Putting Iran In Context

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Sensible letter to the Economist from Sir Richard Dalton, a former Ambassador to Iran:

SIR – Do you really think Iran could become a regional hegemon (“Can Iran be stopped?”, June 22nd)? In one respect or another, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia, Turkey and Egypt are all as strong or stronger. Iran cannot even dominate the Gulf. The six Arab countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, tend to exaggerate Iranian influence, including in Bahrain and Yemen.

Only from southern Lebanon does Iran have the ability to project serious power. For sure, it has a strong influence in Iraq, some in Gaza, and a tightening alliance with Syria, but this merely allows Iran to maintain the position it has enjoyed for many years. This still doesn’t amount to “regional hegemony”.

You also did not mention that Iran has a policy of converting its 20% enriched uranium into oxide, ready for research-reactor fuel-making. This puts the material beyond use for bombs (short of a time-consuming, detectable and technically demanding process to turn it back into gas, which can be discounted in the medium term). That is why the United States and Israel seem relaxed about waiting for the autumn before a new round of negotiations.

The idea that everyone would bow down before Iran if it got nuclear-weapons capability is fanciful. Actions lead to reactions, and one of the reactions to deployed weapons (if there were no immediate war) would be sanctions in perpetuity and possibly an American nuclear umbrella over the West’s friends in the region. In such circumstances, what power would Iran acquire as a result of having nukes, other than deterrence?

Finally, it should be noted that Iran’s economy has been floundering, its armed forces out of date. It has minimal stocks of modern air and land weapons and has lost influence in Arab countries as a combined result of sanctions, the turmoil caused by repression after its disputed election in 2009, and the Arab spring. Since the shah’s day, the balance of power has tilted heavily against Iran, especially as the armies of the GCC have become far stronger. Some experts think the air force of the United Arab Emirates alone could take out the entire Iranian one.

Iran’s influence has fluctuated. It is rising in Iraq. Its help is desperately needed by Bashar Assad in Syria. But elsewhere, the “rise of Persia” is a myth.

Sir Richard Dalton

British ambassador to Iran, 2003-06

London

via Letters | The Economist.

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Will #Mali’s new government herald arms or armies?

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In less time than it takes for an apartment pineapple to ripen, a new government of national unity has been formed in Mali in the latest effort to restore stability after the military coup in March. It follows 5 long months of political tug-of-war between the ready-meal interim government and the frozen-dinner coup leadership headed by Captain Sanogo. The Captain was persuaded to release his grip a little, after his palms were oiled with a palatial home and “former head of state” status – including a generous allowance. The cabinet has 31 ministers, including five from Sanogo’s camp. The head of the interim government, Cheick Modibo Diarra, stays on as prime minister. For now.

Early-stage pre-coup pineapple during US training

During this incubation period, interim President Dioncounda Traore was attacked, and spent several weeks recovering in Paris. No doubt he spent more of that time in the briefing room of  Boulevard Mortier  than in recovery. Shortly after Dioncounda returned to Mali, one of the former President’s elite Red Beret guards, Staff Sergeant Amadou Traore, was murdered in his barracks. That signal seems to have been received loud and clear; no further attacks on the interim president have been reported yet.

Last month, the regional bloc ECOWAS threatened to expel Mali unless a unity government was installed, according to the BBC. Yesterday, there were news reports of ECOWAS and Algeria [ar] barring military shipments to Mali. Meanwhile, Major General Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi, Libya’s former Deputy Director of Military Intelligence and Chairman of the Republican Guard in Benghazi, reveals that, when there was a weapons amnesty and surrendering of arms in Libya last year, his unit alone boycotted the deal and instead their weapons passed to mercenaries from Egypt, for onward transfer to AQIM in Algeria and Mali. Doubly painful, as it was the ousted former president Touré, aka “ATT”, who said in February that they needed more military hardware to respond to the MNLA’s attacks, widely reported to be using massive fire-power brought back from Libya.

Weapons in 30 Days or Your Next Government Half Price

We need to wait to see if the formation of a new unity government defrosts the supply of arms, and whether they’ll be delivered by shipment or in person. Just last weekend, Al Jazeera Arabic reported a training exercise in Libya (irony alert) of 2,000 troops including 800 special forces from Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy, in preparation for an incursion into Malian territory. The training programme lasted from February to June. Here’s the video:

There are many competing theories about what is going on in Mali. One school of thought insists that the plan is, and always has been, to get the boots of foreign troops on the ground. However, just as with the reports of armed rebels severing someone’s hand as a punishment for stealing (and the victim later dying), and of their threat-or-promise to repeat the exercise with hundreds more after the Eid holiday, or even of the beheading* that UNHCR’s spokesperson Melissa Fleming claimed to have happened, there’s no way of knowing if the scenario portrayed in this video sheds light on the actual situation.

How can we figure Mali out? To butcher the old standard, “follow the ransom money” and we find food for thought. For example, fresh claims of Swiss support for the rebels appeared last week. This was denied by the MNLA as a rumour created by a Swiss journalist and promoted to a fact by a website in Mauritania, where the media has carved a niche for exclusive revelations about Mali.

I was anticipating more mention of Switzerland, after a Swiss woman was apparently taken hostage in Timbuctu by a private militia who planned to trade her to AQIM. The lady was reportedly “rescued” by Ansar Dine and released for an alleged 1 million Euro, in a deal where they demanded to liaise directly with the Swiss officials, rejecting the offer of a human rights NGO to mediate.  That event was soon followed by a spectacular betrayal of MNLA by Ansar Dine, who hijacked the uprising and forced the secular separatists into a retreat from which they have yet to emerge. Speculation about how the more radical supporters of religion achieved this feat includes the investment of ransom capital to buy supporters. There have been other kidnappings: three Westerners abducted nearly nine months ago by AQIM in Mali, seen today urging their governments to help free them in an Al-Jazeera television exclusive video, and the seven Algerian diplomatic staff taken from the embassy in Gao, three of whom were returned last month, shortly after the release of one Italian and two Spanish hostages. This last exchange was said to be accompanied by a few more million Euro and the release of two more prisoners – one assumed by some to be connected to the POLISARIO – who were being held in Mauritania for their part in the kidnapping of the three Europeans.

Within days Mauritania benefited from a capitulation by the EU (Note: the EU Africa team is led by a Spaniard) finally agreeing to their exorbitant new terms for renewing the fishing agreement, and an agreement from Spain to salvage the small aircraft “donated” to Mauritania in June last year to help in the fight against illegal immigrants, and which had remained, unairworthy and stranded on the tarmac, more or less the whole time.

This brings me to another stranded plane – the famous “Air Cocaine” Boeing jet from South America which landed/crashed just north of Gao in a village called Tarkint at the end of October 2009, and was reportedly torched by the smugglers after their cargo of drugs had been retrieved. The local mayor was known as an intermediary with AQIM for the release of kidnap victims.

The char grilled remains of “Air Cocaine” /JON SISTIAGA

“Air Cocaine” was registered in Saudi Arabia,  rented in Venezuela, and had made previous trips from Colombia  under a licence issued by Guinea Bissau, but which had expired at some point. The drug trafficking was said to be linked to AQIM, and this flight’s cargo could have been worth anything between 150 and 300 million Euro. Some of these details only became apparent much later, after WikiLeaks’ cables release, as the original investigation was handled by the intelligence services and shrouded in secrecy.  There were dozens of arrests, but few detentions or convictions in connection with this scandal. Then last week, we learned that the last two suspects, one French, one Spanish, had been released in Mali. The drug smuggling case against the Spaniard was thrown out.  This chap is a real charmer: a former Madrid policeman, until he was busted for trafficking, drugs, explosives, weapons, and counterfeit identity documents. He also had a suspended sentence in Mali connected to the gruesome murder [es] of a Colombian with a forged Ukrainian passport. He apparently plans to stay in Mali. One would hope he is short of alternatives but why leave Mali, when half the world is ready to come to you?

Additionally, a wealthy businessman from Tilemsi in the Gao region – Mohamed Ould Awaynat – who had been sentenced to one year in prison for his part in the trafficking scandal, was reportedly released in January this year, in an alleged deal with the Malian government. In exchange for his freedom, he is said to have paid to recruit and train northern fighters to boost the ranks of the army against the MNLA. They do say money makes the world go around. If you add massive cash flows from drug trafficking it begins to spin put of control. That is certainly what appears the be the case in Mali.

All these rebel groups in Mali seem like just so many finger puppets. But to which “invisible hand” do the fingers belong?

If you enjoy bizarre details – and you’ve got this far, so I should take that as given – then you might be further entertained by the fact that the article in the previous link, by Andy Morgan in Think Africa Press, was posted on FaceBook in a now lifeless MNLA group, requiring 14 comments to post in its entirety. The comment poster uses the name Ghazi Agizul and, although his bio says he’s a proud Amazigh from Tunisia, I found it odd that “Ghazi” used a translation tool to render the English original into French, which should be a natural language for him. That he didn’t post a link to Google Translate or use a Note instead of 14+ comments is not mysterious, only irritating. If it transpired that Andy Morgan and Ghazi Agizul were one and the same person, that would be interesting. It would also raise many general questions about the clandestine online and offline activities of certain people who present themselves publicly as working in the media, but that is a whole other story. Going back to the article itself, it’s too lengthy to analyse in depth but there are some factual errors, which always has the effect of eroding credibility. For example,  Mr Morgan claims to have spent years in northern Mali, yet placed Kati near Timbuktu. I wouldn’t blame him if the article was simply too long for him to cope with when it got to proof-reading.

Also in the WikiLeaked cable, we learn of another incident involving a plane:  US military making a “hard landing” 65 miles from Bamako, and receiving assistance. ATT was happy to help because “he knew the United States was coming to help Mali”. Sadly, nothing could be done to help the three US military and their three civilian companions who died in a vehicle accident in April this year. Will the US be coming to help again; will they feel they no longer need an invite?

Short of the IAEA declaring that there are nuclear weapons hidden in the barren wastelands of northern Mali, I wonder how many more UN agencies or NGOs can enter the fray, wringing their collective hands over the many unverified domestic dramas that they claim are engulfing this most coveted of would-be war zones, declaring every incident a war crime, and clamouring at the gates to be allowed in to rescue Mali from itself and the horrors of Sharia law’s unjust desserts.

As ATT noted in February, with a prescience we have yet to fully to appreciate: “There are many rumors. If we are not careful, we’ll fall into the hands of those who are attacking Mali and who want to oppose the government.”

*I assume Ms Fleming meant to say “stoning” – but there is no solid evidence of that having happened, either. If she did witness a beheading, I’d have liked her to verify in reply to my question, especially since her bio includes the phrase “Tweets highlight the stories of human suffering and resilience I witness every day.” [my emphasis].

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Gulf states sideline Arab League in Syria talks

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The meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled to be held in the Saudi city of Jeddah over the Syrian crisis has been postponed indefinitely without explanation by the Arab League. This “emergency meeting” was to discuss the conflict and the replacement of the UN and international mediator Kofi Annan, who resigned last week after the failure of his peace efforts. The Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi was tipped to succeed him .

However, the foreign ministers of the six Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain) held last night in Jeddah a meeting about the Syrian crisis. Now, this session is expected to take place Tuesday during an Islamic summit in the kingdom following the initiative of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who seeks to mobilize the Muslim world in favor of the uprising in Syria.

Syria, a member of the OIC, “will not be represented at this summit,” according to Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization Islamic Cooperation (OIC), adding that a preparatory meeting of Foreign Ministers would be held Monday and should “decide on a suspension of Syria, recommended by representatives of member countries. ” The organization of this summit, which promises very sharp clashes between Iran, unwavering supporter of Syria, and the GCC, including Saudi Arabia, comes as the UN could not take a firm stand on this issue after the differences arising among members of the Security Council.

It would seem that those parties who declined Iran’s invitation to last Thursday’s “Friends of Syria” summit in Tehran have been forced by that event to step up their own efforts.

Leaders of the Gulf Arab States pose for a photo before the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh May 10, 2011. (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)

Four days after launching its ground offensive to cleanse the rebels from Aleppo, tanks and warplanes of the regime of Bashar al-Assad continue to pound several districts of this metropolis in the North of the country. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), the neighborhoods Shaar, Tariq al-Bab, Hanano, Bustan al-Qasr and Salaheddin are the target of violent firing of artillery by the army.

Shots were also heard in Damascus while the nearby towns of Al-Tal and Harsata were bombed, according to the SOHR.

In Homs, soldiers assisted by militiamen “executed” ten young people in the Shams neighborhood, according to the Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition. The victims were selected from a crowd of 350 people gathered in one place, said SNC.

Clashes took place elsewhere in the province of Deraa (south), birthplace of the insurgency launched in March 2011 against the Assad regime.

In Beirut, a judicial source said that the Syrian security chief, General Ali Mamluk, is suspected of plotting attacks in Lebanon. Last week, the former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha was arrested . Samaha is a pro-Syrian figure.

Some content via Al Bawaba http://snup.us/Iij

Friends Again: #Saudi Arabia Deposits $1b in #Egypt’s Central Bank

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Saudi Arabia has made a deposit of USD 1 billion in the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), a senior Egyptian official has said.

Egypt’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga expressed last night her country’s appreciation and gratitude to Saudi Arabia and the custodian of the two holy mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz for the contribution and support, aimed at improving the condition of the Egyptian economy during its current circumstances.

The last remaining USD 500 million sum of the amount was signed in Marrakech, Morocco, by minister Abul-Naga and the Saudi Minister of Finance Dr. Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-Assaff, which targets the financing of priority state development projects in Egypt.

The amount also includes USD 250 million for the purchase of petroleum products intended for the Egyptian public and a USD 200 million non-refundable grant to support small to medium-sized enterprises.

It is noted tha the Saudi Ambassador to Egypt and its Permanent Delegate to the Arab League Ahmed Abdul Aziz Al-Qattan arrived in Cairo earlier this week following a decision by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia following directives of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to reopen the Kingdom’s embassy in the Egyptian capital and the consulates in the cities of Alexandria and Suez , thus containing the crisis which had negatively affected the Saudi-Egyptian relations in the aftermath of withdrawing the Saudi ambassador from Egypt and closing down the Saudi embassy there following the arrest in Saudi Arabia of Egyptian lawyer Ahmed El-Gizawi after being found in possession of 20,000 anti-anxiety pills.

El-Gizawi arrest led to a series of protests in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo two weeks ago, which led to the detainment of several activists.

The Saudi monarch issued these directives after a meeting held in Riyadh with a high-powered Egyptian delegation led by National Assembly Speaker Dr. Saad Al-Katatni in a bid to remove the clouds which hampered the egyptian-saudi relations recently.

Earlier Thursday the detained Egyptian lawyer Ahmed El-Gizawi has sent a letter to the king of Saudi Arabia expressing sorrow for the recent diplomatic tensions between the kingdom and Egypt, according to the Al-Riyadh newspaper. The lawyer indirectly apologised for causing the diplomatic crisis between the two nations and stressed that he “has full confidence in the Saudi justice system and in the generosity of the Saudi king.”

El-Gizawi also expressed happiness that relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia had normalised after the diplomatic spat that took place after his arrest.

El-Gizawi was detained while travelling with his family to undertake the Islamic Umra pilgrimage on 17 April. (QNA)

Fana.

African refugees stuck at #Yemen-#Saudi border

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SANA’A — The Yemeni Interior Ministry has highlighted humanitarian abuses that African refugees undergo at various smuggling points along the Saudi-Yemeni border.

At these border crossings, particularly in Harad city, the African stowaways to Saudi Arabia have become easy prey for human trafficking gangs.

The gangs torture the refugees and make them call their relatives living in Saudi Arabia or in any other country to send them money.

The Ministry of Interior said last Thursday that a convoy of eight armed vehicles had stormed smugglers’ courtyards in the Harad directorate.

The raid resulted in the freeing of 89 African hostages, among whom there were 76 Somalis, a Nigerian man, six Nigerian women and six Sudanese. Five smugglers were captured in the security operation.

The Interior Ministry further added on its website that the investigation led to a deeper understanding of the refugees’ suffering and more specifically how they were subject to extortion and blackmail by smugglers who forced them to call their relatives to send money.

Full story on Yemen Times.