Stretching My Gambes

Posts Tagged ‘Obama

China in their hands

leave a comment »

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

Obama’s Iran policy could quash dissent

leave a comment »

Published on (01/02/2010)

The United States is ramping up its military presence in the Gulf with the reported sale of patriot missile systems to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with the deployment of two warships capable of shooting down missiles directed at the littoral states in the Gulf.

This can be interpreted in two ways. First, Obama is signalling its capability and intent to an Israeli regime that appears particularly interested in taking unilateral and pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, Obama is attempting to demonstrate that America is willing to take military action against Tehran.

Being seen to placate Israel, again, will only damage Obama’s reputation further in the region, which has sunk and sunk since its zenith – when he delivered a speech at the Al-Azhar University in June 2009.

More importantly, however, the decision is exactly the sort of American action the incumbents in Tehran need, and probably want, in order to cement their position. While Iran’s leadership has survived the protests and demonstrations that resulted from the disputed election in June, severe discontent still exists within different elements of the Iranian population. By ramping up the threat of military action against Tehran any renegotiation of political power in the country can be seized by hardline elements with a vested interest in maintaining poor relations with the US.

Since the election protest the regime has routinely attempted to cast the protests and demonstrations as a result of foreign meddling in the country’s affairs. A list of 60 blacklisted organisations has now been published by the regime, the majority of which are foreign institutions perceived as a threat.

The country’s history of interference at the hands of American, British and Russian agents developed an anti-imperialist norm that remains pervasive throughout the population. The CIA and MI6 orchestrated coup d’etat against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 is an event imprinted in Iranian consciousness.

The very foundation of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the rejection of foreign interference in the country’s affairs. Pre-revolutionary writings from intellectuals like Jamal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shari’ati spoke of the “Westoxification” of Iran and the need for the country to “return to oneself”. These slogans transcended different political factions regardless of their positions as Islamists, Marxists, republicans or socialists, and manifest themselves in the revolutionary slogans of “Neither East nor West, just the Islamic Republic” and “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic”.

Political power is in the process of being renegotiated in Iran but threatening the regime in such an overt manner gives them the material it needs to quash the efforts of brave Iranians to confront the brutal authoritarianism displayed by the regime. Iran remains a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary state, and the upheavals of 1979 are still playing themselves out.

However, by allowing the Iranian government to divert attention from domestic matters towards the imminent threat of America and Israel, Obama would risk closing the spaces that Iranians have carved for themselves.

Written by Henry Smith

01/02/2010 at 22:36

The Golan: lest ye forget

with one comment

Before 1967 the Golan had a population between 140,000 and 153,000. The principal town, Al-Quneitra, was of unsurpassed strategic importance to Syria and its Arab neighbours; it is the only area in the Middle East that provides access to Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria Thus, it is ideally positioned to become an infrastructural and commercial hub of the region. The Golan is also a highly fertile piece of land, with rich volcanic soils and abundant fresh water supplies, thus serving as a crucial agricultural centre for Syria before 1967. Furthermore, the region has wonderful opportunities to develop Syria’s nascent tourism industry. Taken together, these factors indicate that the Golan is perhaps Syria’s most precious asset.

In 1967 the Golan was invaded by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) on the pretext of ending Syrian aggression towards Israeli settlers. However, this is largely dismissed by historians. For example Avi Shlaim states that ‘…it would be nearer the truth to say that the Golan Heights represent one of the most successful of Zionist myths.’ These myths are starkly observable in the following extract from an interview on 18th September 1992 with Netanyahu Peled, a former Head of Intelligence: ‘If we wanted to be honest and speak the truth we need to admit that all incidents of the clashes on the Syrian-Israeli front were initiated by Israel.’

After 1967 around 130,000 Golan residents were either forcibly evicted or decided to flee the violence, while a further 7,000 lived under Israeli occupation. Today there are approximately 346,000 displaced persons living throughout Syria and 20,000 Syrians living under Israeli occupation. Those living under occupation are treated as second-class citizens; workers are never paid and subject to arbitrary dismissal; Syrians are granted restricted access to agricultural resources; furthermore, those who travel to study in Syria are subject to dehumanising and violent questioning and treatment when they return. See this UN report for more details.

The Syrian army pushed the Israeli army back and recaptured al-Quneitra in 1973. However, they discovered that the IDF had completely demolished the town as they retreated. The local hospital was pockmarked with bullet holes; the building had been used for training IDF soldiers to capture large public buildings.

Al-Quneitra Hospital

The top of the hospital provides a great vantage point for surveying the surrounding scenery. In the immediate foreground you can see the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force zone, which separates Syria from its occupied land. Beyond this the lush fertility of the Golan is apparent; there is field upon field of different crops. Looking further still, there are obvious IDF military bases which overlook Syria from mountainous vantage points. On the roof of the hospital, you could not help but suspect that someone was watching you.

In stark contrast to the lushness of occupied Syria, a 180 degree turn reveals the dry barrenness of the semi-arid land that Israel left for Syria. Amongst it sits the ruins of Al-Quneitra. Admittedly, the Syrian government has not gone out of its way to rebuild the town; it serves an important role for propaganda. However, the IDF’s destruction remains propaganda notwithstanding.

UN Patrolled Border

Observing the contrast in the land on either side of the UN maintained ‘border’, fertility versus aridity, it is easier to suspect the reason for Israel halting the occupation where it did. However, this suspicion is confirmed by Moshe Dayan, then Israeli Defence Minister: ‘There was really no pressing reason to go to war with Syria… The kibbutz residents who pressed the government to take the Golan Heights did so less for security than for the farmland.’

The Golan is a region that is often forgotten in media portrayals of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is a propensity to focus on the issue as an Arab-Palestinian conflict or to become captivated by the Islamist inclinations of Hamas or Hizbullah. However, beyond Israel’s human rights abuses and flagrant disregard for international law, it is important to recognise the importance of this region for Israel and Syria.

Israel does not want to lose this land. It is fertile, great for tourism (2.1 million a year for ski resorts et al.), and of real strategic significance as stated above. It is important to clarify that Israel attempts to mask these reasons for its occupation behind its alleged security concerns. This manifests itself in the conflation of the Golan with the Golan Heights (a small part of the Golan). Identification of the region as the Golan Heights rather than the Golan is in keeping with Israel’s desire to identify the occupation with security concerns, when in reality the occupation provides an abundance of other benefits. Indeed, the BBC’s ‘regions and territories’ profile refers to Golan as the Golan Heights.

While these benefits are clearly important to Syria, along with the fact that Israeli occupation is an illegal breach of Syria’s sovereignty, it is important to recognise that Syrian foreign policy decisions cannot be detached from regaining the Golan. The full return of the Golan is the only means through which Syria will achieve peace with Israel. As Muhammad Ali (Public Relations Director the Golan Region) said to me: ‘peace can only be achieved when what is rightfully yours is returned.’ Hence Syria’s persistent refusal to accept partial returns of the Golan.

While the importance of the Golan may be at times overlooked in the media, it is important that the Obama administration recognise its significance to their attempts to broker Israeli Syrian talks and to regional security generally. Moreover, it is important that the international community does not forget the plight of Golanis and this unfortunately marginalised example of Israel’s continued defiance of international law.

Written by Henry Smith

30/09/2009 at 16:28

Iran’s new ‘Great Satan’

with 5 comments

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

leave a comment »

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