Monday, 18 November 2013

Diary - November 2013 - the Middle East

Again, I have neglected my blog.  It's foolish.  What I hope to do today is to sketch in a few of the issues and concerns that have interested me lately, and which I should have commented upon.

In the Middle East, we had the apparent will of the United States and its allies to assault the Al-Assad regime in Syria, after the use of chemical weapons in August.  This attack did not take place, partly due to political fudging and incompetence (writing here in their own terms) by the American and British governments, and also because of divisions and controversy in the American foreign policy establishment.  The Russian government - which wishes to enhance Russian international influence and power, of course, under the star of a resurgent 'Greater Russia' nationalism, and which is the Al-Assad regime's primary defender and armourer - ably stepped into the diplomatic  breach.  It put together an alternative plan, which allowed for the Syrian government admitting to possession of chemical munitions, and for a UN programme of their destruction.  The winners here were clearly the Russians - no more a joyous thing than an American diplomatic victory, it should be said.

The United States is meanwhile sponsoring new 'talks' between the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah staffers, and the Israeli government under the leadership of Bibi Netanyahu.  It should be clear that these talks are a waste of time, that they are most risky for the Palestinians, and that they largely function to offer political cover for the Americans (to seem to be doing something - otherwise someone's going soon to start asking Obama when he's going to give back his Nobel Prize), and diplomatic cover for the Israelis to go on with settlement construction.  The bottom line point here, that is never really spoken in mainstream Western circles, is that settlement construction by Israel in the West Bank is  a mode of making war.  If Clausewitz famously said that 'war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means', then we must here recognise the value of Michel Foucault's brilliant reversal of that dictum in his College de France lecture series 'Society Must Be Defended': 'politics [diplomacy in this case] is the continuation of war by other means'.  'Peace talks' which go ahead while settlement construction is underway are like peace talks conducted when combat has not yet ceased, peace talks conducted in the absence of a ceasefire.  The sooner these 'peace talks' grind to a halt, the better.

And most recently, we've had the discussions, involving various permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, but also Britain and France) over Iran's nuclear programmes.  A lot of optimism was generated by the most recent round of talks that a deal might be struck (accompanied by Israel squealing like an irate adolescent in the wings), but seems to have dissipated at the end of such talks, with recriminations on both sides.  A few points are worth making here.  Israel squeals whenever it doesn't get its way, and it squeals particularly loudly at the prospect of any kind of normalisation of Western relations with Iran.  Iran is Israel's main rival in the Middle East as a local great power, and helps back various Palestinian and Lebanese forces which offer resistance to Israel's will.  States are never purely benign agencies, and the Iranian state is certainly not one.  However, it's worth remembering that Iran (a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty) is not in breach of its obligations, and has no nuclear weapons, whereas Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons and viable delivery systems (and never signed the NPT, thus not being subject to international oversight in this regard).   Saudi Arabia (so long so charmingly labelled by the United States a 'moderate' Arab state) squeals about normalisation with Iran, because of a historical paranoia about 'the Persians'; and more pertinently because of its fear and guilt about its mistreatment of its own substantial Shia minority, which happens to live in the areas of its greatest oil wealth.  The Kingdom is also an aspiring regional hegemon, which fears Iran's backing for the last secular radical Arab nationalist regime (Syria), and what this represents for Sunni Islamism.   Patrick Cockburn, of the London Independent, has argued shrewdly that it is quite likely that the talks with Iran will fail, as they do not suit agencies putting pressure on the American government (Israel, the Israel lobby, Congress), and putting pressure on the Iranian government (radicals within the Iranian political establishment, who see negotiations on the nuclear programme as placing Iran in a position of weakness).

What can we surmise from all of these developments?  That American influence in the Middle East is slipping, that regional jostling and power-playing will continue, and that the Palestinians continue to lose.


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