exactly why we exercise it,” said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu. “Over the past few years, NATO has made real progress in improving our ability to deploy troops quickly across Europe. We are overcoming legal hurdles and cutting red tape, including by working closely with the European Union. Looking ahead, we aim to further reduce border-crossing times (clearances within five days by the end of 2019), identify alternative supply routes, and exercise even more to practice military mobility.”

The exercise itself has an article 5 or collective defense scenario, training NATO’s crisis response ability. It will last about two weeks. “NATO is a defensive Alliance. We’re not looking for a fight, but we are committed to defense and deterrence. That’s what this exercise is all about: training to defend, and providing a deterrent effect, ready to respond to any threat from any direction at any time,” commanding officer Admiral Foggo underlined.

I think this exercise, with all NATO members, on this scale, in these uncertain times, deserves one cheer. It shows that the Alliance is still able and willing to get together, to show it is the most powerful military alliance on earth, and that it realizes it needs a lot of training to remain so.

There are still two cheers lacking. The second cheer is lacking because the partnership is still unbalanced. Despite increases in the defense budgets in some of the European NATO members (The Netherlands included), the main burden (also in relative numbers) still falls on the Americans. That is simply wrong. And it is also dangerous, because in current times, for example also with cyber warfare becoming ever more important, any shortage of budget is putting (future) lives at risk. The third cheer is lacking because anti-NATO rhetoric (on both sides of the Atlantic) will sow the seeds of doubt about the use and future of NATO. That is also simply wrong and dangerous. Whether it is Russia, or other powers, the West cannot afford to leave any current or future authoritarian ruler in any doubt about the military ties across the Atlantic, all the way to the Russian border. It is in the best interest of all NATO members, the US included.

RCH: The battle that shaped Texas for one hundred years

That’s the topic of my latest at RealClearHistory. (Remember, I have a Tuesday column and a weekend column over there.) Here’s an excerpt:

In the mid 16th century, then, in what is now Texas and Oklahoma, world powers and regional polities bobbed and weaved with each other in an intricate, unpredictable game of geopolitics to settle who gain hegemony over a region destined to be important for transcontinental trade for centuries to come. The defeat forced Spain to give up its designs for the region entirely, and France was never interested in the region being anything other than a resource-rich frontier for its American port cities in New Orleans and Quebec.

The defeat also caused a minor rift between Tlaxcala and Spain, which was a big deal at the time because without Tlaxcala, Spain would have never been able to conquer the Aztec Empire as thoroughly as it did.

Please, read the rest. Texas ain’t no joke…