America and Iran

28 05 2010

Last week Iran announced an arrangement, brokered by Brazil, where the Islamic Republic would ship out uranium to have it enriched in Turkey. The deal, similar to one offered by the United States last year, was denounced by Washington as a means to delay United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran.

Iran was offering to have a large portion of its uranium enriched abroad to levels that are consistent with nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Once the uranium is turned into rods for nuclear reactors, it cannot be further enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.

The problem that Washington had with the deal is that Iran would still be holding onto a significant portion of its uranium that could be used some day to make a nuclear warhead, and Tehran has stated that it has no intention of halting its current enrichment program.

The Prospect of Sanctions

Russia and China

The battle over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program has been slowly escalating over the last year or so, encompassing Obama’s entire presidency. To date, the Obama administration has opted to take a confusing, passive-aggressive, diplomatic course in dealing with the Iran: make offers and talk about diplomacy while arranging sanctions and preparing the Gulf for war.  This strategy only seems to be “diplomatic” in the absence of a battle.But, as mentioned, one battle has been raging for months: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political wrangling to arrange sanctions on Iran in the UNSC.

If you don’t know how the UNSC works, it has fifteen members, five of which are permanent and have veto power (the P-5: USA, UK, France, Russia, China) and ten members selected on a rotating basis for a period of two years. Usually, the United States can impose its will on the majority of the non-permanent members of the council, but the P-5 members sometimes must be aggressively courted to produce a “yes” vote. In the current situation with Iran, the UK and France were not hard to win over, but Russia and China have been.

Generally speaking, Russia loves to exploit any situation where the United States needs Russian assistance, but at the end of the day it is unlikely that they would veto something that is obviously so important to Washington. In return for their support (if tepid), however, America had to scrap a missile defense system that it was planning on installing in Russia’s sphere of influence in Poland and the Czech Republic.

And just recently, it seems that China has come aboard the USS Sanctions. Traditionally, China will do business with anyone as long as it benefits China and as long as the other country doesn’t criticize the government in Beijing. Iran fits nicely into this mold: China buys millions of barrels of oil without facing any condemnations from Iran regarding communism or human rights (the same goes for Burma and Sudan). The oil goes on to fuel economic growth that China needs to stave of domestic instability. (I guess the theory is that as long as people are being productive, they will not demand freedom of the press or the right to vote.)


This is why it has been so hard for America to convince China to go the sanctions route: one, China needs the cheap oil; two, China thinks its domestic policies are no business of foreigners; and three, if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, they would not be using it against China anyway. So why should they care enough to upset such a crucial trading partner?  This is the question that Hillary Clinton has been trying to answer since she took office.

China can’t be threatened with force; it has a very large army and scores of nuclear missiles. China can’t be bullied economically; it is the United States’ largest trading partner and holds over a trillion dollars in US currency and debt.  So figuring out the right mixture of carrots and sticks has been understandably difficult for the Obama administration. But it appears something has worked, because just after Iran announced its plans with Turkey and Brazil (both of which are emerging powers that are starting to assert themselves in the diplomatic arena), the United States announced that it had reached an agreement on sanctions with both Russia and China.

Why did China change its mind? While Beijing’s first impulse might be to do the opposite of what the West wants it to do, it doesn’t change the fact that China’s relationship to Europe and the U.S. is very important as it represents two massive markets that buy Chinese goods, which in turn fuels the economic growth that fosters domestic stability. And once Russia was aboard, it was that much more difficult for China to stand alone.

As for the sanctions themselves, it is difficult to say whether they will have any real impact on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Historically, the effects of sanctions in guiding rogue nations to the right course have been spotty at best, as sanctions usually only serve to strengthen the position and resolve of the regime while only the citizens of the sanctioned nation suffer.

In order to make sanctions work, you need to make the regime suffer. In this case most analysts agree that, while imposing certain banking and trading restrictions on Iran might be at most an inconvenience, they will likely not achieve the desired result.

For Iran, the key weakness is in its gasoline imports. Iran may have a lot of oil, but years of sanctions have crippled its ability to refine oil into gasoline (score one for sanctions). As a result, Iran must import a large portion of its gasoline, mostly from Russia. This is where Russia could have played a key role: if Russia agreed to halt gasoline exports to Iran, the Iranian economy would have ground to a halt and would have easily inflamed the anger of a public that is already visibly discontented with the regime in Tehran.

But the current UNSC resolution makes no mention of gasoline imports, and it looks like the price of having Russia and China on board was that the resulting resolution would be devoid of teeth. Perhaps the Obama administration thinks that it is more valuable to have their support to give the resolution the appearance of a multilateral consensus than it was to have a resolution that could actually have a direct effect.

Iran Gets Nukes: So What?

Enriched Uranium

With all this talk about what’s to be done with Iran, it is easy to get lost in the rhetoric. When such a big deal is made about a particular issue, and everyone has strong opinions on all sides, but they don’t really disagree, the question must be asked: why do we care?

(My personal policy is this: there should be no nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, and the international community should work hard towards that goal. But if Russia is to have one, the United States is to have two.)

The list of countries with (known) nuclear weapons is long: US, UK, France, Russia, China (the P-5), India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Really, aside from being counter non-proliferation, what is one more country?  The problem isn’t so much of “what” as it is “who”.The country in question has been hostile to the United States for over 30 years, continuously referring to the America as “the Great Satan” (with Israel being the “Little Satan”).  But that’s not really it either, as the United States was not nearly as aggressive towards North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (a rogue regime if there ever was one, one that actually fought a war with the U.S. in the 1950’s). Perhaps it was because Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons came as a surprise and by the time the world knew about it, it was too late: because they had nuclear weapons.

No, America’s interest in Iran is different and its concerns are two-fold: the first is Iranian hostility towards Israel; the second is Iran’s direct challenge to American hegemony in the Middle East.

Tehran makes no bones about its dislike of Israel. The regime’s leaders constantly denounce Israel to gain support from the masses. For any nation, it helps to have an adversary for which to rally domestic support. North Korea has South Korea, Israel has Iran (they have each other), America had Communism, and now it has Terrorism. The question is whether this hostile rhetoric goes beyond mere speeches.

For Iran and Israel, it certainly does. Iran has been funding and training Hamas for years, and in 2006, Israel fought a 34-day war with Hizballah, an Iranian proxy. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s difficult to say. On the surface, it would appear that Israel would have no problem with Iran if Iran had no problem with Israel. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was Islamic in nature, and one of the claims of the new regime in Tehran was that Zionism was evil, as it oppressed Muslims. Whatever you believe, one thing that’s true is that Israel worked closely with the hated former leader of Iran: the Shah. As it turns out, something that Iran’s three greatest enemies (US, UK, Israel) have in common is their ties to Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former King of Iran.

Since the Islamic Republic came in to being, it has been hostile towards Israel. And while Israel might have one of the most advanced militaries in the world, it is still a very small country in relation, and is understandably afraid of one of its greatest enemies acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly nukes. However, this doesn’t explain why the United States is so concerned. Or does it?

It is extremely unlikely that Iran would make a nuclear weapon, attach it to a missile, and launch it at the United States, because America would respond in kind and that would the end of the regime in Tehran. (The same goes for Iran attacking Israel for that matter.)  While not usually on the same page with the international community, it is safe to say that Iran is led by rational actors in that they value regime survival beyond anything else.

Let’s just say that Iran manages to build a nuclear weapon and launches it Israel the next day. Israel would likely reciprocate and the regime in Tehran would be toast. But even if they weren’t, Khamenei and Ahmedinejad would likely face a level of international isolation that they had never dreamed existed. Not only would they have been responsible for the Holocaust Part II, thousands of fellow Muslims would have been killed in the process. Adding another layer is that those Muslims would be Arabs, which would further widen the chasm between Arabs and Persians. The average (surviving) Persian, thoughtful and literate, would likely be appalled and ashamed of their government’s course of action. And not only would Tehran be destroyed, but likely Qom, the Shiite Vatican, along with it. Without exaggeration, it could very well mean the end of Persian civilization.

So while Israel would likely not ever face an Iranian nuclear assault, when you combine Iran’s hostility to Israel, as well as the two nations’ proximity, Israel’s concern is understandable.

And when Israel is concerned, America is concerned. This is a factor of the Zionist lobby’s power in Washington, especially as the U.S. heads into midterm election season. Congressmen from both sides of the isle draw support from pro-Israel advocates, and therefore we see Israel’s needs being quickly addressed. (Witness the recent Scuds to Hizballah scenario; a week later President Obama is clamoring for a $200 million missile defense system for Israel.) So if our “close ally” is threatened because it “lives in a tough neighborhood”, then the U.S. will  respond, as it has been for the past 43 years.

Of course, there is the other reason why Washington is taking such a firm stance with Iran: the continued defiance of Iran threatens American hegemony in the Gulf and symbolizes America’s deterioration as a superpower.

After WWII, the United States and Russia emerged as the only two superpowers (closely related to their own nuclear arsenals). The two engaged in the Cold War for nearly fifty years until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, America was the last man standing and for the next 20 years or so, what America said, went. But now, with the ascents of Russia, India, Brazil and especially China (referred to as the BRIC countries); America is losing in terms of relative power. In this zero sum game of power politics, the gains for the BRIC countries represent loses for the United States. This means that these countries will be competing more than ever for natural resources to either ensure their position in the world (in the case of the United States) or to ensure their continued growth.

The International Relations landscape is shifting to a multi-polar world where there is no clear superpower. In fifty years, we could see America, China, India, Brazil, and Europe (if there is such a unified body at the time) exerting similar levels of influence in the world (Russia is left off because of its declining population and its inability to reform economically). This transition could be rough or smooth. Intuitively, such an adjustment would create conflict and war, but the end of the Soviet Union came so swiftly and gently that it caught everyone by surprise. The point is that we as a nation should do whatever it takes to ensure a smooth transition.

BRIC Leaders

But right now we are going through the birth pangs of our transition to the new multi-polar world order, and Iran is at the center of that transition. The United States has chosen to make Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program a priority. Washington has burnt a lot of calories and invested a lot of political capital in making sure Iran does not continue to enrich uranium, so much so that the whole situation has become symbolic of declining American power. This is why the U.S. is trying so hard to get it’s way: Iran’s position on the matter is the ultimate defiance of the West and if America can’t get Iran to change its ways after investing so much time and energy into it, it projects to the world that America’s time as captain of the ship is over, and its decline may be happening in a more precipitous manner than was once thought.

America’s (and Israel’s) interest in Iran’s nuclear capability is boldly hypocritical. The biggest behind-the-scenes cheerleader for sanctions has been Israel, who has an ambiguous nuclear arsenal of its own and refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but you would never hear Washington criticize this. Also on the list of those with nuclear weapons is India, where the U.S. actually encourages proliferation. Then we have Pakistan, an incredibly unstable country with an active al-Qaeda presence, which should be ten times more alarming than the prospect of Iran acquiring “the bomb”. Rounding out the list is North Korea, at best an enigmatic nation (at worst, insane) which actually withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and soon after declared that it had nuclear weapons. Popular opinion characterizes Pyongyang as a rational regime, in that it values regime survival, but in reality we have no idea what Kim Jong Il is capable of.

Pakistan and North Korea are far more threatening nations that have nuclear weapons; the problem is that they already possess them. But Iran does not, not yet anyway, and many think that it only a matter of time before they do. Then what? Iran should not possess nuclear weapons for many reasons, but there are worse scenarios for the United States. One of which is  the prospect of going to war with Iran to forcibly prevent (delay) Tehran from attaining them, as the result could be catastrophic for the world: war, oil shortages, economic collapse, domestic instability, war, repeat.

The fear of proliferation resulting from Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is probably overblown.  America actually still has sufficient clout to make sure others in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf States – do not follow suit. There will be a certain level of anxiety added to the region with a Persian nation having such a defensive leg up, but that will likely only push those countries closer to the United States for protection, with the bonus of significant additional arms sales. Also, if Iran becomes nuclear capable, the regime in Tehran might be more secure not having to face the prospect of an Israeli or American attack, which could make Tehran less reliant on the destabilizing use of proxies such as Hizballah and Hamas.

Long Term Strategy

One way or another, the United States needs to reconcile with Iran. It would be better if it happened before Iran acquired nuclear weapons, but it should surely happen afterward (though reconciling immediately after could set a bad example). A friendly relationship with Iran could be highly beneficial to the United States. Just think how useful they could be right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention America’s war with al-Qaeda. Also, if America had Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as allies, it could really make our nation’s transition to post-oil that much smoother. Like it or not, the U.S. faces heavy competition for resources from the emerging giants of Brazil, India, and China, and having the aforementioned Middle Eastern countries locked down as allies would secure America’s access to petroleum in the days after peak oil.

Another beneficial move would be to increase America’s ties with Turkey. Turkey is a large Muslim nation situated in a key geographic region between East and West. Turkey, a long time member of NATO, has always had a foot in both camps, but lately it seems to be shifting to the East as a way to assert itself. Turkey has proven itself over the years to be an honest broker of sorts when it comes to diplomacy, as it has facilitated negotiations between Syria and Israel, as well as brokering the current deal (with the help of Brazil) to enrich uranium for Iran. Turkey would be a strategic ally in ensuring Europe’s access to natural gas. This natural gas would come from Iran, which in turn would provide Europe with an alternative to Russian natural gas. This would weaken Russia’s hand strategically, which is always nice.

Today, Washington’s key ally in the Middle East is Israel, but that relationship is becoming more trouble than it is worth. This is not to say that Israel is not a friend of the U.S. or that we should not support the Jewish State as we would any ally, it’s just that the benefits that America gets for its special relationship with Israel need to be closely evaluated against other possibilities as we enter a critical juncture in American history. A closer relationship with Turkey and reconciliation with Iran would have many long term strategic benefits for the United States, and this needs to be weighed honestly against what Israel brings to the table. Also, closer ties with Turkey and Iran do not necessarily have to come at the expense of Israel. Obviously Israel loses by not having its American big brother take its side in every conflict, but prudent U.S. foreign policy should be guided by national interests and not by guilt or sentimentality.

The decisions that the United States will make over the next ten years will have a direct effect on the next hundred years in terms of America’s place in the world. The too-brief period when America was the lone world superpower is coming to an end and Washington needs to carefully evaluate how it proceeds from here. Who are our true friends? Who do we want to be our new friends? What do we have to gain by being hostile to certain states and not hostile enough to others?

It is easy to beat the drum of America being too dependent on oil, but it is. However, this is not the problem. The problem is that the rest of the world is too, and state competition for resources causes conflict. Sometime over the next fifty years or so we will likely start running out of oil, and America’s access to cheap, readily available energy is absolutely critical to United States national security. From here on out, it behooves us to proceed with great caution.


Mr. Hariri goes to Washington

17 05 2010

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is scheduled to meet with President Obama in Washington on May 24th, and the two will have much to discuss.

Hariri and Obama

Lebanon’s and the United States have a long relationship loosely based on their common democracy and Christian influence. But the relationship between America and Lebanon is not solely based on cultural commonalities. There exists a history between the two that has not always been pleasant. And more often than not, this tiny country has factored greatly into US foreign policy in the Middle East.

So after the two men shake hands and comment on their counties’ shared democratic and economic values, the real topics will be brought to the surface.

Hizballah, Syria, Israel, Iran…Lebanon’s involvement with these four parties has taken what would likely be an otherwise successful, stable, and desirable country nestled nicely on the inner Mediterranean, and turned it into an unfortunate battlefield that the aforementioned powers use to settle their scores. If not for these four, Lebanon might be just some Middle Eastern banking and party haven; Switzerland with fun and sun, Dubia with a soul.

Alas, it is impossible for a country to change it’s neighbors and Lebanon must play with the hand that it has been dealt. This brings us to Hairi’s first official visit to Washington as Premier.

While there is likely no enmity between the leaders, that does not mean that the meeting will be pleasant, as there are some serious issues at hand.

First, there is this business about Syria transferring Scud missiles to Hizballah. Damascus has denied it, Beirut has denied it, and Hizballah maintained its policy of not commenting publicly on its weapons. However, whether or not Syria gave Hizballah the Scuds, one thing is clear: the group is armed to the teeth and those weapons (that they don’t comment about) more than likely came either from Syria or through Syria. Being the Prime Minister, Hariri will have to answer for this.

Ironically, the United States itself  is a big  reason that Hariri is in this predicament.

Syria: has a country ever done more with less?

For thirty years, Syria occupied Lebanon. Damascus had an army there, had an intelligence network there, and had its tentacles in all aspects of government and business. With the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, Syria was forced to end the formal occupation, but much of their influence remained dormant.

Since then, the United States has changed its strategy in relation to Syria from one of  isolation to one of reconciliation. This is for two reasons. One, the US wanted to pry Syria out of its alliance with Iran, and two, Washington realized that it would need Syrian cooperation in order to achieve stability in Iraq. The former was a failure and the latter was arguably a success, but one thing didn’t change: Henry Kissinger’s adage about how there can be no peace without Syria.

Syria has a terrible economy, no natural resources, and a weak and outdated military. However, something that Syria is not short on is incredibly shrewd strategists that allow the country to do more with less*. This means strategic alliances, the use of proxies, and knowing when to make trouble and when to acquiesce.

*It is impressive that the regime in Damascus has survived this long. Its people (though extremely warm and friendly, from personal experience) are dirt poor and have been for a very long time. The majority of Syria is Sunni, but the country is ruled by the fifteen percent (or so) of Alawites, and offshoot of Shiism.  They make up the vast majority of the ruling class. Except for a brief stint in the early 1990’s, Syria has always been in America’s doghouse. How many other regimes could be enemies with a superpower, while ruling over vastly poor majority, and still stay in power for fifty-plus years? It’s remarkable.

In this case, the grand strategists of Damascus have leveraged their controversial relationship with Tehran and America’s weak position in Iraq to reenter Lebanon in a big way. Many analysts have noted that while Syria may not have the soldiers on the ground anymore in Lebanon, they are almost just as powerful there as when they did.

This is no accident. Damascus’ main long-term goals include regime survival, the return of the Golan Heights, and the constant expansion of influence in Lebanon. As far as the last goal goes, they are right on course. Aside from a few Christian holdouts, it is difficult to pick up nary a whisper of criticism of Syria in Beirut these days amongst the politicians.

A key moment came last September, after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, when Syrian President Bashar Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah. The Saudis shared American concerns about Iraqi security, and were allegedly concerned themselves with the spread of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is believed that the Saudi’s made a deal with Damascus: help America secure Iraq and stop the spread of Al Qaeda in exchange for Syria’s re-admittance into Lebanon.

Soon the hurdles fell, and two of Syria’s biggest critics changed their tune. Walid Jumblatt, out of concern for his vulnerable Druze population, defected from Hariri’s March 14th coalition and began the long and humbling process of making public apologies to Damascus. Then Hariri was summoned to Damascus to make nice with Assad, the man that he believed was responsible for the murder of his father. Today some Christian factions remain hostile, but two of Syria’s biggest opponents now trumpet the tune of Damascus.

Which brings us back to Hariri and Obama. When the United States let Syria back into Lebanon (whether actively or passively), Washington basically opened the gates for Syria to transfer weapons to Hizballah unfettered. America may have made some progress in Iraq as a result, but now Syria and Hizballah are much stronger in Lebanon. Once again, Lebanon’s sovereignty and democracy have been sold out,  and Syria continues to play chess while America plays checkers.

Hariri and the Security Council

The other big issue for Hariri and Obama will be the topic of Iran, and this is where the Prime Minister is in a tight spot. At least he can blame the “weapons to Hizballah” problem on circumstances that are beyond his control. But not with Iran. Lebanon currently heads the United Nations Security Council, which the United States has been desperately wrangling lately to produce sanctions against Iran for its nuclear energy program.

There are many times where it is acceptable to play the fence in International Relations, but this is not one of those times. If the issue of sanctions comes to a vote, Lebanon will be forced to make a decision. With Hizballah being such a powerful player, Lebanon can’t really vote for sanctions. But on the other hand, it would could be extremely damaging to vote against sanctions as it could badly tarnish US-Lebanon relations. The alternative is to abstain, but this would please no one and could turn out badly if the abstention still ends up effecting the verdict one way or another.

If the United States goes through all the trouble of corralling Russia and China and the motion fails due to a Lebanon ‘no’ vote or abstention there will be trouble. And if the motion for sanctions on Iran passes due to a Lebanese ‘yes’ vote or abstention, there will be trouble. This is a no-win situation for Mr. Hariri, and it is likely that these scenarios will be discussed at the May 24 meeting at length.

On a hopeful  note, the United States has pledged $20 million to help repair the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The camp was leveled by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in 2007, after fighting broke out between the LAF and Fatah al-Islam. Perhaps this goodwill gesture foreshadows that some sort of progress will be made in the relationship between the USA and Lebanon in their upcoming summit. Whatever the case, the meeting will be interesting.

The United States has it’s hands full with Iran, Iraq, and Israel right now, and Lebanon figures prominently into all three.

The Hariri Tribunal: Lebanon’s Elephant in the Room

25 03 2010

Crater left by the bomb that killed Hariri

by Patrick Vibert

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

On Valentine’s Day 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed as his motorcade traveled near the Beirut seaside. To date, Hariri’s killers have yet to be identified, and like many other high-profile cases in the this part of the world, it might never happen.

After Hariri’s death, the United Nations Security Council set up a criminal tribunal to investigate the murder and to bring whoever was responsible to justice. However, since Hariri’s murder, much time has past and the situation has changed. Lebanon is still deeply pained by the  loss of Hariri, but the trouble that could come as a result of a suspect being named, especially if it is a Syrian, could vastly outweigh the good it would do to know who was responsible.

Today, many Lebanese already know in their hearts who was responsible, and maybe it is best for Lebanon to let sleeping dogs lie.

Rafik Hariri and Syria

In the time period leading up to Hariri’s murder, tensions between Lebanon and Syria were coming to a head. Historically, Lebanon was part of Syria and many Syrians believe that it still is. Lebanon had been under occupation since 1976, when Syria placed thousands of troop there to help curb the violence of the Civil War. But even after the Civil War ended in  1990, the troops remained.

Instead, over that period of time, Syria had been establishing and then consolidating its influence in Lebanon. Troop levels increased, Syrian officials siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars  from Lebanese commerce, and a fearsome intelligence apparatus was established to sniff out and punish any  dissent.

Companies had to  give regular “kickbacks” as a cost of doing business. Many Lebanese who still made a living from farming were put off by the waves of  hundreds of Syrians that were pouring into Lebanon to do their work at a lower price. And to keep the machine running, Damascus meddled in many aspects of Lebanese political life, including appointing who they wanted to be president of the country.Citizens resented the sovereignty of Lebanon being trampled by the Syrians, but were fearful of what would happen if they spoke out.

Over the years, frustration with the Syrians began to grow in Lebanon. At the same time, Rafik Hariri was emerging as a strong political force. The affable billionaire had bought his way to the top, and used his considerable capital and connections to run for office so that he could help his country rebuild after so many years of war and destruction.

But Damascus was extremely weary of a strong and popular Sunni politician in Lebanon, who had friends in high places all over the world, including President  Jacques Chirac of France and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Sunni part was particularly troublesome for Damascus because the Syrian ruling class is almost entirely Allawite (an offshoot of Shiism) while the rest of the country, which is desperately poor, is made up of Sunni Muslims. Having another country run by a powerful Sunni leader on their borders (in addition to Jordan and Iraq) was unacceptable.

During this time, Lebanese frustration with Syria was beginning to foment and there were increasing calls for Syria to withdraw all its forces from Lebanese territory. As soon as the protests began to mount, so too did the elimination of Syrian’s most vocal critics. But such tactics only added fuel to the protesters fire, and as the situation was starting to come to a boil, Damascus began blaming Hariri more and more for the anti-Syrian hostilities coming from within Lebanon and without.

On February 14, 2005, Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive explosion that claimed the lives of 21 others and left a smoldering crater in downtown Beirut, as well as the hearts of the Lebanese people.

Syria is forced out

Hariri’s assassination triggered a massive outpouring of protests from all over Lebanon. The incident had infuriated a public that had suffered under Syrian rule for so long and who saw Hariri’s murder as the ultimate insult  and transgression from their occupiers. Suddenly the floodgates were opened.

Syria had been under pressure from the Security Council to exit Lebanon for a while, but Damascus strategically dragged its feet by stalling and by only redeploying handfuls of soldiers at a time back to Syria. This time was different. Not only did Hariri have powerful friends in Saudi Arabia and France who were enraged with his death, but the circumstances involving Syria’s neighbor, Iraq, had a heavy influence on the situation.

The United States was at war in Iraq, and Washington has accused Damascus of opening up its eastern border to the jihadis that were flooding into Iraq to fight and kill US troops. There are few things the U.S. government takes more seriously than another country facilitating the transportation of their enemies to battle American soldiers, and Syria soon found itself in the United States’ crosshairs.

As a result, the U.S. put its full weight on Syria to secure its border, and to punish Syria, the U.S. firmly backed the calls to end that country’s occupation of Lebanon. Massive anti-Syrian protests, dubbed the Ceder Revolution, took place in the street of Beirut, and in the spring of 2005, Syria bowed to the pressure and recalled its troops, ending its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon.

The Tribunal

As mentioned, the United Nations Security Council established a tribunal to investigate Hariri’s death. The tribunal got off to a quick start initially, but then fizzled out from what Lebanon expert Michael Young chalks up to either  “investigative incompetence or international political pressure”. In the years since, the investigation has  languished. There has been a revolving door of ineffectiveness amongst the subsequent leaders of the tribunal, and many witnesses  have either “disappeared” or “clammed up”.

Although the occupation is officially over, Syria still wields power in Lebanon. This is exemplified in the waves of assassinations that took place amongst Lebanese who had been critical of Syria, including multiple journalists, politicians, and people linked to the tribunal and its investigation. From 2005 to 2007, Syrian critics were eliminated from the scene in a way that shook Lebanon to its foundation. And this was after Hariri’s assassination, when the world was watching and when Syria was the focus of so much negative attention. In this climate of violence and uncertainty, it’s not surprising that people suddenly had bouts of amnesia in relation to Hariri’s killing.

Still, the tribunal is set to proceed.  The court sits at The Hague in the Netherlands and is considered a “hybrid”, meaning that it contains elements of both Lebanese and international judiciaries, but it follows rules based on Lebanese national law instead of International Law.

The tribunal has been gathering evidence since 2006, the year when most of the initial progress was made in the case. That year, four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals were arrested and jailed and the case seemed to be proceeding in a timely manner. However since then progress in the case has been minimal. Eventually the generals had to be released due to lack of evidence  (a witness recanted his earlier testimony) and no other  arrests have been made since.

Syria and Lebanon: the situation has changed

Over the years, much has changed in Lebanon and in the Middle East. This is particularly true in regards to Lebanon (and its leaders’) relationship with Syria. The frustration with Syrian occupation built up and climaxed with Hariri’s assassination. The Syrians were forced out of Lebanon, but the wave of assassinations of Syria’s critics asserted that the presence of Damascus was still felt and that instability and violence was all that was in store for a Lebanon that was hostile towards Syria.

Sides were taken between the Hizballah-led, pro-Syrian March 8 coalition and the anti-Syrian, pro-West March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son.

Eventually the instability itself, caused by the violence and the power vacuum that Syria’s exit had created, climaxed with the events of May 2008 when the Lebanese government attempted to dismantle Hizballah’s telecommunications system. The situation led to the first post-Civil War instance of major sectarian fighting, but Lebanon managed to step back from the precipice and has seen relative stability ever since.

Lebanon selected Michel Suleiman as president, a choice that was acceptable to all, and he pledged to work to unify the country. The next year in June 2009, Lebanon held its parliamentary elections, in which all major parties participated. The world was stunned by the orderliness of the process and by the unexpected March 14 victory. Equally surprising was Hizballah’s immediate acceptance of the election results, which were a positive sign for the prospects of the new government. Saad Hariri was elected Prime Minister.

But the question of Syria still remained.  Saad Hiriri had publicly blamed Syria, and its President Bashar Assad, for his father’s murder. Also, Walid Jumblatt, the Druze patriarch and one of  Saad Hariri’s March 14th allies, was vocal in his blame of Syria for Hariri’s death. Jumblatt was a friend of Rafik Hariri who loathed the Syrian occupation, not to mentioned that he blamed the Syrian’s for his own father’s death in 1977.

It seemed as though the newly elected government of Lebanon would take a strong nationalist stance in the face of Syria, which would only have led to more violence and instability, but that was not the course  that was taken. Instead, reconciliation was the order of the day. After the elections, Hizballah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and political foe Walid Jumblatt held a productive meeting signaling that the two sides (March 8 and March 14) were ready to cooperate. Then Saudi Arabia and Syria worked out their differences with a visit from Bashar Assad to Riyadh to meet the King, which in turn paved the way for Saad Hariri’s own reconciliation with Syria.*

*This is a fascinating example of the brutal world of Lebanese realpolitik. Hariri was forced to reconcile for the good of his country. And with Syria’s presence in Lebanon rising again, Walid Jumblatt, one of Syria’s fiercest critics, was forced to do the same for the good of his Druze people. Adding to matters is Jumblatt’s decision to leave Hariri’s March 14 Coalition. These two men should share an unbreakable bond, as Jumblatt and Hariri Sr. were good friends, and he and Hariri Jr. both blame Syria for killing their dad’s. In the end, they were both forced to make amends with Damascus because they simply didn’t have a choice. Lebanese politics have little time for friendships or sentimentality.

Hariri must have realized that  peace, stability, and prosperity in Lebanon could not be achieved without Syrian cooperation, so eventually he too swallowed hard an traveled to Damascus to meet with the man he believed to be responsible for his father’s death. With all sides friends again and on board with the new government, Hariri was then able too form a cabinet to govern the country.

After 35 years of sectarian violence, war, and occupation by both Israel and Syria, Lebanon was beginning to right its ship. With some reliable stability, Lebanon was open for business.  Money was flowing in, construction was everywhere, and Beirut began to shake its image of a dangerous, war-torn city. In 2009, Lebanon saw its biggest tourist season ever, and that same year saw Syria and Lebanon exchange Ambassadors (a step which many perceive as the final step towards normalization of relations) for the first time.

None of this would have happened without comprehensive cooperation. Inside Lebanon, the Shia, the Sunni, the Druze, and the Christian decided that it was better for their people to be working than to be fighting. And all that was made possible with the reconciliations taking place internationally, with the United States and Saudi Arabia taking a softer stance on Syria. And finally Syria, whose cooperation was paramount, was made possible because the Assad regime decided that it was better for Syria to have a prosperous Lebanon. With the Gordion Knot untangled, Lebanon was free to blossom.

Implications of a ruling against Syria (or Hizballah)

What is the point of the Hariri Tribunal? This is a legitimate question. The Tribunal was established in part to bring to justice Hariri’s killers, but with the dual purpose of punishing Syria for its transgressions that had so angered the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia. And from the beginning, that is how  Syria has taken it.

For its part, Syria has steadfastly denied the allegations and have characterized the proceedings as political in nature. When taken in context of the wave  of  assassinations of Syria’s critics that occurred before  and after Hariri’s murder the circumstantial evidence in hard to ignore. Syria had motive (silence the critics that were calling for an overdue end to the occupation) and opportunity (Syria controlled Lebanon and had soldiers and intelligence agents everywhere).

Damascus counters all of this with the claim that Syria had the most to lose by Hariri’s death, but again judging by the facts and the context of the case, this could easily be chalked up to a simple (yet major) political miscalculation, similar to the miscalculation made by Hizballah in 2006 when it decided to enter Israel to capture some troops. Of course neither expected the situation to explode out of control, but the actions were taken nonetheless.

Five years after Hariri’s death the Tribunal carries on, and although the situation on the ground has changed significantly, the mission of the court has not. If the tribunal ever gets around to naming a suspect, the aftermath could tear the Lebanon apart.

In 2009, an article in the German daily Der Speigel claimed that the tribunal was actually going to name Hizballah as the prime suspect. If this were true, the finding could undo much of the healing that has taken place since the end of the Civil War by making it much harder for the Hariri-led government to do business with the minority opposition (led by Hizballah). Nobody wants this. Also, it is unlikely that Hizballah leaders organized the hit, as Rafik Hariri posed no threat to them. Many analysts have attributed “the leak” of this information to someone trying to influence the June 8 parliamentary elections by dragging Hizballah through the mud just before they were about to take place.

The real danger is what happens if Syria is named in the investigation, particularly if President Bashar Assad himself is connected. The result could tear open old wounds and possibly ignite fresh public anger at Syria. Depending on how it is handled by both parties, the tensions created between them could escalate to a level that would destabilize Lebanon, undoing all the progress that has been made.

There is likely a lot of political pressure being put on the Tribunal to do no such thing. Perhaps all that will come out of it would be the finding that a “lone gunman” with no connection to either Hizballah or  Syria committed the hit and died in the process. The court will probably name a few individuals (likely those who are already dead) and close the case, leaving the historians to connect the dots.

If the purpose of the tribunal was to punish Syria and to force it to readjust its relationship with Lebanon, then mission accomplished. Because regardless of the courts findings, Syria has been found guilty in the hearts of most Lebanese and they have paid the price in their removal from Lebanon.

Obama works to secure support on the Iranian Issue

28 11 2009


The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a rebuke yesterday of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Iran insists that its intent is only to use the technology for power production purposes, but many nations suspect otherwise.

The statement condemning Tehran’s secret nuclear energy project in Qom was passed by a vote of 27 to 3, with 5 abstentions.

In a sign of the Obama Administration making progress on the issue, both Russia and China were among the ‘yes’ votes. As permanent member of the Unite Nations Security Council, their cooperation is key to any credibility behind the threat of sanctions on Iran.

The Obama Administration has made Iran’s nuclear energy program one of its top priorities. Among the key players in the situation are Russia, China and Israel.

Iran is already under heavy sanctions, but that has had little effect on the grip that the regime has on the country.

Sanctions typically lead to crises that are big enough to have a negative effect on the people,  yet small enough as to be manageable by the government. As a result, the people and the government are usually unified in the face of the sanctioning nation, which is usually much more powerful than the one being sanctioned.

The sanctions, if they cause civil unrest like they are meant to do, enable the government to curtail democracy and civil liberties, which only strengthen their position in their country.

This has certainly been the case with Iran. If anything, the country has moved from an Islamic theocracy headed by the Ayatollah to a military dictatorship headed by the Revolutionary Guard.

Many think that the only sanction that would  have any major effect on Iran would be stopping its gasoline imports. While Iran sits on a sea of oil, its refining capabilities are extremely limited, which forces it to import a large portion of the gasoline that they use (which is Iran’s argument for wanting a nuclear energy plant in the first place).

If Iran was unable to import the supplementary gasoline, some analysts predict that this could  lead to massive civil unrest and ultimately regime change in favor of a government more sympathetic to the needs off the West.

This is where Russia and China come in. As mentioned, they both sit on the Security Council, which is the only UN body that can impose sanctions. The United States needs their votes.

On top of that, Iran imports most of its refined gasoline from Russia. So Russian cooperation is doubly imperative.

And while President Obama is trying to garner the support of Russia and China, he has Israel ratcheting up tensions with Iran by threatening to attack with or without the help of the US if this issue doesn’t get resolved.

For Israel the threat is likely a bluff, in that they probably wouldn’t attack without the go-ahead from the United States, and they would greatly desire US military assistance. But the aggressive rhetoric is there and that is enough to get Obama to move on the issue.

To secure Russia’s help Obama first had to thaw the frosty relations that had developed between the two nations during the Bush II Administration, and then present an offer to Russia in an unrelated area to entice cooperation.

This is why we saw Obama agree to halt US plans for a missile defense shield to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic back in September. The issue was huge for Russia, and would have greatly strained relations between Washington and Moscow for the foreseeable future.

In this case, the United States didn’t give up that much strategically, as many military analysts doubted the  missile defense shield’s effectiveness, and similar systems already installed on US naval vessels are far more accurate and are capable of deploying anywhere in the world.

Obama gave up the shields as a show of good will to gain Russian cooperation on the Iranian issue. So the obvious question is whether there is anything similar that he can offer the Chinese to bring them wholeheartedly on board like the Russians.

There is nothing obvious that stands out. China maintains a policy of non-judgment of other nations because the ancient country of over a billion people hates being judged itself. China doesn’t want people to criticize its human rights abuses,  its civil liberties, the treatment of minorities, or lack of democracy…and it doesn’t bring up those issues when it’s doing business in countries like Sudan or Burma.

China buys oil from Iran, oil that it needs to grease the gears of it massive economy. If the machine breaks down, and the people grow angry at the government, the communist regime in Beijing might be sent out. Not only is this unacceptable, everything must be done to prevent the scenario. So if it can do business with a nation, China believes that it is not up to them to pass judgment on that nation.

So President Obama really has his work cut out for himself on the issue. Russian and China’s ‘yes’ vote on the IAEA statement is a sign of progress, but that is a far cry from a ‘yes’ vote on UN Security Council sanctions.

Perhaps the biggest reason for China to come aboard is the fact that a US/Iran war would have a drastic and dire impact on the People’s Republic. Primarily, a war like this would severely disrupt the fragile world economy and cause a global calamity that could lead to chaos in countries with a tenuous grip on its population, like China. Secondarily, China has over a trillion US dollars in its foreign reserves, so it is heavily invested in the secure and prosperous future of the United States.

So maybe the Chinese have recognized that it is in their best interest for them to  care about this one issue. Either way, Obama has a long road ahead of him, but acquiring the support of Russia and China could go a long way to prevent the next war that nobody wants.