Iranian inconsistency in Geneva? No, just a recalculation.

Todays media question:

Q :How do you view the incosisitant attaitude of Rouhani? Does it mean that Rouhani is actually nothing different with Ahmadinejad?

Rouhani’s “inconsistent attitude” isn’t at all inconsistent, but rather a factor of domestic negotiation in Iran, regional relations and a product of diplomacy at Geneva.  To put it into context, internally Rouhani needs to have the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khameni and it is clear that he is undecided because he wants to make sure Iran keeps control of its nuclear cycle.  Iran does now seem willing to get around the table at Geneva, however, because international sanctions are biting hard domestically.  Under Rouhani, we have a situation where a new leadership is willing to talk and they are trying to solve their sanctions problem.  In that sense, Rouhani is different to Ahmadinejad; he is weighing up the problem differently and understanding the context Iran is operating differently.  This is very important, and why we have  a moderate success in Geneva – the US and Iran are now talking, which is fundamental to solving this problem.  This hasn’t happened in over 30 years. So fundamentally, Rouhani isn’t any less realpolitik than Ahmadinejad, but he is seeing the problem differently and acting to try and solve it in accordance with how he is viewing the situation.  
This is why we see Iran’s redlines, which are seeking to maintain a nuclear threshold.  Iran is not willing to abandon its nuclear programme entirely, but rather lower enrichment levels from 20% to around 4%.  This is not a complete abandonment, but rather an adjustment of speed and scope that keeps Iran a minimal level of threshold capability.  This would keep the region safer, but would not entirely diminish the threat of a nuclear region in the future.  Israel has the bomb, so maintaining this threshold capability is seen as important to Iranian security.  The Geneva talks do however demonstrate movement on the issue, a willingness to negotiate, and a climb down by Iran.
So what are the dangers here?  We need to move the talks forward as a nuclear Iran will make the region and the globe more unstable.  If Iran fully develops nuclear weapons (we don’t know when in the future as this is contested by intelligence agencies) then it will start a nuclear arms race that will get out of control.  Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey at the very least will want to develop domestic nuclear weapons systems.  This will shatter the NPT, which is a very dangerous precedent and undermines all the efforts that have been in place to create a WMD free zone. It would also make a mockery of all the international non-proliferation policies in place.  At the same time, there is talk by some that Israel would be more inclined to move to a pre-emptive strike doctrine, which could be a source of future nuclear war in the region.  I disagree with this analysis.  I think we would move towards a more likely situation of low-level conflict under a nuclear umbrella (which reflected how things played out in India and Pakistan in the 1999 Kargil Crisis) and the acceleration of a regional cold war.

Egyptian Democracy and US Foreign Policy

Secretary Kerry’s recent trip to the region has refreshed the internal debate in Washington DC — this is a debate which is as confused as it is confusing.  It is a rehash of the classic debate between democracy versus stability and security.   What’s clear is that, in Washington circles, the operating premise since the Arab Spring has been that — we are not going to return to a period of stability any time soon, and the idea that Egypt will transition to a democracy is problematic.  Moreover, the notion that Egypt will move towards a democracy in a linear fashion is, to all effective purposes, dead (it should be said that very few in Washington circles held this belief in the first place; we shouldn’t confuse hopes and beliefs).

The feeling in Washington is that we are going through transitional iterations, from SCAF, to the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Sisi period.  In this sense we have been witnessing transition”s” in Egypt that have taken the shape of revolutions, counter-revolutions and Coups.  Within such a context, the day to day operations of the US towards Egypt, is to help this current transition move towards a more democratic outcome.  That is to say, US policy officially and unofficially is to try and influence Egypt’s transitional move in a more democratic direction as other interests are secured.  But the talk is of a period of “transition (to somewhere unknown)”, and not a “democratic transition” overall.

In spite of Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly at the end of September, which clearly downgraded the importance of democracy promotion to a secondary interest, there is still talk of democracy promotion being one of many interests in the region.  Indeed, top US officials still argue that Secretary Kerry and his counter part Secretary Hegel continue to argue for democracy behind the scenes.  This is why the US is tying its hopes to the roadmap process, and felt the need to at least censure the Egyptian’s by cutting aid in early October.  But ultimately in the short-term, democracy promotion is seen as a means to greater security (a democratic peace), that is to be balanced with counter-terrorism cooperation more broadly, growing threats of terrorism in Sini (which is becoming more professionalised and better resourced as weapons move from Libya), interests in proliferation cooperation, and the maintenance of security cooperation with regards to the security of Israel.

So where are we now?  Ultimately, the US is facing an increasingly uphill set of challenges because of the chaining geopolitical and geo-strategic landscape of Egypt.

1) It is clear that issues of sequencing for Democracy have reared their head.

2) How to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist parties more generally has also become an issue complicated by Egyptian definitions of “counter-terrorism”.

3) Interventions from the Gulf states attempting to see the irradiation of the Muslim Brotherhood is also a new complication, along with the manner in which their economic support is delaying Egypt coming to terms with dealing with serious structural economic problems.  Indeed, Egypt now lives in a state of “just in time financing” that makes reserve adequacy measures meaningless … the economic crisis is coming, but predicting this is now something for soothsayers. Understanding how Egypt’s “muddle through economics” is going to play out is of immediate interest to all — is this going to be more like a Turkish or Pakistani transition.

4) It is clear that the Egyptian military does not have a holistic blueprint for the country, and the committee of 50 is not acting in the manner first envisaged. The military are seeing themselves as protectors of the Egyptian state, but they lack an overall strategic vision.  This in and of itself is an opening for the potential for democracy somewhere long down the road, but right now denies external partners a platform for negotiations.  The military is looking inwardly looking for security, stability and control, with a direction in mind.

5) Just as we are having trouble engaging from above, it is clear that we are having trouble engaging from below.  The Arab Spring has taught us valuable lessons about the nature of social mobilisation in the modern age, that as yet policy and its surrounding apparatus is having difficulty engaging with.  This tells us that we need a “deeper” level of engagement with these societies if we are to truly influence the debate about democracy and understand the hopes and desires of the Egyptian people.

6) There is clearly a need to get to grips with the causes of the 2011 revolution, including Egypt’s demographic troubles.  This speaks to a broader human security problem, where food and water security, economic security, political security etc. are dealt with and considered in this debate. The Egyptian military are going to look for “consensual politics” rather than “contesting politics”, which means that establishing these levels of human security is as much of interest to them as they should be to the US.  This is a point of cooperation, but the US needs to have its eye on democratic transitions if it is to support this route of action — in particular with regard to NGO laws that help provide a litmus test for the US and Egyptian commitments.

All in, there is no magic bullet to Egyptian Democracy, but what is clear is that the new debate in Washington is stuck around many of the same problems, and more, that it was before the Arab Spring.  What’s different is the growing instability in the region and the pace of change.  This tells us, that ultimately, maybe the tools and our thinking around this issue need to keep pace and be bolder.  We need a paradigm shift in how we engage the region that is fit for the 21st Century and not stuck around the policies of the past.


This is a busy week for the Middle East, with some important milestones.  We have already seen that Secretary Kerry is attempting to close the rift between Washington and Cairo, on the eve of the Morsi trial.  But hopefully there will be some movement on Syria on Tuesday, followed by movement on Iran on Wednesday.  Geneva is becoming a very busy place since the onset of the Arab Spring.  Thursday sees a continuation of Kerry’s tour, which by now it is clear should be called “the security and stability” tour.


Morsi faces judiciary
Islamists were planning huge protests at the scheduled start in Cairo of the trial of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, on charges of inciting the murder of protesters. About 20,000 police officers and soldiers will stand guard.  — The trail has now been adjourned until January 2014.


Meeting on Syria 
US and Russian officials are to meet international special representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva, as part of efforts to prepare the way for a full Syria peace conference later in November.


Iran nuclear talks
Tehran and the six major powers return to Geneva for detailed negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme following last month’s discussions, which both sides called “positive”.


Kerry visits Maghreb 
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, is to visit Algeria and Morocco as part of a tour of the region, continuing a strategic dialogue with a focus on security and counterterrorism, economics and civil society.

RT Crossfire Advanced Questions and Talking Points

We filmed an episode of Crosstalk today, so I thought I would share my talking points in advance of the show being aired on Monday.  Not everything here was said, but the questions they sent in advance will give you a broad sense of what was said on the show.

Is the term Arab Spring or Arab Awakening appropriate anymore? Do we
need to invent a new and different term to describe what is happening
in the Arab Middle East today?
It was never appropriate in the beginning.  When you spoke to protesters in the individual countries they would always refer to their countries “revolutions”.  I think our best method of looking at the phenomenon in the region, is to keep referring to them in this manner.  This helps us keep on track of the fact that whilst there was a “demonstration” effect that helped them spread across the region, all the revolutions were country specific.  It is safer to refer to the “revolutions” occurring through the region.  This is also particularly the case, as we don’t, and have never known, the directions these revolutions will take.  Spring and Awakening suggests a transition process to democracy, and it is far from guaranteed that this will be the case.
What to the countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria have in
common today (if any thing beyond being Arab Muslim countries)?
These countries still have a lot in common beyond being Arab Muslim countries. They have deeply troubled economies, high youth unemployment, a disproportionately high youth demographic, deep troubles with rule of law and security.  These are in fact the same conditions that led to the uprisings in the first place.  They differ in many of the problems they face, but broadly speaking the underlined causes of the revolutions are still there.  
Over two years ago many in the west (and their proxies on the ground
in the Arab Middle East) talked of democracy and western values in a
region in the hands of dictators for decades. Where does democracy
stand today in the region?
Any one who has studied democracy in the Arab world over decades will tell you that the region always takes one step forward, and two steps back.  But the Arab spring demonstrates that there is popular demand for rights, dignity and freedom.  The revolutions are a major leap forward for democracy in the region, and the genie has been let out of the bottle.  There is less willingness to accept the security guarantee of dictators, as the people in the region see that this hasn’t provided them with the basic things they need in their daily lives.  Of course, the situation on the ground differs across each of the countries, and some are moving forward more rapidly with what look like basic democratic institutions than others.  But overall, democratisation is a long process, and we certainly stand in a place where democracy looks more plausible today than it did in 2010.
To what degree have events in Syria been a “game changer” for the region?
Events in Syria are very important, and have important regional repercussions.  But overall, what happens in Syria is going to have little effect on the domestic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  We also have an important example of a more successful transition in Yemen, which shouldn’t be forgotten.  The problem with Syria has to do with the nature of the state structure.  The security forces are tied to the regime itself, which wasn’t the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and NATO intervention in Libya cancelled that particular dynamic out.  Are there going to be serious security problems in Syria for the forceable future, that will impact Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon?  They certainly will, but alternative trajectories are in place for the countries already undergoing revolutions.
Has western overt and/or covert involvement been a plus or minus in
the region over the past two years?
There was a period when US and EU involvement in the region was particularly high – throughout 2011-2012.  There was a greater emphasis on trying to promote democracy, and on helping successful democratic transitions to take place.  The September 11 embassy attacks, however, have lowered the willingness of the US to focus on this, and return to a more traditional “security and interests” focus.  So post-2012 the US has pulled back its presence in the region, and missed important opportunities.  Because of the problems with the way EU foreign policy is conducted and made, they have followed in the US foot steps.  

The show airs on Monday, so any feed back is welcome on here or twitter @ozhassan.

Postscript:  Link to Youtube show

Suez Concerns leads to US crude oil topping $100

The political uncertainty in Egypt is has having a direct effect on the global economy.  Concern that the flow of oil tankers through the Suez Canal could be disrupted has led to the price of US crude oil reaching $100 a barrel – the highest level in more than a year.  This comes as a direct result of the Suez Canal being a key choke point in the global oil trade.  Indeed, 5% of the seaborne crude, along with 14% of seaborne liquified natural gas flows through the canal.

Within this context, the canal is a pivotal point for the global economy, and therefore a key target for protesters to damage the Egyptian government. Disrupting the flow of traffic is therefore a key strategy for anti-govenment protesters, which was evident in February when the canal had to close, and in March when speedboats were released in the canal to create obstacles for maritime traffic.

Notably, this comes on top of disrupted supplies from Libya from armed militias and terrorist organisations like AQIM (see my interview in the Sunday Express).  Indeed, as reported in the FT, “Antoine Halff, the influential head of the International Energy Agency’s oil markets division has warned of a delayed impact of the Arab Spring on oil production, and the IEA is now forecasting no net growth in oil output from Africa’s four Opec members over the next five years.”

This clearly provides a new strategic landscape for both the US and EU to navigate as they try to overcome the consequences of the 2008 economic fall out.

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rice and Power = US Intervention in Syria?

There has been a lot of speculation over whether the additions of Susan Rice (as National Security Advisor) and Samantha Power (as Ambassador to the UN) will make a difference to President Obama’s decision to intervene in Syria.  The short answer is yes they will. Both are liberal internationalists, who played an important role in persuading president Obama to intervene in Libya.  Rice recalls the formative importance of working in the White House whilst President Clinton failed to intervene in Rwanda. Power has written an exceptional volume on the American failure to intervene in genocides “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide“. These are important considerations, but in addition to this, when the Obama administration fully acknowledges the use of chemical weapons in Syria (the so called red-line), they will be in a position to argue about the credibility of the US as an international actor. Add to this the increasing threat of destabilising regional allies, empowering enemies, turning the country into a terrorist training camp … momentum will be on their side of the policy argument.  It is this combination of interests and principles

Cover of "A Problem from Hell: America an...

Cover via Amazon

that has been the cornerstone of American intervention since the 1898 victory over Spain and subsequent events in the Philippines.  The policy debate has been slowly changing for months; Post-Geneva 2, all the ducks are lining up for a US intervention. It is doubtfully that this will be on the scale of Iraq (although defense estimates and back room chatter suggest that this would be needed) … but if a solution for Assad to go is not found, then the US looks set to act.


The New-look “International Studies Today” magazine


The new look BISA International Studies Today magazine was launched today, and includes a short piece by me entitled “American Democracy Promotion and the Arab Spring“.


In the aftermath of September 11 2001, the George W. Bush administration came to see the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa as a national interest.  As such, it constructed a democracy promotion policy as both a method of engaging with the Middle East, but also as a method of “draining the swamp” and countering terrorism.  Within such a context, the revolutions sweeping across the Middle East could be perceived as a success for what George W. Bush termed the Freedom Agenda.  Indeed, within certain neoconservative circles in Washington D.C. it is argued that events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have vindicated the Freedom Agenda.  However, a closer look at the Freedom Agenda reveals a contrary story about what the Bush administration was attempting, and the success of its democracy promotion policy in the region.  Once the policy is more closely understood, rather than the Arab Spring demonstrating policy success, they are in fact the ultimate expression of the policy’s failure.


A closer analysis of the Freedom Agenda reveals that the Bush administration espoused particularly narrow definitions of what it understood by essentially contested concepts such as “freedom” and “democracy”.  As such, when the Bush administration spoke of promoting “democracy”, freedom”, “security” and “peace”, what it meant was the promotion of top-down, elite-led, neoliberal conception of democracy.  This was to be done by force in Iraq and, after some considerable changes of strategy, in Afghanistan.  However, for ally regimes, what was offered was a strategy of incrementally reforming autocratic regimes whilst maintaining regional stability.  This was a shift form the status quo policy in place before September 11 2001, in that the US was pushing for reforms in the region.  However, unlike in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and once elected in 2006, Hamas, the political power of authoritarian allies and friends was not challenged either militarily or covertly.  This was because …

Follow the link for the full article