Stretching My Gambes

Archive for the ‘International Politics’ Category

China in their hands

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Published in the New Statesman as an accompaniment to a piece by Anthony Giddens (08/02/2010) and the (04/02/2010)

Shortly after entering office in 2009, Barack Obama tried to show his commitment to tackling climate change by appointing Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese-American scientist, as energy secretary.

Clearly any agreement on a global framework hinged on Sino-US relations. In this regard, the year started well, with Hillary Clinton’s visit to China in February. She sought to incorporate climate change into talks about trade relations. This effort was reinforced by Todd Stern, the leading US climate-change negotiator, who travelled to Beijing in June to push for China’s participation in a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

However, climate change was pushed down the agenda at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July, as each party sought reassurances regarding the other’s economic policies. With momentum gathering for the Copenhagen talks, both countries used September’s G20 summit and UN General Assembly to stress their commitment to combating climate change.

Expectations of a deal were raised further after Obama’s visit to China in November, despite a lack of firm pledges from either side. But in the blame game that followed Copenhagen, Washington and Beijing questioned each other’s dedication to finding an answer to climate change.


Written by Henry Smith

04/02/2010 at 16:37

Iran’s new ‘Great Satan’

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The post-election scenes in Iran have grabbed ‘Western’ media institutions and social networking sites for a number of reasons. However, I want to pick up on two related issues that have been misrepresented or overlooked in the majority of the coverage: the possible impact of the election on Iranian foreign policy and why Great Britain has been demonised by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The idea that a Presidential victory for Mousavi would have shifted Iranian foreign policy to a significant detente with the ‘West’ (particularly the US) is far too simplistic.

Yes, all four supported improved relations with the ‘West’ (particularly the US).

Yes, all four candidates supported the completion of the nuclear cycle.

Yes, regardless of who has been President since the revolution support for the Palestinian cause has not significantly altered (including current members of the opposition: Khatami, Mousavi and Rafsanjani).

Whilst a change from the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad may have been a popular outcome among foreign diplomats, I personally do not think Iranian policy would have shifted dramatically.

There are certain recurring proclivities that are represented in the foreign policy of the Iranian state since the 1979 revolution: radical cultural and political independence; economic autarky; diplomatic and ideological mobilisation against Zionism; and resistance against US interference in regional and domestic affairs. More succinctly, anti-imperialism, cultural authenticity and independence can be identified as the central parameters of the Islamic Republic’s identity discourse.

These proclivities and preferences are a result of the dominant ideological narratives of the revolution: Bazgasht beh-khish and Gharbzadegi. The former juxtaposed the allegedly perfectly true and authentic identity of Iran as a nation with the unauthentic status of the fallen present under the Pahlavi Shah (Ali Shariati). Similarly, the latter articulated the growing gap between the supposed authentic self of Iran and the decadent and unauthentic status of Pahlavi Iran, distorted (‘Westoxified’) by ‘Western’ modernity (Jalal Al-e Ahmad).

I do not feel that any of the political figures involved in the current power struggle in Iran would have significantly shifted from these dominant revolutionary narratives. However, a rhetorical break from Ahmadinejad may have led to an improvement in relations with the US. Similar to the break from Bush that Obama achieved.

That break brings in my next point regarding the demonization of Britain by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Britain has a poor reputation amongst elements of Iranian society. Since the discovery of oil in 1901 Britain has a poor record of meddling in Iranian domestic affairs. Most infamously in 1953 with the coup to oust the nationalist Mussadiq, replacing him with the repressive Shah. Such sentiments towards the interfering British have been popularised through Iranian television series, like Uncle Napoleon.

However, during the 1979 revolution it was America and, partly by extension, Israel that was demonised by Iranian society. They were respectively known as the ‘Great Satan’ and ‘Little Satan’. However, following Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech on Friday, Britain appears to have taken that mantle.

I maintain that Britain has replaced America as the ‘Great Satan’. Obama has shifted the American language towards Muslims and the Middle East so significantly that an attack on him would be politically damaging for Ayatollah Khamenei at this moment in time. On the other hand, Gordon Brown is a sitting duck. The current domestic unpopularity and weakness of the British government makes Brown such an easy target when one considers Britain’s historical record in Iran. It is just too easy.

That said, Obama’s comments today may lead to a verbal backlash from Iran. Perhaps Britain may take a backseat role again.

However, I disagree with Obama when he claims that the Iranian government’s criticisms of other countries is just an attempt to divert attention from the domestic situation. Alternatively, it is reflective of the normative currents contained in the revolution of 1979, which appear alive and well today. Personally, I believe that Ayatollah Khamenei is aware of how his claims regarding Britain resonate domestically.

It is not the 1979 revolution that is being questioned in Iran, rather where Iran moves next and under whose control.

Obama’s language

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Obama’s speech at al-Azhar University in Cairo illustrated his well-documented ability as a masterful orator, reminiscent of his earlier speech on race during the US elections. However, how excited can we get about words?

Whilst there are many important and interesting aspects of Obama’s speech, incorporating policy and philosophy, I will leave these aside here. I found Mark Lynch’s blog a particularly worthwhile read. I am in agreement with Lynch that ‘this speech is an essential starting point in a genuine conversation, a respectful dialogue on core issues.’

However, there were no tangible commitments in terms of policy or timeframes in the speech. A continued military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have been the only exception. Obama maintained his stance on illegal Israeli settlements, but did not illuminate as to how this issue was to be dealt with; further the American–Israeli bond was highlighted. However, whilst not wishing to develop this point too much here – the very fact that he called the Palestinian situation an ‘occupation’ is unprecedented for a US politician. Further, he emphasised that the security of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are intimately tied up with each other.

Whilst it is easy, albeit correct, to claim that rhetoric needs to be supplemented with action…

Khaled Meshal (HAMAS leader) made this point when speaking to Time: ‘[undoubtedly] Obama speaks a new language. We are looking for more than just mere words… We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that this cannot happen] merely with words.’

…one should not ignore the importance of words.

The way Obama has framed the debate, and the nature of the discourse he is attempting to establish, changes the nature and terms of cultural, political and social engagement. Rather than the bellicose and fear-inducing language of Bush and his ‘Global War on Terror’, there is an inclusive and respectful dialogue emerging that rightfully locates violence on the fringe of Islamist politics, and recognises the important contemporary and historical contributions of Muslims and Islamic history, rather than buying into the notion that buying into the neo-con/religious right myths about the barbarity and violence of Islam.

However, I believe that this shift has been apparent before Obama’s inauguration. Almost five months down the line, there has been little tangible change to accompany the rhetorical break with the Bush administration. Thus, whilst it is hard to get too over-excited by words, especially when one observes the recent history of Western Asia, I do feel that this speech is clearly part of a discursive shift in the White House; and whilst we shouldn’t sniff our noses at it too quickly, let us hope that Obama’s actions do not go one to give us good reason to.

Written by Henry Smith

05/06/2009 at 11:56

Saudi’s commitment to Palestine: America’s fault?

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‘The Saudi-U.S. Relationship; Past Developments and Future Prospects’ read the PowerPoint display behind Turki al-Faisal’s head at the LSE today. However, the entire length and breadth of his speech was dedicated to rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause.

The irony of this should not go unmissed.

The U.S. is Israel’s staunchest ally in the international arena. The power of AIPAC in particular, along with the interconnected networks of lobby groups, think tanks, and media that comprise the Israeli Lobby in general, routinely ensure that we do not see a decisive change in U.S. strategy to the Israel-Palestine situation. On the other hand, Saudi is denigrated by secular and Islamic voices within the region, not only for its lack of political pluralism, but for the fact that it has traditionally been America’s hand-maiden in the Middle East. If Saudi were committed to making a difference to the Palestinian issue then why not lever some influence on the Americans?

In my opinion, they won’t because they can’t. Aside from the fact that U.S. policies since 9/11 have not served Saudi interests particularly well, Saudi does not appear to be particularly high on Obama’s regional agenda; Riyadh was not on Obama’s first round of phone calls or Mitchell’s itinerary. Furthermore, there is no one in Obama’s inner circle who has any experience or knowledge of the Saudi family, or indeed of the historical relationship between the two. I am not suggesting that the two are destined to conflict, but Saudi just doesn’t appear to have the weight it once had with the U.S.
The Saudi’s decline in influence is also visible in the region as a whole, and is in fact partly a result of U.S. policies. Iran has taken the mantle of the legitimate regional actor when it comes to Palestine, due to its support in word and deed for the cause. Furthermore, Iranian influence has extended into Iraq through since America imported anarchy into the country. Saudi has had to accept that the Sunni groups they back will not exert the same influence as the Shi’a parties. Thus, Saudi appears to be turning to the Palestinian cause to try and establish more regional legitimacy and to counter the ‘diplomatic’ efforts of Iran, and indeed its regional power status.

Therefore, can Saudi support for the Palestinians be observed as a result of the deterioration of their relationship with the U.S., or indeed the effects of U.S. policy on Saudi’s regional position?

Written by Henry Smith

07/05/2009 at 23:33