U.S. assassination of Iranian commander further destabilizes entire Middle East

The explosion of the missile that killed Iranian Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani has done more than just kill America’s credibility in Iraq. In one truly daft move, it has set in motion a chain of events that could permanently undo America’s Middle East foreign policy, cause another major war and dial back the clock on international security by years – if not decades. And as the world reacts with shock, the primary players seem to be becoming increasingly bellicose.

The broad consensus among the general public is that Mr Trump really wants a war with Iran, undercutting his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who insists no such outcome is sought. The extent to which Mr Pompeo is being undercut can be clearly seen in some of the language being used by Mr Trump. Immediately after the assassination of General Soleimani, Mr Trump started off warning of a severe response if Iran tried to retaliate. When Iran said that there would be consequences, the rhetoric changed to talking about 52 targets being shortlisted. And as the international alarm bells started ringing, the rhetoric changed again, to threatening a disproportionate response.

One potentially overlooked part of the matter is Iraq. It has been host – albeit in many ways an understandably unwilling one – to thousands of international military personnel, mainly from the United States, but more recently Germany, France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and others with varying roles in helping Iraq rebuild its security and remove the last of the Daesh. As it has watched its towns getting ruthlessly fought over, first during the invasion of Iraq, then as the sectarian violence rocked the country between 2003 and 2011, and more recently the Daesh insurgency, millions of refugees have been generated. Towns, families, communities have been torn to shreds. And all for what, they justifiably ask. Thus no one should be surprised that after nearly 18 years of conflict, Iraq – still recovering from the bloody Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 and the 1991 Gulf War – has told its Government to start working towards getting rid of these misery makers.

Although the New Zealand Defence Force has committed to staying put for the time being, that may change whether they are prepared to admit it or not. As a developing situation that has the potential to get considerably worse in the near future, it is possible that an escalation of attacks or a general deterioration in regional security may undercut the N.Z.D.F.’s commitment. In this case I expect that the Army personnel would be pulled out of Taji and probably brought home.

None of this condones what Qasem Soleimani and his Quds Force did. Many innocent people died in violence brought about by him and his forces. But assassinating him in a foreign land, without Congress being notified, never mind approving the operation, has shown a dangerous level of contempt for international law as well as U.S. Constitutional law.

The ripples extend further than just Iran and Iraq. They potentially affect the entire Middle East. Iran has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement and said it no longer abides by it. This will alarm those hoping for calm, but excite the hawks in both the Pentagon and Tel Aviv who might finally get the war that they have been longing for. Russia views Iran in much the same way as America views Israel, and in a national security sense, this has potentially massive implications for the region.

A proxy war New Zealand does not need

A proxy war is normally a war fought by small actors on behalf of bigger actors. As such, there is a war between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a client state of America, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a client state of Russia. As client states, they receive aid from their more powerful mate.

Neither Russia or America want the other to gain absolute control in the Middle East. This is a cross roads region between the Asian, North African and European continents. Both need the oil that comes with these nations, and both are propping up dictatorships who care nothing for the supposed Western influence of human rights.

Both America and Russia are guilty of arming war criminals. They will deny it as this is a very heavy allegation to make, but American and British cluster bombs have been dropped by Saudi Arabia on Yemeni schools, hospitals and homes. And irrefutable evidence of these events has been found by Amnesty International.

Russia has blood on its hands from supporting the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria. It has vetoed numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions trying to hold Mr al Assad to account. Russia has also steadfastly stood up for Iran in the same way America has for Israel. It has vetoed U.N. resolutions against Iran. It has ignored Iran’s abomination of a record on women’s rights. Were a war to start between the two I expect Russia will respond militarily to a direct attack on Iran, at which point the stakes rise by orders of magnitude. So too does the risk.

Has the U.S./Israel /Saudi Arabia thought about this? I am not sure that they have.

Iran, perhaps under the Russian umbrella may think it is safe and that the United States would not strike. Perhaps true, but I think Israel would. It struck Saddam Hussein by knocking out his Osirak reactor; it struck Syria several years ago. What would happen if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to bomb the entire Iranian nuclear programme and any military installations deemed to be strategic back into the stone age?

But there is another country involved. Turkey. Over the decades Turkey has maintained an increasingly hard line against its Kurdish minority. As a result some Kurdish groups such as the P.K.K. have been labelled terrorist groups. Turkey is in a unique position. It is friendly to Russia and – to a decreasing extent – the United States. It has hosted N.A.T.O. forces during various operations, including the 1991 Gulf War and the U.S. used to have missiles there, which were removed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recently the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more authoritarian and survived an attempted coup in 2016 that led to a massive crack down against the intelligentsia and activist groups.

But in the last few months that has taken on a new dimension with Turkey acquiring advanced Russian S-400 anti aircraft missiles and is talking to Moscow about participating in its 5th Generation combat aircraft programme. This has led to a sharp and possibly long lasting deterioration in its relationship with N.A.T.O. and the United States, which has cut Turkey out of the F-35 fighter programme.

And then, last week it started a military operation against Kurdish forces who had been participating in the war against I.S.I.S. after the Americans downgraded their forces in northern Syria. In an already complicated geopolitical mess, this was something totally unnecessary on Turkey’s part and that of Washington.

And all it achieves is the diminishing of the prospects for a lasting peace in a region that has been nearly continuously wracked by some sort of conflict since October 2001. It is not a conflict New Zealand needs to be a part of. It is not one we will gain anything from and definitely one we should be actively pushing towards the peace negotiations table.


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.

New Zealand’s love-hate relationship with Israel

Yesterday the Jewish state of Israel turned 70. יום הולדת שמח (Happy Birthday). As Israel begins its 71st year as a modern nation, it is one of the wealthiest nations for its small size on the planet, yet also one of the most divisive.

I have said this in the past, so it should not be anything new to anyone:

Israel has a right to exist. And like all nations it has a right to self defence.

What it does not have the right to do anymore than any other nation is to annex territory, whether it is by stealth using creeping occupation or annexation by military force. Israel is practicing the former in Palestine. It has also used military force at times involving the use of illegal weapons such as cluster munitions and white phosphorous. The 2008-09 war involved artillery bombardment and heavy use of air power.

Unfortunately, whilst the U.S. and – if it goes to war with Iran – Saudi Arabia turn a blind eye to its disregard for international law, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has all but said Palestine does not exist will continue to show contempt for the international community.

I have met people from Israel and I have met people from Palestine. One of the casual staff at work is a Palestinian. When I was moderating a group on Yahoo! for expatriates living in New Zealand, I met an Israeli couple and their young daughter. I don’t judge either by what is going on in their respective lands. Both the Israeli family and the Palestinian colleague have told me they moved to get away from the violence.

I cannot say I blame them at all. Like I think is the case with a lot of New Zealanders, I look at the current violence in the Middle East with frustration, sadness and – if I am honest – a bit of fear about where the simmering conflict in Syria could end up. It is a conflict we cannot really have any influence over, though there were many, like myself who were very proud when New Zealand and other countries passed a resolution condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands in the dying days of its chairmanship of the U.N. Security Council.  I look at the looming confrontation between Israel and Iran. Age old hatred and suspicion will never die among the older politicians and citizenry who never knew peace, or – in Iran’s case – the right to dissent against bigotry.

Those who have been to Israel have been really impressed with its history, its culture and there is no doubt that Israel as a modern nation has contributed much to the world. Its companies have created an impressive array of technologies. It has a well educated population. I had the honour of attending a Jewish wedding in the United States in 2017, which I thoroughly enjoyed learning the customs of.

And as the 70th Anniversary of the Day of Nakba (yawm alnakba)is commemorated in Palestine, I hope that all those near the border districts will hold their commemorations peacefully. Israeli’s and Palestinians can argue over who is to blame, but I suspect I speak for a lot of New Zealanders when I say that all I really want is some sort of peace.