Monthly Archives: November 2013

Understanding Iran and the Nuclear “Joint Plan of Action”

Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry

Foreign Minister of Iran Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry

On November 23rd, a “Joint Plan of Action” was reached in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia, China, France and the UK) and Germany, known collectively as the P5+1. This temporary agreement is the first of its kind between the international community and Iran concerning Iran’s nuclear program. There is a lot of debate over the deal itself and how Iran is expected to act, but the base reality is that this is an important and symbolic first step to possible progress. The “Joint Plan of Action” is not a comprehensive deal; Iran is not going to immediately shut down all its nuclear infrastructure, but it has not in any way been given a free pass to building nuclear weapons either.

The biggest takeaway is that this is purposely a tentative first step that will last six months with the possibility of renewal. This plan should be met with provisional optimism rather than immediate condemnation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the interim plan a ‘historic mistake‘ and said the world today is more dangerous because of it. Private opposition groups highlight the Iran of the past in Youtube ads calling for more sanctions. However, much of this criticism is based on a deep mistrust of Iranian intentions rather than a disagreement than the content of the plan itself. Iran’s attitude towards Israel and its history warrants a level of skepticism, but refusing to acknowledge the possibility of taking mutually beneficial steps forward is shortsighted.

The text of “Joint Plan of Action” includes provisions stating:

1. Iran does not increase uranium enrichment over 5%, reduces its level of uranium enriched to 20%, and agrees to not advance activity at key nuclear sites such as adding new centrifuges

2. Iran allows for increased monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

3.  The US and European Union will provide sanctions relief and not impose any new nuclear-related sanctions

President Obama stated that the plan cuts off Iran’s primary route to a nuclear bomb. Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has indicated before he is against nuclear weapons in Iran, also supported the deal.  Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, generally regarded as significantly less aggressive than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, praised the outcome as well. Rouhani went on to say that the world has recognized Iranian nuclear rights and affirmed that Iran had no intentions of seeking nuclear weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear the plan does not condone Iranian enrichment, but hailed the joint plan for its step in the right direction.

Skeptics argue that this plan is just a false front for the Iranians in order to have sanctions lifted. Regardless of Iran’s intentions, the opening of nuclear sites to international inspectors is critical to a more comprehensive understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and its future ambitions.Over the next six months, time will tell just how sincere Iran is about clearly pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. The provisions in the plan suggest that at least at face value the Iranians do wish to negotiate, which opens up options for both sides to move forward constructively.

The plan is non-binding, so if Iran were to shirk from any of the provisions it has agreed to, the international community can and should respond by returning sanctions and increasing pressure against Iran. However, if IAEA inspectors confirm that Iran is abiding by the provisions of the plan and reversing its nuclear enrichment, such skepticism should be tabled. Bashing a plan before it has a chance to work is counterproductive, because there is a definite opportunity for the international community to learn more about Iran’s true goals and capabilities. Iran is signaling that it is willing to come to the table on the nuclear issue, but the extent to which they are serious about scaling down their nuclear ambitions can only be proven over time. The US and international community should treat the plan and Iran’s willingness to move forward with cautious optimism in the months ahead.

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Shifting Sands and the Gulf Monarchies

Gulf Cooperation Council Leaders

Gulf Cooperation Council leaders at the most recent GCC summit

For the first time since 1995, in October the US produced more oil domestically than it imported from overseas. The US has been steadily moving towards greater energy independence and this shift will have a tremendous effect on the relations between the US and the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, primarily Saudi Arabia. If demand for their oil dries up, the Gulf states will find it increasingly difficult to sustain their entrenched traditional systems in a modernizing world. While the Gulf will remain strategically important to the US, the oil factor is set for a decline that will open new opportunities and consequences for the US-Gulf relationship.

If there’s any place in the world where money really can buy happiness, it’s the Gulf (if you’re in the right family). The extremely controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar for example, even had a senior FIFA official admit the decision was a mistake. On a more serious note, for decades the Gulf has successfully bought stability at home and influence on the international stage with their oil profits. Recently the Gulf countries have come under greater criticism for their treatment of foreign workers, antiquated laws towards women and divisive foreign policy agendas. In the long term, the Gulf states will continue to face mounting pressure against such controversial policies especially as the significance of their oil wealth declines.

Overview of the Gulf Monarchies

There are six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia,  the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is more populated than the other five states combined and by far most influential. The Saud family has ruled for generations, as have the Al Thani in Qatar, Al Sabah in Kuwait, Al Said in Oman and the Al Khalifa in Bahrain. Each emirate of the UAE has its own ruling family and the head of government has always been held by the emir of Dubai. All six are Arab, though many have substantial foreign laborer populations. All the ruling families are Sunni with the exception of the Ibadi sect in Oman which is neither Sunni nor Shi’a. Bahrain is the only country to have a Shi’a majority populace, which has been the cause of major sectarian tension.

US-Gulf Relations

The US and Saudi Arabia especially have always had a very close, but very complicated relationship. The strategic partnership concerning oil and security in the region has come under further strain due to a variety of foreign policy differences on recent events in the region. The Saudis were alarmed by the exchanges between Obama and Iran’s new Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani, and  the Saudis argue the US has not done enough to help the rebels against the Assad regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia has taken their own initiative in supporting opposition groups aligned to their own agendas, worrying American officials. Furthemore, while the US has reduced the amount of aid to the current military backed government in Egypt, Gulf countries have sent billions more.

However, this all pales in comparison to the longstanding relationships that have been in place for decades between the US and the Gulf monarchies in military and oil agreements. Also critical is the mutually beneficial collaboration between the US and the monarchies against terrorism.

What’s Next?

While predicting the imminent collapse of the Gulf monarchies is a bit premature, the Gulf leaders of the future will increasingly find themselves forced to concede on some issues or else risk exacerbating the tensions within their states. The Gulf states operate in a strange, hypocritical world at times. For example migrant workers within the Gulf have been severely exploited, though leaders are still quick to send 10 million in aid to the Philippines for disaster relief. There’s no shortage of cash in the monarchies and they’re constantly investing more into their future, but such extremely modern business ventures coupled with their traditional political systems is becoming more and more incompatible. The Gulf states can throw money at their problems for now, but they cannot do it forever.

The US needs to take a stronger stand against human rights injustices within the Gulf. Exploiting workers, oppressive women’s rights policies and questionable foreign policy initiatives have largely been swept under the rug in exchange for allies in oil and regional security. The Gulf states should realize that improving their domestic issues benefits their standing in the international community, and the West should reiterate this point to them.  As the US relies less on Gulf oil in the future, it should not step away from its Gulf partners but rather evolve those relationships. The US should pressure its allies in the region to improve their human rights issues, while continuing the critically strategic agreements in place.

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Turkey’s Difficult Balancing Act

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Within the modern Middle East, there are two non-Arab regional leaders. Iran continues to play a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million, and is 99% Muslim. Turkey also plays a major role in the Syrian Civil War, has a population of roughly 75 million and is 99% Muslim. Unfortunately, the more you read about the Middle East, the more you learn that such generalized simplifications can be just as misleading as they are meant to be informative; Turkey and Iran couldn’t be further from the same.

Iran has garnered significant attention over its nuclear controversy and the succession of President Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani. Turkey, on the other hand, has largely been on the backburner of mainstream media coverage in comparison. At present Turkey is finding itself stuck in the middle of many issues, globally, regionally and domestically. An insight into these issues will give a better understanding of where Turkey stands and the complexities they will face as the situations develop.

Turkey’s decision to opt for a $3.4 billion missile defense system from a Chinese weapons firm over American and European alternatives alarmed the US and the rest of NATO (Turkey has been a member of NATO for over 60 years). The deal has not been signed yet and Turkey insists it is not a political move, but it’s hard to ignore the crossroads Turkey has placed itself  squarely in between its traditional Western allies and a rising power in the east. The possible deal itself isn’t as significant as the symbolic and independent move to act outside of NATO’s interests.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, Turkey adamantly opposes an Iran with nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t want to contradict itself and limit future options in building its own nuclear power infrastructure by condemning all Iranian nuclear pursuits. Turkey wants to be able to work with Russia, Iran and China while simultaneously maintaining its strong relationships with the US and NATO.

Regionally, specifically regarding the Syrian issue, Turkey has tried to walk a tightrope between aiding the opposition and avoiding becoming directly involved in the fighting. Turkish citizens have been killed by border skirmishes, and Turkey has shot down a Syrian helicopter that strayed too far into into Turkish territory. Recently, Turkey extended a motion allowing it to send troops to Syria if needed, although this caused significant controversy between the ruling and opposition political parties in Ankara. Turkey has been crucial in humanitarian initiatives but has faced difficulties in controlling the border. Turkey has the right to defend its borders, but it doesn’t want to incite further violence by lending too much support to the opposition or becoming directly involved. All in all, there’s no easy route for Turkey to take in the Syrian conflict, and thus it should keep its options open while addressing the humanitarian crisis as much as possible.

Internally, protests have persisted since the Gezi Park demonstrations in  late May over discontent with the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been in power since 2003. Turkey is officially secular and has no state religion, and Erdogan has found himself in the precarious position of trying to initiate reforms that have fallen far short of expectations. Erdogan and the AKP have been rightfully criticized for their repression of the freedom of assembly and controlling the media, and the concessions they have given in response have been minimal.  Protests have continued and are likely to continue so long as police repression persists. Erdogan may not be immune to negotiations, but the accusations of growing authoritarianism are hard to ignore.

The results of the Balyoz “Sledgehammer” and Ergenekon coup trials, in which top ranking military leaders were convicted of plotting to overthrow the government further highlights the internal conflict within Turkey. Modern Turkish history is rife with military coups, and the recent trials, as controversial as they have been, serves to show that such an era may be over. If Erdogan and the AKP wish to remain as the legitimate leaders of Turkey, they need to find the balance between prosecuting those who threaten to undermine the state and attacking perceived political opponents.That balance is incredibly difficult, but listening to the masses and conceding faults would be a solid starting point.

Turkey independently has own prerogatives and its own problems. The rest of the world also needs to find a balance when dealing with Turkey. A middle ground should be pursued to constructively criticize Turkey for its shortcomings and offering to work with them against regional threats. If this can be successfully achieved, Turkey may be influenced to move towards more democratic reforms and be a powerful partner in resolving conflict in the region.

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Tunisia Today and Hope for Tomorrow


It has been nearly three years since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, an incident that sparked the mass demonstrations that led to the Arab Spring. It’s clear that the Arab Spring has irreversibly changed the region, but it is difficult to predict what the long-term result of the revolutions will be. Nonetheless, recent developments in Tunisia highlight the fact that progress is possible, as the country is now undergoing the first peaceful transition of power since the Arab Spring began.

In January of 2011, amid tremendous pressure Tunisian President Ben Ali stepped down from power, the first of a series of authoritarian leaders across the region to relinquish or lose authority after decades of oppressive rule. Since then, Tunisia is the only country to successfully emerge from regime change without the same level of violence and conflict that continues to plague Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. What then makes the Tunisia of today unique, and what is in store for the Tunisia of tomorrow?

Tunisia is a relatively modern and stable economy not reliant on oil and it has traditionally enjoyed a large amount of Western investment. Unlike Syria, there are no regional or international powers fighting for their affiliate group to win. Furthermore, compared with the countries listed previously, Tunisia is the most homogeneous. Around 98% of the country is ethnically Arab-Berber, and religiously Tunisians are almost exclusively Sunni Muslim. These factors suggest Tunisia has a relatively easier path towards political stability in comparison to its regional neighbors.

Tunisia has gradually made moves towards becoming a more inclusive democracy, but the transition has not been without incident. The largest setback occurred when two prominent politicians of the opposition Popular Front party were assassinated earlier this year, and the ruling Ennahda party drew significant criticism for responding inadequately to the situation. The moderate Islamist Ennahda party has been accused of bowing too much to hard-line Islamist demands, though Ennahda notably rejected Sharia law and has worked with the secular opposition moving forward. Furthermore, discontent over the inability of Ennahda to construct a viable constitution or properly address the country’s economic woes have caused its popularity to drop over time.

As a result of such pressure, Ennahda recently agreed to share power with the opposition led by the secular National Salvation Front via an interim government. This move is incredibly significant, because although it came at the behest of public outcry and opposition pressure, it signals the first transition of power in a peaceful manner of its kind in wake of the Arab Spring.

Political competition in general is healthy, and Ennahda’s realization that it may better serve the country and pursue its own agenda as an opposition party signals that the system is progressing in the right direction. So long as there is balance between the various political and religious interests in the stake of Tunisia’s future, compromise can occur and move the country forward.

Every party in power thinks that it knows what is best for its country, however, the realization that not every citizen shares exactly the same goals is crucial in a representative government. If Tunisians can hold their government accountable and force them to reform when needed, then there is hope for the future of the Arab Spring.

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