by Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince
(note: as this goes to press, it appears that Turkish troops are massing on the border with Syria in preparation of invading that country – more on this in Part II of this series)
(also posted at Counterpunch)
Yet again the Syrian conflict has taken the front pages of the western media outlet with the announcement that another UN sponsored Syrian peace talk is underway in Geneva. The latest round which began last Friday in Geneva; is an attempt to bring a number of groups to the negotiating table that has nothing in common. The so called the Syrian opposition group, which is supported by the Saudis, Qataris, Turks and other regressive regimes in the region have indicated that they intend to boycott this round of discussion as well unless their demands are met prior to negotiation despite US’s insistence that they should participate with no condition. Mike Whitney in his latest piece in Counterpunch, used the situation in eastern Oregon to assess the rationality of these demands under the current circumstance. He explained:
“To appreciate how ridiculous these demands are, one would have to imagine a similar scenario taking place in the United States. Let’s say, for example, that Ammon Bundy, the crackpot leader of the armed militia that seized the federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, demanded that the FBI and all other federal agents vamoose while the UN convened negotiations between his representatives and the Obama administration for the establishment of a transitional government that would remove Obama from power after 18 months while rewriting the constitution so it better reflected the far-right political and religious convictions of Bundy and his gaggle of ne’er-do-well followers. Read more…
(These are the notes used for two talks on “The Literary Work of Robert Merle” – done in two sessions at Westside Books – 3434 W.32nd Ave, Denver, Colorado 80211 – on January 10 and January 24, 2016)
Have been writing “The Rouen Chronicles” now for several years. It is not so much a nostalgic look backwards of the year I spent there (1964-65) as it is a series of spin offs, consequences of that year. So I’ve written some about the history of the city – it has quite a rich past – some of the people I knew then.
It was in that spirit that I decided to write about Robert Merle – his life, his writings and his influence on me. Merle was one of my professors that year – the one who easily made the most lasting impression.
Our group, from St. Lawrence University consisted of about 25 of us, under the direction of the chair of the French Dept., Dr. Oliver Andrews and a history prof, Dr. Robert Carlisle, both now deceased for some time. Marking the 50th anniversary of our year in France, about ten of us got together for a reunion last year (October, 2014) in Atlanta. Read more…
Dialogues – KGNU Hemispheres – January 25, 2016; Middle East Discussion With Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince
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.
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
– 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 Read more…
As elsewhere, they come in, seemingly from nowhere, guns blazing killing everyone in sight before, in turn, most of them too are mowed down by the domestic security forces that are poorly trained for this particular kind of warfare. “They” are Islamic militants, this time associated with Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). (1) Thirty people were killed and 56 more were wounded in the January 18th attack which lasted fifteen hours before it ended. Three of the attackers were killed but it appears that another three escaped.
While some of the motives will be discussed below, the essence of this attack was to create an atmosphere of fear in Burkina Faso, which then France (and US) can use to beef up their military security presence in the country and tighten their ties with the country’s military/security force.
AQIM’s terrorist activities have a decades long history throughout the Sahara and adjoining regions. Once again, it happened, this time a bit out of what has considered AQIM’s “traditional” zone of operations as the terrorists struck in Ougadougou, the capitol of Burkina Faso, landlocked dirt-poor West African country. Indeed, in many ways Burkina Faso was an unlikely target, until recently, beyond the radar of groups like AQIM.
Why all these attacks? The motives are not entirely clear. Read more…
Robert Merle: Notes on Jan 10, 2016 Talk on “Fortunes de France” – Part One; Westside Books – 3434 W.32 Ave. Denver, Colorado 80211
Note on the notes: I occasionally publish notes on the talks I give – usually at the request of the audience. Generally speaking my notes and the presentations given are not that far apart. I do wander from them as mood and questions come up, but almost always come back to the main themes. Rarely do I get through what I want to cover. It used to bother me, but doesn’t anymore. Thanks Dawn S. for the above wonderful photo of Merle
Thank Lois – Westside Books
Part One – Why This Subject? Why Me?
A couple of themes come together that explain these two meetings on Robert Merle…
1. The beginning of the translation of his 13 volume series “Fortunes de France” into English – the historical novel series that covers a turbulent period in French history – from the mid 16th to the mid 17th centuries and the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that dominated the period. Volumes 1 and 2 have been translated – Volume 1 as “The Brethren”, Volume 2 as “City of Wisdom and Blood.” – A third translated volume dealing with the time of the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre of 1572 is supposed to be out next month, in February, 2015
2. A personal landmark – the 50th anniversary of the Junior Year Abroad in Paris and Rouen France during which time I had Robert Merle as a professor for a seminar. Read more…
1. The Saudi P5+1 counter-offensive sputtering
When Israel – Netanyahu in particular, but past Israeli prime ministers as well – wants to “stick it” to Washington, knowing that it could complicate Obama’s agenda some, it announces it is going to build more settlements in the Occupied Territories at a sensitive moment for Washington, the goal being, repeatedly, to sabotage any genuine progress towards a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
It works like a charm every time! Washington bristles, perhaps makes a few critical remarks, but never does anything that will seriously undermine the underlying strategic relationship. This political tango has gone on for decades ad nauseam. In the end, it is based on an illusion, that being that Israeli policy is somehow independent of Washington’s over all policy. Nothing could be further for the truth as Washington holds virtually all the cards in the relationship in its hand. The idea that the “tail is wagging the dog” is, in a word, nonsense.
Saudi Arabia, that other U.S. Middle Eastern strategic ally, is also trying to influence Washington, but, it appears, less successfully at present. Like Israel, given the parameters of the “Obama Doctrine” the Saudis have a certain degree of political maneuverability from Washington although they can not stray very far, if at all, from Washington’s overarching plans for the region.
While it had other goals as well, it seems that the main purpose of Saudi Arabi’a mass execution was to provoke Iran into overreacting in such a way that the P5+1 agreement (the Iran nuclear deal) would be scuttled. While critical of the Saudi executions, Iran has so far limited its response to a verbal rebuke. It did not take the bait and over-react.
The Saudi head lopping was the largest mass execution since 1980 when 63 rebels involved in the 1979 rebellion in Mecca were likewise “put to the sword.” This time some 47 people – the most prominent among them the Shi’ite cleric Nimr al Nimra – were executed on January 2 inside prisons in twelve Saudi provinces; 43 were beheaded, the other four executed by firing squads. Most of the others were executed for organizing or participating in a series of al Qaeda-lined attacks in the years after 2003.
But the victims also included Shi’ite protestors from civil rights movements in Saudi eastern provinces that erupted as a part of the early Middle East wide Arab Spring uprisings. Shi’ites make up anywhere from 15-25% of Saudi Arabia’s overall population and have a history of suffering discrimination from the Wahhabist Sunni government in Riyadh. They are heavily concentrated in the country’s eastern regions, where, incidentally, the bulk of Saudi oil reserves are located.
Worse, the executions have backfired and become a Saudi public relations nightmare. This current wave of Saudi repression has met with near universal condemnation, including here in the United States. The media here has a long history of ignoring the kingdom’s shameful human rights record. But this time it appears the Saudis have gone too far, even for U.S. mainstream outlets. There is a growing concern that King Salman, who took over on the death of his brother, Abdullah, a year ago, has instituted a more aggressive, narrow nationalist overall Saudi regional policy has “gone too far.”
Besides shaking up some, some of the old ways the royal families ruled, Salman appointed a young, inexperienced – if articulate in the English language – Adel Al Jubeir as foreign minister who has “pushed the envelope” on Saudi foreign policy towards Syria, Yemen, but most especially antagonistic towards Iran. As an indication of the degree to which the Saudis are feeling the walls crash in all around them, Al Jubeir is the first member of the Saudi royal family itself to hold the foreign ministry post.
A January 5, 2016 NY Times article was unusually frank. It quotes Fawaz Georges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics: “…the regional turmoil the executions have caused…”could tear the social fabric between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia.” Later in the article it notes that the Saudi policy of targeting Iran’s growing regional influence (at Saudi expense) as “reckless” “including a decision to go to war with Yemen.”
Add to this Saudi oil politics. Of late the Saudis, doing more damage to their own economy than anyone elses’, has decided to engage in an oil price war by flooding global oil markets with their crude, betting that they can outlast their oil competitors with the $700 billion in U.S. treasury bonds to fall back on. Such a policy ultimately will hurt those countries whose economies remain un-diversified and use oil as their only (or almost only) source of foreign exchange. Not true for either Russia or Iran, both of whom, will be negatively effected, but less so than Saudi Arabia itself. One of the ironies of the sanctions against Iran is that it has forced the country to diversify economically away from total dependence on oil and it has done so.
Beyond the cynicism, downright inhumanity and barbarism of these beheading, which merit all the international outcry they are receiving, one must ask the question: what’s the deal? After all, Salman and Al Jubeir knew well that going down such a path would provoke such a vibrant negative reaction. But they didn’t give a hoot about public opinion, did they, as long as they were assured that Washington, other than making a few feckless public statements, would stand behind them. Again, the comparison with Netanyahu’s Israel – immune to criticism as long as the White House considers Israel its strategic ally – comes to mind. As long as Washington – be it the Bush or Obama White House – stand with its regional strategic allies Israel, Saudi Arabia it matters little what the rest of the world thinks.
What comes through, as the NY Times article suggests, is that the beheadings was the not so subtle way of the Saudis “sending a message.” What message though? To whom and for what purpose?
2. Iranian cautiousness
Like most public relations events – for that is precisely what these executions were – there are several purposes. The global backdrop for these primitive executions comes into play. Just yesterday (Jan. 7, 2015), the New York Times noted that U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry had announced that Iran is close to complying with last summer’s nuclear deal, “a step that would compel the U.S. and other Western nations to immediately suspend many sanctions on the Islamic republic.” The article goes on to state that the “landmark could usher in a new phase in the budding U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.”
Should the sanctions be lifted – and there is every indication that they will be at present – it is more than likely result in an Iranian economic boom of unprecedented proportions. Even before the formal lifting of sanctions, since the signing of the initial agreement this past September, there has been something approaching a flood of foreign financial and business people in Tehran hoping for contracts with the Iranian government.
While there are other factors involved, the timing of the event suggests the Saudis are trying to sabotage the P5 +1 agreement by Iran to over-react to the killings, especially of Nimr al Nimra. Riyadh was betting that Iran would respond to the killings in such a way – militarily or politically – that pressure would be put on Washington to back out of it, which would effectively kill the process. Add to the executions, the recent Saudi bombing of the Iranian embassy in Sana, Yemen and an indication of just how far the Saudi’s are willing to go to provoke their neighbor across the Persian Gulf comes into focus.
It is no secret that the Obama Administration’s signing of the P5+1 agreement in Iran was unpopular among American hawks, AIPAC and the like who went all out to sabotage the agreement themselves. There remains pressure, significant pressure at that, to find a way out of the deal before it is finally realized. The Saudi provocations – should the Iranians “bite” – would give Washington a way to scuttle the agreement while maintaining their dignity – and of course blaming their exit on the Iranians.
But much as Russia did not take Turkey’s bait after the recent downing of its fighter jet over northern Syria by responding militarily (and thus creating a pretext for a great NATO presence in Syria) so from all appearances the Iranian response to the Saudi beheadings has been critical…but controlled. They haven’t taken the bait, and there is little indication from where I am sitting, that they will. Iran is anxious to have the sanctions lifted and was willing to curtail much of its nuclear energy program to achieve that goal.
In fact, the Iranians are, in this period between the signing of the P5+1 agreement and its implementation, being very cautious precisely not to antagonize the Saudis, not to “rub it in” so to speak that Iranian influence in the Middle East is rising while the Saudis find themselves more isolated. It suggests how important it is to Tehran that the sanctions be lifted. For they understand that should the agreement be finalized, that it will usher in – not just a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations – but give considerable dynamism to their economic development. And it is economically – rather than militarily – that Iran wants to compete with the Saudis, as they understand all to well, that between themselves and the Saudis there can be no military solution.
The Saudis understand the vulnerability of their position should the agreement be finalized and in a kind of frenzy, under the leadership of their young, inexperienced, arrogant and increasingly reckless foreign minister, Al Jubeir, – who spent too much time cozying up to neocon and AIPAC like elements at Washington cocktail parties, are seeing just how far they can push things. As the finalization of the agreements with Iran come into focus, all appearances suggest that the Saudi saber-rattling approach is backfiring and going nowhere.
Crosslisted at Foreign Policy In Focus