Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Has the war against Iran already begun?

Warning: admittedly highly speculative post ahead:
Reuters has just published yet another “will there be an Israeli attack on Iran?” piece , amidst the latest spike in speculation of a possible strike against its nuclear programme. I'm beginning to wonder if such speculation is not a little behind the times.
In the last two weeks there have an explosion at an Iranian missile facility that killed a senior Revolutionary Guards figure described as the architect of the country’s missile programme h; another alleged explosion at what may have been a Hizbullah site in Lebanon ; and yet another alleged explosion at Iran’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.
The circumstances behind all these explosions are murky and it’s not even certain that the last two explosions happened at all, or at least not at the sites described above, never mind whether or not they were the result of sabotage or an attack. Nor is it out of the question that any of the explosions were the results of accidents. But following on from the assassination of prominent Iranian scientists with alleged links to the country’s nuclear programme (again, it’s far from clear that all of the scientists killed really were involved in the nuclear programme, but at the same time it seems unlikely that they were assassinated merely for giving boring lectures) over the course of the past year, a sudden string of “accidents” at these sensitive sites to occur back to back merely as a result of coincidence seems a little far-fetched. An explosion at a missile facility that kills such a prominent figure also seems highly suspicious and the latest evidence for an explosion having taken place at the Isfahan facility also seems pretty strong , though I suppose it’s never wise to take anything reported in the Murdoch press at face value. While these aren't the first explosions blamed on Israel to have allegedly occurred at Iranian missile sites or Hizbullah arms dumps, it does seem to be a particularly concentrated spate.
The timing of the spate of alleged attacks is also interesting. A major factor in the “will Israel/won’t Israel” equation is the US presence in Iraq, which has always been a major deterrent to an Israeli attack due to US fears that Iran could retaliate through Iraqi allies and proxies by launching major attacks on US troops in the country, as well as the fact that the shortest flight route to Iran would be through US-controlled Iraqi airspace, which would put the US in an extremely difficult position. So the likelihood of an attack was always going to increase once the US got out of Iraq. In mid-October the Obama administration announced that it had decided (or had the matter decided for it) to withdraw more or less all troops from Iraq by the end of this year. Within a month, and very close to the withdrawal date, the first of what appears to be an escalated series of attacks on Iranian military and nuclear targets began.
If these explosions are real and are the result of Israeli or US/Western attacks, doesn’t that mean the much anticipated war against Iran has essentially already started? Clearly the means are different, and the scale so far smaller, than the widely expected large scale simultaneous airstrike blitz on multiple facilities; but the end result is still explosions at Iranian nuclear and missile facilities (not to mention dead Iranian scientists) and at facilities belonging to its ally Hizbullah. How many more explosions can we expect and at what point do people start describing what is happening as war, which repeated attacks on Iranian military and infrastructure facilities clearly amounts to, rather than “sabotage”?
Another thing I’m curious about is how these attacks, if that’s what they are, are being carried out. It’s generally assumed that various forms of sabotage or attacks by intelligence forces are at play. I’m willing to buy that the occasional accident or explosion. But I find it hard to believe that Mossad or the CIA and local allies such as the MEK have penetrated the Iranian military establishment so deeply as to have been able to carry out sabotage against or plant bombs in two ultra-sensitive and presumably extremely well-guarded Iranian facilities within two weeks, especially at a time when Iran has supposedly recently rolled up a local CIA network. I also find for example Richard Silverstein’s explanation for how Israel supposedly attacked the Hizbullah arms dump (by deliberately crash-landing a booby trapped drone that Hizbullah than brought to the facility) a little convoluted.
One possibility that I haven’t seen widely considered yet is that Israel, or even the US, is simply carrying out good old-fashioned airstrikes, possibly in the form of unmanned drone strikes (though interestingly, Le Figaro reported that an explosion last year at Imam Ali Shehab-3 missile base might have been the result of an Israeli airstrike). After all, unclaimed drone strikes have expanded massively throughout the region in the past few years are being carried out routinely in several other countries by the US in particular. Israel last year was reported to be in possession of a new range of drones capable of reaching Iran , while the US unquestionably has bases in the region that it could launch such strikes from. Of course, in many ways it doesn’t really matter how the attacks were carried out -– a bomb attack is a bomb attack and an act of war is an act of war, regardless of how it’s delivered – but I think the opening up of some sort of air campaign would be widely perceived as a notable escalation in the conflict against Iran in comparison to “sabotage” activities that have long been widely regarded as taking place in Iran.
A covert, low intensity (compared to a full-on simultaneous strike at a range of nuclear and military targets) campaign of drone strikes or other forms of bombings in combination with other activities such as assassinations and sabotage seems like a logical choice for anti-Iranian forces, given widespread claims that such a large-scale strike would not do much more than delay the programme while also potentially sparking sparking a major regional war and  an oil price spike that would be crippling for the already stalling US and global economies.  
Why would smaller scale strikes not do the same (ie trigger Iranian retaliation and a regional war)? One reason is that isolated explosions are deniable in a way that the full-on simultaneous destruction of numerous nuclear facilities isn’t, allowing for the consequences of a full-scale attack to be avoided. That matters for whoever is carrying them out but it also matters for Iran, because Iran almost certainly doesn’t want to get sucked into a war with Israel and the US, because it would inevitably lose. Of course Iran has retaliatory options, and knows that the US is unlikely to have the capability or desire to actually invade Iran and overthrow the regime. All the same, if Iran were to start sustainedly lobbing missiles at Israel and Saudi oil infrastructure and to try to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the US would almost certainly bomb its military infrastructure, and probably its civilian infrastructure too, back to year zero, which is not exactly an attractive outcome for the regime. That Iran does not appear willing to get dragged into such a conflict is underlined by the fact that, with the possible exception of the absurd-seeming alleged plot to carry out attacks in the US through an incompetent used car salesman and a Mexican drugs cartel, it has so far appeared to fail to respond to other blatant provocations and attacks such as the blatant assassination of Iranian scientists and the Stuxnet computer virus attack on its nuclear programme; just as Iranian ally Syria failed to respond to the Israeli air raid on a nuclear reactor several years ago and the assassination of one of their senior military figures, and Hizbullah and Hamas, despite much doom-mongering, have failed to respond to the assassination of high-level members such as Imad Mughniyeh.
Of course,  if Israel launched an obvious undisguised large scale airstrike on Iran, it would clearly be politically very difficult for Iran to sit back and do nothing; the regime could well feel forced by popular and nationalist pressure, as well as the dangers associated with being seen to be powerless to respond to large-scale military attack, to engage in some kind of retaliation, irrespective of the consequences. But when it comes to smaller-scale, isolated attacks, the regime can write them off as accidents or isolated incidents not worth responding to, which makes them more attractive for everyone.  
The risk of course is that such attacks continue to the point where it becomes obvious to everybody what’s actually happening and the regime figures it can no longer feign ignorance, potentially sparking a catastrophic full-scale war.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Examining the IAEA's evidence that Iran "may" be pursuing a nuclear weapons programme

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran has been receiving a lot of attention in relation to the fact that, for the first time, the agency has explicitly said it believes not only that Iran may have had a nuclear weapons programme but that “some activities may still be on-going.”

Most of the report is based on documents that have long been in the IAEA’s possession as well as widely reported on, and that largely relate to alleged nuclear activities carried out prior to 2003 (when the US intelligence community judges Iran to have suspended an allegedly pre-existing nuclear weapons programme). These are most importantly the “alleged studies”/“laptop of death” documents, as well as some documents from the AQ Khan nuclear network (which are different in that Iran admits these are genuine and that it received them, though it says it was given weapons-related Khan documents that the IAEA is particularly interested in without having requested them). As several other observers have pointed out, former head of the IAEA Mohammed el-Baradei declined to publish the alleged studies documents or to use them as a basis for accusing Iran of having a nuclear weapons programme because of questions about their authenticity but his politicised pro-US successor Yukiya Amano has decided to give them the IAEA’s backing. Gareth Porter provides the most comprehensive critical examination of the alleged studies’ veracity here (subscription/log-in needed).  

It is bizarre that a report overwhelmingly focused on weapons work alleged to have been largely wrapped up nearly a decade ago is attracting so much hype and being so widely used to call for yet more sanctions on Iran and even outright war. However, while the “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Program” is overwhelmingly concerned with claims about Iran’s pre-2003 activities, the report does also include the vague but serious charge that “some activities may (my emphasis) still be on-going,” which is rather more relevant to the world today. I thought that it might therefore be interesting to dig out and scrutinise the sections that specifically deal with weapons-related activities that have allegedly taken place since 2003 and/or are allegedly still on-going.

The first such claim is presented in paragraphs 23 and 24 of the annexe. These paragraphs state that the AMAD project, an alleged nuclear weapons programme, was wrapped up in 2003 but that, based on “information the Agency has received from Member states”, “staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects.” Furthermore, some IAEA member states have provided it with information that “some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later” and that the head of AMAD “retained the principal organization role,” first under a new organisation and then as the head of an Iranian university. The section concludes: “The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.”

It is worth noting how vague and poorly sourced this is. Some staff stayed in place to write up the results of a terminated program. Then, “some member states” provided information that “some activities” that “would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapons programme” were resumed, but no details of these activities are given (or whether or not they might have non-nuclear applications”. So the charge is that some unidentified intelligence agencies have said that some sort of unspecified work with (potential?) relevance to nuclear weapons research continued after 2003, based on unspecified and unverifiable evidence.

The next section explicitly referring to post-2003 activities is paragraph 45, which says that two member states provided the IAEA information that “Iran engaged in experimental research involving a scaled down version of the hemispherical initiation system and high explosive charge referred to in paragraph 43 above, albeit in connection with non-nuclear applications.” Again, poorly sourced and unverifiable, and this time referring to research “in connection with non-nuclear applications,” which raises the question of why this is included at all.

All of the rest of the allegations relating to post-2003/on-going weapons research appear in paragraphs 52 to 56. Paragraph 52 of the report states that, again, two member states provided the IAEA with information relating to “modelling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009.” These “involved the modelling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behaviour at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield.” So here we do have at least have a specific, nuclear weapons-related accusation with a fairly precise timeframe, though the basis for the accusation and the strength and type of evidence for it is not given; again, all we are told is that “two member states” (at least one of which is presumably Israel - see the last paragraph of the link) say so.
Paragraph 53 states that a member state told the IAEA that in 2005, Iran moved to set up projects in an institution overseen by the alleged head AMAD “to establish a databank for “equation of state” information  and a hydrodynamics calculation centre.” Not being a nuclear expert, I don’t know whether these could have a plausible non-nuclear weapons application and the report doesn’t say so. The paragraph also states that “”a different Member State” told the agency that, also in 2005, a “senior official in SADAT solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.” This sounds pretty clearly related to nuclear weapons. Again we have (presumably the same) two member states providing the IAEA with unverifiable information, this time relating to alleged weapons related research from six, rather than the usual eight-plus, years ago.

Paragraph 54 notes that the IAEA has discovered that Iranian researchers have, “over the past decade”, openly published a variety of papers on topics that “are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research, but also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives.” This is such a pathetic piece of evidence for a clandestine nuclear weapons program that it’s not worth commenting on.

Paragraph 55 and 56 state that the IAEA has information from a “member state” that Iran “may” (my emphasis) have continued work after 2004 on research into the manufacture of “small capsules suitable for use as containers of a component containing nuclear material” that Iran, according to a different member state, “may” (again, my emphasis) have experimented with “in order to assess their performance in generating neutrons.” The agency says that such components could be used to generate a nuclear explosion, though it doesn’t clarify whether or not they could be used for another purpose. So again we have unverifiable intelligence from presumably the same two member states, this time to the effect that Iran “may” have continued after 2004 looking into components that it “may” have experimented with as part of a weapons program, without being clear as to whether such research has any other applications.

That, by my reading of the document, accounts for all the references in the report to alleged weapons-related research that the report specifically says took place after 2003. (There are other vaguely-worded references to research that don’t give a clear time frame and that could presumably also have taken place after 2003, but given that the vast majority of the evidence cited is the alleged studies, which refer to pre-2003 work, and the importance the agency would likely attach to any evidence of an on-going weapons program, it seems unlikely to me that the agency would have failed to make it clear when it was referring to alleged post-2003 activities).

So to summarise, apart from the absurd citation of openly published scientific research with clear non-nuclear weapons-related applications, it is all based on unverifiable intelligence from IAEA member states, in almost all cases from what appear to be the same two member states, one of which is likely Israel. In one case this relates to a claim that some staff hung around to write up some research after it had been terminated as well as entirely vague and unspecified allegations that "some" weapons-relevant research continued afterwards. In another, the alleged activities are acknowledged to have been “in connection with non-nuclear applications.” Another relates to an alleged piece of nuclear weapons-related research that allegedly took place six years ago. And then we have a claim that an intelligence agency told the IAEA that Iran “may” have continued some research beyond 2004 that it “may” previously have used as part of a weapons research programme, with being clear about whether or not such research has non-nuclear applications.

In only one case do we have a claim that Iran relatively recently (two to three years ago) carried out an unambiguously weapons-related piece of research, again based on the unverifiable claims of two intelligence agencies.

It hardly bears repeating that, in the light of the Iraq war, the record of (presumably) western intelligence agencies on accurately and honestly presenting evidence of WMD-programmes in four-letter Middle Eastern countries beginning with “Ira-” is some way from being unimpeachable; and in this case we have just one claim by these intelligence agencies that they have some sort of evidence of Iran fairly recently engaging in what is unambiguously nuclear weapons-related research. This is the “evidence”, combined with long-standing dubious claims about what Iran may have gotten up to eight or more years ago, that is being hyped as part of a push towards another potentially catastrophic war in the Middle East.  

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Mexican connection

By now everyone is well aware of the alleged Iranian plot to use a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US and blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington.

Numerous observers such as Juan Cole, Glenn Greenwald, Gary Sick, Kevin Katzmann, Julian Borger and others have all done great jobs pointing to the holes in the alleged plot and raising key questions about it. I won't go over those again.

The only point I wish to make here is that the plot is too absurd to be real, but also too absurd to be a deliberate "Gulf of Tonkin"-type fabrication on the part of the US, as some have hinted. It also seems too ridiculous for even a third intelligence agency to have cooked up, though I suppose that's less unlikely.

On the whole though, my suspicion is that this is some kind of investigative cock-up by US law enforcement overly keen to effectively entrap another "terrorist" that the US government has embarrassingly jumped all over. The key questions are where the $100,000 came from (Juan Cole suggests it could have been the key suspect's own money), and how the name of an apparently real but largely unknown Iranian IRGC general came to be involved. I suspect that once the answers to those questions come to light, the  plot will be revealed to be a screw-up, or at least a vast overstatement and misinterpretation of the realities of the case.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Syrian uprising and the region

Writing in the Guardian, Zeki Chehab argues:

“The fall of the Assad regime would mean the loss of Iran's only ally in the region and thus a weakening of the clerical regime.”

Chehab appears to hint that it would also mean the end of Syrian support for fellow Iran allies Hamas and Hizbullah (Hamas, we are told, is looking for new headquarters to replace Damascus). He notes that “Analysts say that Assad's tacit support [for Palestinian factions] comes not from interest in Arab causes but a desire to gather cards to play against the US and Israel in negotiations to win back the Golan Heights.
Further into the piece he writes:

“Meanwhile, behind closed doors, leaders in Israel fear the fall of Assad could lead to the rise of a conservative Islamic regime. An end to the fragile stability of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, is a particular worry. Leaking of the news that Tel Aviv fears the Golan front could erupt again came as a surprise to many in the Arab world in light of the declared enmity between Israel and the Ba'ath regime.”

So on the one hand he argues that should Assad fall, Syria would likely withdraw from the so-called resistance axis, despite the fact that its membership is likely predicated not on regime ideology but on the occupation of the Golan. On the other, he suggests that a post-Assad regime might step up Syrian attempts to regain the Golan, possibly going so far as to start a new war with Israel.

Would a new regime really abandon all its anti-Israeli allies just as it went to war with Israel? Would a conservative Islamic (probably Muslim Brotherhood-linked) regime really cut off ties with the conservative Islamic (Muslim Brotherhood-linked) groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their main backer? Chehab’s argument seems to me to be entirely incoherent. Of course there is nothing wrong with presenting a variety of alternative scenarios, but that does not appear to be what Chehab is doing in the piece; rather, he appears to be predicting what the likely consequences of Syrian regime change would be on different fronts, only to come up with mutually contradictory ones.

The rather widespread idea that the fall of Assad would mean the end of Syria’s alliance with Iran and various resistance groups seems wrong-headed to me. As Chehab suggests, Syria’s place in the alliance is not about Baathist ideology but all about the on-going Israeli occupation of the Golan. The fall of Assad is not going to magically solve the Golan problem. It seems to me highly unlikely that any successor regime would be able to simply give up on regaining the territory and hope to stay in power very long; while there obviously isn’t much in the way of opinion poll data to support this, I think the general understanding is that popular Syrian desire to regain the territory remains strong. A successor regime would likely be dominated by Sunnis rather than Alawites and might be less inclined to maintain an alliance with Shiite Iran on sectarian grounds but this is not a serious long-term obstacle to the alliance; Hamas and IJ after all are hardline Sunni groups. As long as Syria remains in serious dispute with Israel over the territory, it has a strong incentive to try to bolster its strategic position by aligning itself with other anti-Israeli forces in the region.

Meanwhile Israel seems to remain very unwilling to return the territory, especially under the current hard-right government, regardless of who is in power in Syria. Even under a more moderate government, the presence of tens of thousands of Israeli settlers in the territory, Israel’s overwhelming military superiority and ability to fund the defence of the territory and the invariable reliance of any Israeli coalition on a number of right-wing parties suggests that the chances of Israel willingly returning the territory any time soon are very slim.

There is perhaps a possible scenario in which an entirely democratic new regime (which is far from being the assured outcome should Assad fall) would have enough democratic legitimacy to be able to take a dent in the national legitimacy stakes and tell the public that there is no hope of regaining the Golan and that Syria should accept it is gone and try to rejoin the international community by abandoning its unpopular allies, but this doesn’t seem a very likely scenario to me. A democratic government is likely to reflect the popular will to insist on the return of the territory while another autocratic one is likely to have to take a particularly hard line on the  issue to provide itself with enough nationalist legitimacy to make up for its weak democratic ones. Perhaps another scenario under which the alliance would break up would be one in which Syria slides into a sectarian war in which Iran and Hizbullah actively militarily support Assad, who eventually loses, alienating the new regime. However unless Israel did something to resolve the Golan issue very quickly under such a scenario, the prospects for Syria slowly sliding back into the alliance would seem high.

Staying with Chehab’s article to examine a slightly different point, he writes:

"The late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas consistently complained about Syria and Iran's interference in Palestinian affairs, which has always frustrated any reconciliation between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank.
The irony is that the reconciliation process has been reinvigorated by the signing of a treaty between the two rival factions in Cairo last week. Observers have noted this d├ętente was only possible due to the distractions Assad faces at home."

Certainly Abbas is not a fan of Syrian involvement in Palestinian affairs, given that Syria supports Abbas’s domestic political rivals. One might as well point out that Hamas is not a fan of US or Egyptian or Saudi interference in Palestinian affairs. But US pressure on Fatah was at least as responsible, and most likely far more so, for the collapse of previous unity governments and reconciliation efforts than Syrian efforts (let’s remember for example Elliot Abram’s alleged plan to mount a Fatah coup against Hamas in Gaza), and it seems far more likely that it is the new Egyptian government’s reduced hostility towards Hamas that has helped bring about the latest break through than any developments in Syria.

Friday, 18 February 2011

More proof...

...if proof were needed that the Obama administration is a just another pathetically craven coward in front of the DC pro-Israeli lobby.

My thoughts at the time of Obama's Cairo speech was that it was rhetorically magnificent, but that at the end of the day he would be judged on his actions rather than his words. Well here are his actions.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


In the previous post I suggested a couple of political factors centred on regime legitimacy and the unity and willingness to risk instability of populations that help explain why certain countries and not others have seen major protests. I also suggested that based on these factors, the Libyan regime looks pretty vulnerable.

One issue with this model, if it can be called one (OK it can't), is that it doesn't have much predictive power, as a lot of these factors have existed in places like Tunisia for a long time without major upheaval being unleashed until very recently. I think that's one reason why people are attracted to the food price inflation theory, because there has been a notable rise in food prices recently and it therefore helps explain why these uprisings are happening now (though it doesn't really explain why they didn't happen in 2008, when there was some scattered rioting in places like Mauritania but not much else, or why they didn't happen 20 or 30 years ago when food actually accounted for significantly higher proportions of expenditure in a lot of these countries than it does now even despite recent inflation).

More generally, there's been a lot of discussion about which political and economic models and sub-disciplines have the most predictive power and whether or not intelligence services for example should have seen this coming, or more generally why nobody did. In response to this, I'm going to make two mutually-contradictory comments:

One is that noone and no model can really predict the future of extremely complex societies. It's hard enough to predict what one person will do, never mind millions interacting in complex ways. Even if the problem weren't so complex, the mere fact of successfully being able to predict the future can itself change the future (as people will act on their foreknowledge - eg if Mubarak could have predicted what was going to happen he might have tried to placate people earlier), which may in turn result in a different outcome than the predicted one. It's a pretty obvious and well-established (in the field of economic forecasting, for example) point that futurology is really just a parlour game.

The second is that, actually, some people did predict what happened in Egypt, more or less. Less than two years ago John Bradley published a book called Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharoahs on the Brink of A Revolution. Obviously he didn't predict events exactly, but from what I remember of the book (I read a borrowed copy) he basically argued that Egypt was a total mess of a society that, as was, er, "on the brink of a revolution." (I think if I remember correctly he may have argued for a likely Islamist revolution, which this hasn't been so far, but I'm not sure). I'm surprised that I haven't seen anything in the way of citations of the book or interviews with Bradley recently (I may have just missed them, of course). Some Egypt specialists I know were sniffy about it, and it was more of a (sometimes sensationalist) journalistic work than a work of political science - but to be fair to Bradley, he seems to have been broadly correct in his assessment. Meanwhile another book has just been published (but obviously must have been written at least several months ago) entitled Egypt on the Brink, though I haven't read it and don't know what it's actual argument was.

Now, I actually think that these writers were probably fairly fortuitous in their timing rather than having been really able to predict with high confidence that Egypt would rise up in the very near future - though kudos to them all the same. But I think a more important point is that in cases like this, in many ways it doesn't really matter whether you could predict them or not. Egypt and Tunisia under their ousted leaders were both horribly repressive and corrupt regimes with major socioeconomic problems. Whether or not they were about to revolt didn't really matter in the sense that, either way, major change was clearly needed - change for its own sake, and not for the sake of avoiding instability or upheaval. If Obama really was annoyed that his intelligence people didn't see this coming, not only is he living in a fantasy world, he's missing the point that the US should have been pushing much harder for change in its Middle Eastern allies years ago, for the sake of the people living there if nothing else. Perhaps it's a naive point, but surely having disastrously-run, corrupt and repressive countries dominating a key region (or any region) is just a bad thing in itself, and bound to lead to no wider good in the long run. Who cares about the (unknowable) future when the present is already a total mess?

It's politics, stupid

A lot of commentators on the recent wave of protests in the region have pointed to socioeconomic factors such as poverty and unemployment. High food prices have been a particular favourite of the more wonkish pundits out there, who have liked to point out that food makes up a very high proportion of household expenditure in Egypt by global standards.

As an aside, to me this is less interesting than it first sounds. Saying that food makes up a large proportion of household expenditure in a given country is to a large degree simply saying that said country is poor. Of course it's a little more complicated than that as other factors such as subsidies, taxes, the degree of national food self-sufficiency and transport costs for imports also affect food prices and how much expenditure they account for. But at the same time, a lot of it boils down to the fact that the poorer a people are, the higher percentage of their income they'll have to spend on basic items such as food and the less they'll have for non-essential items. For example FT Tilt recently published a fancy graph by Goldman Sachs showing that food expenditures in Egypt were the second highest in the region as a proportion of the inflation basket out of 14 countries in the region. But then, based on GDP per capita levels, Egypt is also the third poorest of the 14 countries, so that's not particularly surprising or interesting.

And yet, it's not the poorest countries in the world, or even in the region (eg Mauritania), that have seen the most significant uprisings; nor is it clear why Tunisia should have seen the first major revolt when it's substantially wealthier and exposed to food-price changes (according to the GM graph) than say Syria, which has barely seen a peep. Conversely according to another chart published by the WSJ, Moroccans are even more exposed to food price rises, yet it's been quiet so far too. (That could change given plans for demonstrations in a few days, though I very much doubt it will see an Egyptian-scale uprising).    

Obviously a lot of factors are playing into this, but I think the nail in the coffin for the econo-determinists is the eruption of major unrest in Bahrain and Libya. Libya is by far the wealthiest North African country on a per capita basis. While the GM graph shows it has having a fairly high vulnerability to food price changes (though still lower than say Syria), presumably because it's heavily import-dependent, that still leaves a lot of money in absolute terms to spend on other things given its high per capita GDP. Meanwhile Bahrain is one of the wealthiest countries in the region (and in the non-Western world), as well as (according the GS chart) one of the three regional countries least exposed to food price changes (accounting for less than 20% of expenditure, vs more than 40% in Egypt). Now clearly in spite of overall wealth, there are problems such as uneven distribution of wealth in these countries and other socioeconomic problems such as high unemployment (especially in Libya), but let's be clear that there are also much quieter countries in the region with much more severe overall socioeconomic problems. The King of Bahrain has just announced that he's making a donation to all Bahraini families of an amount greater than the GDP per capita of some other countries in the region. It makes little sense if food prices and the like are the driver of unrest for it to break out in Bahrain while Mauritania and Morocco both stay fairly quiet.

To me, what these protests are about is first and foremost politics, not economics. In particular, what they're about is regime legitimacy, something Presidents-for-life like Ben Ali and Mubarak - and Qadhafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, which has seen significant protests - are particularly lacking in, as are minority-dominated regimes such as Bahrain.

At the same time, I think several other factors affect whether people are willing to come out to protest en masse.

One is  extreme domestic ethno-sectarian or political divisions, which for example make seriously divided countries like Iraq and Lebanon unlikely candidates for national-level uprisings.

Another is fear of renewed violence and instability making people just want to get on with their lives and keep their heads down - lowering the chances of any mass uprising in Iraq and Lebanon again, as well as in an Algeria still traumatised by civil war (as the Moor Next Door has noted, Algeria had a popular uprising in 1988, which set off a chain of events that ended in catastrophe). This also might be a factor in the two countries most affected by the fallout of Iraq (in terms of refugee inflows, Syria - mitigating factors such as its rule by a minority sect - and Jordan.

Given these factors, I think Issandr El Amrani nails it when he says that
the most important protests now taking place in North Africa are those in Libya. [...] Libya shares something important with Egypt and Tunisia: an aging leader (41 years in power) faces a looming succession crisis in which the leading candidates are his own sons. I simply don't think that's an acceptable outcome for any republic in the 21st century, and was a key aspect to the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia (with the rumored heir apparent being his nephew).
 Qadhafi doesn't have a lot going for him based on these factors. He's the longest-serving ruler in the region (and is a complete clown to boot, something I think is more important than people might think given that it can undermine nationalist legitimacy; I reckon Ahmadinejad's embarrassing outbursts did a lot to help inspire the degree of antipathy shown towards him by many Iranians when he won a second term in 2009, and that increasing publicity surrounding Ben Ali's family's corruption helped undermine him too). He rules over a country that is ethnically and religiously relatively homogenous (though there are important tribal and regional divisions) and that has no recent history of major instability or violence. All he has going for him is oil wealth - which didn't help the Shah of Iran for example - and a particularly repressive and brutal security apparatus. This didn't much help Ben Ali (Tunisia was more open and less violently repressive than Libya, but it was still a very repressive and closed regime) and can backfire by galvanising protests instead of successfully repressing them.

Iranian repression vs Egypt and Tunisia

Recently a lot of pundits have been making the point that renewed protests in Iran are unlikely to bring the government down, something with which I agree. However one reason a lot of them have been giving is that the Iranians are more willing to ruthlessly use force to stay in power, as demonstrated by the events of summer 2009.

The Iranian regime has an atrocious human rights record, let there be no doubt about that. It's a record that is in many ways worse than a lot of the pro-Western regimes in the region. But the events of 2009 do not at all point to it being more willing to kill vasts amount of people to stay in power. Stephen Walt also challenges the WSJ on this topic, but by saying that the Mubarak regime didn't brutally repress protestors "this time round" I think he misses a key point.

According to Green movement leaders themselves, 72 people died in the post-election protests in Iran (the Iranian government said around 36). That compares to at least 360 in Egypt and over 200 in Tunisia. The contrast to Tunisia is particularly strong, given that the Iranian population is around seven or eight times larger, and given also that, based on reports of the protests, vastly more people in Iran took to the streets than in Egypt or Tunisia (there were reports that one march in Tehran was three million strong alone; the Tunisian marches were tens of thousands strong and the highest estimate I heard for a Cairo demonstration was two million).

That makes the per capita death toll of demonstrators vastly higher in Egypt and Tunisia than in Iran. Based on these figures, Western-backed regimes' security forces seem to have shown far greater willingness to kill than the Basij did in 2009. Indeed one of the lessons the regime likely drew from the fall of the Shah in 1979 was that massacring people is a great way to stiffen their determination to overthrow them, something Mubarak and Ben Ali  and their police forces (though possibly not their armies) seem to have missed.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Some interesting Egypt statistics

One of the questions asked by Pew Global Attitudes Project in their 2009 survey was "how satisfied are you with your life overall?" (As far as I can tell they didn't ask the same question in their 2010 survey).

Of the 25 nationalities surveyed, Egyptians were by some way the least satisfied with their lives. 60% of Egyptians surveyed, more than any other nationality, said they were dissatisfied with their lives. Of these, 34% said they were very dissatisfied with their lives, again higher than in any other country. Bear in mind the survey included countries such as India, Kenya and Nigeria, which are substantially poorer than Egypt. Such high levels of dissatisfaction perhaps help explain the degree of anger shown by anti-Mubarak demonstrators in recent days. (Unfortunately, Tunisia wasn't included in the survey).

Perhaps ominously, Jordan was the next most unhappy country (56% dissatisfied, including 30% very dissatisfied).  Perhaps surprisingly, the other two Arab countries surveyed, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, were much happier (as were Israel and Turkey, the other two Middle Eastern countries surveyed).

Egyptians were also the least satisfied with their household income (again Jordan was the second least satisfied country), with their jobs (Jordan the third least satisfied this time), and with their personal economic situation (Jordan did a bit better here, coming in as fourth most dissatisfied, with Lebanon just behind Egypt as second most dissatisfied). Indians were most satisfied with their personal economic situation, suggesting that absolute income levels have little to do with levels of satisfaction (especially as the poll includes numerous developed western countries). I should be clear that I'm cherry-picking to an extent here - the survey asked tons of questions, and Egyptians weren't the most negative in anything like all of them - but they were in most of the questions about personal circumstances.

One final point worth making is that Egyptians were amongst the less likely to say that they were sometimes unable to afford food - only 16% said that had been the case during the previous year, less than (shockingly) the US, where the figure was 23%. (However, Egyptians were up there with some of the worse countries in terms of being unable to afford health care). This seems to suggest that pure economic and food inflation-based explanations of the Egyptian uprising  are off the mark; Egyptians are clearly unhappy for a number of reasons, but being amongst the poorest or hungriest people in the world isn't one of them. I wonder if things like comparing their own situation to that in Gulf Arab countries for example, or even just watching a lot  foreign TV, plays a role. At any rate, that inability to buy food doesn't seem be a comparatively big problem in Egypt seems to suggest that the explanation for the unrest is at least is more about political frustrations (frustration with a leader who just won't go away, hatred of the police and so on) than socioeconomic ones,  a view I lean towards already.

The full report is here: CONFIDENCE IN OBAMA LIFTS U.S. IMAGE AROUND THE WORLD - 25-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Misrepresenting Saeb Erekat

I think this post goes a long way to demonstrate my not-very-positive opinions of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Revelations in the "Palestine Papers" that Washington "wouldn't stand for" (not a direct quote - the quotation marks are to indicate the outrageousness of it dictating this kind of thing) any change in the PA leadership, democratic or not, further point to its rising status as yet another US-backed police state in the region. I'll also say that I'm more or less a fan of Al-Jazeera, and the Guardian is my daily paper. AJ and the Guardian published the papers, and have played a major role in spinning them. A lot of their spin is justified - in particular regarding the jaw-dropping pro-Israeli bias of US figures, even including Obama and George Mitchell.

However I do think that Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has been rather unfairly portrayed in some of this coverage. In particular, it's been widely reported that Erekat privately promised to recognise Israel as  a Jewish state while publicly vociferously rejecting such demands. I may not be on totally solid ground here, but from my understanding is that this is far from accurate.

Firstly this shouldn't be confused with the fact that Netanyahu and the Israelis have recently been pushing the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state now, as a precondition for talks or Israeli "concessions" (ie international legal and Roadmap obligations, such as freezing settlements). Neither Erekat nor anyone else in the PA have ever made that concession (which would be meaningless unless it was a public one).

As for claims that he privately agreed to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as part of a peace deal, these seem to rest on two sources. The first is a transcript of a November 2007 discussion in which Erekat said  "If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want." As far as I can tell, the document containing this quote hasn't been posted yet, so there is no evidence that Erekat is doing anything beyond saying it was none of the PA's business what Israel defined itself as.This isn't at all inconsistent with what Erekat and co have been saying publicly. Here is Abbas saying in July last year, six months before the release of the Palestine Papers, that "Israel can call itself whatever it wants. We don't have to recognize those definitions." The other document cited is this one, notes of an internal PA negotiating unit meeting, in which Erekat says in response to a warning that the US will back Israel on the matter: "This is a non-issue. I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the 'Great Eternal Historic State of Israel'. This is their issue, not mine." Again, there is nothing here to indicate that Erekat is promising the Israelis anything, as opposed to simply refusing to engage Israel on the issue or be drawn on it, on the basis that it's not a matter for Palestinians to decide; and this meeting was an internal one, and involved no promises to the Israelis or the US. Loathe as I am to agree with the vile Tony Blair, I think he was right today to say that at least in this case semi-flippant remarks for private consumption have been taken entirely out of context. And again it's not inconsistent with what PA figures have said in public, as far as I can see. Any comments or information that would shed further light on this is welcome.

Mubarak pulls a Ben Pahlavi?

Update: Al Jazeera reporting on Saturday morning that at least 23 people have been killed in Alexandria and 15 people in Suez, and another correspondent saw 15 bodies with bullet wounds in one Cairo morgue alone. Unfortunately it's a bloodbath after all.

Obviously the Egyptian regime is in massive, massive trouble. I've been watching pundits on Al Jazeera predict all day that Mubarak is finished. The burning of the ruling party headquarters makes it look particularly screwed.

All of that said, regional governments have survived significantly worse unrest. Possibly three million people took to the streets of Tehran  in 2009 (vastly more than Egypt, on both an absolute and per capita basis), and around 500 people died in riots in Algeria in 1988; in both cases the government survived. Numerous regimes saw out enormous bread riots in the 1960s and 1970s.

Furthermore I thought until a few hours ago that the Egyptian regime was largely doing - from its own point of view - the smart thing if it wanted to stay in power. It seemed to be avoiding the mistakes of Ben Ali, who as a few commentators have pointed out looked in turn to be doing his best to emulate the mistakes of the Shah of Iran in 1979 - in particular enraging people by killing large numbers of protestors early on, and then going into full retreat mode, encouraging demonstrators with each successive concession. The Egyptians on the other hand appeared to be both trying to avoid a bloodbath (using brutal but mostly non-lethal force like tear gas to break up protests, though putting the army on the streets will makeit harder to avoid massacres) while standing firm and dismissing opposition demands.

When Mubarak went on TV an hour or so ago, at first I was more confident still that he had a shot at seeing this through, especially as the delays in his appearance had been sparking growing rumours that he'd already fled. He didn't look a picture of health, to be sure (except maybe for a vampire), but for an 82 year-old supposedly suffering from cancer and facing a potential imminent Ceaucasecu moment, just weeks after his pro-Western anti-Islamist tourist-dependent oil-poor homologue a few hundred miles away had to flee in panic, I thought he seemed remarkably composed and confident.

But as his speech went on, he sounded increasingly like he'd be racking up the frequent flier miles in the very near future. Some of his words sounded very like, if not identical to, the "I have heard the voice of your revolution" statements that Ben Ali and Pahlavi came out with shortly before they also felt its kick in the goolies. More importantly, firing the government hit the mega-jackpot of looking both desperate and out of touch at the same time; noone really cares about the cabinet, but sacking it will only embolden demonstrators.

So is Mubarak toast? I'm still not entirely sure (and of course we'll know soon enough, but futurology can be fun). It will depend on things like how much he's prepared himself and the likes of the security forces leaders for this kind of thing, and whether or not they panic in the face of events. A military commander gave a TV interview that suggested the military remained behind the regime. Simply being united and prepared to wait things out goes a long way - protests can't go on for ever, as Iran in 2009 showed. Mubarak didn't look quite as desperate as Ben Ali (yet) - he didn't promise to step down soon or call early elections. But he looks a lot more like seeing out his days as a tax exile than he did just a few hours ago.