Iran-US tensions: Why Tokyo and New Delhi should arbitrate (But will they?)

After the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities

Iran’s ties with the rest of the world, especially Washington, have witnessed some interesting developments in recent weeks. While there was a possibility of a thaw between Washington and Tehran after the G7 Summit (held in August 2019 at Biarritz, France) with both sides making the right noises.

Tensions between both countries have risen yet again after two oil facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais, of Saudi Aramco (a Saudi state-run company) were attacked by drones and missiles on September 14, 2019. The Houthis of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Saudis and the US blamed Iran. US President Donald Trump warned of retaliatory action against Iran (the US also sent troops to the Gulf to prevent further escalation), while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the attack as an ‘act of war’.

Iranian reactions to US statements

If one were to look at Iranian reactions to US statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview on September 19, stated that if the US or Saudi Arabia launched a military attack on Iran, in retaliation for the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities, he did not rule out an ‘all out war’. Zarif did say that Iran wanted to avoid conflict and was willing to engage with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

On September 22, the anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned against the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, saying that this would lead only to more apprehensions and insecurities. The Iranian President also stated that Tehran had extended its hand of friendship towards countries in the region for maintenance of security in the Gulf, as well as the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Zarif made a much more measured statement, arguing that Tehran wanted to make September 22 a day of peace not war. Referring to Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, he stated that this act, which received support of global powers, has been one of the reasons for turmoil in the region. Hours before Rouhani’s speech, Zarif, in an interview with the American media company CNN, stated that Iran was ready for a re-negotiated deal, provided Donald Trump lifted economic sanctions. The Foreign Minister made a telling remark:

We continue to leave the door open for diplomacy. In the meantime, our campaign for economic pressure will continue.

Rouhani had expressed his openness towards meeting Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Hours before his speech, one of his spokespersons stated that Tehran was willing to give commitments with regard to not expanding its nuclear program, provided the US lifted sanctions. During his speech, Rouhani made it clear that while he was willing to engage with the US, he would not do so under any sort of pressure, and Tehran would only engage with Washington if the US-imposed economic sanctions are removed. Rouhani dubbed these sanctions as economic terrorism.

Statement (and remarks) issued by France, the UK, and Germany with regard to the attack on Saudi’s oil facilities

What was significant, however, was the statement issued on September 23 by the UK, Germany, and France that Tehran was responsible for the attack on the oil facilities run by Aramco. The three countries, which have been firmly backing greater engagement with Iran, and have been so far critical of Trump’s approach, in a statement held that Iran was responsible for the attacks, and that these could lead to greater conflict in the region. The statement issued by the three countries did make the point that these countries supported the Iran and P5+1 nuclear agreement/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), asking Tehran to comply with the deal and adhere to the commitments.

Significantly, British PM Boris Johnson spoke in favor of Trump renegotiating the JCPOA, while French President Emmanuel Macron stated, in a conversation with reporters, that he was not ‘married to the JCPOA’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while speaking in favor of talks between Tehran and Washington, stated that Tehran’s conditionality of sanctions being lifted before talks take place was unrealistic.

Why France’s statement was especially surprising

Statements made by Macron came as a surprise, given that he has played a pivotal role in keeping the JCPOA intact and differed with Trump’s approach towards Tehran. Apart from fervently supporting the JCPOA, the UK, Germany, and France had also set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to circumvent sanctions from Iran. This move had been criticized by senior officials of the Trump Administration, including Mike Pence, John Bolton, and Pompeo.

Macron also attempted to organize a meeting between Zarif and G7 Ministers on the sidelines of the G7 Summit held at Biarritz (the French President did meet Zarif, with G7 leaders giving him a go ahead to negotiate with Iran). A statement made by Trump, where he stated that he was willing to meet with Rouhani and described Iran as a country of great potential, raised hopes of possible engagement with Iran. Trump in his usual style did put forward conditionalities, and did state that he was not party to a joint statement by G7 on Iran.

It would be pertinent to point out that Macron even attempted a meeting between Rouhani and Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting, though this did not work out. The French President did meet with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. A tweet by the Iranian representative to the UN stated that apart from bilateral relations, Macron and Rouhani discussed ways in which the JCPOA could be saved.

Trump’s approach towards Iran: Back to square one?

The removal of John Bolton, a known Iran hawk, as National Security Adviser also raised hopes with regard to US engagement with Iran. In fact, Bolton’s approach vis-à-vis Iran was cited as one of the main reasons for growing differences between Bolton and Trump.

The attacks on the oil facilities have made Trump more aggressive

The attack on Saudi facilities however acted as a spoiler, and has given Trump the opportunity to act aggressively and put more pressure on France, Germany, and the UK to adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, and while Iran has warned of retaliations in case there is any sort of military action, US cyber attacks on Iran can not be ruled out. At the UNGA, Trump attacked Iran by saying it is a security threat to ‘peace-loving nations’. The US President also said that there was no chance of lifting sanctions as long as Tehran’s ‘menacing’ behavior continued.

With the UK, Germany, and France also backing US claims with regard to Iran being responsible for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Trump has become further emboldened.

Role of countries like Japan and India

While the reactions of European countries and the UK are important, one country, which has been very cautious in its reaction, has been Japan. Japan’s Defence Minister Toro Kono, in fact, stated that ‘We are not aware of any information that points to Iran’.

Japan has close economic ties with Iran. Earlier, Shinzo Abe had made efforts to intervene between Iran and the US. Abe, who visited Iran in June 2019, met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stating that it was a major step toward peace. The Japanese PM had also sought the release of US citizens detained by Iran.

Interestingly, Brian Hook, US Special Envoy to Iran, while alluding to Japan, China, and other Asian countries, stated that countries must not shy away from unequivocally acknowledging that Iran was responsible for the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. Hook gave the example of the UK, France, and Germany. He also sought Asian participation, especially Japan and South Korea, in Washington’s maritime initiative to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.

It would be important to point out that Japan, which has close economic ties with Iran, has already started looking at other sources of oil given the situation in the Middle East.

It is not just Japan. Even India would not like escalation of conflict with Iran, though so far it has stayed out. While New Delhi is looking to various sources for its oil needs (during Modi’s recent visit, one of the issues high on the agenda was closer energy ties with the US), the Chabahar Port, in which New Delhi has invested, is of strategic importance. Some recent statements from the Iranian side suggest a growing impatience with New Delhi, not merely due to toeing the US line with regard to the importation of oil from Iran (India had stopped buying oil from Iran, after the US removed the temporary waiver which it had given), but also slow progress on the Chabahar Port.

During the G7 Summit, Macron had urged the US to allow India to import oil from Iran, while Modi, during his meeting with Trump, also is supposed to have raised the Iran issue. While India has not made any statement with regard to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Iran days after the attack (a number of issues, such as the progress of the Chabahar Port, and issues pertaining to trilateral connectivity between India, Afghanistan, and Iran, were discussed). The Indian PM also met with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. Both of them are supposed to have discussed issues of bilateral and regional importance.

Conclusion

It is time that countries which have close ties with the US and robust economic engagement with Iran find common ground, rather than speaking in different voices. While at the G7 meeting, there was an opportunity for the same, but this was short lived. This is essential, not just for economic and strategic purposes, but also to ensure that Iran does not become totally dependent upon China. Beijing’s recent commitments of investing over $400 billion in Iran are a clear indicator of the point that, as a result of economic isolation, Tehran is left with limited options, and is tilting towards Beijing.

China has not just made important commitments in oil and infrastructure projects, but Beijing will also be stationing its troops to protect it’s investments in the oil sector. It is not just European countries (Germany, France and the UK) but countries like Japan and India, which should be wary of the growing proximity between Tehran and Beijing. New Delhi and Tokyo would be advised to work in tandem, to get both Washington and Iran to moderate their stance. While this is no mean task, given Trump’s unpredictability it is absolutely imperative.

Nightcap

  1. Parmesan cheese and Sunbucks Coffee Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. In search of the true Dao Ian Johnson, ChinaFile
  3. The ‘flower men’ of Saudi Arabia Molly Oringer, BBC
  4. French anti-tax revolts are nothing new Murray Rothbard, Free Market

Nightcap

  1. A history of true civilisation is not one of monuments David Wengrow, Aeon
  2. Feminism in Saudi Arabia Lindsey Hilsum, New York Review of Books
  3. The artwork of proto-Surrealist JJ Grandville Patricia Mainardi, Public Domain Review
  4. The other protest: Gazans against Hamas Shlomi Eldar, Al-Monitor

India’s near-abroad: Iran’s regional moves

Close attention was paid by sections of India’s strategic community (and understandably so) to the statement of Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Javad Zarif, during his visit to Pakistan, in which he extended an invitation to Pakistan to join the ambitious Chabahar Project (about 70 kilometres from China’s ambitious Gwadar Project).

Zarif, while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), stated:

We offered to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). We have also offered Pakistan and China to participate in Chahbahar

He further went on to state that Iran’s ties with India were not in any way targeted at Pakistan, just as Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh were not against Iran.

Surprise in India

This invitation surprised many in India, given the fact that it has provided financial assistance for Phase 1 of the project and will operate two berths. During Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit in February 2018, one of the tangible outcomes was the lease contract signed by IPGL (Indian Port Global Limited) and Iran’s Port and Maritime Organization, for operating Phase 1 (Shahid Beheshti Port) over an 18-month period. The joint statement also made a clear reference to India’s unwavering commitment to the Chabahar-Zahedan Rail Line, which will enable transportation of goods all the way up to the Afghan border. The Indian side also stated that it would like to see Chabahar as part of the INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor). The INSTC will help in connecting India to Russia and Europe, via Iran.

Chabahar as India’s answer to Gwadar

Many in India have looked at Chabahar as India’s answer to the Gwadar Project, and of course its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The project is especially important to New Delhi because it enables India to bypass Pakistan, which has flatly refused to give India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2016, during Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s visit to Iran, India, Iran, and Afghanistan had signed a three nation transport and transit corridor pact to enhance connecitivity. While leaders of all three countries spoke about the relevance of this agreement in the context of connectivity, the Iranian President had made it clear that it was not targeted at anyone. Said Rouhani:

[This pact is] not against any other country […] it is beneficial to the entire region.

India also sent a consignment of wheat (15,000 tonnes) to Afghanistan through the Chabahar Port in 2017. The shipment was dispatched from Kandla (Gujarat, India) and reached Chabahar in Iran. From Chabahar it was transported by road to Nimroz Province in Afghanistan.

India’s response

Replying to Zarif’s statements in a press briefing, India’s Spokesman Raveesh Kumar stated that:

[It is the] prerogative of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to choose its partners for the development of infrastructure facilities there.

Kumar also explained the strategic relevance of the project given its geo-political importance.

India-Iran ties beyond the Chabahar Port

Ever since the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries, business linkages – and not just the Chabahar Project – between Iran and India have gotten a fillip. In 2017, India’s oil imports from Iran went up to 4.37 million barrel per day, even though there was a dip between April-December 2017 due to tensions between both countries on the Farzand B gas field. (Iran was supposed to award the gas field to India, but there have been differences on terms and conditions.) During Rouhani’s visit, both countries decided to address the obstacles related to banking and taxation, in order to bring about closer economic linkages.

Iran has thus emerged as an important strategic and trade partner for India.

What may have surprised sections of Indian government, along with its strategic thinkers, would be the Iranian invitation given to Pakistan, in spite of bilateral tensions between the two. In May 2017, for example, the Iranian Army Chief, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, had threatened to strike terror camps in Baluchistan (Pakistan) after the killing of ten Iranian guards by Jaish-Al-Adl in the Sistan-Baluchestan province. Said Baqeri:

[…] unless Pakistan control[s] the borders, arrest[s] the terrorist[s] and shut[s] down their bases […] we will hit their safe havens and cells wherever they are.

Since then tensions between the United States and Iran have also risen, and the latter has a close relationship with China. This has reshaped the Pakistan-Iran dynamic.

New Delhi’s real challenge

The real challenge for India in the near future is the hawkish stand of US President Donald Trump’s most recent appointee: Michael Pompeo (who was earlier head of the CIA, a main American intelligence agency). Trump is also likely to replace his current National Security Advisor, HR Mcmaster, and one possible replacement is John Bolton (former US Ambassador to the United Nations), a known hawk on Iran.

Pompeo would go along with Trump, and have no qualms in scrapping the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018, the next date when the issue comes up for consideration.

Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had differed with Trump on this issue on more than one occasion. During the election campaign, Trump had criticized the Nuclear Agreement. He had dubbed the agreement a ‘disaster’ and ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’. In an address to a Pro-Israel Lobby group, AIPAC, the US President had gone to the extent of stating that dismantling the deal would be his first priority.

Tillerson, no dove on Iran by any stretch of imagination, had categorically stated that dismantling the deal was not in US interests, though the US President disagreed. Commenting on their disagreements about Iran, Trump had stated:

When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible […] it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.

Tillerson was closely working with European countries to rework the deal, and address some of the Trump administration’s concerns.

The Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, has also predicted that Trump will walk out of the Deal: “The Iran deal will be another issue that’s coming up in May, and right now it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be extended.”

More aggressive Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is likely to become more aggressive after the exit of Tillerson. In fact, on the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s arrival in the US, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, criticized the Iran Nuclear deal. Said the Saudi Foreign Minister:

Our view of the nuclear deal is that it’s a flawed agreement.

During the Saudi Prince’s visit, Trump too did not miss out on an opportunity to lambast the Iran nuclear agreement. While commenting on the future of the deal, the US President stated:

The Iran deal is coming up soon and you will see what will happen […] Iran hasn’t been treating that part of the world, or the world appropriately.

According to the Arab News it was also decided that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the US would set up a trilateral security forum which would look not just at issues pertaining to Middle East and Iran, but also South Asia.

Conclusion

India would be advised to be cautious, and while some sections the Right have been ecstatic with Trump’s stance vis-à-vis Pakistan (not to mention China), New Delhi needs to be prepared for some turbulence as a consequence of the recent changes within the Trump Administration. New Delhi needs to articulate its strategic and economic interests in Iran, not just to the US, but also to Saudi Arabia. In the past, the US has not objected to Iran’s close ties with India, but it remains to be seen whether or not Trump and his team will exhibit flexibility and pragmatism vis-à-vis Iran.

New Delhi has a myriad of foreign policy challenges, and Trump’s rigidity towards Iran is likely to be a major one in the near future.

Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy could get a boost from Trump, Rand Paul, and …the Saudis

In recent days, all eyes have been on President Trump’s January 1 tweet, which sent out an unequivocal message that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan unless the latter takes concrete action against terror groups like the Haqqani Network.  Said Trump in his tweet:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump’s tweet was followed by the US decision to withhold Foreign Military Fund (FMF) aid (worth 255 million USD) due to Pakistan’s inaction against terror groups. The Department of Defense has also suspended Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan (worth 900 million USD). In all, over 1.1 Billion USD has been suspended. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will be introducing a bill for ending all US aid to Pakistan. Said Paul:

I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough. President Trump has publicly called to end their aid, and is currently holding up over $200 million of it. I want to end all of it.

The Kentucky senator has argued that the money provided to Pakistan can be used for building infrastructure in the US.

Reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s tweets were predictable. While some opposition parties said that US President’s assertive attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan is a failure of the present Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-led government to put forward Pakistan’s view point effectively, the PML-N government criticized the US President’s remarks and said that it was ready to provide audits, and that it has been on the front line in the war against terror. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, in response to Trump’s tweets stated:

Pakistan is ready to publicly provide every detail of the US aid that it has received over the last 15 years.

In the midst of all this, a number of noteworthy developments have taken place.

First, both Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League and former PM, and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab province and PML-N’s PM candidate, met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the night of January 1, 2018. There were speculations of various kinds with regard to the meeting. The first was that an agreement was being worked out where Nawaz Sharif would be exiled to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the corruption cases filed against him in Pakistan. This, however, was flatly denied by his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif. A spokesman for the former PM also issued a strong denial in a press release. Said the spokesman:

He has always utilised these relations for national interest and never for his personal benefits.

The other major speculation was that the Sharifs met with the Saudi Crown Prince in light of the recent statements made by President Donald Trump, and had gone as a result of an understanding with the Pakistan army. Irrespective of whatever the reality was, it clearly shows that the Sharifs are still extremely relevant, not just because of their political influence in the province of Punjab, but also their strong networks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Nawaz Sharif, who has – in spite of considerable domestic constraints – made concerted efforts at improving ties with India, had according to some news stories met with Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua on December 28th, at the former’s Raiwind residence in Lahore. During this meeting, Sharif spoke about the need for mending fences with neighboring countries. The meeting was however dismissed as a false report.

Third, most interestingly the former PM, while reacting to Donald Trump’s attack on Pakistan as regrettable, launched an all out attack on the army and dictatorships in a speech on January 3, 2018. While he blamed Pervez Musharraf for capitulating to the US in 2002, the former PM also accused the army of propping up leaders through secret deals. He was alluding to the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan. Sharif also called for self introspection, and that it was time for Pakistanis to “ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously.”

A few points need to be kept in mind:

First, Nawaz Sharif – who has been written off – remains the tallest and most mature political leader who realises the importance of strong ties with neighbors, and realizes the pitfalls of excessive dependence upon one country. During his speech on January 3, 2018 he categorically stated:

I would like to advise Prime Minister Abbasi to develop a policy that ensures we don’t need US aid so that our image is not attacked in this manner.

Second, Sharif’s aggressive approach towards the army may not be appreciated by many in, or outside of, Pakistan. The Saudi Prince is supposed to have put forward his discomfort with Nawaz’s approach towards the army, saying it will destabilise Pakistan. Nawaz is not likely to cave in easily, and is likely to use every opportunity to attack the army, and will make attempts to restore civilian supremacy. This is clearly evident from his speech on January 3, 2018.

Third, post the 2018 Parliamentary elections which PML-N is likely to win, efforts will be made to reach out to India, since a better economic relationship with India will fit in with the overall goal of Pakistan becoming more self-reliant. PML-N would also like to send a clear message to Pakistan’s army about who the real boss is. The Pakistani army will off course continue to sabotage such efforts, but Nawaz Sharif seems determined to make one last ditch effort. This will off course require PML-N to take decisive action against terror groups targeting India.

External forces should stop treating the Pakistani army with kid gloves. While the US has taken the lead in taking a strong stand against the Pakistani army, China too needs to do a rethink of its short term goal of using Pakistan to contain India. Terrorism and instability will have an impact on China in the near run as well as long run. The outside world, while being firm with the Pakistani army, should continue to make efforts aimed at strengthening democratic forces within Pakistan.

India needs to work harder, both in its own backyard and in its near-abroad

While there is absolutely no doubt that Donald Trump has on more than one occasion sent harsh warnings to Islamabad – calling upon Pakistan to give up its support for terrorist groups or face the consequences – Trump’s predecessors had begun to reduce aid to Pakistan. During the Obama years, for example, American aid to Pakistan dropped from over 2 Billion USD in 2014, to a little over 1.1 Billion USD in 2016.

In his latest tweet, Trump minced no words, saying that Pakistan had fooled the US all these years, and that US will not take this lying down:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump tweeted early morning on New Year’s Day.

Earlier in the year, during his August speech pertaining to Afghanistan, Trump had categorically stated that it no longer could be business as usual, and that Pakistan needed to stop extending support to the Haqqani network and other groups. Said the US President:

We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the same terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately.

A number of senior officials in the Trump Administration, such as the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence have hinted that harsh steps for Islamabad are a real possibility, some of which include not just withdrawal of aid to Pakistan, but also the removal of Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status.

During his recent visit to Afghanistan, Pence stated that President had put Pakistan on notice. Said Pence: “President Trump has put Pakistan on notice. As the President said, so I say now: Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with the United States, and Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

In an oped written for the New York TimesTillerson stated:

Pakistan must contribute by combating terrorist groups on its own soil. We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terror organisations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us.

China – which has strategic and economic interests in Pakistan, with the primary one being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – has stood by Pakistan. While reacting to Trump’s August 2017 address, State Councillor Yang Jiechi said:

“We should attach importance to Pakistan’s important role in Afghanistan and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and legitimate security concerns.”

India’s reactions

New Delhi has understandably been closely observing these events. Trump’s warnings to Pakistan are viewed as positive news for India, and the Trump Administration has also pleased New Delhi by speaking against violent groups that are targeting India. The US, for example, has lent support to India’s demand for declaring Jaish-E-Muhammed (JEM) Chief, Masood Azhar, a designated terrorist by the UN (this move has of course been stalled by China).

Realists in New Delhi will however be keeping an eye on the following issues.

First, sections of the political class in Pakistan, as well as old hands in the American administration will not allow things between Islamabad and Washington to go downhill. A number of Pakistani politicians, such as Sherry Rehman, have already stated that while Pakistan should have its own independent policy, and it should not be submissive, it need not be excessively aggressive. While such politicians may not publicly say so, the fact is that there is a large swath of the Pakistani population which may not be very comfortable with the US, but is even more uncomfortable with the increasing Chinese presence in Pakistan as a consequence of CPEC.

In the US too, there are sections in the State Department which follow the approach of engaging with moderate forces in Pakistan given the country’s strategic importance. There is a section of the US establishment which does not want Pakistan to totally drift away from Washington’s orbit, mostly because China is beginning to take a larger role in the whole of South Asia, including Afghanistan. One of the declarations of the first Foreign Minister-level trilateral dialogue between China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was the extension of (CPEC) into Afghanistan.

Said the Chinese Foreign Minister:

So China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend CPEC to Afghanistan.

Both New Delhi and Washington will closely watch this development.

Apart from Beijing, Pakistan will rely on Saudi Arabia to soften Washington’s approach vis-à-vis Pakistan. The Sharif brothers, both Nawaz and Shahbaz, have strong connections in Saudi Arabia and while there were speculations that the Saudis were trying to broker a deal between the Pakistani military and the Sharifs, there is also a view that there’s an understanding between the Pakistani army and the Sharifs, and that the latter would use their links in the Saudi establishment to soften the Trump Administration, which has strong ties with Riyadh.

In conclusion, there is an increasing awareness with regard to the nexus between the Pakistani army and terror groups targeting India. Yet New Delhi should be more realistic in its calculations, and it needs to not just bank on Washington. Instead, India should also leverage its economic ties with Riyadh and Beijing to put more pressure on Pakistan. While there is no doubt that strategic convergence with Washington has increased phenomenally, Trump’s harsh words against Pakistan are not just driven by any conviction, but also by simple transactionalism. This very transactionalism has also created space for China to become more pro-active in South East Asia and South Asia. New Delhi thus needs to be pragmatic, deft, and leverage its economic rise more effectively.

Worth a gander

  1. good update on the mayhem in the Middle East
  2. as good as that update is, though: Iraq, Saudi Arabia to reopen border crossings after 27 years
  3. great read on Russia’s Far East and Russia’s travel writing genre
  4. in Russia, Lutheranism (Protestantism) is considered a “traditional” religion (h/t NEO)
  5. how social is reason?

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Saudi-Iran Conflict Is Not America’s Fault
  2. Gains from trade: China and the United States
  3. How Bad Is Trump’s Brand of Authoritarianism?
  4. How Hiroshima Became A War Crime
  5. Art and Porn in Edo Period Japan
  6. The [True?] Meaning of Marxism

What’s the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State?

One has captured the rent associated with being a state in the post-World War II world order. This means that one of these polities gets to build embassies in other states. It gets to participate in congresses. It gets to fly its flag at the United Nations and has access to the World Bank, military hardware markets (“for defense”), and FIFA tournaments.

Rent capture isn’t all good, of course. There are still costs. When Saudi Arabia beheads people, for example, it gets condemned internationally. Its reputation suffers. It has to repair relationships and launch rigorous public relations campaigns. Saudi Arabia has to do these things because if it looks intransigent to enough of its fellow states, there might be official repercussions for its actions. Saudi Arabia can’t just go around killing and looting and raping at will. It has to formalize its killing, looting, and raping through the international order by coming up with a national interest. (A national interest is also important for shoring up domestic support for such activities.)

But incorporating Islamic State into the international order is unfathomable. It’s an immoral action rewarding an immoral pseudo-polity. Besides, the sovereignty of the states of Iraq and Syria would be violated and their borders destroyed. It’s better to just keep bombing the region Islamic State claims to govern and arming the factions that claim to be its enemies. That’s been our policy towards the post-colonial world since 1945 and, while imperfect, it’s been working out well so far…

The Saudis, the Holy Lands, and double standards

I know we’ve been linking to Irfan and the PoT heads a lot lately, but there’s a good reason for it. Check out Dr Khawaja’s thoughts on the recent death of King Abdullah:

The late Pakistani journalist Tashbih Sayyid, editor of Pakistan Today, put the point to me in this way: “Muslims complain so loudly about the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank. What about the Saudi occupation of Mecca and Medina?” It sounds like a joke, but it really isn’t one. He might well have added: What about the Saudi occupation of the Arabian peninsula?

Here’s an article on Saudi Arabia’s criticizing Norway’s human rights record. This criticism comes from a country where it’s illegal for women to drive. Of course, to be fair, Saudi Arabia is making progress. It abolished slavery in 1962.

I don’t agree with defenders of Israel who insist that the movement to divest from Israel is “anti-Semitic,” but I do think there is a double standard in the way activists think about and deal with Israel by contrast with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has all the features that members of BDS find objectionable in Israel. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia is guilty of systematic human rights abuses. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia gets massive and systematic U.S. support. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia exerts enormous influence over the U.S. government. The difference is just that Saudi Arabia is a lot worse than Israel on every relevant dimension.

Read the rest, it’s an excellent analysis as usual.

Jacques has a piece on Islam in France up over at Liberty that you might want to check out, too. He doesn’t make any new arguments that he hasn’t made before, and I don’t think he is advancing the conversation at all (see here and here, for example), but it’s still worth the read.

What’s up with Oil and the Saudis?

In case you haven’t noticed, the price of oil has dropped dramatically and has not rebounded as yet. As I write, the price of the most common form of crude oil is under $54 per barrel, about half of what it was in mid-2014. What’s going on?

Several factors contributed to the fall. One was increased U.S. production, much of it shale oil. Also, U.S. consumption has not been rising apace with GDP in part because of higher fuel efficiency. Demand in Europe and Japan is muted due to low growth or recession.

Those things did not happen suddenly, however, so the drop would appear to be overdone. Large producers, who have a lot of pricing power, would normally cut production in this circumstance. (Pricing power means a change in their production has a noticeable effect on the world price.) The Saudis have considerable pricing power and their production decisions are controlled by their government. Why have they not cut production? I believe they are engaging in predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing is illegal in the U.S. and elsewhere, under anti-trust law. Predatory pricing occurs when a supplier cuts his prices for the purpose of bankrupting a competitor, or at least driving the competitor out of the market. The predator is willing to suffer losses or reduced profits temporarily, while holding the prices low. Once the competitor is gone, the predator’s pricing power will have increased enough that he can raise prices a lot and make up for losses suffered during the period of predation. Predatory pricing is definitely possible in free markets but is very risky for several reasons: (1) the predator can’t be sure how long it will take to ruin his competitor, (2) he can’t be sure how long he can maintain low prices without sustaining ruinous losses or perhaps face a shareholder rebellion, (3) it’s possible the competitor, or someone who has bought his assets in bankruptcy, will come back to life and start competing as before. For these reasons (and others, such as the difficulty facing regulators who are supposed to distinguish predatory motives from “innocent” business strategy), I believe there is no reason to outlaw predatory pricing.

The situation is a little different in the international oil market because the Saudis and many other major players are government controlled. They are not constrained (much) by the market forces outlined above. They are not accountable to shareholders and are only vaguely responsible to the population of Saudi Arabia. They have substantial latitude to pursue political motives even if their profits suffer.  And anti-trust law does not operate across national borders.

What might the Saudis want to accomplish politically? They hate Russia and Iran, both of which rely heavily on oil exports. They don’t hate the U.S., at least not openly, but they surely wouldn’t mind sticking it to U.S. and Canadian shale oil producers. Those producers are largely market-driven and thus have limited ability to withstand predatory pricing. The Saudis could indeed drive smaller firms out of the market, and also less profitable operations of larger firms.

That might not be such a bad thing. There has been a huge land rush into shale oil and fracking. In any such boom, whether in energy, mining, or computers, many small firms fall by the wayside. If the Saudis ruin some marginal firms or projects, that’s not such a bad thing.

We little guys are sitting pretty. We’re paying a lot less for gasoline. If we hold shares of the major oil firms we’re probably OK, as their share prices have held up and their dividends look solid. The same is true of the pipeline operators. Only if we hold shares of marginal energy firms or oilfield service companies are we in any trouble.

So – go for it, Saudis! Stick it to the evil governments of Russia and Iran and help us clean out some of our marginal energy operations.

Turn the Page; New Bombings in Russia

[Editor’s note: the following is a short essay by Payam Ghorbanian. Payam was born in Tehran, Iran. He got his bachelor of science in Engineering from Zanjan University in Zanjan, Iran. He has been participating in liberal political activities and he was involved with some think tanks in Iran. He is doing research in the field of international relations and Iran’s foreign policy as an independent activist. He is now living in San Jose, California.

I cannot endorse this essay, but I am excited to post it because of its potential as a conduit for intercultural dialogue and exchange. I have left his essay largely intact, but did break up some of his longer paragraphs for clarity’s sake. Thanks to Payam for taking the time to write this.]

There is a narrow line between acting and having a reason and acting because of reason, reason is not merely the cause of the one’s acting. As Brain Fay said the having of this reason is the cause of agent’s acting and the reason does not explain the act, the act doesn’t occurred because of the one’s specified reason. After Boston bombing in the United States, Piers Morgan in his live show asked one of the Boston bomber’s friends to find out whether or not the bomber guy had any accent when he was speaking English. He probably wanted to give us a hint that the bomber might got involved in this disaster because of being teased by others around him. Morgan wanted to downgrade the threat of sinister ideology to personal reasons of bomber, which he was unsuccessful because of the friend responded: “no, not at all.”

Islamic fundamentalism has the holy goal to build or revive the Islamic nation the same as thousands years ago and to be able to run that nation with extremist religious rules in order to build the distinguished nation in order to beat the westernized nation in the judgment day.  I have to mention that it is not actually only about Islam, all historical religions because of consequences of compacting with modernism and being frequently defeated have this potential ambition to draw the utopia for their followers, although now we are facing with Islamic fundamentalism which is the great threat for all modernized countries. Even though they are fighting with modernism, they constantly use the modern stuffs for getting to the final step like weapons, electronic connections, chemical bombs, internet, computer and etc. This battle would not end up if we just want to focus on a single aspect of it. On the other hand, if we are going to say that they are only a threat when they attack us or our allies, so we might be able to divide them into the good and bad and take an advantage of them for stopping the threat of wicked (but modernized) countries like Russia, China or even Bashar Al-Asad’s regime in Syria. It should be drawn by us as a red line.

Dokka Umarov is the person who is known for several attacks in Russia with the goal of reviving the Islamic State in Caucasus; being so closed to Al-Qaeda. Getting involved in Syrian war made him the one of the most dangerous rebel leaders for Russian nation. He also said he will prepare the maximum force to disturb the security of the Winter Olympics on February 7 in Sochi and now he has this ability to challenge president Putin. The last operation of terrorist group in Volgograd’s bombing killed 34 people on December 31, 2013. It is just the beginning of the wrong way, retaliation of rolling in Syria with the hands of terrorist group inside the Russia.

This upcoming Olympic is not just a regular event for Russia. It is a pose of pride, especially for Mr. Putin and maybe for all Russians to get their confidence back and show off the 40 billion dollar which has been spent for preparing of this event till now and it could be seen as a heritage of Putin’s presidency. After these recent attacks Mr. Putin said: we will tough and consistently continue to fight. He also has pointed his finger at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and call up for retaliation, which I think it is just more a threat, rather than a real action in order to prevent upcoming attacks.

When someone threatens you with an attack and at the same time someone else tries to blackmail you and offers you that if you want to prevent this attack you have to do something for me, it means that there is a connection between the person who threatens you and the person who wants to prevent the attack.

Prince Bandar Bin Sultan is the director general of Saudi Arabia intelligence agency from July 2012 until now and he was the KSA ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005. He was known for helping Bin Laden’s family to leave US after September 11. He consistently tried to get involve his country in Syrian crises and after found out that United States is not interested in taking military action in Syria, he prominently criticized Obama’s policy regarding the Arabian countries. He said: KSA would shift away from United States over Syria. He has been using millions of dollars of his country in Syrian’s war without getting anywhere and now this war is getting more predominated by dragging inside the Iraq as we have seen during the last month.

Bin Sultan has also tried to convince Russia to give up Al-Asad’s regime by offering them to control and stop Chechen terrorist groups during the winter Olympics and also by purchasing weapons from Russia worth of billions of dollars, as the news said. However, he was ultimately unsuccessful.  Mr. Putin knows this rule that if you take just one step back as a result of being frightened by terrorist groups, finally you will be totally turned away. I am into every activity which stops Mr. Putin and China’s government and their ambitions to build the new evil empire but I never ever think about using terrorist groups in order to push them back. They are modernized countries which means they can be backed off by modern means.

The Saudi Arabia with the eternal sick king and hundreds of princes with the lack of any discipline over them seems like an oligarchy. Increasing oil price and powerful armies which has been supplied by United States would really inflate their egos without any financial structure. They really think they can get involved in the games of power. They are in the same path where the last king of Iran was which is going directly to the land of darkness and being unaware of what their people really want and finally overthrowing by them but in this case of Saudi Arabia it takes a long time because of the unfortified middle class but it will ultimately happen. Just take a glance to the Mohammad Reza Shah’s interview in 1974 with BBC he said: “I think our country in the next 10 years will be what you are today. In next 25 years; according to other people, I am not saying that, will be among 5 most prosperous countries of the world.” Several years after this interview, all these bubbles just busted and he could not or would not realize what his people, especially the middle class, are looking for maybe just a little bit of freedom.

Unfortunately the Saudi Arabia and several countries in the Middle East can be called as the ‘necessary dictatorship’. I just made up this word to explain my thought. At this time these regimes surpass far their people, any effort to change the regime will invite the extremists to the party so we obviously prefer to face with dictators instead of terrorists but these sorts of countries should be pushed forward by international union to start reforms. I really like the way that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has followed by opening the gates of the country to the foreign investors with the useful rule of “51 percent of a business must be owned by a UAE national.” This means involving the local people in the business and helping them to lift up instead of putting them down by giving them money occasionally. A person who owns a business will be much more conservative about the definition of Jihad. Now in KSA by the sinister ideology, minds are polluted. Hostility and animosity just spread out so we can tell it will be prolonged but it should start right now otherwise allowing these countries to use the extremists as a political weapon or even helping them in Syrian War will just ignite the worst catastrophe. Remember Al-Qaeda was supposed to fight with Soviet Union but now it fights with the free world and all aspects of that.

Around the Web: US-Iranian “Peace Accords” Edition

  1. Ezra Klein in the Washington Post
  2. Ed Krayewski in Reason
  3. John Allen Gay writing in the National Interest
  4. Daniel Larison in the American Conservative
  5. Stephen Walt has a great piece in Foreign Policy
  6. Angelo Codevilla on the Liberty Law blog

My own reaction is “great!”

This is fantastic news for everybody, including the Israelis. If the Israelis were smart, they’d jump on the opportunity and start forging ties with the Iranians again. Saudi Arabia, the state Israel is nudging closer and closer to, is the real terrorist factory in the Middle East and I don’t see how Israeli long-term interests would benefit from an alliance with the most vicious regime in the Arab world.

With that being said, I don’t know too many details about the deal. I know Tehran promised not to build a bomb (yeah right), but will sanctions end? If so, how soon?

To me sanctions are the most important issue here. Tehran getting a nuclear bomb is understandable given her neighborhood, so it’s not really a big deal when it gets the bomb. However, if sanctions are still around when Iran gets the bomb then you can bet Tehran is going to be much more bellicose than it is, and the people of Iran will give the regime the legitimacy it needs to wield its newfound power.

President Obama Wins War on Terror

President Obama chooses to give an important speech on peace the week before the day when Americans remember those who died to save their freedom-loving society, and to save many others (including me). President Obama declares in a recent speech that the war on terror, like all wars, must end. Then he ends it by declaring it ended. This happens about a month after two terrorists who happen to be Muslims blow up a bomb killing children at a public even in Boston. (The act was denounced by representatives of the Boston Muslim community.)

President Obama’s announcement also takes place one day after two men shouting something in Arabic comprising the word “Allah” assassinate a young man in full daylight in London. They use knives and ask passers-by to film the event. The speech happens also one or two days before a similar assassination attempt is carried out in Paris on a French soldier. (The attempt fails because French -grown terrorists are not a so competent.) London Muslim authorities condemn the first attack loudly and clearly. I am awaiting the French Muslim response as I write.

(In the same speech, President Obama also orders restrictions on the use of killer drones. I welcome some of the announced changes. The president is no always wrong, just most of the time.) Continue reading

Blissful Ignorance and the Conservative Worldview

I have been mulling over the recent foreign policy debate I had with Dr. Delacroix and have come to a couple of conclusions. The first conclusion is that conservatives have absolutely no evidence to support their foreign policy proposition of world hegemony, so they instead rely on that old faithful tactic of demagoguery.

Dr. Delacroix was once a prestigious scholar and an expert in international affairs, so his arguments are ones that we can use to ensure that no straw man is being built for the purpose of winning the fight. Libertarians maintain that the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not come out of anywhere and that the United States is not an innocent actor overseas. This causes many people on both the Left and Right to ruffle their feathers and denounce libertarians as unpatriotic or worse.

Yet just consider the two points that libertarians do make in regards to the 9/11 terrorist attacks (again, I wanted to pick out the strongest example so that no straw man may be built for the crass purpose of “winning” the argument):

  1. The 9/11 terrorist attacks did not come out of nowhere.
  2. The United States is not an innocent actor overseas.

I don’t see how any sane, rational individual good skeptic can avoid these two arguments. Just look at the evidence in support of both. Al-Qaeda has been around since the Cold War and the CIA had actually worked with them in their operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the first Bush administration (daddy) decided to keep troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden and Al Qaeda became an instant enemy of the republic. The bin Laden family is a rival of the Saudi family in the Arabian peninsula, and Osama bin Laden did not like the fact that Washington was now in bed with his hated enemies.

Policymakers in Washington knew that they had irked a potentially dangerous faction in the Muslim world, and the Clinton administration attacked Al Qaeda operations in both Sudan and Afghanistan with precision missile strikes during his presidency. Conservatives and liberals often pretend that the United States was an innocent bystander in the world up until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and public ignorance is something that cannot be discounted, but intellectuals like Dr. Delacroix have resorted to demagoguery and myths instead of confronting the facts on this issue. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Imperialists cannot even acknowledge that the US had troops in Saudi Arabia at the time of the 9/11 attacks. They cannot admit this because it destroys almost every myth that the God of War depends upon to flourish in the minds of the hoi polloi. Just look at Dr. Delacroix’s images within the cave. Continue reading