China

Iran and Great Power Politics

Posted by Cutler on August 15, 2007
China, Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Iraq, Russia / No Comments

Iran is, by most accounts, riding high these days, with unprecedented influence within Afghanistan and Iraq and powerful Mediterranean proxy forces like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Who am I to disagree?

Nevertheless, a few small news stories shed a slightly different light on the Iranian strategic position.

For example, an August 11, 2007 report from BBC Monitoring of Al-Sharqiyah Television suggests the limits of Iranian influence in Iraq, if not also Russia:

“Diplomatic sources in Moscow said that the Iranian Government played a mediatory role in the visit of Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al- Shahrastani to Moscow. Sources close to the Iranian Embassy in the Russian capital added that Iran asked Al-Shahrastani to agree on Russia’s demands to re-negotiate the investment of some southern oil wells based on a memorandum of understanding signed by the former Iraqi regime with a number of big Russian oil firms in the early 1990s. The sources went to say the Iranian step seeks to secure Moscow’s support for its nuclear programme.”

As I noted in a previous post, Shahrastani appears to have resisted Russian pressure for re-negotiation on the West Qurna fields–Iranian “mediation” notwithstanding.

What does it say about Iranian influence in Iraq if the Iranian regime cannot “deliver” Iraq for Russia?

And, can this outcome bode well for Iranian attempts to renew Moscow’s support for its nuclear programme?

Even as the US attempts to use financial pressure to isolate the Iranian regime, there are signs that Iran may be having some difficulty lining up Great Power allies.

The Washington Post reports:

The key obstacle to stronger international pressure against Tehran has been China, Iran’s largest trading partner. After the Iranian government refused to comply with two U.N. Security Council resolutions dealing with its nuclear program, Beijing balked at a U.S. proposal for a resolution that would have sanctioned the Revolutionary Guard, U.S. officials said.

China’s actions reverse a cycle during which Russia was the most reluctant among the veto-wielding members of the Security Council. “China used to hide behind Russia, but Russia is now hiding behind China,” said a U.S. official familiar with negotiations.

Be that as it may, there are also limits to China’s willingness to shelter the Iranian regime.

The Financial Times reports on China’s potential reluctance to back Iranian efforts to get a seat at the Shanghai Co-operation Organization:

Russia that is pushing the latest efforts to give the [Shanghai Co-operation Organisation] more muscle. Moscow is expected to lobby this week for Iran’s inclusion, which would deepen the rift with the US over Washington’s plan to site missile interceptors in central Europe.

While Russia is at odds with the US, Nato and the European Union on a range of issues, China regards the recently sealed US nuclear pact with India with deep suspicion and could see that as justification to allow Iran’s entry…

Some analysts, however, believe China would block any proposal to allow Iran to join the SCO. “Admitting Iran would further strain already tense Chinese-US relations and would not advance China’s main priority in the SCO, which is to manage relations with its western neighbours,” says Martha Brill Olcott, a central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Inter-national Peace.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Iranian strategic leverage in the Middle East, the Gulf, and Central Asia.

But there are limits.

From Cheney’s perspective, it might even be argued (as he did during the 1990s), that Iran–as a Caspian regional power–would do well to align itself not with Russia or China, but with the United States.

That seems difficult to imagine, given all the tough talk between the US and Iran.  But stranger things have happened.

Rubaie Coup

Posted by Cutler on September 28, 2006
China, Iraq, Right Arabists, Right Zionists / No Comments

The “security news” from Iraq continues to be very, very grim. According to a recent–if generic–AP report:

The bodies of 40 men who were shot and had their hands and feet bound have been found in the capital over the past 24 hours, police said Thursday.

All the victims showed signs of torture, police Lt. Thayer Mahmoud said. They were dumped in several neighborhoods in both eastern and western Baghdad, he said….

The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell… said murders and executions are currently the No. 1 cause of civilian deaths in Baghdad.

I continue to be amazed, however, that these stories run–day after day–without any real attempt to put them in a political context.

There is some talk that this violence is not actually “political” or even “sectarian” but simply the work of rogue gangs who thrive on kidnapping and murder amidst the chaotic lawlessness of a city and country that the US refuses to govern.

I’ve got no basis for understanding much about criiminal gang activity, but why all the torture? Surplus brutality for its own sake? Simple sadism, notwithstanding, I tend to think of torture as linked to threats and demands. Are there criminal bandits making demands for ransom? If so, I’ve never seen a single report about such demands.

If the violence is “political” or “sectarian”–the work of politicized death squads–then where is the attempt to situate the deaths on a political axis. Who were the victims? Shiites? Sunnis?

It almost feels like the daily drumbeat of news of “random” violence is accompanied by a news blackout on context. Such reporting only adds to the notion that someone–anyone–should put an end to this anarchy and madness.

Speaking of a Coup

The classic formula for ending “anarchy and madness” is a military coup. I cannot help thinking that the US continues to threaten a coup in Iraq.

The latest nod in that direction comes from a September 28, 2006 New York Times article, “Military Officials Add to U.S. Criticism of Iraq’s Government,” in which unnamed senior U.S. military officials slam the Maliki government on a variety of charges:

Referring to the problem of militias, he added, “There is going to come a time when I would argue we are going to have to force this issue.”

The official said political parties who were plundering ministries were squandering chances to make progress that could reduce sectarian violence.

“I can tell you in every single ministry how they are using that ministry to fill the coffers of the political parties,” the official said. “They are doing that because that is exactly what Saddam Hussein did”…

In recent weeks American and Iraqi officials have privately voiced concerns that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki might not have the will or the political dexterity to bring the country together and avoid a full-scale civil war. Mr. Maliki, they say, is hamstrung and beholden to rival political parties with their own large militias.

Comments offered by senior United States military officials in the last few days have been even more pointed and take in not only the Maliki administration but also the whole of the Iraqi government bureaucracy. The senior military officials agreed to speak only without being identified, because of the delicate nature of the issue.

So, who will “bring the country together” if Maliki cannot do it?

I have no idea. But I do note that there is one Iraqi official who the Times quotes along with the US military officials: Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

A Newsweek profile from December 2004 referred to Rubaie as “Mr. Cellophane” because he is everywhere in the “New” Iraq, but remains largely invisible.

Amidst several political changes–from the US-appointed government of Iyad Allawi to the elected Maliki government, Rubaie has served as “National Security” advisor without interruption.

The Times quotes Rubaie on the current government:

The situation is really serious,” Mr. Rubaie said. “There is no cohesion in the government to help him. There are so many circles he needs to take into consideration when he wants to make a decision. There is a lack of will to stop the violence among the politicians.”

Maybe Rubaie could… “help.” (Some are already predicting he will…)

The meaning of a Rubaie coup would depend on what he does and his base of support (aside from the US).

The Newsweek profile claimed that Rubaie is close to Sistani. And back in 2004 it was Rubaie who pressed for various “deals” with Sadr during his uprisings–only to have his deals undermined by Iyad Allawi. Rubaie is from the Shiite Dawa party–the same as Prime Minister Maliki.
It is, therefore, hardly clear that a Rubaie coup would make sense: he would hardly represent a radical break with Shiite rule.

Unless he was prepared to rely on a very different constituency for his support in a coup. If so, his Shiite credentials would tend to add an aura of “legitimacy” to what would, in effect, be an anti-Shiite coup.

I have no basis for thinking that Rubaie would make such a break.

I do note, however, that in Washington factional politics, Right Zionists seem surprisingly critical of Rubaie.

In a May 2004 article, Michael Rubin of AEI went out of his way to criticize Rubaie–although the charges against him were rather vague and confused:

On April 10, Bremer appointed Mowaffaq al-Rubaie to be Iraq’s National Security Advisor. Iraqis were flabbergasted. Rubaie was the butt of Iraqi jokes. Several different Iraqis say he charged Iraqi businessmen for introductions to CPA officials and access to the Green Zone. Iraqis ridiculed his lack of Iraqi support and his frequent appearances on television. “Mowaffaq’s constituency is CNN, BBC, and [the Arabic satellite network] al-Jazeera,” one Najaf businessman joked…

While State Department officials insisted that Rubaie was an important aide to Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani (Powell even dined with Rubaie during his September 2003 visit to Baghdad), Iraqis called Rubaie a fraud…

[M]any Iraqis remember… Rubaie’s time as spokesman for the Iranian-backed Islamist al-Da’wa party. Al-Dawa is suspected the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kuwait.

Rubin charges Rubaie with being too close to Iran–a charge that would presumably apply to every other Dawa leader, including Prime Minister Maliki. This hardly makes him the obvious choice to lead an anti-Shiite coup.

But the real issue–for Rubin–would likely be the “dinner” with Colin Powell and his support from within the State Department.

This would make Rubaie a likely candidate to lead an anti-Shiite coup.

Right Zionists Ready to Move On?

There are news reports that Iraqi oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, will travel to China to discuss going forward with oil development contracts awarded under Saddam Hussein.

[Oil ministry spokesman] Asim Jihad told Reuters… “The minister will discuss with Chinese companies fulfilling previous contracts signed with the former regime.”

Iraqi oil officials have previously said they believe China will agree to develop the 90,000-barrel per day (bpd) Ahdab field in south central Iraq as the first project since the war.

The field, with an estimated development cost of $700 million, was awarded to China National Petroleum Corp and Chinese state arms manufacturer Norinco by Saddam.

The deal, like others signed by Saddam, was effectively frozen by international sanctions and then Saddam’s overthrow.

It is too early to get any reaction from Right Zionists. But this much is clear: Right Zionists like Richard Perle were quite clear, on the eve of the US invasion, that the collapse of the sanctions regime in the late 1990s forced the US to act: crumbling sanctions would mean that US rivals and competitors would get access to the oil.

For Right Zionists, China is a rival, not an ally.

If a Shiite Iraqi oil deal with China is not enough to tip the Right Zionists toward support for an anti-Shiite coup, I do not know what would.

Maybe a strategic reconciliation with Saudi Arabia on the basis of mutual animosity toward Iran?