Confronting North Korean and Iran

Iran

The weak Iranian nuclear agreement adopted by the former US administration and signed by Iran is partially responsible for North Korea’s rush to develop its own nuclear program.

Iran was rewarded $150 billion, with profits, as part of the deal after funds withheld since Shah’s time were returned. It was also granted massive contracts to develop its technical and industrial capabilities and most of the international sanctions imposed had been lifted.

Besieged North Korea chose to blackmail the world also because it seems a profitable trade. Iran used to threaten to burn Israel down, and now North Korea is threatening Japan. Its second nuclear missile test two weeks ago was successfully launched over Japan.

There is no more doubt that North Korea is dangerous.

Washington is now before two choices: either grant North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un an agreement similar to that of Iran or end the agreement with Tehran and suggest new ideas to ensure both countries are denied their nuclear capabilities.

During a seminar at the Enterprise Institute, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikky Haley linked between the two threats. She warned that an agreement with Iran, if unchanged, will allow Tehran to pose the same threat as that of North Korea.

Can the current US administration put an end to the agreement signed between the western states and Iran two years ago?

Even Ambassador Haley stated that the agreement will not be totally abandoned. However, she called for amending the agreement in a way that it doesn’t allow the regime to secretly develop military nuclear powers. The deal is linked to Iran’s behavior in the region especially that its troops and militias are fighting in several countries.

Time is short and President Trump should announce his position. He has almost two weeks to inform the Congress whether Iran is abiding by the agreement or not. If he says no, then the Congress will re-impose sanctions, which if truly returned, Iran had threatened that it shall consider the agreement annulled and will resume its military nuclear program and production of highly enriched uranium.

Regional and Gulf countries are spectators and they do not have the capability to stop the Iranian regime or terminate the agreement.

Since the beginning, Gulf’s point of view had been that agreement is good in principle, but the signed deal is bad as it postpones production of military nuclear power and doesn’t terminate it, especially that lifting the sanctions is not conditioned by Iran’s suspension of its hostile military activity.

If, within the next few years, Tehran succeeded in gaining control or dominating major states like Iraq and Syria, Iran’s power to impose its military nuclear project will double. Then, the nuclear agreement will be rendered useless and it will be difficult for the international community to impose sanctions considering its massive influence.

Iran observes current developments because how Trump will react towards North Korea will be a message to it as well. Trump is not Obama. He won’t send gifts and won’t be silent over any insult. At least, that’s how I see things.

Is Russia the US’s Best Chance With North Korea?

Russia is usually seen as relatively unimportant to most discussions about the North Korea nuclear crisis, yet it is in a unique position to help de-escalate it.

Despite rising tensions between Moscow and Washington — over Russia’s interventions in Crimea and Syria, and the very principles of the world order — Russia has voted twice in recent weeks at the United Nations to impose sanctions on North Korea. In the summer of 2015, in the midst of the crisis over Ukraine, Moscow was careful not to do anything that might derail the Obama administration’s efforts to cinch a nuclear deal with Iran.

Russia, in other words, is not simply the spoiler it has often been described as in recent years. It plays its hand with Washington much more subtly than that — often adopting an adversarial pose, especially of late, but sometimes a cooperative one. And it has good reason to help with North Korea.

In any discussion of how to handle the increasing belligerence of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, attention usually turns to China. Beijing and Pyongyang have long been allies, and China is North Korea’s main trade partner. But for a host of strategic reasons, there are inherent limits to what Beijing will do. It is wary of the fallout it would suffer if North Korea imploded, and it wants to preserve a buffer between itself and the United States forces based in South Korea.

Russia is both like and unlike China in just the ways that could make it an effective broker with Pyongyang.

Like China, Russia is a nuclear power, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a neighbor of North Korea with established lines of communication to Pyongyang. During World War II, Kim Il-sung (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather) served as a captain in the Red Army; Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father) traveled to Russia several times in the early 2000s. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia himself went to Pyongyang in 2000. Although he failed to work out a deal to limit North Korea’s missile program at the time, his visit helped restore links with Pyongyang, which had been neglected after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia is not among the countries most directly or most intimately affected by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, such as the United States, South Korea or China. And unlike China, Russia never was an imperial overlord on the Korean Peninsula. Moscow may have less direct influence with Pyongyang than does Beijing, but it evokes far less nationalistic resentment and suspicion among North Koreans.

Russia also has a clear and immediate interest in helping de-escalate the current crisis. Vladivostok, its gateway to the Asia-Pacific region, the headquarters of its Pacific Fleet and a hub for its energy trade, is just a couple hundred miles away from several of North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites. Any malfunction or other mishap with North Korea’s nuclear tests or missile launches could mean contamination in Russia itself. The Russian government is also eager to curb the further deployment of American missile-defense systems in South Korea and Japan, which both those countries are pursuing to protect themselves against North Korea.

North Korea will not denuclearize; it’s too late for that. Neither will it ever formally be recognized as a nuclear power. But it will eventually have crude nuclear weapons with which to strike United States territory.

Sanctions, no matter how strict, will not stop Pyongyang from pursuing its program, which it sees as the key to its very survival; as Mr. Putin said recently, North Koreans will “eat grass” before they give up nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s latest missile launch on Friday was a direct rebuke to the new sanctions, notably on oil imports, that the UN Security Council passed last Monday.

This is not to say that sanctions are a mistake. They remain a valuable expression of collective condemnation and reassert the goal of nuclear nonproliferation. But they will not halt North Korea’s nuclearization.

A total blockade of the country might, but it is too risky to even attempt. It could push North Korea to start a war or cause the country’s collapse, a prospect that China, for one, cannot tolerate.

And so the only viable strategy left is to convince the North Korean leadership that it already has the deterrent it needs, and that going beyond that — by developing more nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles — would only be counterproductive.

This is where Russia comes in: It can help nudge Pyongyang toward strategic restraint, and help defuse tensions in the meantime, by offering it new economic prospects.

One project that has been discussed in the past involves building gas pipelines from Russia to South Korea through North Korea. Another would be to restore an old rail link that used to connect South Korea to the Tran-Siberian. Both would generate transit fees, in foreign currency, for Pyongyang. As another expression of good will, the Russian government could also authorize more North Koreans to work in its eastern provinces: An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 already do, many as construction workers and laborers.

The North Korean economy is doing better than is commonly thought. Its gross domestic product has grown recently — by 3.9 percent between 2016 and 2017 — and market forces are emerging, for the trade of food and real estate, for example. That means not only that North Korea may be better able to withstand sanctions today than it was in the past, but also that economic overtures could hurry its transformation along — and perhaps in time soften its stance internationally.

Washington and Pyongyang will eventually need to resume direct talks. With neither party ready for that yet, at first secret contacts will have to be organized in third countries. In the meantime, de-escalation is the order of the day, and Russia one of its unlikely brokers.

Embarking on the Maritime Industry

The Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker in an undated photo.

It is only natural for a country like Saudi Arabia surrounded by water to consider investing in maritime industries and services. The kingdom overlooks about 2600 kilometers of very long shores from Ras al-Khafaji in the Gulf to the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.

This is the first time Saudi Arabia aims to benefit from its naval location near the three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe with their huge markets.

By announcing an alliance with major international companies to establish King Salman International Complex for Maritime Industries and Services, Aramco added a new task in addition to its activity in oil.

According to Aramco, execution of the initial phase of the contract will be completed by the end of next year in Ras al-Khair, near Jubail in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia on the banks of Gulf waters.

This project paves the way for many other big projects promised in Vision 2030 to enhance resources and enable the country to enter new fields relevant to the Kingdom’s economies. The important point is to establish the correlation between these giant projects and their tributaries.

This maritime project will provide 80,000 direct and indirect job opportunities of which a huge percentage is supposed to be attributed to locals.

As long as the project will be finalized over stages, meaning its production capacity will be completed five years from now, we can assume that local educational institutions, including those specialized in maritime engineering and sciences, can focus their studies on serving this project in particular to meet human resources’ expectations.

Five years after the project is completed, we can’t justify unemployment claiming there are no trained and qualified competencies in the field.

As many as 80,000 jobs is a good number, however, it is still not enough to meet the market’s needs, assuming that 1 million students will graduate from university within the next five years.

However, it is all a series of projects and plans that complement one another in one market.

Just as King Salman International Complex for Maritime Industries and Services, we look forward to the government getting ahead in line and building large institutions that combine the local content and are capable of succeeding without the need for the government’s support.

It should not be a burden on the local economy. It must excel with quality and efficiency to compete in the international markets as the Vision 2030 promised to build an economy that doesn’t depend on oil revenues.

The complex, as part of the Vision’s projects, doesn’t deny its connection with oil. A large part of the international maritime market is dedicated for oil transportation and part of the promised complex’s projects will be to construct and maintain oil carriers.

The purpose is not to take oil out of the economic equation, but rather reduce dependence on crude oil revenues, as the situation is today.

This brings us back to the talk about multiple oil industries and services like manufacturing sectors.

Manufacturing is an old-new option through which the market can greatly expand on the basis of “comparative advantage” theory.

Oil is still a major economic merit of any economic program of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But it is no longer enough as almost the sole commodity to depend on for the country’s incomes.

Oil is a dream we should wake up from. We should wake up to the reality that there might not be enough oil revenues anymore.

Barzani, the Independence and the Earthquake

People at a rally this month for an independent Kurdistan, in Erbil

Today, he will be the center of attention. He will be the star of discussions and media screens. Opinions will be divided about the storm that he triggered.

Some people will say that the man chose the wrong time. Others will say that he was quick to reveal his real program and misjudge his neighbors’ calculations. There are those who believe that he is risking gains that cost the Kurds a heavy price, that he escaped a problem and fell into a bind, and that his intransigence would lead him into an imposed siege similar to what Yasser Arafat lived in his last days.

Others will say that the establishment of a Palestinian State, despite its difficulty, remains easier than founding a Kurdish state.

His supporters will affirm that he is the guardian of the Kurdish dream and that at least this right is reinstated.

Once again, reactions have highlighted the consensus that Kurds should not be allowed “to leave the prisons they were taken into a century ago.”

Masoud Barzani does not need anyone to remind him of the gravity of geography. He fell in its fire too soon. He was born in the summer of 1946, in the “Republic of Mahabad” declared by the Kurds on Iranian soil.

His father, Mullah Mustafa, was the commander of the armed forces in that republic, which disappeared before it blew out its first candle. Mullah Mustafa will leave the defeated land of the republic with hundreds of gunmen. They will walk hundreds of days before reaching Armenia in the Soviet Union following clashes with Iranian and Turkish border patrols. In Iraq, Masoud will wait 11 years to see his father return at the end of the Iraqi revolution in 1958.

Masoud graduated from Al-Mararat School. In 1970, he was next to his father, who asked him to welcome a young man from Baghdad. His name was Saddam Hussein. He was a deputy at that time. The visit ended with the March 1970 statement that gave the Kurds autonomy. However, the wedding will not last long.

The following year, Mullah Mustafa received a delegation from Baghdad. Suddenly the delegation exploded and many were killed and injured. Mullah Mustafa survived as a tea distributor was standing between him and the bomb that was planted around a visitor’s waist.

Another lesson in geography: In 1975, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement as a result of efforts exerted by Henry Kissinger. Tehran stopped its support for the Kurds. Consequently, their revolution collapsed and the horrors of their tragedies unfolded. When Mullah Mustafa died, defeated in his American exile, Masoud had no choice but to find him a temporary grave in Iran until he is returned to his hometown.

The world after World War I issued a harsh verdict on the Kurds. It distributed them into four countries: Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Since then, the Kurds have been in the custody of the Geography Court.

Past experiences show that historical judgments are reversible. They can also be revised or corrected. However, geographic provisions do not budge. The four countries differ on many issues, but they all agree on their rejection of the establishment of an independent Kurdish State.

Developments witnessed over the past decades have been very significant. Even though the rulers have changed in these four countries, their policy towards the Kurds’ dream remains unaffected.

Everything is possible, but not for the Kurds. There is an irony in this context. A ruler may support the Kurds in a neighboring state and use them to weaken the regime under which they live. His understanding of the injustice they face there has never affected his rejection to any serious change in the situation of the Kurds living in his own country.

Iran, under Shah’s term, supported Iraq’s Kurds against Saddam’s regime; then it abandoned them. Under Khomeini’s rule, Iran has once again backed the Kurds, and now it ditches them because Tehran has become so present in Baghdad and its decision-making process.

Tehran has also supported the PKK to weaken Turkey, but it does not show any tolerance towards the aspirations of Iranian Kurds.

Syria, under Hafez al-Assad, backed Iraq’s Kurds and the Ocalan Party to enfeeble Saddam and Turkey, then it abandoned them. Now Bashar al-Assad is preparing to face a not-so-simple confrontation with the Kurds.

Years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Erbil that the time when the existence of the Kurds could have been denied was gone. But Turkey does not tolerate its own Kurds, whether its president was General Kenan Evren or Erdogan.

Over a quarter of a century, Barzani tried to reassure Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus, saying that the experience of Iraq’s Kurdistan is not a model to be spread in other countries.

He advised these countries to improve the situation of the Kurds, who are residing in their territories. He encouraged Erdogan to open the door of dialogue with a prisoner named Abdullah Ocalan. But time showed that the four countries were unable to accept the minimum required by the Kurds to get rid of the feeling of injustice and move forward.

Whenever a Kurdish leader utters the word “independence”, the line of earthquakes shakes. The Geography Court wakes up to remind the Kurds of the verdict handed down to them.

Iran has sent Qassem Soleimani to advise the Kurds and later to warn them. It then closed its airspace to Iraqi Kurdistan flights. This was preceded by Iranian military maneuvers along the region’s borders.

Turkey extended its army’s mandate to carry out operations outside the borders and Barzani heard the echo of Turkish army maneuvers.

However, this time, the international community is sympathizing with Baghdad rather than the Kurds. The United States and Western countries are keen not to divert attention from the war on ISIS. They are also keen not to threaten the chances of Haider Al-Abadi to stay in office after the parliamentary elections next spring.

Barzani does not need to be reminded of the gravity of geography. But he refuses to back down, perhaps because he has given up the hope of an understanding with Baghdad and he has had enough listening to the advice from international doctors.

Perhaps he wants to re-install the right to independence for the new generations of Kurds and for the new generations of world rulers.

It is a crisis of components within Iraq, a crisis of components within the terrible Middle East.

Persians have their own state. Turks have their own state. Arabs have their own countries. However, more than 30 million Kurds live without a state. Whenever a leader utters the word independence, he shakes the line of earthquakes.

How Saudis Refused to Suppress Patriotic Joy

Saudis

In 2005, Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz acknowledged that as of the 75th National Day, the occasion will become a national holiday celebrated annually.

The Saudi National Day is celebrated on every September 23 to commemorate the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdulaziz in 1932.

Establishing the holiday saw multiple opposition attempts from groups that sought to thwart every act aimed at bolstering national pride and identity. Joy for the holiday, unfortunately, was shy.

Saudis were not used to freely express their happiness celebrating independence.

Shortly after, Saudis began rejoicing in a homeland that united them after dispersion and started expressing suppressed and forbidden joy openly.

The joy spread nationwide, young or old, men and women, and even a large group of those who initially criticized and rejected the whole idea have become part and parcel of a national system commemorating a dear memory to all.

National pride and joy filled every Saudi home.

Muslim Brotherhood cells played a major role in promoting fatwas prohibiting the celebration of the National Day.

They aimed at spreading a culture of frustration among the Saudis, despite knowing that national pride for Saudis is untouchable given.

The idea of removing any manifestations of renewed loyalty to the nation year after year contributes to the promotion of several negative concepts marketed as criticism of enforcing strong national state institutions.

They hope to reach the ultimate goal of destroying confidence in the state little by little. What is more is that those who often oppose celebrating the National Day in Saudi Arabia do not hold the same views for neighboring.

Clearly displaying double standards, they even celebrate national independence days in other countries, as if Saudis alone hold the dim duty of suppressing national pride.

As soon as a policy was adopted to actively diminish the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence, patriotic feelings surged all over the kingdom. The celebration went extended beyond Saudi Arabia to all who love and admire the kingdom such as Kuwait, Egypt and others also rejoiced, in a reflection of the size and influence of Saudi Arabia.

This exclusive and unprecedented joy has become a “registered trademark” for Saudis as if they want to make up for what they missed.

Saudis and their sincere willingness to express their patriotism this year, in particular, seemed amazing and striking. It was a terrible blow to anyone who believed in a false ability to manipulate national feelings in the hope of achieving dubious goals or undermined the statehood of Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom’s public spoke in a loud voice that the rules of the game had changed and it was no longer allowed for the terrible exploitation of religion to deprive them of patriotism. They completely stood against any agenda promoting a pro-group and an anti-state ideology.

It is enough for Saudis to rejoice in their homeland and take pride in their kingdom without looking at their living problems as the “Brotherhood” works on spreading this absurd equation.

Yes, the Saudi citizen has a fair share of living problems. Yes, Saudis have many worries about life, but all this doesn’t collide with sincere patriotism, which has long been stifled.

Whether oil rates rise or fall, whether daily worries worsen or disappear, there is a big difference between a citizen making demands of his state as a natural right and his government’s right to improve their living conditions, and that this is exploited horribly to reduce patriotism.

The greatness of Saudis is awe-striking! In just two years they managed to demolish an organized and years-in-the-making project to put a barrier between them and their homeland.

Kurdish Referendum : Thinking, Not Threats

I was the head of the political office at the American Embassy in Baghdad in 2005 during the long, difficult negotiations between Iraqi political leaders about the new Iraqi constitution. The negotiations centered on issues like decentralization, accountability and respect for human rights, and the powers of the executive branch, the legislature and the judicial institutions. Often the negotiations reached dead ends and the top political leaders, such as Masud Barzani, Jalal Talabani, Tariq Hashemi, Abdelaziz Hakim and Ibrahim Jaaferi had to meet to make difficult compromises. The Americans were urging Masud Barzani to accept compromises and for Iraqi Kurdistan to be part of a federal Iraq. Barzani is a tough negotiator; his family and his people suffered a lot in Baathist Iraq. He finally answered us clearly in October 2005: if the Baghdad central government respects the new constitution, the Kurdish regional government will remain in a united Iraq. He was very clear about the conditional agreement in 2005.

Twelve years later Baghdad officials have not respected key obligations of the Iraq constitution. The parliament, which has a majority from Shia Islamist parties, has not passed a law as required (Constitution article 65) to establish a second house in the parliament that would represent governorates and regions. The Baghdad government has not passed a law to establish a national supreme court (article 92) nor the law to govern the intelligence service as required (article 84). The Constitution also requires (article 80) that top military officers receive approval of the Council of Representatives. In reality, prime ministers appoint them without any approval of the council of representatives. The Constitution also forbids (article 9) militias but the government is paying the Hashd ash-Shaabi and the militias are often political which is also a violation of article 9. It is interesting to note that the Kurds won recognition in the 2005 talks for their Kurdish security force, the Peshmerga in article 121(5).

The oil dispute between Baghdad and Erbil is legally complicated and politically tough. The constitution article 112 gives both parties a role, but they still haven’t negotiated about how to manage the oil sector.

I remember that in 2005 the Kurdish political leaders were nervous that the Baghdad government under Prime Minister Jaaferi and a Shia majority parliament would not respect all the constitution obligations. The American government promised it would help ensure

the Constitution was respected. We said, for example, that we would help Iraqis find a way to solve the issue of disputed territories and Kirkuk; article 140 of the constitution requires a referendum in the disputed territories by 2007 but there the referendum was never held. In 2009 the Americans had a perfect chance to help Iraqis find a solution. The new ambassador then, Christopher Hill, was an experienced negotiator who had helped negotiations to settle the civil war in Bosnia. There were thousands of American soldiers in the area of the disputed territories that could have helped Hill’s effort. Instead, the Americans did nothing about articles 112 and 140 and now in 2017 Kirkuk and oil are big disputes.

In 2010 Vice President Joe Biden urged Barzani to support Maliki’s second mandate as prime minister. Washington pledged to help ensure respect for the Constitution and a power-sharing deal between Maliki, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs. This agreement of 19 points included solving article 140 procedures and also was supposed to define how the council of ministers reaches its decisions with the prime minister as required by the Constitution (article 85 still not implemented). Maliki violated major elements of that deal and the violations of human rights and democratic procedures helped ISIS grow. The Americans were silent in 2012 and 2013 and only put serious pressure on Maliki after ISIS began its march in the spring of 2014. And in 2014 again Washington helped create a deal between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership for power-sharing in order to win Kurdish votes for Prime Minister Abadi. And again the deal was broken; article 85 still isn’t implemented. And the council of representatives with its Shia Islamist majority last week tried to fire the governor of Kirkuk even though the constitution does not give them this authority.

On September 20 Washington strongly denounced the Kurdish referendum and said that Barzani and the Kurds should instead accept a new process sponsored by the Americans and the United Nations to resolve the constitution questions and Kurdish demands. It’s not the first time the Kurds have heard this. We will see if Barzani makes a last-minute retreat. The position of Turkey, which is Erbil’s biggest economic partner and which has troops on the Kurdish border, is more important to Kurdish thinking than more American promises.

It will be important to remember that if there is a positive referendum vote, the Kurdish Region Government is not yet independent. Instead, Erbil and Baghdad need to think about channels of communication and next steps. And Ankara and Teheran will have the time for their words too. It will be important for everyone to use calm words and thinking, not anger and threats.

Video Learning for 50 Million Students

It is not strange that the most distinguished science and mathematics students are from the most developed countries in the world: South Korea, Singapore, Japan and other major industrial countries.

It is also no secret that development and advancement are linked to teaching these two subjects and excelling in them.

It was rather a precious gift of UAE’s Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid to announce the project to translate more than 5,000 videos related to maths and science material into Arabic making them available for around 50 million students across the Arab world.

This will be a candle that lights up the already stumbling path of education in the Arab world, as he put it. He also called for volunteers to step forward and help translate thousands of videos which have been already translated into different languages for teaching purposes.

Teaching physics, chemistry, biology, and maths in Arab schools face a lot of challenges because most teachers are not qualified and most schools are actually poor not equipped with laboratories and illustrative material.

In addition, the atmosphere at home and in society do not encourage students to focus on these subjects.

Video learning and e-learning narrow the gap especially with the fast and widespread use of cellular phones among children.

Of the available models, take India for example. Relying on video learning contributed to overcoming challenges in schools where teachers have weak skills and shortage in potentials.

Education is any nations’ path to progress and transformation and almost all Arab countries suffer from the failure of education policies, and as a result, we pay a high price.

Had the governments adopted education as its own project and focused on it within the framework of a strategy that suits each country’s needs and circumstances, we could have exited the bottleneck we are stuck in and keep up with the advancing world, some of which suffered from failure until recently.

Teaching is a difficult profession and its results are long-term and require a lot of time to yield, with its most challenging subjects: math and science.

Every four years, international institutions study a sample of students from all over the world. They examine the achievements of around 4,000 students in grades between the 4th and 8th, and evaluate each country’s capabilities and predict its future according to them.

This project is for everyone across the Arab world. Granting educational services for free is the greatest gift which can be given to any student who knows Arabic language and has a cellular phone or a laptop or service anywhere.

The project will be presented once it’s done next year. It will sum up global math and science curricula and most of it will be the same for all students all over the world, from kindergarten until the last year of high school.

This marks the first step that can encourage benefiting from technology and using it to modernize education to save time and overcome difficulties. Education in the Arab world is moving in a vicious circle as it requires highly-qualified teachers, expensive equipment, and smaller classes all within a comprehensive policy.

Most of these demands are not available today and 100 years might pass before they are even developed.

That is why e-learning is the solution, not only to teach math and science but to teach all the rest of the curricula throughout all school stages.

The Kurdish Referendum Imbroglio

Kurdish people attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk

What is the first thing you should do when you have dug yourself into a hole?
The obvious answer is: stop digging. This is the advice that those involved in the imbroglio over the so-called independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, due to be held next Monday. But still in the suspense of writing this column, would do well to heed.

The idea of holding a referendum on so contentious an issue at this time is bizarre, to say the least. There was no popular demand for it. Nor could those who proposed it show which one of Iraq’s problems such a move might solve at this moment. In other words, the move was unnecessary, in the sense that Talleyrand meant when he said that, in politics, doing what is not necessary is worse than making a mistake.

If by independence one means the paraphernalia of statehood, the three provinces that form the Iraqi Kurdistan lack nothing: They have their president, prime minister, Cabinet, parliament, army, police, and, even, virtual embassies in key foreign capitals. They are also well furnished with symbols of statehood including a flag and national anthem.

Having said all that, one could hardly deny the Kurds a desire for independence.

In a sense, some Kurds have dreamt of an independent state for over 2000 years when the Greek historian Xenophon ran into them in the mountains of Western Asia. (See his account in his masterpiece Anabasis).

Right now, however, all indications are that any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence by the Kurds could trigger a tsunami of conflicts that the region, already mired in crisis, might not be able to handle. In other words, the hole dug by Erbil may become an ever-deepening black hole sucking a bigger chunk of the Middle East into the unknown; hence the need to stop digging.

Yet, almost everyone is doing the opposite.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous government has lashed out against Turkey and Iran while threatening military action to seize disputed areas in Iraq. Barzani’s tough talk may please his base but could strengthen chauvinist elements in Bagdad, Ankara and Tehran who have always regarded Kurds as the enemy.

For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has come close to threatening the use of force to stop a process that remains unclear.

Threats have also come from Tehran, where National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani says the Islamic Republic would cancel all security accords concerning the Kurdish region and might intervene there militarily to deal with anti-Iran groups.

For its part, Ankara has branded the referendum a “red line”, using a discredited term made fashionable by former US President Barack Obama in 2014 over Syria.

Just days before the referendum, the Turkish army staged a highly publicized military demonstration on the border with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, presumably as a warning to Erbil.

As for Russia, the sotto voce support given to the referendum is more motivated by hopes of juicy oil contracts than sober geostrategic considerations. Such a stance might win President Vladimir Putin more support from the oligarchs but risks dragging Russia into a risky process over which it won’t have any control.

Washington’s mealy-mouthed comments on the issue are equally problematic.

Iraqi Kurds have been the United States’ best allies in dismantling the Saddamite system in post-liberation Iraq and the current fight against ISIS. The US would gain nothing by casting itself as an opponent of Kurdish self-determination.

Tackling the problem from a legal angle, Iraq’s Supreme Court has declared the proposed referendum in violation of the Iraqi Constitution. For its part the National Parliament has invited the Erbil leadership to postpone the referendum, echoing a message from the United States and the European Union.

It is not clear where all this talk of canceling the referendum at the 11th hour may lead. However, I think cancellation at this time could do more harm than good.

First, it could discredit the Erbil leadership at a time it needs to prop up its authority, indeed its legitimacy. Whether one likes the Erbil leadership or not, sapping its authority is neither in the interest of Iraqi Kurds nor, indeed, of Iraq as a whole. Encouraging splits in the Kurdish ranks and promoting a political vacuum in the autonomous region is the last thing Iraq needs.

Secondly, last minute cancellation could strengthen elements who still believe that force and threat of force are the most efficient means of dealing with political problems. Almost 14 years after the demise of Saddam Hussein, Iraq isn’t yet free of past demons who dream of a monochrome Iraq dominated by a clique.

Thirdly, a last-minute cancellation could be seen as a legitimization of the right of Ankara and Tehran to intervene in Iraqi domestic affairs through a mixture of military pressure and thinly disguised blackmail.

So, what is the best way to stop deepening the hole?

A possible answer may be built around the position taken by Iraqi President Fouad Maasoum, himself an ethnic Kurd but, apparently at least, genuinely committed to building a pluralist system in Iraq. Maasoum has not offered an elaborate scheme. But his suggestion that the imbroglio be tackled through talks between Baghdad and Erbil could be used as the basis for a compromise.

In such a compromise the referendum would go ahead unhindered while it is made clear that its outcome would in no way be legally binding on anyone. In other words, the referendum, whatever its result, would be accepted as a political fact that could and should be taken into consideration in designing the road-map Iraq would need once it has wiped out ISIS.

Iraqi Kurds cannot impose their wishes by force, especially when they are far from united over national strategy. On the other hand, Iraq cannot revert to methods of dealing with its “Kurdish problem” that led to so many tragedies for the Kurds and derailed Iraqi national life for decades.

Next Monday’s referendum was unnecessary. The best one could do at the 11th hour is to help morph it into a mistake. Politics cannot deal with the unnecessary, but it can deal with mistakes.

The Near East’s Costly Wrong Bets

As uncertainty engulfs a bleeding Near East, besieged by regional and global powers each pursuing its own agenda, dormant ambitions and sensitivities are waking up and finding the current situation suitable to express themselves.

To begin, such dormant ambitions and suppressed sensitivities would have never emerged had it not been for the huge regional disorder and radical change of international balance of power.

It is true that domestic consensus towards ‘national’ identities and boundaries is not guaranteed these days, even in western democracies that values human rights – as the Scots and Catalan nationalists seek to secede from the UK and Spain, respectively, through the ballot box – yet internal instability remains a sure prerequisite to animosities and partition as we witness in Iraq and Syria.

Without dwelling too much on history, be it true or not quite true, it is obvious that there is a close relationship between loyalties on one side and interests on the other. Under multi-ethnic empires such as the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Arab Near East for four centuries, many oriental constituent ethnicities accepted interaction, coexistence and intermarriage, and thus many Arabs became ‘Turkified’ while many Kurds, Syriacs and Chaldeans were ‘Arabised’.

Those days, pragmatic interests necessitated interaction and coexistence, even assimilation. Moreover, internal migrations, as well as population exchange sometimes, became almost common phenomena within that great political, social and economic space. So when some constituent ethnicities or sects appear as if they are “correcting” the mistakes of the past or “avenging’ old injustices, they are not really doing that because they are necessarily braver or more decisive than their predecessors, but because times have changed, and they may allow them now to get away with what was impossible to in the past.

Some proponents of ‘political Shi’ism’ who are now openly calling to avenge the murders of the ‘Talebis’ (the descendants of the fourth caliph Ali Ibn Abi Taleb) and “reclaim the legitimacy” of government in the Muslim world in favour of the ‘Mullahs’ of Iran against the (Sunni) descendants from the House of Omayya. This would have not been possible had it not been for the active support of Tehran and the west’s turning a blind eye to its plans for regional hegemony and acquiring nuclear capabilities.

Others among religious minorities – namely, Christian – were hard pushed to openly welcome foreign protection had it not been for the emergence of ISIS, an extremist sanguinary and dubious phenomenon. ISIS’ atrocities have actually managed to divert the attention away from plans for hegemony and “revenge” carried out by Iran and its subordinate henchmen; and thus we see these minorities not only convinced of the need for foreign protection but also for building an “alliance of minorities” too!

Then, there are large ethnic and linguistic minorities, like the Kurds, who discovered that they are enjoying a unique opportunity to establish their unfulfilled dream of a ‘nation-state’ over the ever-expanding territories they now control, and claim as their own. The Kurds may have genuine grievances that would tempt some of their extremists to risk open animosities with the Turks and Iranians – whom the Kurds have long accused of discriminating against them -, as well as the Arabs, led in recent decades by regimes that combined chauvinist discourse with tribal structure.

However, the Kurds, themselves, are not totally blame-free from discriminating against others. Indeed, it could be argued that what they perpetrated against the Assyrians and Chaldeans early in the 20th century in northern Iraq and Hakkari Mountains may be regarded as “ethnic cleansing”. Furthermore, the arrogant attitude currently adopted by some Kurdish leaders in several ‘mixed areas’ in northern Iraq, like Kirkuk, Tal Afar and the villages and towns of Nineveh plain, as well as large areas in northern Syria, specifically, in the provinces of al-Hassakah, Al-Raqqah and Aleppo, does not augur well for a future free of hatred and bad blood.

Here lies the real challenge. Here it is very important to realize the dangers of adventures, opportunism, burning boats and over-reliance on foreign promises of support. This is risky not only for religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities in the Arab Near East, but also for the religious and sectarian majority too.

The mere presence of a phenomenon like ISIS is a symptom of a dangerous crisis in both the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Past experiences and lessons of history have taught us that moderation and openness were always signs of periods of renaissance and ascendancy, while extremism and intolerance were signs of weakness, decay and internal division. Terrorism and indiscriminate murder also reflect a failure to understand the world, and to take into account the repercussions of such heinous actions. Obviously, the outcome for all to see throughout the Arab and Muslim Worlds today is the retreat of intelligent dialogue and broad agreements in the face of violent and exclusionist mob rhetoric.

Given the above, the greatest fear is that the worst may still to come, and the heavy price paid already may not be enough. In fact, this background provided the excuse for former US president Barack Obama to sign the nuclear treaty (JCPOA) with Iran’s rulers after describing them as “not suicidal”, and the veil Western powers hid behind as they conspired against the uprising of the Syrian people.

Still, there is no guarantee the current situation is permanent. Sooner or later Iran’s exploitation of and investing in ISIS will end, more so in the light of accelerating international military involvement in Iraq and Syria. Then, there are too many contradictions between competing regional plans which hope to sell the bear’s fur before hunting it!

In northern Iraq there are danger signs of potential confrontation between the pro-Iran ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’ (MDF) and pro-independence Kurds. This is natural as it is quite unlikely that Iran, which has its own secessionist Kurds, would be happy to see an independent Kurdish state on its western borders north of an Iraq that Iran had subdued and destroyed.

The picture is not much different in Syria where Washington has encouraged secessionist Kurds – under the pretext of fighting ISIS – to establish their own mini-state along the Syrian-Turkish borders. This has been done with Washington’s full awareness that Turkey is the country in which lives almost half of the total the Kurdish population of the Middle East.

Thus, much of what becomes of the Kurds depends on Washington’s and Moscow’s overall visions for the Near East in the foreseeable future. As for what the Shi’a would achieve, along with their erstwhile Alawi extension in Syria, much depends on Moscow’s regional strategy and Washington’s reaction to it.

The Tale of Saudi-Emirati Invasion of Qatar

A news agency has quoted the White House as saying that US President Donald Trump succeeded in preventing a Saudi-Emirati military attack on Qatar. Barely an hour later, the US President issued a statement denying the news.

Then, another report surfaced saying Trump reprimanded Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim when he met him in New York. Trump revealed secret information to Tamim confirming Qatar’s continued involvement in funding terrorism despite signing an undertaking with the US few weeks ago to end that.

Many stories have made the rounds for political purposes, but reason denies them all, so does the nature of the crisis and Qatar’s resort to the protection of US bases and international military alliances.

Qatar resorted to publicity since June to gain sympathy in Kuwait for instance, and portray the other countries as the evil enemy.

The truth is different. Qatar has been working for years to weaken and target and consequently topple regimes like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.

Targeting Bahrain is no secret to anyone. Doha supported the opposition that announced its intention to overturn the regime. Since the nineties, Qatar has financed religious extremists of the Saudi opposition in London that wants to topple the Saudi regime and is involved in the assassination attempt of late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

As for Egypt, watching Qatari media for one night is enough to hear the direct calls to oust President Sisi’s government by force, aside from Qatar’s constant involvement in financing the opposition.

Despite that, none of the countries harmed by Qatar’s activity took any armed action or resorted to incitement. Even former president Hosni Mobarak, who was mostly targeted by Qatar, refused to respond to Doha and ignored it.

The four countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain – announced their intention and program against Qatar. Over ten Arab governments, which have remained silent, support them against Qatar.

The agenda against Qatar is based on the strategy of isolating and weakening it in hopes of forcing it to change its policy or at least weaken it to an extent it won’t be able to interfere in others’ affairs.

No one announced or even hinted towards toppling Al Thani regime or its head. Many believe – and maybe they are right – that the current Emir, Sheikh Tamim, is helpless and the person ruling and creating the problems is in fact his father who only formally abdicated the throne four years ago.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Doha turned to Turkey, US, and even Iran for help, claiming Saudi Arabia and the UAE are plotting against it and besieging the country in an unprecedented way.

This Qatari nonsense, a clone of Gaza’s claims, is unbelievable in a country full of caviar and Ferrari cars.

Shortly, the problem is that spoiled Qatari rulers won’t stop playing the role of major regional countries and at the same time refuse to bare the consequences of their actions.