How Long Until the United States….

….Gets Involved in Syria?

When I originally drafted this post almost a week ago, my answer was “never.”  Then a large-scale chemical weapons attack took place in Damascus and Washington’s calculus changed.  I still believe that the U.S. response will be relatively muted, for the following reasons.

The first: what will come after the fall of Assad?

Nobody knows. And that is a huge problem.  The most likely outcome is a continuation of the civil war with elements of the regime assuming control of various factions of the military fighting the existing rebel factions, consisting of Islamists and whatever is called the Free Syrian Army.  Any engagement by the United States or NATO targeted at regime change will necessitate an occupation that can bring stability to the country. But is that possible?  The sectarian violence in Syria looks as bad, if not worse, than what happened in Iraq in 2006.  Unless the U.S. and NATO want to put an enormous amount of boots on the ground (which nobody is arguing for) and spend billions on occupation, there is no way this is happening.  So the policy of feeding the fire that the U.S. has adopted will continue into the near term.  Using cruise missiles to destroy Assad’s strategic assets or armed forces falls in line with the administration’s thinking this far – it marginally helps the rebels, hurts Assad, and uses the smallest amount of American capital, while enforcing the taboo that chemical weapons must not be used.

The second: This policy isn’t a bad thing for the United States.

By feeding the rebels arms and general humanitarian aid, the U.S. can prolong a conflict that monopolizes the attention and resources of Iran and Hezbollah, while continuing to create headaches for Moscow.  Even if Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia believe or think Assad is winning, they are nonetheless occupied by the conflict.  These parties see this opportunity to kick dirt in the West’s eye and increase their domestic prestige in the process.  So while they fight for their own honor in defiance of the U.S. and the E.U., they are still spending human and capital resources in a conflict that seems unending.   In fact, several interviews with Sunni rebel fighters in Syria indicate that they see Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as the enemy.  Given that many fighters come from the Caucuses and Chechnya, this isn’t a surprise. If U.S.-supplied arms are going to be used against Hezbollah, Iran, and Al Qaeda, then that should be acceptable to the U.S.

If the U.S. chooses to do anything affirmative, it will be limited, such as cruise missile attacks at regime targets. Think Bosnian War and Operation Desert Fox, not Iraqi Freedom.  Given the administration’s recent bluster after the chemical attacks in Damascus most likely perpetrated by the regime, this course of action seems almost inevitable. If the U.S. should do anything in response, it should support NATO strikes  in Syria, but avoid getting directly involved.  Washington should use its allies–Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait–to provide the rebels with money and arms, while relying on NATO to share responsibility and punish Assad for playing dirty. Obama should remember that direct involvement carries the risk of being drawn into escalation, and he isn’t necessarily in control of who escalates the conflict.  If France and England want to go in, that is their decision.  In an ideal world Washington would support the response in every way except providing soldiers and arms.

Is it heartless to tell Washington to leave Syria be, for the most part? Absolutely.  However, a solution that the Syrians arrive at through blood and tears mostly on their own, will in the end, be a more effective peace than any forced by the military will of outsiders.

….Pulls Aid from Egypt?

Hopefully soon.  The longer the U.S. keeps funding the Egyptian military and unsuccessfully calls for it to stop its crackdown, the more apparent the obvious becomes: Washington has no leverage with Egypt.  Any aid that the U.S. pulls will be replaced multiple fold by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.   Any aid cut by the U.S. has to be accompanied by a policy of not selling American arms to the Egyptian military.  Will they find their tools of oppression elsewhere?  Probably, but its better those tools say “Made in Russia/China” than “Made in the U.S.A.” What about our priority access through the Suez?  Egypt still needs to collect the transit fees from any ship, regardless of standard flown, to fill its coffers.  As Michael O’Hanlon points out, the U.S. military doesn’t need the Suez for transit purposes. What about funding pro-democracy  groups inside of Egypt? Well, those were effectively closed by the government since the 2010 revolution.  Plus, any group found out to be taking money from the United States in this environment will likely be shut down the day it opens.

What happens to the purchased peace with Israel? If Morsi was unwilling to break Egypt’s treaty with Israel, there is little chance the military would, even if the U.S. pulls all funding.  Given the military imbalance between Cairo and Tel Aviv and Egypt’s tenuous domestic situation, picking a fight with Israel is the last thing General Sisi would want to do. His enemies are internal.  Given Israel’s policy of disproportionate response to attacks, even a  war with Israel to shore up domestic support would not work in Sisi’s favor, it would be over within days and be more demoralizing than 1967.

So if the U.S. pulls funding, the aggregate is that Egypt won’t fall into chaos.  The money will come from somewhere else, and Egypt won’t go to war with Israel, because it will lose.  From the U.S. standpoint,  removing itself from Egypt removes a foil for both the Islamists and military-backers while refocusing Egyptian attention on the country’s problems and leadership issues.  The U.S. cannot win the popularity battle, and at this point, leaving the situation altogether can be seen as a sign of frustration with the government instead of a retreat.

….Gets It?

For the past decade, the American public has asked, “Why are we so involved in the Middle East?”  And it was a good question.  Absent any Cold War impetus: what is the U.S. interest in Egypt and Syria?  Vital oil routes are secured by the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the main oil producing states are under the American military umbrella.  Egypt has modest natural resources, most of which are consumed at home. (In 2012, 7% of seaborne crude oil and 13% of all LNG traded globally went through the Suez or Sumed pipeline, so Egypt is still a major artery of the global energy trade even if it’s not a big producer.) Cairo hasn’t been the heart of the Arab World in some 30 odd years or more, and it doesn’t have the power or reason to challenge Israel.  Syria, on the other hand, has never been in Washington’s pocket, has limited natural resources, and has been chronically weak geopolitically; its only saving grace being the shrewd tactics of its former leader Hafez Assad.

Do the people of both countries deserve better? Absolutely.  But America has neither the willpower or the influence on the ground to single-handedly affect the outcomes in either country. Washington should use its allies to respond to Assad and keep Egypt from falling into chaos while washing its own hands of any involvement with Cairo.

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Now on Foreign Policy: Rowhani’s First 100 Days

Al Ajnabee contributor Reza H. Akbari and I have co-written an article on Iran’s new president for Foreign Policy‘s Middle East Channel. Titled “Rowhani’s First 100 Days,” it focuses on what Rowhani will most likely do in the short-term to correct Iran’s political and economic trajectory.

From the opening:

President-elect Hassan Rowhani will assume office on August 3 with a mandate thanks to his decisive first round election victory on June 14. But in his first 100 days, Rowhani will face a daunting agenda: he must address a struggling economy, form a unity government, send the right signals abroad, and start rebuilding the regime’s legitimacy. Most importantly, he must convince Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that his agenda is worth blessing.

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Peace Process Restarts, Harsh Realities Endure

Today’s guest author is Allison Good, an independent analyst and freelance journalist. She tweets @Allison_Good1 and currently resides in Israel.

Well, it’s official: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will resume in Washington next week with talks between Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Secretary Kerry’s framework, which does not involve preconditions on either side, is being hailed by many as a major breakthrough, as the last round of talks fizzled quickly in 2010. But while it is truly impressive that Kerry has managed the near-impossible feat of bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, the question of whether the talks will actually lead to anything of substance requires a more pragmatic approach, particularly when it comes to considering the patterns of Israel’s engagement in the Oslo Process over decades.

First, the negotiators themselves are not the ultimate decision-makers for their respective parties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never hidden his disdain for Livni, while Erekat does not have nearly as much political clout as he did during the Oslo Process in the 1990s. On the Israeli side, at least, Livni’s role gives Netanyahu someone in the center to blame if she fails. I would certainly expect Livni and Netanyahu to be constantly at odds while the former is working in Washington and there are factions within the Palestinian Authority that would rather see Erekat fail as well. Of course, it is impossible to tell right now what the dynamic between Erekat and Livni will be. They could end up being well-matched negotiating partners. But core issues like settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem could be their downfall–if they get that far.

This brings us to the second factor that needs a realistic examination. The core issues–Jerusalem, settlements, right of return of Palestinian refugees, and borders–have proven elusive for decades. While historically Israel and the Palestinians have been able to reach interim agreements, core issues have always been left on the back burner, only up for negotiation at the last possible minute. The Hebron Accords and Wye River both succeeded because it was stipulated that core issues would be debated at a later date, while President Clinton’s Camp David summit failed because of disagreement over core issues that were introduced, particularly the status of Jerusalem.

Although we do not know all the details of Kerry’s framework yet, it is highly unlikely that a hawk like Netanyahu would have agreed to it if Jerusalem was on the chopping block to start. Of course, Netanyahu did agree to a settlement freeze in 2009, but building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has been pursued aggressively in the past few years. There may be more wiggle room on borders, but Netanyahu would have to give up most of Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley, which he has always considered to be a strategic advantage.

Another issue that requires careful thought is Netanyahu and his coalition. After all, he was already skating on thin ice with the Hebron Accords in 1997 during his first term as Prime Minister, and his missteps at Wye caused his coalition to collapse, resulting in 1999 elections that replaced Netanyahu with Ehud Barak. Netanyahu’s now-famous speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009, in which he endorsed the two-state solution for the first time, was seen as a positive evolution, but regardless of whether he was sincere, he has clearly chosen to cater to his popular right-wing base rather than put his vision into action. Indeed, it is likely that Netanyahu will pull out of these negotiations if the Palestinians provoke an impasse by asking for what he considers to be too much.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas is also constrained by domestic politics. It must have taken some extreme wrangling to get the PLO and Fatah to agree that the time is ripe for talks. All it takes is one wrong move by Erekat–or one unreasonable Israeli demand–for Abbas to feel insecure enough about this position at home that he feels the need to break things off. This is not a case in which Abbas feels that he has nothing to lose, but there are limits to what they are likely willing to accept. The Palestinian Authority has sunken deeper into political and economic disarray in the past few years and Abbas and Erekat will have to tread very lightly. But attempting to please both the Israelis and the Palestinian public is a zero-sum game that automatically imposes consequences for pleasing one group or the other. Erekat’s challenge will be to strike a balance that mitigates any fallout on either side.

So why agree to negotiate at all? The answer is unclear at this moment. Perhaps Netanyahu is looking for talks to eventually collapse, hoping that such an exercise will help his political future by enabling him to blame the Palestinians, thus allowing him to push negotiations further down the road so he does not have to make concessions during his term in office. Maybe he will refuse to bow to pressure from fellow Likud politicos and HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett at the last minute, even though Bennett has already threatened to throw the coalition into crisis if Netanyahu agrees to negotiate based in the 1967 lines. More likely, though, he is moving on the peace process to please Secretary Kerry and the U.S., with no intention of signing any agreement whatsoever.

Abbas, on the other hand, knows his own political career is coming to an end. It is entirely possible that he believes he has nothing to lose, and that this is a legacy he wants to leave. But it is more plausible that he also wants something to show the Americans to prove that he is making an effort.

The U.S. will certainly offer packages of carrots to both sides during forthcoming talks that will entice each party. Unfortunately, history shows that these carrots cannot overcome the stalemate on final status issues. Netanyahu refused to move on implementing the Hebron Accords (the 1997 agreement that provided for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank) even after Clinton offered him a bilateral defense treaty. Reassurances for the Palestinians will certainly take the form of increased aid, but Erekat knows there are concessions he cannot make, despite the Palestinian Authority’s desperate need for more cash.

There are way too many ifs to know how the talks will proceed and whether they will end with some sort of interim or comprehensive agreement. However, given the realities on the ground, all signs point to a repeat of 2010 and the further deterioration of the peace process, which many have declared dead for years. Kerry’s effort to take it off life support is bold and unexpected but applause and optimism are much too premature.

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Kurdish Aspirations Gaining Speed

The Middle East Policy Council posted my new briefing titled “Maliki Visits Kurdistan.” It focuses on recent events that prove the Kurds have lost patience with Baghdad. Two episodes are raised specifically. First is the expected completion of a new pipeline connecting Kurdish oil fields with the Turkish border. And second: the mass desertion this month of  Kurdish troops who quit the Iraqi Army in order to join Kurdistan’s independent military force–the Peshmerga. Either case is important. Together they suggest Iraqi Kurdistan is slowly retreating from Baghdad’s orbit.

Unrest in predominantly Sunni provinces of Iraq has also altered the landscape.  The Peshmerga have reportedly advanced in those areas vacated by the Iraqi Army as it prioritizes security in places that have seen protests and renewed violence (like Anbar province). Iraq is clearly entering a new period of negotiation, tension, and violence. The Kurds are making the most of it.

The KRG has seemingly begun a campaign to change facts on the ground both by way of design and opportunism. Officials may phrase it differently, but it seems the KRG’s strategy is to advance their interests now so that they can deal with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki on their own terms whenever he is ready. The past two days have only confirmed this reading of events.

At a conference in London this week, Iraqi officials released new targets for Iraqi oil production in the coming years. Kurdistan’s contribution was not included, however, because Kurdish exports via the federal pipeline were halted in December due to a payment dispute between Baghdad and Irbil. Clearly, Baghdad has very little confidence that the disagreement will be resolved soon. KRG Minister for Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami also made an important announcement at the same conference: the KRG will tie its new pipeline into the underutilized Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline across the border in Turkey, allowing it to sell up to 300,000 b/d without Maliki’s blessing. This had previously been assumed. But now it is confirmed–on the record.

Today the Kurds are on track and gaining speed. It remains to be seen whether their aspirations will be derailed. Two spoilers are worth noting. First is Iraq’s Prime Minister, who has–so far–held his fire and focused more so on his country’s deteriorating security. This could change. Tensions between the regional and central government could worsen quickly as they have in the past. Neither side wants open conflict but it doesn’t take much to stumble into one. The second spoiler is Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mass protests at home and international criticism are hurting his brand. Meanwhile, the ongoing peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish minority is showing the first sign of cracking. Erdogan’s handling of the bloody Syria crisis next door has also opened him up for criticism. He may seek to deflect more controversy by delaying his approval of Kurdish oil exports.

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What are Iran’s Reformists Thinking?

Today’s guest author is Reza H. Akbari (@rezahakbari). Reza is a Middle East researcher in Washington, DC. He received his MA in Middle East Studies from the George Washington University in 2011. His May article, titled “Ahmadinejad’s Last Stand,” was one of the most widely read articles on Al Ajnabee.

Undoubtedly, the disqualification of Hashemi Rafsanjani stacked the deck in favor of the Supreme Leader and the conservative elites by paving the way for the election of a candidate utterly loyal to the regime. Disqualifying Rafsanjani has, once again, confirmed that the regime’s inner circle is shrinking and that power is becoming more centralized than ever ahead of the presidential election on June 14 (and a possible run-off on June 21).

But why was the reformist faction counting on Hashemi Rafsanjani and why are they currently backing Hassan Rouhani? As long time regime insiders they can hardly be labeled as reformists.

The answer is simple. There is no alternative.

Following the 2009 disputed presidential election in Iran, all major reformist factions were ousted from the political scene and hundreds of reform-minded politicians, activists, and journalists were purged from public life. The 2009 reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest at unknown locations.

Significantly debilitated, reformists were left to wonder about their future in a seemingly exclusive regime. Realizing that no major reformist candidate would have a chance of getting through the vetting process carried out by the Guardian Council—the 12-member conservative body in charge of qualifying all election candidates—they viewed Rafsanjani’s decision to run as a blessing.

As one of the founding members of the Islamic Republic, and the current chairman of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani presented the best chance for the opposition factions in Iran. His long resume included influential positions such as the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Speaker of the Parliament, Interior Minister, the de facto commander-in-chief of the military during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). He is also credited for buttressing Ayatollah Khamenei’s ascendency to Supreme Leadership. The possibility of his disqualification by the ruling conservatives seemed slim, making him the only logical option at the time.

REFORMISTS DIVIDED

Currently, there seems to be major divisions within the reformists about election participation in the Islamic Republic. Reformists led by former president Mohammad Khatami announced on June 10 that they will endorse Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric who is also backed by Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Rouhani is a member of the Assembly of Experts and the Supreme National Security Council. He has inched closer to the reformists, but more than likely he is vying for popular support, and does not have any genuine plans for transforming the system.

Hassan Rouhani (pictured) now has the support of former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani

As a long time member of the country’s Supreme National Security Council and the former chief nuclear negotiator, he has proven loyal to the ruling establishment and has managed to retain his positions even after the 2009 shake-up. More than likely, anyone expecting him to cross the regime’s redlines will be disappointed. But he could help ease Iran’s international isolation by being less confrontational and sensational than his predecessor.

Once again reformists find themselves with no alternatives. Presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref, former President Khatami’s Minister of Technology, was the sole reformist candidate who dropped out in favor of Rouhani on June 10. Aref did not have the clout to be a real threat in a race packed with conservative heavyweights.

Nonetheless, a quote from him best explains the position of reformists who favor participation: “Boycotting the election is not a form of protest, it is retreating.”

REVIVING A MOVEMENT

By voting for Rouhani, reformists hope to create enough breathing room for the country’s diaspora to reignite the same grassroots activism experienced during Khatami’s presidency. The Supreme Leader may set clear limits but Rouhani’s moderate tone and pragmatism are appealing when measured against some other candidates.

Such an opening may allow the reformist faction to revive the activities of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a dominant reformist political group, credited for implementing the reformist agenda during Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005). In June 2009, Mohsen Mirdamadi, Saeed Hajarian and other prominent leaders of the party were arrested and the group was essentially dismantled. Mirdamadi is currently serving the remainder of his six-year sentence in Evin prison.

The release of Mousavi, Karroubi, and other political prisoners such as Mostafa Tajzadeh is another top priority for reformists in favor of participating in the upcoming election. Tajzadeh, a former Political Deputy Minister of Interior, was one of the seven leading reformists who sued several IRGC commanders for their alleged intervention in the 2009 presidential election. By electing a moderate figure such as Rouhani, they hope to reach that goal.

SOME URGE BOYCOTT

However, the reformists are far from united. In a recent statement published on June 4, the Mujahideen of the Islamic Revolution, a reformist political faction formed in 1991, asked the country’s reformists to boycott the upcoming election and refrain from supporting a candidate.

A statement released by the group said, “The upcoming presidential elections should not be viewed as legitimate” and the results will “more than likely be engineered.” The majority of the reformists who signed the statement live abroad and allegedly represent the point of view of this domestic faction.

Ayatollah Mohmmad Mousavi Khoeiniha, an Iranian cleric and the secretary general of the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics, has also voiced his disapproval of the upcoming election.

“I do not believe in election participation under any circumstances. Participation will only harm the reform movement… Election participation should be dignified. Election participation should be within the framework of improving the goals of the reform movement. We should not allow the current ruling faction…to lead us to a dead end,” Khoeiniha stated.

The reformist group opposing election participation is less clear about its ultimate goals. Given the country’s current intolerant state, they view participation to be superfluous and serving the interests of the ruling conservatives.

QUESTIONS LINGER: WHAT NEXT? 

Iranian reformists are not naïve. Even Khatami indicated his doubt about the undemocratic nature of the election in prior months. “Even if we [reformists] are qualified, we will not have the right to get any more votes than what they [ruling conservatives] have already decided,” Khatami stated in a speech to university students in Tehran on May 9.

So, the problem for the reformist opposition is not their lack of understanding of the domestic political dynamics or being blindly optimistic about the future. The issue is their inability to reach a consensus about the regime’s ability to reform.

The regime has repeatedly cracked down on any meaningful reforms. Amid the height of the reformist era in the 1990s, popular student protests were crushed, prominent reformists were jailed and threatened, hundreds of reformist parliamentary members were banned from reelection in 2004, and hundreds of other reform-minded activists were jailed and threatened in 2009.

The current goal is to get Rouhani elected in order to create space for the reformists. But what if he is not the winner?

This is an uncomfortable impasse for reformists. If reforms are no longer possible, then what is the alternative? The Iranian opposition — and perhaps the greater public — is not ready to answer that question yet.

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Ahmadinejad’s Last Stand

Our guest author today is Reza H. Akbari (@rezahakbari). He is a Middle East researcher in Washington, DC and received his MA from the George Washington University. Reza’s last post for Al Ajnabee explored the diversity of conservative trends in Iranian politics.

Iran’s complex bureaucracy is slowly getting ready for another presidential election in June, but thus far the dynamic between the president’s faction and the regime has proven to be far from the ordinary.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure in office will be officially over this summer, however, he may not be ready to go down without a fight. Despite all warnings from regime officials, the president seems adamant about engineering a campaign victory for his right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

President Ahmadinejad (center) and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (left)

Rahim Mashaei has not officially announced his candidacy, but the campaign seems to be well on its way. Numerous analyses suggest that Ahmadinejad’s faction will not have a chance in the election. More than likely any candidate perceived to be associated with the “deviant faction” – a term used to refer to the president’s supporters and his controversial ally Rahim Mashaei – will be disqualified by the Guardian Council and eliminated from the political arena. So, why is Ahmadinejad still campaigning? And how does the government perceive the intentions of the “deviant faction?”

Shortly after the 2009 presidential election, regime stalwarts began referring to Ahmadinejad and his camp as the deviant faction. The rift began when the president publicly challenged the Supreme Leader over his constitutional right to choose the government’s ministers. The critics believe Ahmadinejad’s brand of politics has deviated from the path of the velayat-e faqih or rule by jurisprudence.

WHAT IS HE THINKING?

Ahmadinejad knows the history of the Islamic Republic well. As evidenced by the fate of his predecessors, Ahmadinejad understands that the regime is not kind to losers. The defeated tend to be marginalized, access to the state controlled media is lost, and at times they are even physically harmed.

Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies were denied any major national prominence after his presidency ended in 2005. Another president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was ousted from influential positions, after he called for unity following the 2009 presidential election. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, former regime members and presidential candidates, are still under house arrest at an unknown location.

Given his reputation among the influential regime members, Ahmadinejad recognizes that a dark horizon also awaits him and his camp. So, why stop fighting now?

In Ahmadinejad’s mind, the true test of his legacy will come in the next two months. Ahmadinejad has proven over and over again that he is not willing to go down without a fight and the home stretch is no time to quit. The best-case scenario will be for him to grant a safe passage for Mashaei through the Guardian Council’s vetting process, or at least assure that his faction will survive after he is no longer in office. He may even succeed in rallying the public opinion behind his camp, which may offer some kind of protection after he leaves the office.

The exact next steps of the president’s camp are not clear, but the regime should beware of a man with nothing to lose. The president has demonstrated that he is even willing to play dirty. As displayed on the floor of the parliament during an altercation with the speaker, Ali Larijani, Ahmadinejad is not afraid to publicly disclose sensitive information. In early February, Ahmadinejad challenged Larijani by accusing him of patronage, corruption, and “mafia-like rule.” He went so far as to play a tape of what he claimed was a recording of a conversation between Tehran’s Chief Prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, and Fazel Larijani, the speaker’s brother.

According to the tape, the Larijani family had used its prominence for economic gain. Larijani refuted the relevance of the tape and labeled it as blackmail. This unparalleled public confrontation forced the Supreme Leader issue harsh warnings. Ahmadinejad may have similar evidence and, more than likely, he will use such unorthodox tactics to ensure his longevity until the June presidential elections.

In the meantime, Ahmadinejad is doing all he can to paint himself as a populist president by paying lip service to the public. During his trip to the Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran on April 22, Ahmadinejad announced, “They have sent a message saying that if I become any bolder, they will try to hurt me. I will fight in the service of justice, revolution, and people…until death. Thousands of Ahmadinejads are not worth as much as a drop of justice or a piece of hair from the head of an Iranian citizen.”

During his trip to Semnan Province on April 11, the president went so far as to throw a jab at the Supreme Leader and the ruling establishment. “Some say that the Leader’s opinion dictates that this person should run and that person should not [campaign]. How is this any of your business? The people should decide. All [political] types should run,” Ahmadinejad announced.

The president’s camp also hosted an event on April 18 at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. The government had previously announced that the event’s purpose was to “acknowledge the servants of Norouz [the Iranian New Year].” However, critics of Ahmadinejad called it an illegal “election gathering,” because many expected Ahmadinejad to bring his chosen successor, Rahim Mashaei.

The controversial rally was held despite the president’s opponents accusing him of spending public funds for an extravagant gathering with political intentions. According to Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief of Keyhan, a conservative newspaper close to the Supreme Leader, $40 million was spent on organizing the event. In an editorial written on April 23, Shariatmadari questioned the genuineness the president’s calls for justice and equality. “$40 million was taken away from the oppressed and disposed people in order to organize an election advertising event for Mr. Mashaei in the Azadi stadium. Is this an example of Mr. president’s justice seeking?”

According to IRNA news agency, nearly 70,000 supporters were in attendance, but the Iranian state media showed footage of almost deserted bleachers. Supporters of the president claimed that the video angles were chosen purposefully to only capture the empty areas, and make the event look like a failure.

THE ESTABLISHMENT’S POINT OF VIEW

Ahmadinejad rarely provides any details about the threats he receives, but it is safe to say that he is being pressured by regime officials to end his uncouth behavior. More than likely traditional conservatives do not view Ahmadinejad as a legitimate political threat to their chances of an election victory. The Guardian Council, the major constitutional body in charge of vetting the candidates, is under their control, so any candidate supported by the president could easily be disqualified. But they still view the president as someone who could further damage their personal reputations and the regime’s legitimacy.

More than once Ahmadinejad has announced that he is willing to publicize confidential records exposing his opponent’s past indiscretions. According to the BBC Persian service, during his visit to the Khuzestan Province, the president once again made his intentions public.

“Some send messages saying that they will confront me because of some of my statements. You are nothing in front of the will of the Iranian nation. This nation has stood up in front of the biggest oppressors; compared to them you [traditional conservatives] are nothing. If only the smallest part of your past behaviors are exposed, you will lose your place among the people,” Ahmadinejad declared. Many influential members of the political establishment have warned Iran’s outgoing president about his bombastic behavior, but to no avail.

On April 12, Ayatollah Momen, an influential member of the Guardian Council, warned Ahmadinejad and his camp by stating, “Don’t have any doubt. If we just sense a little deviation from a [candidate], we will disqualify him.” According to the Young Journalists Club, an Iranian semi-official news agency, Sadeq Larijani, the head of the country’s judicial system, criticized Ahmadinejad’s election efforts, saying “Unfortunately, some activities that are carried out with the government’s budget feel like election campaigns.” He continued by adding that such actions are considered to be a “crime” and the Guardian Council and the Judiciary are closely watching the perpetrators.

On April 23, Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, rejected the validity of any threats aimed at Ahmadinejad and advised him to be more measured in his claims. According to Mehr News, a semi-official news agency, Firuzabadi labeled Ahmadinejad’s statements as “unacceptable” and aimed at “disturbing the public opinion.” He added, “Mr. Ahmadinejad should stop making such statements.”

The warnings go on, but the regime is not counting on Ahmadinejad to listen. Security preparations are underway to insure a safe and calm election season. Of course, such moves include but are not limited to just concerns about Ahmadinejad’s deviant faction. Having experienced months of instability following the disputed 2009 presidential election, the regime is not taking any unnecessary risks.

It is difficult to assess Ahmadinejad’s ability or willingness to create the kind unrest seen in 2009. But, in the regime’s point of view, any potential for instability is considered a risk; so it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

In an interview with Mehr News on April 22, Firuzabadi also stated that the Iranian armed forces are “completely ready to confront any potential sedition” in the upcoming June elections. “Our armed forces are highly trained and experienced. They have the experience of the 2009 sedition, so they are familiar with the manner and the details of how to confront any potential dangers.”

On April 19, Iranian Police Chief Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam announced the reimplementation of new “moral and security” measures ahead of the upcoming elections. The move follows an April 16 announcement by Deputy Police Chief Brigadier General Saeed Montazeralmehdi on that an elections headquarters would be created for police to provide security for the elections and monitor anti-regime websites and social media.

The Cultural Ministry also recently announced that all mass text messages sent from election campaigns should be preapproved. According to TELNA, an Iranian information technology website, the spokesperson for ministry stated, “All SMS messages must be sent from traceable and known numbers…the content of such messages will also be controlled.”

In the coming months the battle between the president’s camp and the establishment will intensify. It is impossible to predict Ahmadinejad’s next move, but one thing that is guaranteed is his willingness to fight until the last breath. He does not have that many alternatives. He has to remain aggressive all the way up to the election, since otherwise he risks impending obsoleteness.

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KRG’s Talking Points on Display in DC

From the Facebook page of the KRG’s Representative in the US.

A high-profile delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government visited Washington, DC last week. Speaking on behalf of the KRG were: Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to KRG President Massoud Barzani; Natural Resource Minister Ashti Hawrami; Falah Bakir, Director of the KRG’s Foreign Relations Department; and former KRG envoy Qubad Talabani, now Director of the KRG’s Coordination and Follow-Up Department.

The timing of the mission’s visit is telling: it arrived in Washington just weeks before Turkish premiere Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to visit the White House. The main topic discussed by the delegation—during joint panels and speeches—was Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with Turkey. Over the past five years, this relationship has grown rapidly. It constitutes a majority of Iraq-Turkey trade.

Normally, the U.S. would champion prosperity and peace between neighbors who, just years before, were totally at odds over the question of Kurdish independence. But today, U.S. officials worry that Turkey and the KRG are ready to forfeit Iraq’s unity in favor of a comprehensive energy deal. That deal—if signed—would presumably connect Kurdish oil fields to Turkey and world markets. Conventional wisdom dictates that this move would grant the KRG independent oil revenues and enable it to withdraw from Baghdad’s orbit. In the worst-case scenario, the KRG would go its own way; Iraq would become a less diverse rump state with a weaker political opposition.

The KRG came to D.C. to relieve these fears and change minds before Prime Minister Erdogan arrives. Their talking points were sharp and polished. I say this as someone who saw the mission in person at George Washington University and the Atlantic Council on April 8.

Over the course of last week, the delegation met with Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones. According to an April 16 press release: “The delegation met with Congressional leaders and other key members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans including the House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA); Rep. Christopher Van Hollen (D-MD); Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA); Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers (R-MI); Senator John McCain (R-AZ); Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), as well as members of the Kurdish American Congressional Caucus including its new Democratic co-chair, Rep. Jarred Polis (D-CO).” (For pictures see last week’s entries on the KRG’s Facebook page.)

With this post I want to give readers a sense of how officials are framing the issues and what they’re seeking from the U.S. Much of this blog post is paraphrased unless quotation marks are used. The two events I attended were on-the-record and covered by media outlets so nothing confidential is contained herein. You can find audio and a copy of Hawrami’s prepared remarks on the Council’s website. Also be sure to read his April 14 op-ed for Real Clear World.

The delegation focused on the constitutionality of any future arrangement with Turkey. The KRG believes Iraq’s constitution allows the region to sign a bilateral trade deal with a foreign government without Baghdad’s input. Officials maintain that revenues from oil sales will be divided according to long-standing oil revenue-sharing agreements. Kurdish officials frequently cite a legal finding provided by a British law firm that upholds their claims—and they referenced it in D.C. more than once. Until it is tested in court, however, there is no telling how the argument will hold up if challenged by Baghdad, which has threatened to sue companies that export Kurdish oil.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gives the KRG no choice but to sign these deals and pursue new infrastructure. Maliki represents the greatest threat to Iraqi unity because of his sectarian approach and refusal to apply the constitution. In his remarks at the Atlantic Council, Hawrami, the energy minister, said that the concentration of power for Iraq’s oil sector is unfair: “It’s what it was under Saddam Hussein.” He argued that oil and revenues are key sources of power in Iraq. As such, the U.S. cannot insist that Baghdad has final say on oil deals or export agreements. Maliki has no interest in developing Kurdish oil fields.

The sense of frustration and urgency felt by the Kurds was very real. They want to act now. In order to improve ties between Baghdad and Erbil, the only choice is to change the situation on the ground, and pursue reconciliation after the KRG’s success makes the central government reconsider its hard-line position. This argument makes sense given the long time horizons associated with the oil and gas industry (pipelines take months to build; commercial oil production levels are only achieved after years of surveys and drilling; etc.).

The Kurds want to initiate deals now because other options are no good. They could wait years more for an Iraqi oil law. Or they could wait for Maliki to change his mind or leave office.

Kurdish independence is a “myth,” Hawrami said. For the foreseeable future, the KRG wants its fair share of Iraq’s wealth, as guaranteed by the constitution. Erbil wants a federal system. But a decentralized oil policy is essential to that arrangement, meaning that the Kurds must be allowed to exploit resources and sell oil. A bruising fight over the Iraqi budget earlier this year has only confirmed for the Kurds that they need control over a revenue stream of their own. They cannot trust Maliki and his allies in parliament to produce a fair budget.

Hawrami’s most memorable line was delivered with a smile: “Iraq is a rich country. We want a share of that wealth… If even we have any motive for independence, we will wait until the last drop of Iraqi oil [is pumped and sold]—and then we might do something” (25:00 minute mark). The Kurds don’t want to prematurely cut themselves off when Iraq’s production could double or triple in the coming decades. Kurdistan may contain 45 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Iraq now estimates that the country holds 150 billion barrels total, placing it fifth in the world for proven reserves.

There is another upside to a Turkey-KRG deal and it has to do with Kurdish independence beyond Iraq. Hawrami suggested that the KRG’s dealings with Turkey had actually buoyed Erdogan’s outreach to Kurdish insurgents in his own country. How so? Cooperation with the KRG proved that the Turkish government was reliable; these ties gave the PKK confidence in Ankara’s sincerity.

Washington must adopt a neutral policy instead of backing Baghdad. Supporting Maliki in the name of “Iraqi unity” is a mistake. Supporting the constitution (i.e. the Kurdish reading of it) will prevent the country from fracturing. The Kurds recognize that U.S. influence over Baghdad is limited today. Washington prioritizes Iraqi “stability” above all but it has no real vision or policy for achieving that end, they say. Instead, Washington insists on reconciliation with Maliki, which favors central authority by default. Hawrami said the KRG can’t wait another seven years and do nothing. (Note: Maliki became PM in 2006.) The US approach is “outdated.”

Publicly-traded oil companies operating in the KRG slashed production in December because they could not rely on prompt payment from the central government. The newest Iraqi budget, which Hawrami called a “punishment,” provides only $650 million for operator costs in Kurdish territory, whereas the KRG demanded $3.5 billion. Kurdish oil exports flirted with 200,000 b/d late last year; volumes have since fallen to roughly 50,000 b/d, all of which is trucked across the border into Turkey because the federal government can’t be trusted to ship oil and compensate the Kurds as they see fit.

Looking forward, Hawrami believes the KRG can produce 2 million b/d by the end of the decade, most of which would be exported. A new pipeline like the one being considered by Turkey and the KRG would allow Iraq to sell ~3 million b/d through a northern corridor if the Kurdish and federal pipelines all become fully operational. As a rule, supply diversity is the best guard against energy insecurity. Hawrami mentioned “market stability” as an incentive for a deal with the Turks, something the U.S. can get behind.

Finally, the U.S. should not deter companies from operating in the KRG, the delegation said. The region is no different from anywhere else in Iraq. This goes back to the central theme of neutrality.

Kurdish prosperity will serve Iraq’s interests even if it angers Maliki. Speaking at the Atlantic Council, Hawrami said, “The KRG is confident that once oil export revenues are generated by KRG, and shared constitutionally, then Baghdad will become more reasonable, accepting a constitutional settlement on power and revenue sharing, thus creating lasting stability and unity in Iraq.”*

This kind of success, reinforced by timely transactions, will convince the people of Iraq—not just politicians—that the KRG was right all along. It will change minds and encourage the adoption of the constitution in practice. Kurdistan’s reputation for development and better services may even trickle down to the rest of Iraq, as more and more people ask: what are the Kurds doing right?

Conclusion: It’s hard to tell how successful the KRG mission was. We know who they met with but it’s impossible to tell how receptive their American counterparts were. Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post wrote an approving editorial on April 14 after meeting with at least one member of the delegation. That article ended with Diehl, a critic of Obama’s foreign policy generally, arguing that the U.S. policy towards the KRG was “wrongheaded.” Instead, Washington should encourage what he called Kurdistan’s “renaissance.”

The Kurds made a strong case last week. The rest is up to Erdogan when he raises the issue with Obama next month.

* Note: Revenue sharing is a thornier issue than first glance might suggest. Right now, the two sides disagree on the number and cost of “sovereign expenses,” which have cut the Kurds’ budget share year-on-year from 17 percent to about 10 percent. Might the Kurds push back once they control revenues? Could they retake 17 percent in full or compromise closer to 15 percent? Hawrami told the Associated Press on April 12 that the KRG will return revenues to Baghdad “after it has taken its legal allocation and paid contractors.”)

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