Friday, 14 September 2012

Arab Spring Exploits Haunt US in Autumn

An attacker at the US consulate at Benghazi, Libya. (Inset: J Chris Stevens)

On Wednesday in an attack on the United States consulate at Benghazi, in Libya, four Americans, including Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, were killed. US diplomatic missions in Egypt and Yemen were also targetted. People were protesting after a film made in the US portraying the Prophet in bad light was picked up by the sections of the media in Egypt. It was later used by radicals to fan anti-US sentiments, leading to the attacks.
While the attack has been condemned by one and all, this should make Washington introspect and see why its actions have led to harnessing hatred among people in the region. That Stevens was killed in Benghazi, a stronghold of the NATO forces in the war to liberate Libya from Muammar Gaddafi, shows that the basic tenets on which this campaign is led needs to be looked into. After the 9/11 attacks the US has been on a ‘War on Terror’ overdrive, often taking questionable decisions and supporting wrong groups. From the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — on the concocted claim of Weapons of Mass Destruction — the US has been more than enthusiastic about extending its vision of democracy to West Asia, ignoring regional complexities. Washington’s role in the ‘Arab Spring’ is also questionable. While in all these cases it overtly or covertly lent a hand to overthrowing the regime, it did not have a plan in place to ensure that the vacuum was not exploited by extremist groups.
The White House must think before toppling governments in West Asia and make sure that fundamentalists do not use the situation to extend their influence and spread hatred. It is election year in Washington and as expected Mitt Romney’s Republican camp has accused the Obama administration’s response to the attack in Benghazi. Rather than getting lost in political one-upmanship, the US must rework its approach towards West Asia. It should ensure that the opposition to American adventurism does not lead to a terror nightmare for the rest of the world.
(This appeared as an edit in The New Indian Express on September 14)

Monday, 10 September 2012

Nuclear Games and a Cold War Relic

Sami Al Faraj is the head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies and an adviser to the Kuwait government. In an informal meeting last winter he spoke about the possible threat countries, both small and big, in West Asia face with a nuclear Iran in their midst. Kuwait has normal ties with Iran (the same cannot be said of Iraq with whom Kuwait shares a border) and more often than not dons the hat of a negotiator between countries within the region. The concern Faraj had about Iran going nuclear — the fear of a nuclear disaster or of the technology falling into the wrong hands — was striking. It was fear that stemmed out from a state of helplessness in knowing that stopping Iran or making Tehran understand the concerns of other countries have was easier said than done.

The nuclear debate

The debate on nuclear power is understood depending on which side of the argument one stands. One side argues that nuclear power is an evil that should be detested at any cost. It should not be used, not even for peaceful purposes. A few countries have the technology and it should remain with them.

The US and the Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories fall into this category. Nuclear technology for peaceful use should be pursued only under the watchful eyes of international agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The other side, Iran and other non-NPT countries belonging to this group, believes that nuclear technology is not a privilege that only certain countries can enjoy — it can be used for peaceful ends like meeting power sector requirements and can even as a deterrent when it comes to the grandstanding of military might. It eventually boils down to a debate between the haves and the have nots.

This argument is further complicated when regional equations and past record is added. India, though not a signatory of the NPT, is largely trusted as a nuclear power because of its impeccable record. Neighbouring Pakistan, which also went nuclear after India, does not enjoy that confidence thanks to a certain A Q Khan who went around the world with a briefcase containing nuclear know-how.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are complicated on several counts. Iran is an NPT signatory and going by its rules Iran is wrong in nurturing nuclear ambitions. The constant anti-West sabre-rattling Tehran indulges in at the drop of a hat further adds to the fear. Its Holocaust denial and anti-democtic moves makes it unpredictable for the West, thus further complicating the picture. As a final dab to this threatening portrait of a nuclear Iran, add the complex mixture of the country’s Shia-Sunni divide and regional issues.

Iran’s advantage

Under normal circumstances most nations of the world would have opposed Iran going nuclear, even if it were for the said purpose of fuelling its reactors to provide power to the country. That is what we see in the opposition to North Korea going nuclear. However, that’s not the case with Iran. Some of the most evident advantages Iran has over North Korea are its geographic position, which places it at the eye of Asia, its crude oil deposits and economic bargaining power however flawed it might be.

For more than a year now there has been active international debate on Iran’s nuclear capability and the imminent threat posed by whether Iran has been able to enrich uranium good enough for weaponisation. For almost the same amount of time Israel has been threatening to strike Iran. Israel still continues with its chorus of attacking Iran ‘if need be’, often leaking to the media hints about the government seriously considering sending its air force to target the nuclear installation Tehran has kept out of the purview of inspecting IAEA officials (like it destroyed the Osirak reactors in Iraq in June 1981). What has taken the wind out of the anti-Iran sails is the cautious approach adopted by the Obama administration. While Washington understandably has reasons for its caution after being embroiled in two long-winding, costly wars in the region, it is hoping and going the extra mile to ensure that Iran comes to the table for discussions.

NAM games

It is at this juncture that Iran hosted the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran. The Non-Aligned Movement, formed in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, is a consortium of around 120 countries that did not want to align with the West or the USSR. However, today, long after the Cold War has ended, its relevance is questioned, especially since many member countries have drifted from the core principles of non-alignment. India is one such example after it went ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal. Whatever be the perceived benefits of hanging around in the NAM, India’s purpose is long-lost, and is a ship that has lost its compass. The NAM is a Cold War relic maintained at best (in its present form) for the nostalgic value it imparts.

What would have otherwise been a damp NAM summit gained prominence as Tehran was the host. That the US and Israel stuck their necks out to ensure that many members abstained from attending the summit went on to show that the 16th NAM summit was a sort of referendum for Iran. That things did not go the way the US wanted was evident in the turnout for the summit. Iran made sure to play all the right cards and got more than 30 heads of state to attend. At the moment it is not sure how significant is it that the Natanz uranium enrichment plant was open to Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, but nonetheless Iran has used the NAM summit as an effective PR campaign against Israel-US efforts to ‘isolate’ Iran.

Everything could not have gone according to plan. There had to be an unpleasant moment for Tehran at the summit and that came in the form of Egypt’s newly elected President Mohamed Morsi. While Ahmadinejad thought that he had managed a coupe de grace in getting the Egyptian president to attend the summit, Morsi had other plans. Morsi, holding Ahmadinejad at arm’s length, was so critical of the Assad government in Syria, which is blindly supported by Iran, that Syrian officials attending the summit walked out in protest. Again, when Tehran thought it was thumbing its nose at Washington by getting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to attend the summit, Ban was scathing in his criticism of Tehran for making the IAEA run in circles. He was severe on Iran for its ‘war of words’.

Ways forward

While the western world, including, of course, Israel, is quick to junk Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and club it with North Korea as two rogue states having nuclear ambitions, there are not many countries around the world who would want to see it that way. This was clearly evident at the NAM summit. On a lighter note, the action and attention that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad & Co are demanding has given Pyongyang’s greenhorn ruler Kim Jong Un time to consolidate his position with the ranks in the country without calling for much international attention.

The world must bring Iran back to the table for talks and should stop it from weaponising its nuclear material. Sanctions, as many in Washington now agree, are not the way to achieve this goal. Concessions, from both sides, need to be made as an initiatory move. Trade ties should be established and cultural exchanges done, because once trade ties get strong it’s hard for mindless politics to derail the achieved progress. Cultural exchanges will help clear lot of the misconceptions both sides have and will pave the way for better understanding. While this is so, focus should be on North Korea — a closed country with appalling human rights and living conditions that are any day a more potent danger — and other countries with nuclear ambitions waiting for someone with a briefcase full of explosive details.
(This appeared as an opinion piece in The New Indian Express on September 10)