More dick-waving in the Middle East

What sort of empty-headed statement is this?

Qatar Rift May Boost Extremism, Germany Warns.
‘A dispute among partners and neighbors will…make the wrong ones stronger,’ says German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel

Who is this statement even intended for? Who is being warned here? Qataris? Saudis? Are they going to listen to the German foreign minister? Or maybe it’s aimed at Germans. Okay, so what are Germany’s interests in the Middle East (other than flogging luxury cars) and what leverage do they have? Or is Germany appealing to others to help out? Who, then? The US? The UK? Heh.

I think the German foreign minister spoke these words hoping it would make Germany look “concerned” and clued-up, and imply they should be involved in any plan to make things better. To me they smack of desperation to appear relevant in a potentially serious situation which is going to pan out one way or another wholly unaffected by what the German government says, does, or thinks. Of course, the rise of extremists in the Middle East would not be so much of a problem were Germany not so keen on inviting tens of thousands of them into Europe.

Anyway, irrelevant German warblings aside, things appear to be getting interesting over in the Gulf. Turkey is offering to send troops to prop up the beleaguered Qatari government, and Iran has thrown in its support as well. This means the two sides in the argument are:

1. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt

2. Qatar, Turkey and Iran

Kuwait is staying well out of it, sensible chaps.

The surprising element is Iran coming in on the side of Qatar, or more accurately, the Qataris appearing to accept their help. Iran is quite happy to prop up the governments of other countries, e.g. Syria but it comes at the price of ceding a degree of control to Tehran and allowing Hezbollah and other Shia militias to set up shop on their turf. Perhaps the Qatari rulers think they’ll be toppled without Iranian help and so don’t have much to lose. For a country which is 90% Sunni, this might not end well.

Turkey’s offer of troops is also more for show than anything else. Are Turkish soldiers really going to be fighting in the streets of Doha if it comes down to it? If they’re fighting Saudis they’re going to find themselves running out of ammunition and supplies pretty quickly, and will have to rely on Iran for logistics and air cover (assuming there is any), whereas the Saudis can amass all their stockpiles right next door. If Turkey wants to project power abroad, fighting Saudis in Qatar is probably not a smart way to go about it (but who knows how much of his own bullshit Erdogan believes at this stage?)

Perhaps Turkish troops will be deployed to stop a rival Qatari faction usurping the ruling families, but that’s unlikely to end well either. Are Qataris and other Arabs really going to just let a bunch of isolated Turks who don’t even speak the language swan around in Doha unmolested? I doubt it. The bloodshed will start on day one and won’t let up until the day they leave.

Russia is probably wondering what to do right now. They have usually sided with Iran in that part of the world, but there’s no love lost between them. For all the kissing and cuddling that went on between Russia and Turkey as they buried the hatchet over the shooting down of the plane in 2015 I am far from convinced the two leaders see eye to eye on much – other than to keep Iran’s influence in Syria to a minimum. But most importantly, Qatar with its enormous LNG cargoes has been the biggest threat to Russia’s dominance of the European gas market. Russia will be shedding no tears if Qatar’s LNG shipments get blockaded and the plants shut down. If the Russians have any sense they’ll stay right out of it, except of course to flood the region with as many weapons as it can sell.

The US should also stay right out of it, but it’s going to be hard to see how they can with two of their most important allies squaring off against one another. Iran is already blaming Saudi Arabia for the ISIS attack on its parliament yesterday, and people on Twitter are saying the Americans gave them the green light to do so. This is bollocks, but the Saudi move on Qatar is surely a result of their having been buoyed by Trump’s recent visit and his reconfirmation of the Saudi-US relationship. The US is going to have to work pretty hard to stay out of this one especially if things get nasty, but that’s what they need to do.

Today we have a General Election in the UK which Theresa May’s Conservatives are looking likely to win by a handsome margin. I am hoping that the first thing the new government does is draft up a law saying that anyone who advocates Britain getting involved in any capacity whatsoever amid calls for “something to be done” – even if staged photos of weeping children are plastered all over our media for the umpteenth time – shall be taken into Parliament Square, placed in the stocks, and kicked square up the arse by a serving member of the Parachute Regiment wearing a pair of steel-toed boots.

My guess is that this whole thing is mostly posturing and will be over within a few weeks.

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Tillerson on Iran

Rex Tillerson on Iran:

“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and to take the world along with it,” Mr Tillerson said.

Well, perhaps. Take the region with it, maybe. The world? I’m not so sure. This is neither the time nor subject for hyperbole.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson said a review, which he had announced in a letter to Congress a day earlier, would look at the whole US policy towards Iran – taking in not only Tehran’s compliance with the nuclear deal but also its actions in the Middle East.

This is sensible. Obama’s deal with Iran stank to high-heaven and should have been torn up the day after Trump’s inauguration.

He accused the country of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilising more than one country at a time”.

Which has been the case since 1979.

“Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining US interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, and continuing to support attacks against Israel.”

Okay, but perhaps the US would do well to re-evaluate some of those interests. Why is the US so preoccupied with what Iran is doing in Yemen, for example? Sure, it’s engaged in a proxy war with Saudi but why should America be dragged into it? And Syria? Well, I’ve said enough about that already.

As part of a long list of charges, he criticised Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and its support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Look, I’m no fan of either but Iran has every right to support Bashar al-Assad. This is none of America’s business, they should concentrate on defending their clear interests, not engage in woolly moral judgements about who is supporting whom.

America has tried policing the Middle East and it has been an utter disaster, they really ought to quit. Iran is a threat to US interests for the reasons Tillerson has cited, but by including issues in which the US interests are unclear serves only to provide ammunition to those who think Trump’s administration has been captured by neo-cons baying for war.

Everyone knows what Iran is like, we don’t need any more accusations or statements of the obvious. Just state clearly where and how they are in direct conflict with American interests and take firm action in those areas, and leave the rest well alone.

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Reality Bites

20th February, morning:

Iran has stopped selling crude to British and French companies, its oil ministry said on Sunday, in a retaliatory measure against fresh EU sanctions on the Islamic state’s major export.

20th February, afternoon:

Iran is “struggling” to find a buyer for its oil output surplus, according to a report, as UN weapons inspectors arrive back in the sanctions-hit country.

22nd February:

Iran has said it may lift its ban on oil exports to France and the UK on the day UN nuclear weapons inspectors were reportedly blocked from visiting one military site.

File under “Didn’t think that one through, did we?”

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Fighting in Turkmenistan

Back in May 2006, The Economist ran an article on Turkmenistan which said:

There is, though, much speculation about the 66-year-old Turkmenbashi’s health. He has had heart surgery, and has a team of eight top-notch German doctors constantly on call. This raises other problems, most obviously the lack of a mechanism for an orderly transfer of power, coupled with the lack of any democratic tradition in a conservative, tribal society. Pessimistic Turkmen fear that a lost generation, uneducated beyond the Ruhnama, may fall prey to Islamic radicalism—and create a nasty failed state that could destabilise an already volatile region.

Upon the death of Turkmenbashi 7 months later in December 2006, I recalled that article in this blog post, adding:

Fortunately, I think his death may have come too early for Islamic radicals to move in.  Had Niyazov been around for another decade, education in the country would have been almost eliminated in all meaningful sense. 

Had [Niyazov’s eradication of education] been allowed to continue, or indeed if it does continue, then the country will likely join the likes of Somalia and Afghanistan as fertile grounds in which to establish Islamic fundamentalism.  But with a lot of luck, and in the hope that Russia and the US can cooperate to help get Turkmenistan back on its feet without squabbling to the point where things are left to get worse, the situation should improve. 

There have been mild overtures from both Russia and the west towards enticing Turkmenistan back in from its self-imposed isolation, but events in Georgia and other issues have prevented any definitive actions regarding the gas-rich Caspian state.  And with the current climate between Russia and the US, it is unlikely that there will be much cooperation between the two on anything, let alone ensuring Turkmen development is supported in a bipartisan manner.  I always keep half an eye on the developments in Turkmenistan, and so I noticed this story from the BBC:

There has been heavy fighting in Turkmenistan between Islamist militants and security forces in the capital, Ashgabat, unconfirmed reports say.

Residents told news agencies that at least 20 police officers had died in gun battles on Friday night, and that police were now patrolling the area.

This report generates as many questions as it provides information, the most prominent one being where are these Islamic militants coming from? Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamic hotheads are not in particularly short supply.  Or are they home-grown?  Or a mixture of both?  I read an account in one of Colin Thubron’s books where the author asked some Turkmen whether militant Islam could take hold in the country.  The wisened son-of-the-desert Thubron addressed the question to said that any such threat would come from Iran and had little chance of being produced domestically.  But it’s probably best not to extrapolate too much from one person speaking to a travel writer passing through the Karakum desert.

However, Russia would do well (and I’m sure they are) to find out pretty sharpish if this story is true and where the troublemakers are coming from.  If it turns out to be Iran, we could see a shift in attitude between Russia and Iran.  For some time the Russians have been gambling that a belligerent Iran poses more of a problem for the US than Russia, even to the point that they seem prepared to extend this assessment to a nuclear armed Iran.  An Iran which can export trouble to Turkmenistan – which also shares doesn’t share (see comments) a border with Russia – might make the Russians reconsider.  They’d do well to make up their minds before Iran advances much further with its nuclear plans.

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