Sep 29 2014

US and Iran: ‘More cooperation than meets the eye’

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Bitter adversaries for a generation, the US and Iran now face a common enemy: the ‘Islamic State’. But, in an interview with DW, Dr Roham Alvandi argues that politics prevent Tehran and Washington from cooperating publicly. On Monday 16 October, Dr Alvandi will be presenting his most recent book ‘Nixon Kissinger and the Shah’ at LSE.


John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif during direct talks, July 14 2014

John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif during direct talks, July 14 2014


 

DW: What are the US and Iran’s respective interests in fighting the “Islamic State”? Are they opposed to IS for the same reasons?

Roham Alvandi: They’re not quite the same reasons. They each have their own interests in Iraq, and they each have an interest in containing and eventually defeating the Islamic State. From the US point of view, what they’re trying to do is defeat the IS threat but also create some sort of inclusive government in Iraq where you have some sort of balance between the Shi’a, the Sunni and the Kurds.

Whereas from the Iranian perspective, that’s much less their priority. They’re very much backing their allies in Iraq. But on the whole, there’s probably more cooperation going on than meets the eye. I suspect that there was a great deal of cooperation behind the scenes that has to do with the creation of the new government in Iraq, and I suspect that there’s also some cooperation in terms of the military operations that are going on. But neither side has an interest in acknowledging that openly, so they’re going to keep that very quiet.

Ayatollah Khamenei said that he rejected an offer from the US to cooperate against the Islamic State. Why would Iran oppose cooperating with Washington against a common enemy?

Iran assisted the United States in Afghanistan back in 2001. They helped defeat the Taliban; they helped create the Bonn process [to rebuild Afghanistan's political institutions]; they helped create the Karzai government. And what they got in exchange for that was “axis of evil” and more sanctions. Nothing came out of it and that was quite a gamble for President Khatami who had convinced the leadership that this was the right thing to do. So you can’t really blame them for being skeptical as to whether the US will really come through on any sort of quid pro quo as far as Iraq is concerned.

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Aug 19 2014

If Iraq is to survive, then it must be divided into separate regions

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by Ranj Alaaldin

It is no coincidence that country’s most stable areas are those where security and governance are in the hands of locally supported groups. This piece was originally published by the Independent on Sunday 17 August 2014.


Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of the capital Baghdad, during clashes with Isis militants. AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of the capital Baghdad, during clashes with Isis militants. AFP/Getty Images


Since ordering US airstrikes against jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (who now call themselves the Islamic State, or IS) in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, President Obama has gone one step further by arming Kurdish forces and helping them in their fight against the group.

The UK is also expected to provide the Kurds with arms and has already deployed SAS forces to the Kurdistan region as well as a fleet of Chinook helicopters to airlift Yazidi refugees besieged on Mount Sinjar, where they have had to choose between dying of dehydration or descending and facing inevitable slaughter at the hands of Isis militants.

All this should be welcomed. The West has been relatively muted in its response since Isis took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city of 2m people and other parts of Iraq’s north. It has established a self-declared caliphate in territory stretching between Iraq and Syria. Left alone, Isis will expand further; it will garner far greater resources than it currently enjoys and, as an organized, disciplined and resource-rich organisation will continue to recruit local Iraqis, Syrians and other jihadists from around the world to its cause.

The decision to become actively and directly involved in the fight against Isis acknowledges a number of realities that policymakers have for too long ignored: firstly, that the Kurds are a reliable, organized and moderate force capable of countering Islamic radicals in Iraq as well as the region; secondly, that the Kurds will declare independence sooner or later; finally, that Iraq, with or without the Kurds may disintegrate anyway.

Except, Iraq has already disintegrated. Baghdad no longer has any control over its Sunni Arab north. Its Shia-dominated government presides over the capital Baghdad, as well as the Shia south. Baghdad may still retake the north and it should be helped by the international community to achieve this but although it may do so and although Iraq could recover from the current crisis, it is unlikely to progress to such an extent that makes a recovery irreversible.

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Aug 12 2014

Book Review: The Struggle for Iraq’s Future by Zaid Al-Ali

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by Dr Zeynep Kaya

In this piece, originally published on the LSE Review of Books, Zeynep Kaya reviews Zaid Al-Ali’s latest book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.  Zaid gave a public lecture at LSE launching his book on Wednesday 7 May; you can listen to the podcast here.


The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy. Zaid Al-Ali. Yale University Press. 2014.

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy. Zaid Al-Ali. Yale University Press. 2014.

The rise of ISIS in parts of Northern Iraq and the possibility of a breakaway of the Kurdish region from the central Baghdad government make questions about Iraq’s future more prescient than at any stage since the 2003 invasion. If Zaid Al-Ali’s central claim in his book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is accepted, Iraq’s position today could be entirely different if the artificiality of sectarianism was understood and if today’s political elites could act beyond their short-term interests. Al-Ali provides a detailed account of the downward progression of the state of affairs in Iraq, offering readers illuminating explanations of the political, economic and social context of the increasing sectarian rift that has led to today’s turmoil.

Al-Ali, a lawyer who specialises in comparative constitutional law and international commercial arbitration, explains how hopes for Iraq to become a freer and more prosperous country faded over a ten-year period following the collapse of Ba‘ath regime. Particularly focusing on the period since 2005 when the Iraqi constitution was drafted, he provides a forensic and compelling account of the constitution-making process and the substantial issues within the constitution that set the ground for the political turmoil which followed. In more general terms, Al-Ali compares pre-2003 and post-2003 Iraq, which helps the reader to identify the long-term and short-term problems Iraqi politics and society have been experiencing.

There can be little doubt that this book is more suitable for those who already have a relatively good understanding of Iraqi politics and society, the political divisions among parties, and the process of intervention. Having said that, the opening two chapters, ‘A legacy of oppression and violence’ and ‘The origins of the political elite’, offer a lucid and accessible background for the general reader. Combined, these chapters cover Iraqi politics before the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and outlines the origins of the new political elite (who are mostly once exiled Iraqis), and the design of the Iraqi constitution. This background frames subsequent discussions of the rise of al-Maliki and his return to sectarian-style politics after 2010. The remainder of the book, however, is aimed at readers interested in an in-depth look into the thinking and actions of the key actors, the working of the newly established government and its ministries, and the events that took place within the last decade.

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Aug 6 2014

The GCC’s National Employment Challenge

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by Dr Steffen Hertogg

This piece was originally published on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog on 31 July 2014.


Foreign laborers work at a construction site in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 30, 2013. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Foreign laborers work at a construction site in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 30, 2013. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)


Citizens of the Gulf monarchies are more dependent on state employment than anywhere else in the world (except perhaps North Korea). As working age populations grow, the implicit government job guarantee is increasingly becoming unsustainable, especially in relatively poorer countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ruling elites recognize this, and have been pushing for increased private employment of Gulf nationals. These “Gulfization” policies are set to be the GCC’s prime social and economic challenge in coming decades. No one is close to resolving it: Private sectors continue to be dominated by migrant labor, with nationals holding a small or miniscule share of private jobs.

“Gulfization” policies have acquired additional urgency in the wake of the Arab uprisings. The costly wave of public job creation decreed by GCC rulers soon after regional turmoil spread in 2011 has further increased the long-term cost of the government payroll. GCC regimes have become even more sensitive to the economic demands of their young populations – who are for the most part not openly politicized, yet are concerned about their economic status and often expect their governments to cater to their needs. Public sectors in the poorer GCC countries already cannot absorb all new job seekers.


Figure 1: Distribution of employment by sector and nationality in the GCC

Source: National Agencies

Source: National Agencies


What makes Gulfization so difficult? In essence, it is the gap between nationals and migrant workers in both labor costs and labor rights. Nationals typically expect pay and work conditions similar to what is available in government, and can change employers at any time. Foreigners from low-wage countries are willing to put up with much lower salaries:

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Aug 5 2014

LAB ‘views: Interview with Dr Ali Kadri

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LABIn the third of a series of interviews with LAB affiliates, Dr Ali Kadri unpacks a complex and violent account of financialisation, militarisation and oil in the Middle East, and explains how human rights and sovereignty over natural resources of disempowered national working classes challenge economic orthodoxy. Situated in LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights and directed by Dr Margot Salomon, the Laboratory for Advanced Research on the Global Economy (LAB) probes the challenges posed by the complexities of the global economy and their implications for human well-being. LAB has been set up to create a dynamic space for research, from the conceptual to the practical and across disciplines, on the myriad places where human rights, fairness and justice intersect with economic globalisation.

Below is the interview, which can be downloaded in full here.


Dubai, UAE, 2014, copyright  Paolo Margari, source: flickr.com

Dubai, UAE, 2014, copyright Paolo Margari, source: flickr.com


What role do oil prices play in the global economy and why might it matter to human rights?

If one were to consider the sensationalised view of oil or the opinion that holds that oil is an uniquely suitable source of energy, then the case may be that the expansion of the world’s population from around 2 billion in 1925 to 7 billion (currently) could not have been possible without the energy that oil had provided. However, that is a perspective that bestows upon oil, the commodity itself, a life of its own, when in fact our dependence on oil is ordained by a set of social relationships that necessitates the use of oil for profit making as opposed to alternative sources of energy that respect social and environmental concerns. When our way of reproducing society (maintaining the needs of society from one period to the next by social measures) shifts from being dictated by the profit criterion to the social value criterion (as in goals which are common to society as a whole), research into the employment of other sources of energy may lead to equal or maybe better sources of energy.

Nevertheless, oil and fuels represent the foremost traded commodity globally. Oil is also important because variants on the initial commodity make up the inputs of nearly all the manufactured commodities. But oil is a strategic commodity because countries that depend on oil imports for their energy and have no immediate sources to replace oil become extremely vulnerable on the security front, if and when oil shortages arise. Hence, for the hegemonic powers, especially the US, controlling the sources of oil in the Arab world by subjugating or subverting the governments of oil rich countries can become a source of immense power and/or a weapon of strategic value. For the US, the power emanating from hegemony over oil resources underwrites the issuance of the world reserve currency, the dollar, and many other imperial rents wrought as a result of its imperial status.

Oil is relevant to human rights because it provides the energy with which many rights-based essentials for sustaining life are produced. Food, shelter, water and health, etc. require energy and oil by-products as inputs. If the price of oil and fuels rises, then the price of these right-endowed services and commodities rises. Fuel prices could also rise as a consequence of subsidy removal.

When the World Bank demands lifting subsidies on fuels, the cost of these essential services and commodities also rises. As such, many in the poorer strata will be deprived of their right to food and other basic needs for a decent life. Energy is necessary to grow food, and most of the energy comes from oil (irrigation, electricity, machine operation, etc.). These subsidies-lifting or austerity measures, as happened in Egypt recently, dissipate the wealth of society and violate many human rights principles.

The already poor rural areas usually bear the brunt of these contractionary policies (fiscal austerity and subsidy removal). UNICEF, for instance, reported in 2009 that one in three Egyptian children suffers from malnutrition, hence, the annulment of subsidy further deprives needy children of food1.

Not only that, the policy of subsidy removal on essentials in poorer countries is also wasteful from the purely ‘positive-science’ point of resource allocation. Because the institutions that allocate resources are commandeered by the wealthier class, which stands to benefit from rent grab and national resource divestiture, the supposed welfare gains that would ensue from removing price distortions (subsidies) had they existed at all, would not be imparted to the poorer working strata. In any case, welfare gains cannot ensue from this policy because it is fiscally contractionary. Moreover, in an Arab de-industrialising and open capital and trade accounts context, the globally integrated ruling class, through the channels of finance uses every means possible to usurp the social product of the national economy. Foremost in these are the stance of the dollar-pegged exchange rate, which draw down the reserves of central banks to stabilise the national currency in the dollar, so that the wealth of the national ruling class may hold its stable dollar-value in the international markets. There are two clarifications to note here: a) the ruling classes’ earnings are safer abroad when held in so-called ‘risk free’ assets like the dollar, so naturally, investors seek the safer broader international markets, and; b) when the central banks expend dollars to prop up the national exchange rate vis-à-vis the dollar (keeping it pegged to the dollar), the working class benefits as the price of imported dollar-priced wheat, for instance, becomes indirectly subsidised; however, the channelling of credit into speculation on national assets like real estate, which pushes its price up, allows the financially integrated ruling class to convert its rising gains from liquidating national assets at guaranteed dollar prices. In the end result, the subsidy provided to the richer class, as a result of the peg, ends up eroding national funds and forcing a removal of subsidy to the poorer working class.

Oil, however, is very crucial to human rights because it is a principal reason for war making. Oil violates the right to security of person and communal security, especially in the Arab World. As early as the 1970’s, the late Saudi novelist, Abdul Rahman Munif, whose prose had beautifully captured the way oil had torn asunder the old social relationships of Arab society, disengaged women from village type agricultural production and left open the ideological space for Wahhabism to act as spiritual repository for parasitism, he had also laid down the equation that in the dialectic of oil, each drop of oil equals a drop of blood. Strategic oil interests justify the existence of brutal monarchies and despotic Arab regimes that serve as suzerains of American empire. Oil control feeds into the other two most relevantchannels of the global economy: militarisation and financialisation.

Together, the threesome, oil, weapons and the dollar, represent the tripod upon which the signal of the profit rate signals the death tolls from wars. It is not oil the commodity itself that has to change as a commodity or any alternative energy source that would replace oil as a commodity that would also have to change, it is the criterion that organises the relationships by which societies reproduce themselves by commodifying the basic goods that are required to sustain life that has to change.

When man and nature are organised around more common social goals, other than profiteering by privatising water, air and vital medication, to name a few, one may possibly see the oil addiction getting kicked.

Download the full interview


KadriPrior to joining the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, Ali Kadri was Visiting Fellow at the Department of International Development at LSE and Head of the Economic LSE Laboratory for Advanced Research on the Global Economy Analysis Section at the United Nations regional office for Western Asia. He is a member of the Sounding Board of the Laboratory for Advanced Research on the Global Economy in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE.


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