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Dialogues – KGNU Hemispheres – January 25, 2016; Middle East Discussion With Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince

January 28, 2016
Iran China

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran and China have just sealed a huge trade agreement of some $600 billion over the next 25 years

Note: this is a synopsis of the discussion on last night’s KGNU (Boulder, CO 1390 AM) program from my notes combined with some of Ibrahim Kazerooni’s comments on the Iran Nuclear Deal. As with notes, what follows in the notes covers approximately what we discussed. I publish them in response to several listener requests. To hear the interview in full – go to KGNU (www.kgnu.org); from there go to the January 26, 2016 program for the interview in full.

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You would think that a month of events in the Middle East wouldn’t make that much of a difference…what is a month after all?

And yet a number of rather startling developments since we last met just prior to the new year…among them

follow-up on the P5 + 1 agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear program

– this includes the dismantling of much of  Iran’s nuclear program – what exactly
– the lifting of some of the sanctions (and the re-imposition of others, here in the USA
– an upsurge in commercial relations between Iran and other countries – big
economic agreements with Russia and China, smaller agreements with European
powers – not much economic exchanges with the USA
– New alignment of regional forces, especially where it concerns the situation in
Syria (enhanced role of Russia, Iran and informal cooperation with the Obama
Administration
– pouting of neo-Cons, AIPAC over the agreement and the continued opposition to
it from U.S. regional allies – Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey

New negotiations over the future of Syria

– this is the third round – many discussions especially focused around who should represent the Syrian opposition
– situation on the ground in Syria clearly tilting in favor of the Assad government and its allies
– a number of strange events that seemed to disappear shortly after they took place – specifically the “incident” in which two U.S. naval vessels with U.S. Special forces
aboard (Navy Seals) that was picked up by the Iranians within their territorial waters – and soon thereafter released.

Elsewhere – significant developments in Tunisia

– largest protests since the end of 2010, beginning of 2011 which brought down
Ben Ali
– once again, like at that moment, it is mostly angry youth – that have taken to the
streets after a young man committed suicide by electrocution in the interior town of Kasserine, triggering a series of protests all over the country the them of which is “Jobs, Democracy, Dignity”, again almost identical demands to 2011.

In Burkina Faso, in West Africa a terrorist attack which seems to follow the pattern elsewhere. 30 killed and dozens wounded inOugadougou, the country’s capitol

– the attack was done by a well-known group Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which until then, usually operated further north; no domestic groups were involved
– the attack provides a pretext, as other terrorist attacks have, for a greater French
and U.S. military presence in the region, a region rich with natural resources (gold, uranium, manganese, etc)

Finally here in the USA – a series of “revelations” – I put quotations around the word as most of these claims are well-known but it is only now, curiously enough, that they are being openly discussed in the mainstream media..Among them…

– that Saudi money was involved in 9-11
– that the Saudis have been funding Islamic militant groups in Syria
– that George Bush and Tony Blair were planning to attack Iraq a year prior to the
March, 2003 invasion
– that the goal of that invasion was to  destroy a centralized state – as happened in
Libya and as almost, but not quite happened in Syria.

So Ibrahim…we have quite a bit to discuss but
let us begin the more in-depth aspect of this discussion with the aftermath of the so-called Iranian nuclear deal.

It appears that the situation is moving quickly on many fronts..
Let’s start with the economic front and go from there.

The aftermath of the Iran deal

It’s a pandora’s box Rob…

Let’s start with the nuclear deal.

The first thing I would like to begin with is clarification for the benefit of our listeners

1. Report after report from at least 2003 is that Iran had no intention of moving its nuclear research towards the development of nuclear weapons – although they were capable to do so and showed that they had this ability. Still, they restrained themselves to enriching uranium to a maximum of 20% which they needed for medical research reasons.

What has happened is that as part of the agreement Iran has agreed that any uranium enrichment beyond the 3-5% level will be sent to Russia – and they have started shipping Iranian uranium out to Russia already. An arrangement has been made so that if they need the material shipped to Russia for their plants in Teheran and Ispahan, an arrangement will be made. There have also been a couple of articles that Iran has started to sell heavy water to the United States – one of the more surprising outcomes of the negotiations.

There are also some modifications of Iran’s nuclear plants which are proceeding – technical issues…that are neither here nor there.

2. The agreement resulted in a major in so far as Iran’s position as a regional power or influence – but particularly in its relationship to European and Far Eastern countries, countries that Iran considered to be as friends during the past difficult period of sanctions. Immediately after the initial signing of the agreement back in September we began to notice that the Russian president and Chinese premier both went to Teheran. As a result of both of these visits, huge economic deals were signed.

• the Chinese deal in particular was significant – somewhere between $400 billion and $620 billion trade agreement over twenty-five years, which is a huge amount
• with a Russian trade deal totaling somewhere between $250 to $300 billion
• minor deals of a much smaller nature have been signed with other countries

As a consequence, the Iranian economy is really turning around. All the major deals they had previously made, natural gas, the pipeline going through Pakistan and others that had stopped as a result of American pressure are now back on-line. As all this investment takes hold, it will result in Iran becoming a major regional economic pivot point

This is worrisome for a number of countries, in particularly Turkey which benefitted economically from the sanctions against Iran and the war in Syria. Investment avoided Iran is now being redirected there. Turkey is not happy about that at all. You can see the visible frustration in the face of Turkish President Tayyib Erdoǵan, the new “Ottoman Emperor.” He is trying to undermine these developments suggesting that Iran has been involved in number of underhanded activities.

3. As far as shifts in the regional balance of power, again, it has turned in favor of Iran. Here we see the rapproachment between Saudi Arabia and Israel; as the saying goes…”the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The two are coming together to create a block against what they call “Iranian influence” in the region.

We see Rouhani, Iran’s president, is on a visit to Europe which started in Italy. He’s going to go France and probably a couple of other W. European nations, perhaps not Great Britain. Iran is hoping to make deals on both economic and military projects there. On the one hand you have the economic investment with money coming into Iran, and on the other, Iran is going to spend the money on restructuring its economy

One of the major deals that Rouhani and the Iranian government has said they are interested in is to European airline manufacturers, Airbus. At the moment – different figures have been presented – but somewhere from 400 to 700 new airplanes that they want to purchase. There is a possibility that Boeing will get some “bite at the cherry,” some contracts, but it seems to be that the major contracts will go to Airbus (European consortium). The Iranian government is worried that if it signs deals with Boeing that the United States, under pressure whether from Congress, the neo-cons, AIPAC or other like elements, will come back with more sanctions which in turn will put the agreements in limbo. So they (the Iranians) are hesitant to offer American companies large contracts for that reason at this time.

So they (the Iranians) are hesitant to offer American companies large contracts for that reason at this time. Unless they get some clear signs otherwise, it is unlikely that Iran will close any large deals with the United States. No question that Iran is rewarding those countries who stood by it – or were at least neutral – during the period of the sanctions.

As for the possibility of a Republican winning the 2016 presidential contest, I don’t believe that this will result in any huge difference in the agreement’s consequences, mostly because the rest of the world essentially tore up the sanction papers, threw them away and are bending over backwards to accommodate Iran. There is no going back on most of the pre-September 2016 relations. It will be left to the United States alone to see if it wants to re-impose sanctions. The torrent (to open trade relations with Iran) is so strong I don’t believe the United States can at this point reverse these processes. So even if one of these Republican extremists come to power, they can only re-impose their own sanctions.

If you remember there were a number of different types of sanctions imposed against Iran. There were United Nations sanctions. These will not be re-imposed because the Russians and the Chinese veto in the Security Council will stop such a move. The European sanctions have been removed as well so that what will be left is U.S. self-imposed sanctions which is not going to hurt Iran at all (given the low-level of existing economic relations.) It is as if the conservatives in the United States are going one way, and the rest of the world is going another concerning Iran.

Kasserine, Tunisia youth protesting the suicide by electrocution of Ridya Yahyaoui in from of the offices of the local trade union federation (UGTT)

Kasserine, Tunisia youth protesting the suicide by electrocution of Ridha Yahyaoui in from of the offices of the local trade union federation (UGTT)

Tunisia

A quick review – what is happening…

There are protests all over the country, especially in the interior. They are being described – both within Tunisia and abroad – as the most serious demonstrations since late 2010 which shortly thereafter brought down Zine Ben Ali and started what is known as the Arab Spring. What we are seeing today is a limited repeat of 2010-11.

There is a growing and underlying fear that once again the Tunisian turmoil could spread region-wide.

All the initial reports – in the US, French and Tunisian press are reporting more or less the same thing..

1. That the social explosion began in the interior city of Kasserine. When one uses that term in the Tunisian sense, we are referring to the part of the country away from the coastal areas to the east and north of the country, the region approaching the Algerian border on the West and the Libyan border on the South.

– there is a U.S. reference to Kasserine – the battle of Kasserine Pass during World War 2 where first the Nazis hit the American army – invading from the West in Algeria – very hard, until one General George Patton turned the tide and won the day – one of the costliest battles in WW2 in North Africa

– Anyhow in an event with an eerie parallel with 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself before the town hall in another interior town Sidi Bouzid, triggering not just a Tunisian, but a region-wide uprising that has come to be known as the Arab Spring, whose socio-economic roots were long and deep in the making.
– in Kasserine, another young man, Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year-old man, climbed an electric pole and electrocuted himself by touching the hot lines after having been denied a job for the local government. It was yet another example of the suicide of a Tunisian youth with no future. Yahyaoui’s death triggered an angry protest mostly by the town’s unemployed youth – where youth unemployment is above 30%.

– According to one source…(Reuters), “thousands of young men took to the streets of Kasserine in protest to the unemployment situation.” Their slogans, themes – were, as in 2010 – almost exactly the same calling for jobs, democracy, dignity

An interior town, Kasserine has seen very little to no progress since Ben Ali was deposed. As one unemployed Kasserine resident, Saber Gharbi put it:

“There is a big similarity between 2011 and now. The same people are in the street for the same reason.”

– the Kasserine protest triggered others throughout the country, but especially in the interior.

Interesting comments on the situation from the World Bank:

“Tunisia has become a more, not less, unequal society in the past decade. Its richer coast is at odds with its poorer interior; its largest coastal cities, Tunis, Sfax and Souse – account for a whopping 85% of its GDP and most of its industries and services.”

What is left unsaid in this statement – true as it is – is the degree to which World Bank and IMF policies have facilitated and encouraged such a polarization.

Historically in Tunisia – rebellions tend begin exactly in this oppressed and economically ignored hinterland…

Until 2010 – as there were many uprisings, protests prior – Ben Ali was able to keep the interior rebellions from overflowing into the coastal areas and thought he could do the same in 2010 but he was wrong, the contradictions were too great

The current president Beji Caid Essebsi has the same concern.

He has greeted these demonstrations with a heavy hand and threats against the demonstrators. 40 demonstrators and 50 Tunisian police have been injured, the last time I could find statistics (two days ago) some 450 youth had been arrested.

The response of the government has been predictable and unfortunately, not very useful

– it calls for calm and suggests that social and economic changes will be slow in coming

– it has blamed the protests on outside elements- both Islamic militants and leftists (what is known in Tunisia as the Popular Front)…deflecting the idea that it is the same structural crisis brought down Ben Ali which is fueling discontent today

the fact of the matter is that the economic and social situation has not improved over the past five years. Unemployment, including youth unemployment has intensified – it was nationally at 12% in 2010, today it is a 15%

there has been no infrastructural development in the interior regions..none…and actually there has been five years of all kinds of protests in these regions near the country’s western border with Algeria.

We shouldn’t be surprised that it is in the same region – the western region near the Algerian border that an ISIS like militant insurgency continues, getting support from locals in what is the poorest region of the country.

And I would add, that despite the fact that the country has not disintegrated a la Syria or Libya that since late 2010, the country has been involved in an unending very serious political crisis as well as deepening economic crisis – this for a number of reasons

All this suggests that the attempt to put Tunisia on some kind of a pedestal – that is the “success story of the Arab Spring” is both an exaggeration and frankly unhelpful.

– it is a country in trouble, in deep crisis and sadly without much of a vision as to how to get out of the mess it is in

– this is not due to a paucity of intellectual talent, it exists, nor is to due to a lack of vision or really exciting ideas as to how to lead the country out of the mess it is in – it exists as well and in plenitude.

And it is this – that all the political, intellectual, economic and social talent has yet to find an outlet in the country’s policies …

It is a political system – even since Ben Ali – run instead by silly religious types whose sole goal was to maximize as much power as possible – the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennadha or hacks from the Bourguiba days such as the current president, Essebsi…

Those who made the revolution of 2010 have been sidelined…they did get change…all the change necessary to maintain the status quo but that is about it.

I want to put this in some kind of historic perspective…

After returning from Tunisia in late 2011 after a month’s stay…I was both excited to see the atmosphere of openness but already worried about the country’s future. At that time I had an interesting discussion with one of my brothers’ in law, a retired superintendent of schools on Long Island, about my concerns, which he was, frankly, one of the few to understand..

I spoke of
– how little institutional change I saw in the country,
– how there was no – that I could see – new economic ideas that seemed to be seriously discussed
– how the socio-economic discussion which had provided the fuel to overthrow Ben Ali had been hijacked by what seemed to me to be a very tangential and divisive discussion over religion, encouraged by the new ruling party, Ennahdha..

He commented at the time…”so let me get this straight – your concern is that if the socio-economic crisis is not addressed, there will be future unrest and flare ups?” he asked

I said – exactly.

My only surprise is how quickly the next flair up happened. Last time it took from 1984 (bread riots) until 2010 – some 26 years – for major protests to erupt, this time only five…

 

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