US military chief in New Zealand

The United States Secretary of Defense is visiting New Zealand just days after being appointed to the position. Mark Esper, who replaces former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General James Mattis is on a five nation trip where conversations will most likely centre around Iran and China.

Whilst so early in the set, I cannot imagine Mr Esper immediately wanting concessions from New Zealand, I do not want New Zealand to be involved in another U.S. military misadventure. New Zealand might be – and should be – friends with the United States, but keeping a bit of distance. I am quite sure most New Zealanders want nothing to do with a potential war against Iran that will most likely achieve at best significantly worsening U.S relations with the Muslim world.

At best a war with Iran will be limited to the United States and Iran. The latter would probably use its considerable special forces to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian backed militias might launch a rocket barrage at Israel. A greater fear is whether Russia decides to become involved or not. Russia could simply move military assets into Iran or Syria without actually using them as a warning to the United States. But Russian military commanders and politicians have at times made ominous references that a war against Iran would be a catastrophe. At worst it could result in a Russian military response against American forces – at which point a nuclear confrontation is not out of the question.

Perhaps more immediately problematic for New Zealand is China’s growing military assertiveness. It has built an artificial island in the Spratley Islands with an airfield and facilities for ships to dock at. China has since stationed military patrol and combat aircraft there. As vital shipping lanes pass through these waters on the way to/from various nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, the United States has sought to dissuade China from further expansion.

China’s military expansion is dangerous because it is aligned with more subtle moves such as massive investment in countries around the world. Some critics argue China is literally buying up other nations by establishing Government owned companies that then set up operations in other countries and buy their way into major assets – in Westland recently a dairy company was sold to a Chinese Government controlled company.

New Zealand sees this in Fiji and other small Pasifika nations. A few months ago there was a controversy about a resort being built on Fiji and the destruction of large tracts of coral reef to enable boat access to the resort. When locals and New Zealand expatriates living there tried to remonstrate the owners got aggressive and there were scuffles. Other countries such as Tonga have significant debt to China, which has led to concerns about Beijing’s attempts to extract leverage. And in Vanuatu, although both countries denied reports, there were suggestions that China has been looking for a place to establish a military base.

Whilst New Zealand needs to be careful not to anger either the U.S. or China, it needs to be clear that the south Pacific is the chief domain of New Zealand and Australia. More than it does either of them, the well being of these little island nations is paramount to our well being.

Little appetite for war against Iran

Ever since the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal the risk of a war between the two nations has increased. Ayatollah Khamenei began to increase the rhetoric against the United States, saying how it wanted war. President Donald Trump believed that the deal was fundamentally flawed from the start, and at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who believed it compromised Israeli national security, withdrew from it. Initially Iran said it would continue to comply with it in full. But when it was revealed that the other powers signatory to the agreement were not complying with their end of the deal in full, Tehran immediately said that should they not resume within 60 days it would withdraw.

Which is precisely what Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump wanted. But now with the war hawks attempting to ratchet up the drum beat of war to another level, it is time to look at why the hawks could be in for a brutal surprise should Iran and the United States come to military blows.

There is a distinct difference though between the Iraq War and how any war against Iran in terms of the support that the United States has. Whilst many nations friendly to America expressed considerable reservations or expressed condemnation of its 2003 invasion of Iraq, it did have the support of a few nations. They included the United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands, Iceland, Portugal, Japan and South Korea, along with a number of eastern European, central Asian and Latin American countries.

In many respects the United States and Israel would be facing a very different foe to the demoralized Iraq that was invaded in 2003. Among the primary reasons:

  • Iran has not suffered a major conflict since the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and has rebuilt
  • Iraq’s military was severely depleted, badly trained, paid and resourced – much of its equipment was useless for lack of parts, ammunition
  • Iran has significant powerful allies including Syria and Russia
  • Its compliance with the nuclear deal means the grounds for military action based on a grave and present threat are non-existent, which American allies generally recognize
  • International support for a war against Iran is almost non-existent
  • Much of the promotion of a hard line against Iran has more to do with bolstering the military industrial complex and certain politicians than achieving any real good
  • The risk of an Iran-U.S./Israel conflict becoming a direct clash between the U.S. and Russia is real

Iran is suffering under heavy American sanctions and diplomatic pressure on other countries to stop buying Iranian oil. However several nations including South Korea still do so. It has refused to have anything to do with the petro-dollar and some are suggesting it might be investing in crypto-currency such as Bitcoin.

None of this is to say that the Iranian Government or the Ayatollahs are saints. They are not. Iran has one of the most appalling records of any nation in the Middle East when it comes to womens rights, the death penalty, torture, arbitrary detention and extra-judicial killings. Human rights activists such as Nasrin Sotoudeh are regularly imprisoned without justification, and almost always on trumped up charges such as posing a threat to the Islamic Republic

Nor is it to say that Iran respects its neighbours. During the Iraqi sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion in 2003 it armed militias to destablize the country and disrupt the attempt to restore the country. It arms Hezbollah militants fighting against Israel, by supplying them with Qassam and Katyusha rockets, drones and small arms. It point blank refuses to recognize the state of Israel in any form. Iran may have interfered in the Afghanistan war and its chief regional rival is Saudi Arabia.

But if we take all of this and acknowledge the willingness of Russia to exercise veto powers when U.N. Resolutions against Iran are proposed, the extent to which Russia has enabled Hezbollah to be armed, and so forth, it is clear Russia has a significant stake in Iran’s well being.

To the extent it could be compared with America’s in Israel.

Netanyahu’s re-election will not help Israel-N.Z. relations

On 9 April 2019 Israel will go to the polls to elect a new Government. The poll will be a referendum on incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the right wing leader of the governing Likud Party. It will be a referendum on whether Israel continues the hugely divisive approach it has adopted towards its neighbours and the Palestinian people.

Mr Netanyahu, who is fighting allegations of fraudulent activity and bribery, has long since maintained a hard line on Palestine. His tenure as Prime Minister has been marked by a progressive worsening of the relationship, which has seen Israel announce it has full jurisdiction over Jerusalem – a city and holy site not only for Jews, but Muslims and Christians as well; progressive annexation by stealth of Palestinian lands and as of today, an intention to annex the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu has maintained an even harder line on Iran. During his tenure, he has done his utmost to sabotage the globally recognized deal worked out between President Barak Obama and Iranian leaders over Iran’s nuclear programme. Under the deal worked out, Iran will shed any capacity it had to make the weapons grade uranium needed for nuclear weapons. It will hand over enough centrifuges that it cannot proceed Highly Enriched Uranium manufacture. It will modify its reactor so that it cannot process radioactive material into anything other than low grade waste.

In New Zealand I have heard very little support for Mr Netanyahu from New Zealanders, once they have been made aware of his policies and conduct on the international stage. Many have openly doubted whether Israel seriously wants peace in Gaza, or whether it is conducting a policy of annexation by stealth, because to do so in public would be to invite huge international condemnation and possibly an uncontrollable outbreak of violence.

As a nation that supports the two state solution New Zealand will not benefit in any way from the re-election of Mr Netanyahu. Nor will our Jewish, Muslim or other religious communities with significant representations in Israel or Palestine. Mr Netanyahu has made very clear by his on going annexation of Palestine that it has no place in his vision of the Middle East, and that Israel is somehow the rightful occupier of Palestinian lands.

As a nation that has a strong tradition of international law and peace, the re-election of Mr Netanyahu will serve to undermine the respect New Zealand has for Israel’s commitment to any peace negotiations – namely because Mr Netanyahu himself has no time for them. His recent annexation of the Golan Heights, long occupied by Israel and now recognized by the United States Government has enraged many in the Arab world and further shown the lack of regard to international law that permeates Israeli politics.

In both the short and long versions of this post Israel will be doing itself and the world around it a favour if Mr Netanyahu is not returned to office on Tuesday 9 April 2019.

Iran vs Israel: the confrontation no one should ignore

The day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced to the world that he had conclusive evidence that Iran was non compliant with the conditions of the J.P.C.O.A. plan to ensure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons, I had two thoughts and two thoughts only: Either Netanyahu really does have evidence or this is a false flag attempt to start a major war.

The moment Mr Netanyahu made this claim, the onus was – and still is – on him to show the evidence. Simply showing the number of C.D. or D.V.D.’s that he had in display cabinets is not enough. Open the files and show us what is in those files.

Why has that evidence not been laid in front of the United Nations Security Council, and in particular the Permanent Five nations (United States, France, Britain, Russia and China)? Is that evidence going to be laid out at all? Will the General Assembly get to see it? If not, why not?

The potential consequences of an Iran vs Israel confrontation are, short of World War 3, almost too depressing to contemplate. I see the following potential outcomes happening:

  • A potential Middle East regional conflict dragging in nations such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon
  • Israel and Iran reach some sort of uneasy peace that has a long term risk of flaring up again
  • The war remains between the current states due to awareness of the danger of escalation
  • The war escalates, with Russia and U.S. both ratcheting up involvement
  • World War 3

Neither Russia or America will want to be the nation that started World War 3. In the Middle East where life is considered cheap and the values placed on humanity are not the same as the West, there may be restraint. But will Israel and Iran share the same view? I hope that they do, but I fear not.

The old wounds of the colonial era and more recent spats might be tearing asunder, unable to constrain the geopolitical pressures internationally and the domestic pressure within, may begin to tear open along pre-existing lines.

This is a sad indictment on the whole world. Sure there has been much provocation. Sure the east vs west of the Cold War has never really gone away. Sure the world changed on 11 September 2001.

But there have been some huge opportunities for peace that were not taken. And some huge ones that certain nations refuse to take even though, many of their adversaries would cease to exist if those opportunities had been. Lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours is just one example. Palestinian leasderder Yasser Arafat’s inability to accept a peace deal, another. In terms of  post Cold War disarmament, a deal in say 1995 to reduce nuclear weapons right across the permanent five would have vastly undermined the rationale for any one else having them.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the price we pay for being in the grip of the military-industrial complex that sends our finest off to fight wars and grow the list of servicemen and women lost in the wars. This is the price our allies – I don’t speak for them, but certainly imagine the pain and suffering of their citizenry in war – pay as well. When the dollar trumps the international and moral good. This is also the price we pay for a toxic fear permeating all aspects of life and politics where fear of the unknown becomes an irrationally powerful, toxic, all consuming paranoia that turns neighbours against neighbours and in the context of international geopolitics, country against country; ideology against ideology.

This is the real reason why wars like the one potentially about to start in the Middle East must be uniformly and unflinchingly frowned upon by the most powerful people in the world.

Right now, they are smiling on it.

Iran deal still alive

On Wednesday morning, New Zealand Time, United States President Donald Trump announced that the United States is withdrawing from the multi-lateral agreement struck over Iranian nuclear weapons. Mr Trump said that the deal was bad for the United States and Israel. But was it really?

The Iran deal is still alive. It has the support of the other five signatories plus Iran. The deal is sufficiently robust in that it ensures Iran has no Highly Enriched Uranium, which is essential for nuclear weapons with a uranium core. It ensures that Iran has not got sufficient to allow the manufacture of the H.E.U. The guarantee of the German, French, British, Russian and Chinese Governments that Iran will be held to the terms of this agreement should be sufficient to:

  • Guarantee that Iran still has international obligations to meet
  • Guarantee that in return for meeting those obligations the agree concessions will be enabled in full

I am not convinced that either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the President of the United States, Donald Trump want peace. The reactions of both when the Iranian deal was signed was totally negative.

Mr Netanyahu has not supported the agreement from Day 1. He has insisted that Iran will not comply and that it would pose an undue security threat to Israel. Mr Netanyahu has even gone so far as to claim Iran has lied and that a clandestine nuclear weapons programme continues in the background. Yet this same Prime Minister of Israel has yet to present the evidence that he is confident he has of Iranian non-compliance to the United Nations General Assembly. And until he does, Iran must be given the benefit of the doubt in the same way the accused is not guilty until proven so.

Contrary to Mr Trump’s assertion that he supports the Iranian people, he is pushing them towards arms of the Mullahs. The Islamic hardliners no more wanted this deal than Mr Trump did and as a result would be quietly delighted i Iranians started supporting them. Iran is anathema to Mr Netanyahu, whose tone has become openly hostile towards the Persian state. Mr Netanyahu claims that he has no desire for war, but seems to be openly contemptuous of what might be the best chance at a lasting peace in 50 years or more.

Is Iran perfect? Absolutely not, and it has supplied Hezbollah and other Islamic militant groups with rockets of increasing firepower, range and accuracy. Iran has had highly contentious elections such as the 2009 one where former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who I saw nick named Iwannajihad in one political group during his time in office – was re-(s)elected. The 2009 election was characterized by heavy rigging, stuffed ballots and lethal violence when Iranians realized what was happening.

But nor is Israel. It is a country with an estimated 100-200 nuclear warheads, yet is the first to grumble if anyone in the Middle East favours so much as a nuclear reactor not capable of converting low grade uranium to weapons grade material. There are separate articles about how Palestine has been poorly treated and that is beyond the scope of this article. What is not beyond the scope is the effort of the Israeli military gearing up for war. It has taken delivery of bunker busting bombs that can penetrate deep bunkers

Their proxy super powers have their own problems, ongoing and increasingly capable of accidentally causing W.W.3. before anyone actually realizes that on that particular day, it is for real. Neither Russia or the United States are squeaky clean around human rights abuses, but human rights abuses seem  to be going unchecked. So, when will they be?