Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Sunni-Shi’ite Divide

The big fault line between Shi’ite and Sunni branches of Islam in the Middle East, centered on the rivalry of Iran and Saudi Arabia, is influencing conflicts in countries throughout the region, including Syria.

Today the Arab League monitors from the Persian Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and allies) left Syria, saying that their presence was not effectively changing the violent behavior of the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad (backed by Iran). The rest of the Arab League monitoring mission remains, and the League as a whole extended the mission and is expected to send replacement monitors, but the League’s head also called on the UN Security Council to help out. (In my opinion the pullout is not a bad thing, as both the Gulf states and Iran are too close to Syria to play as useful a monitoring role as other Arab states or the UN might.)

The Sunni-Shi’ite conflict was simple back in the 1980s. Iran, the world’s only Islamic Republic and a Shi’ite country, was locked in a war with Iraq. The war would kill close to a million people through trench warfare, the use of chemical weapons, and rocket attacks on each other’s cities. Backing Iraq and its Sunni leader Saddam Hussein were Saudi Arabia, the other Arab countries, and tacitly the United States.

Things are actually more complicated than that. No countries are purely Sunni or Shi’ite. Most have an interwoven patchwork of these sectarian communities — a village here, a city there — as this map shows (high res here):

Map of Sunni-Hi'ite areas

Two countries next to Iran — Iraq and Bahrain — had Shi’ite majorities ruled over and repressed by Sunni minority regimes. In the past decade, of course, Iraq is no longer Sunni-led but, thanks to George W. Bush, led by Shi’ite parties.  (One U.S. official claimed that Bush didn’t know the distinction between Sunni and Shi’ite before deciding to invade Iraq.)

A step further from Iran is Syria, with a Sunni majority ruled over by a Shi’ite-based (Alawite) minority. That is the regime we are all focused on currently, the one the Arab League is monitoring to no avail. Moving along westward, Lebanon is almost half Shi’ite and that community is the base of the armed militia Hezbollah. After decades representing the disempowered and fighting Israel, and after being implicated in the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s liberal prime minister, Hezbollah last year became the dominant party in Lebanon’s government.

To the south, meanwhile, in Bahrain last year the Shi’ite community rallied for democracy and was violently repressed with help from Saudi armed forces. The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, stayed pretty quiet. A quarter of the Saudi population is Shi’ite but they are in no position to cause trouble and the Saudi royal family has the money to buy out any discontent in the Kingdom. In Yemen, where Shi’ites make up more than 40 percent of the population, the Shi’ite Houthi tribe in the north has been in armed conflict with the central government for decades, even as Sunni al-Qaeda radicals wage war in the south.

Thus, in recent years the Arab side of the Persian Gulf (or is it the Arabian Gulf?) has remained firmly in Sunni control, while across the Gulf four countries in a line now have Shi’ite-affiliated regimes — Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Of these, Iraq and Lebanon have been relatively neutral on Syria (mixed interests and their own problems at home), but Iran has been the Assad regime’s most important external backer (along with more powerful but less enthusiastic Russia).

The emergence of a more solid Shi’ite bloc stretching from Iran to Lebanon is not a positive development in my view. It tends to polarize the region and to extend the ambitions of Iran, which acts in defiance of international norms on important issues. It also raises a legitimate concern that Iran’s creation of a nuclear weapon in the coming years would spark a rush by Saudi Arabia to follow suit. The danger of a terrible war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with their respective allies, is worth worrying about.

In the middle of it all, of course, is oil. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia all share one interest — they are the world’s three top oil exporters. They benefit from reliably high prices for oil on world markets (high price spikes that lead to crashes are less useful). On the other hand, both the western powers and China share an interest in a low, stable oil price. And there was China’s prime minister recently visiting Saudi Arabia, not Iran, for a friendly chat. Turns out that although China is Iran’s largest oil customer, China actually buys twice as much from Saudi Arabia, whose total oil exports are almost triple the level of Iran’s. China wants assurance, which it no doubt received, that Saudi Arabia would fill any gap in China’s supply created by new sanctions on Iran.

The United States supports the Saudi side, and Russia the Iranian side, but China really just wants oil and doesn’t care where it comes from. The main  interest of China and other consuming nations is political stability in the Middle East, to keep oil prices stable and the spigot turned permanently on. In the past, although oil is the world’s most traded commodity in terms of value, its price has seen wild swings triggered by political events like wars and revolutions. A little stability would be a really good thing for the world economy. Saudi Arabia alone has the vast reserves to keep world supplies steady even if another OPEC member stops exporting. And hence the Chinese prime minister’s visit.

As for the UN Security Council, its ability to play any meaningful role in Syria will depend entirely on Russia. As some Kremlin officials suggest their patience with Assad is wearing thin, the western powers are pressing Russia to back the Arab League’s recent call for Assad to step down. When that question comes to the Security Council, soon, Russia will have to decide exactly where it stands.

Burma Reforms Gaining Speed

Suu Kyi photo Jan. 18Today the longstanding leader of the opposition in Burma (Myanmar), Aung San Suu Kyi, officially filed papers to run for parliament in by-elections on April 1. It is another step forward in a reform process that last week saw the United States restore diplomatic relations with Burma after the government there released 651 more political prisoners including many prominent dissidents.

In most places in the world, inertia is a strong force in international relations. If a country is at war, it stays at war; if at peace it stays at peace; if repressive it stays repressive. So real and permanent changes in a country — for example, the Arab Spring successes in Tunisia and Libya — are always of note.

Is Burma experiencing real, permanent change?  It sure looks like it. U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently visited Burma and met the new civilian president, former general Thein Sein, and other top leaders. He said afterwards, “I’m convinced he  is a genuine reformer, and more importantly, so does Aung San Suu Kyi.” U.S. politicians closely follow the advice of Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, regarding policies such as whether to lift sanctions on Burma (not yet but moving that way). Last month Hillary Clinton met with her on a historic visit to Burma that signaled U.S. and international responsiveness to Burma’s reforms.

Last week the Burmese government signed a ceasefire deal with one of the most important of many ethnic militias that have been battling the government for decades near the borders with Thailand and China. The Karen ethnic group has battled the Burmese government for 63 years since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948. The government also has ordered a ceasefire in its long conflict with the Kachin ethnic group, but some fighting continues.  Since 1989 the government has signed ceasefires with 17 armed ethnic groups. The government now says it hopes to end all these armed conflicts within three or four years.

Just ten months ago the military rulers of Burma gave way to a civilian government, albeit one hand-picked and largely led by themselves, after three decades of military rule. The government over those decades was one of the worst in the world. In 1988, student protests were met by lethal force in a massacre that previewed the following year’s Tian An Men protest in China. In 2007 Buddhist monks led large-scale demonstrations against the regime, which were also broken up with lethal force and repression.

An election in 1990 — the last until the flawed elections in 2010 — was swept by Suu Kyi’s party. Instead of allowing them to rule, the military took over, jailed opponents, and put Suu Kyi herself under house arrest for years at a time. Over the decades, the military leadership and its friends have enriched themselves greatly by exploiting Burma’s great natural resources such as timber and minerals, often sending these to its main supporter, China — which also gets electricity from Burmese hydroelectric dams. (But in September Burma cancelled an extremely unpopular $3 billion dam project backed by China. Burma had also found common ground with North Korea in recent years, reportedly buying missiles and possibly nuclear assistance from the North Koreans. Mitch McConnell said yesterday that Burma’s leaders “understand that a big part of normalizing the relationship with the United States is to discontinue its relationship with North Korea.”

The Wall Street Journal cautions that about a thousand political prisoners remain behind bars, including many associated with the country’s armed ethnic groups, and repressive laws remain in force. As for the April vote, with only about 10 percent of the parliament seats up for election, Suu Kyi’s party cannot take power even if it sweeps the vote. That would have to wait for constitutional reforms or the next regular elections in five years. The military rulers passed a new constitution in 2008 ensuring their continuing stay in power, and 2010 elections were not credible and were boycotted by the opposition.

Notwithstanding the long road still ahead, Burma’s political change in recent months has been breathtaking. Why does a country lurch toward freedom after decades of authoritarianism? Often the answer seems to be personal. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained steadfast, totally committed to nonviolence, and has reached out on a personal level to the military rulers. She is Burma’s Nelson Mandela (or, you might say, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi). For his part, president Thein Sein has personally pushed the country in a new direction.

The world’s “rogue” regimes cause turbulence disproportional to their apparent size and power in the international system.  But their numbers are decreasing, with Libya now off the list and Burma seeming to be moving with determination to end its isolation. Iran (75 million people) is becoming more isolated with new sanctions hitting its economy hard and its currency losing half its value in recent weeks. , North Korea (25 million) is in an uncertain leadership transition. Syria (20 million) has a government fighting for survival against its own people. Saddam’s Iraq is a distant memory. All these countries tried, or at least started, to develop nuclear weapons.

Truly these are tough times for rogue states and their isolated elites. Add in the various dead or deposed dictators and terrorists over the past year, and the picture looks grim indeed for today’s embattled authoritarians. Burma’s president shows both wisdom and pragmatism to get off the sinking ship and start the country of 50 million people in a new direction.

The U.S.-Iran Dance

Photo of Chavez and AhmadinejadRelations between the United States and Iran have been much in the news of late.  In the latest hostile confrontation…  oh wait, a U.S. Coast Guard ship today rescued six Iranian sailors in the northern Persian Gulf when their small ship took on water. The U.S. military quoted the owner of the Iranian vessels as saying, “Without your help, we were dead. Thank you for all that you did for us.”

In last week’s hostilities, a U.S. destroyer rescued 13 Iranian sailors from 15 Somali pirates who had seized their small ship to use as a mother ship to hijack larger cargo ships.  “It is like you were sent by God,” said one of the Iranian sailors. The U.S. destroyer was part of an aircraft carrier group that had recently left the Persian Gulf and been told in no uncertain terms by Iran not to come back. (Iran’s threat to use force or close the Hormuz Straits if the carrier returns is pure bluster.)

During most of last year, the United States encouraged revolutionary movements in Arab countries unfriendly to Iran’s government, including the unseating of longstanding Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who had been a key counterweight to Iranian power in the region.

And U.S. forces spent much of the last decade removing from power Iran’s #1 enemy, Saddam Hussein in next-door Iraq, and installing an Iraqi democracy that empowers Iranian allies in the country (Iraq’s Shi’ite majority that shares religious ties with Iran and had been suppressed by Saddam).

It’s an odd way to treat enemies. Iran’s leaders might indeed quote the rescued sailor:  “Thank you for all that you did for us.”

Instead it’s the same old “death to America” out of Tehran. Enter the Persian Gulf and we will attack you. Iran also just handed down a death sentence against an Iranian-American accused of being a spy. It is unclear whether the authorities there intend to carry it out.

Now President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is taking a break from his domestic woes (hint: don’t pick fights with someone who has “Supreme” in his title) to visit supportive countries in Latin America. That would be, um, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. Nice little countries, with leftist and anti-American regimes. They are not the countries that matter most — Brazil, Mexico, Argentina. But there was Ahmadinejad yesterday having a laugh as  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez joked that a big atomic bomb was hidden right in front of the presidential palace. Take that, Yankee!

Iran’s building of a nuclear weapon has been described as a “red line” by the U.S. government. And thanks to more effective U.S. multilateral diplomacy, biting sanctions against Iranian oil exports are now being considered by some of Iran’s biggest customers, European countries. This is what set off the latest round of anti-American bombast from Iran. Iran is yelling because it’s hurting.

Fareed Zakaria wrote recently that “the real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter — Syria — is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington. Last week, Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.”

In an international survey of public opinion last year, the country viewed most negatively by people in 27 countries was Iran (59% negative), followed by North Korea and Pakistan. These three countries all either possess nuclear weapons or have made substantial progress toward building one. Why Iran wants to be in this club is not exactly clear. (By the way, Canada was viewed most positively among the 27 countries.)

Now that Iran’s position is slipping and worse is soon to come (if the new European sanctions do take effect), will the Supreme Leader have a change of heart about nuclear weapons? Will he calculate that the cost to Iran on multiple dimension is too high for a weapon that could never be used?

President Obama famously made a diplomatic opening to Iran early in his term, which did not succeed. Iran expert Trita Parsi argues in his forthcoming book (A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran) that neither side showed adequate perseverance after initial setbacks. In the recent moves against Iran’s nuclear program, the West has focused on a change of Iran’s policy, not an effort to change the Iranian regime. Given that is the case, further diplomacy at this stage would be a good idea. But with Republican presidential candidates falling over each other to be toughest on Iran, President Obama has little room for conciliatory moves toward Iran.

It’s worth remembering that of the dozens of countries worldwide with the capability to make nuclear weapons, most have chosen to not do so. Nuclear weapons are super-dangerous, super-expensive, draw the world’s opposition, and have little to no usefulness in any real war. Why go there?

Three Situations to Watch

So let’s start out the new year with a look around at three issues that matter in international relations currently.  My short list is:  Interest rates in Italy; invective in Iran; and stalemate in Syria.

euro zone graphic1. The euro debt crisis grinds on but is looking up a bit this week. Last week the Italian government successfully sold bonds at lower interest rates. When investors are willing to loan money to Italy at a lower rate, this is a signal that the market sees less risk of an Italian collapse. Italy, like Greece, has a new technocrat-led government. But unlike Greece, Ireland, or Portugal, which all recently received large bailouts to keep them from defaulting on debts, Italy is too big to bail out. So the edging away from a financial meltdown is important.

Italy’s success was followed by successful bond issues in the Netherlands and, today, Portugal and Germany. (Germany borrowed $5 billion at below 2 percent interest.) Europe’s financial situation remains tenuous, however. One big worry is that the austerity measures governments are taking to deal with debt will choke off economic growth and drive Europe’s economies into another recession.

2. Iran has been in the news a lot lately. The government keeps creeping closer to the ability to build a nuclear weapon, and Western governments keep tightening up the various sanctions that are supposed to pressure Iran to change course. The Iranian leadership has been turning up the rhetoric in response, most recently by threatening to close down the straits of Hormuz – an international waterway next to Iran that carries a truly huge amount of oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world. Iran has the capability to carry out the threat, but would be completely crazy to do so. It would be an act of war that would bring in a coalition of Iran’s enemies from Saudi Arabia to the United States, to turn the oil spigot back on.

Iran’s leaders must feel pressured, to be sure. The Stuxnet computer worm (apparently a U.S.-Israeli project) set back their uranium enrichment program, perhaps by a couple of years. Top Iranian scientists in the nuclear program have been attacked, one killed, on the streets of Tehran. A huge explosion, still unexplained, devastated a major missile testing facility and killed the head of the missile program. The United States has been flying drones deep into Iran to spy on activities there, as we all learned a month ago when one either crashed or was shot down by Iran (another case of “still unexplained”). The UN’s atomic energy agency has put out reports accusing Iran of pursuing nukes, and the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions, with much more serious sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries. The domestic opposition to Iran’s leaders was crushed after massive protests two years ago, but smolders still.

Will the pressure induce Iran to change course and give up its quest for nuclear weapons? This seems pretty unlikely, barring a change of regime in Iran (which itself falls in the “pretty unlikely” category). Military action (e.g. by the USA or Israel) might slow the process, but as of right now the single most likely outcome of this situation is that Iran will have nuclear weapons in a few years, and perhaps successfully deploy them on capable missiles in a few more years.

A less likely possibility, but an interesting one, is that regional negotiations could produce a nuclear-free zone in which Israel gives up its nuclear weapons and others such as Iran give up the idea of obtaining them. Before you dismiss this idea as utopian, have a look at the poll last month showing 64 percent of Israeli Jews actually favor it.

3. Syria continues to be extremely important but completely stuck in a rut. The latest hope was that an Arab League monitoring mission would induce the government to stop slaughtering protesters and opponents. But the killings continued. The Assad regime has enough support, including the solid support of the top ranks of the military, to hold onto power. But the opposition has enough support to continue its protests.

It is unclear at this point whether the Syrian situation will morph into a civil war as the opposition gives up on peaceful protest and puts its faith in armed insurrection under the Free Syrian Army. So far the armed attacks on the government have not constituted a serious threat – they are more symbolic and sporadic, albeit deadly – and the rebels do not control territory. There is no chance the international community will intervene Libya-style.

These three issues – European debt, Iran’s arguments with other countries, and Syria’s protests – are in different issue areas of international relations: political economy, security affairs, and domestic politics, respectively. There are also important developments currently in environmental politics, North-South relations, and information technologies, which I will blog about in the future. So the action in IR currently is spread across many parts of the field.  That should make for an extremely interesting year. Admittedly, 2011 was a hard act to follow, but let’s see if 2012 can give it a run for the money.

My Predictions for 2012

Movie posterThe start of a new year gives me a chance to make some International Relations predictions for 2012. The great thing about blogging is that if the predictions are on target I can point to the blog as evidence of my genius, but if the predictions prove wrong I can say, oh, that was just a blog post.

This year, I will predict things that are NOT going to happen. In IR there’s always a lot to worry about, but in my opinion most of it is truly unlikely to happen.

1. My first prediction is, there will not be a war between two regular national armies, head-to-head. These happened throughout history with great frequency but have not occurred anywhere in the world for eight years now. In a recent New York Times op ed, Steven Pinker and I describe why another one soon is unlikely.

2. The euro zone will not collapse, and the European Union will not fall apart. It’s been a rough stretch, alright, but the EU will always do the minimum to hold itself together. If anything, the current euro crisis will lead to a deepening of integration in Europe, at least among the euro members, as the common currency forces fiscal congruency among the member states. I would bet on the EU to succeed. Europe’s collective unconscious remembers what came for centuries before the EU, and nobody wants to return there.

3. Terrorists will not use a nuclear weapon. A terrorist nuke is actually a very good thing to be concerned about and really work to prevent. But it’s also not so easy to make or get a nuclear weapon and use it. Plenty of people would like to try, but it’s really unlikely they would succeed. Keep worrying, but I’m betting this is not the year it will happen.

4. No nuclear explosion will take place anywhere in the world. Nuclear tests  have all but ceased, with only two in the past 13 years — both by North Korea. Now that North Korea knows its bomb works (the first fizzled, hence the second), it is unlikely to squander its small stockpile on more tests. Iran will not be ready to test one in 2012. Given the more than 2,000 nuclear explosions in the 20th century, the 21st is off to a good start.

5. No major progress will be made in global warming despite the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2012. It is the international community’s biggest failure at present, because the world has not been able to bring about global action to effectively halt a disaster in progress. Instead, the world’s nations each charge ahead in their individual economic interest and create a collective catastrophe that will cost far more to fix the longer we wait.

I hope I’m wrong on one of these predictions, as long as it’s #5.

Happy New Year!