Iran looks dominant, for now, in Middle East’s proxy war


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

At a time when Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to wage a proxy war against each other that has bled into, and enflamed, many of the Middle East’s conflicts, Iranian media responded positively to a surprise announcement last week that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would cut production of oil, a move that was interpreted as a diplomatic defeat for Saudi Arabia. 

Were Iranian newspapers merely playing to the home side bias or are they right to have sensed that the initiative in the Middle East’s cold war is swinging behind Tehran, the capital of Iran? OPEC’s 13 members agreed to a combined production cut of 1.2 million barrels of oil per day in an attempt to reduce the oversaturation of the market and increase oil prices. As part of the deal, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of petroleum, agreed to cut its output by half a million barrels per day. Iran on the other hand was told it could increase production by up to 90,000 barrels per day as it complained of lost market share during years of economic sanctions, out of which it has only recently emerged. 

But spats over the cost of oil are not the start and end of the regional powers’ rivalry. In a number of the region’s most violent conflicts, the hand of both can be seen influencing players on the ground. Like the USSR and the United States before them, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are taking shots at each other through a number of warring factions in several conflict zones. In each of these theaters, the regional powers are backing groups linked by sectarian ties to their own cause, though the extent and nature of their support is often contested.

This raises the question: Who appears to be winning the proxy war? 

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes 18 months ago, targeting the Houthi faction in the country’s internal power struggle. A Shiite paramilitary group, the Houthi are allegedly backed by the Iranian government. Despite showing off a newly purchased fleet of military aircraft, Saudi Arabia’s intervention has caught more headlines for concerns over civilian casualties than for the defeat of the Shiite group. 

By contrast, in Syria, where the Iranian government has invested heavily, recent defeats for Sunni rebels in Aleppo appear to show that Tehran’s desired outcome is making progress. Although the bolstering of the Syrian regime currently has more to do with Russian intervention, it nonetheless supports the objectives of Iran. While Russia supported Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, through airpower, Iran has provided military personnel as advisers — and possibly fighters — and has encouraged a number of Shiite militias to enter the fight, providing much-needed ground troops. 

In neighboring Iraq, Iran has the ear of the government and has close ties to a number of paramilitary groups, which are fighting against ISIS and upon which the government is reliant.

The news from the battlefields, when combined with the diplomatic and economic wrangling over sanctions and oil prices, might give the impression that Iran is in the driver’s seat. But this can depend on whom you ask.  

“Nobody has yet thrown a knockout punch. It’s ongoing with one scoring here and the other scoring there,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor of politics and chairman of the Arab Council for Social Science in the United Arab Emirates, said. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s intervention prevented the worst-case scenario, the creation of “an Iranian satellite state in their own backyard,” the professor said. While in Syria, he pointed out the loss in blood and treasure that Tehran had borne for its support of the Syrian government. 

Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, took a different view, arguing that Saudi Arabia was in decline already and had been for the last decade due to its reliance on Washington. 

“U.S. power has been dwindling since the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq … [and] Saudi Arabia is dependent on that power for its own protection and standing,” Parsi wrote by email. If you were to examine Saudi Arabia’s action in Yemen and its failure to block Iranian objectives in Syria then, as Parsi put it, “Saudi’s resistive decline becomes target evident.” 

The Middle East’s cold war would continue for some time to come, and with the inauguration of Donald Trump on the horizon, the balance of power could shift considerably.

“I’m sure Iran is not very happy. They’ve lost [U.S. President Barack] Obama … a great strategic asset,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla commented, noting that the next administration would be very different. Trump is gathering a team that could be described as “very much an anti-Iran team,” the retired professor said. 

On this point, Parsi agreed. “Many of the cold warriors Trump is bringing to the White House wish to re-establish America’s hegemony in the Middle East,” he argued, noting this gives Saudi Arabia an edge. “If you subscribe to that objective, you will see Iran as an enemy since it challenges America’s leadership, and you’ll see Saudi as a friend since it wants and begs for Pax Americana.”

Trump at AIPAC: Is the pro-Israel lobby going astray?


I watched Donald Trump speak to AIPAC from my office, 3,000 miles away from Washington, D.C., staring at C-SPAN on my laptop while eating hummus.

So why was it that afterward, I still felt I needed a shower?

I cringe as I write this, but it wasn’t Donald who made me feel kind of yucky. It was AIPAC.

I cringe, because a big part of me has the utmost respect for the important work of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I am grateful such a lobbying group exists. Although you wouldn’t know it from watching the coverage of AIPAC’s annual convention, Jews are actually a minority in the world, even in America.

And somehow, to a degree almost as miraculous as Israel’s own creation, a small group of American Jews built an organization that can amplify the pro-Israel cause within the halls of power. Many of us take their work for granted, and even more of us pick at every misstep such a large lobbying group is bound to make.

Given AIPAC’s current size and influence, it is easy to forget the forces that were arrayed against Israel when AIPAC came into existence in 1951: far, far more powerful oil and gas interests with ties to the Arab world, a subtly anti-Semitic Harry Truman administration and State Department, knee-jerk anti-Western reactionaries, arms dealers eager to cash in on the Middle East conflict, numerous nations actively seeking to destroy Israel. Would Israel have survived without the U.S. support garnered through AIPAC’s influence? Probably. Would it have thrived? Unlikely.

And it’s not as if today’s world makes AIPAC any less necessary. Israel is powerful, but it’s hardly a superpower. Big Oil, with its deep ties to OPEC, spends more on lobbying than any other group. I can’t help but wonder if the progressives who constantly slam AIPAC feel so much better letting Saudi and Gulf State emirs have their way on Capitol Hill. In the real world, where powerful financial, political and ideological forces are arrayed against Israel and where politicians are not known for their unwavering moral stands, it’s a good thing AIPAC is good at what it does.

And that’s exactly why Monday’s speeches left me feeling unsettled, if not unclean. Precisely because AIPAC’s mission is so important, I worry that it is going astray.

The world is not privy to the serious policy work, sincere bipartisan outreach and thoughtful analysis that make up so much of AIPAC’s behind-the-scenes success.

What the world saw was one presidential candidate after another throwing red meat to the crowd.

The world heard the crowd cheer when Republican front-runner Donald Trump derided President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. The world heard the crowd applaud Sen. Ted Cruz’s empty promise to “rip this catastrophic Iran deal to shreds.” The world watched as AIPAC’s carefully built reputation for seriousness and bipartisanship was drowned by blind ovations.

You could make the case that forcing one candidate after another to pander to the crowd and make empty promises on the record was, in its way, a show of power, a signal to Israel’s opponents that Washington belongs to AIPAC.

But if that’s the strategy, it’s time to rethink the strategy.

Inside the Verizon Center, there must have been a feeling of power and unity. Outside the Verizon Center, it read differently.

Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy has energized and mobilized the very college students whom AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups say they are most worried about, wasn’t allowed to speak at all. AIPAC said its rules prohibited candidates from making video addresses, though four years ago, the same rules allowed Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to do just that. College students have a word for that: BS.

Though Clinton received enthusiastic applause, her pre-dawn (by Pacific Daylight Time) speech was a distant memory by the time Trump stepped to the podium. The pro-Israel crowd spent prime time cheering the most hard-line and partisan pronouncements.

As I wrote last week, the fact that AIPAC gave Trump a platform without clearly condemning his attacks against Muslims and Mexicans, and his calls to violence only weakened the organization’s own standing among the minorities, moderates and liberals whose support Israel will certainly need in the future. Only Clinton and GOP candidate John Kasich alluded to the low road Trump has taken. Before the speech, AIPAC remained mum.

Its defenders argued that AIPAC is solely a pro-Israel advocacy group, and it shouldn’t be expected to weigh in on anything that doesn’t have to do with defending Israel.

But as I watched Trump speak to frequent ovations, I couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t more American Jews like me, who don’t believe you have to check in your Jewish ethics to support a Jewish state.

On Tuesday, AIPAC leaders apparently woke up to the fact that Trump had put his foot in their mouths.  The organization's president, Lillian Pinkus, issued a statement  condemning Trump’s anti-Obama remarks and the (thousands of) audience members who applauded them.

“We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” Pinkus wrote.

Of course by then, the cameras were off. And the damage was done.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

No cuts in oil production expected


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

When the OPEC oil producing countries meet this week in Vienna, they are not expected to back away from their risky strategy of keeping oil production high despite low prices. Oil prices have stabilized at just over $65 a barrel, about $20 higher than their lowest price in January, but far from the high $100 that oil producers would like to see.

“In the past, the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have been swing producers, meaning that when oil prices are low, they try to balance the market by cutting production,” Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics in London told The Media Line. “But now they say they’ve turned around and say they won’t cut production. They are willing to tolerate a period of low prices because they are not willing to cede market share at this time.”

OPEC is currently producing about 31 million barrels per day, one million more than their announced ceiling of production. OPEC Gulf delegates said they do not expect any major changes.

“Everything is very clear,” OPEC Secretary-General Abdullah al-Badri said in advance of Friday’s meeting. He added that he expected it to be a short meeting.

At their last meeting in November, 2014, Venezuela and other countries tried to convince Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to cut down on supply as a way of pushing prices up.

“Over the past decade the Saudis stashed a lot of revenue away,” Tuvey said. “Now they are drawing down on those funds to keep the economy ticking along.”

The decision not to do this shows that Saudi Arabia, the OPEC cartel’s most powerful member, will stand up to rivals like Iran and Russia. If Iran and the international community agree on a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, then it could increase its production. Iran’s oil minister said he expected that other countries would make room for Iran to produce more.

The political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia may make that unlikely, however. The two countries are currently locked in a proxy war in Yemen, with Iran supporting the Houthis, who have overrun large parts of the country, and Saudi Arabia bombing the Houthis is support of Yemen’s deposed president.

Instability in the Middle East could also lead to disruptions in production. For the past two years, Libya has been unable to produce oil.

Cheaper oil and shifting sands


The price of regular gas in the Washington suburbs was $2.74 a gallon when I filled my car this week and it could fall farther as the price of crude oil hit $69, two thirds of what it was in June.  OPEC is weakening and the United States is poised to surpass Saudi Arabia by next summer as the world's number one oil producer. That's good news for consumers and for those who feel OPEC has exerted undue influence on American foreign policy for too long.

The oil cartel, led by Saudi Arabia, imposed an oil embargo a few days after Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973.  Their purpose was to punish the United States and other countries for supporting Israel and to try to force them to change their Mideast policies. Since then the mantra of every American president has been energy independence, particularly ending our reliance on Middle Eastern oil. 

“That elusive goal may finally have arrived, at least for the foreseeable future,” the New York Times reported.  Saudi Arabia and its 11 oil producing OPEC partners have been unable to agree to a production cut that would halt the drop in crude oil prices.  The cartel is “no longer the dominating producer whose decisions determine global supplies and prices,” wrote Clifford Krauss. 

For the Saudis and their partners oil was a potent political instrument.  During the Yom Kippur war and in the coming years they wielded their oil weapon to try to force the Americans, Europeans and others to adopt more pro-Arab policies.

They were not without some success. In Canada, the Netherlands, Britain, France and particularly Japan, governments began to distance themselves from Israel. Even the Nixon administration agreed to pressure Israel to withdraw from parts of the Sinai, the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights.

But public opinion in the United States remained steadfastly pro-Israel.  During the oil embargo polls showed sympathies were with Israel by a 6:1 ratio. A contributing factor was a conviction that the Arabs, not the Israelis, were responsible for making American motorists wait in long lines on alternating days to fuel up their gas guzzlers at ever-rising prices.

In the eyes of the American public the culprits who have kept oil prices up for so long have been the greedy, high-spending Arabs and their co-conspirators in the oil industry, which many suspected manipulating the markets and gouging consumers in the interest of obscene profits. 

Besides the oil companies' shareholders, those who benefitted most from high oil prices have been the Pentagon and its partners in the defense industry.

American consumers have been fueling an arms race in the Gulf, with their government's strong encouragement.  Since the Kissinger era it has been an American policy to recycle petrodollars by persuading the oil sheikhs to buy top-of-the-line U.S. weapons and defense systems. Those rich customers became the Pentagon's favorite cash cow, buying last year's model of some weapons at this year's prices so the uniformed services could upgrade their inventories at reduced cost. It also produced economies of scale; the more F-15s and AWACSs early warning aircraft that could be sold to the Saudis the lower the unit price for the U.S. Air Force' own purchases.  Those Arab arsenals also created a dependence on American training, maintenance and spare parts that has been financially lucrative and politically priceless. 

When Israel's friends questioned some of these sales to countries at war with the Jewish state, the State Department was ready with boilerplate letters assuring the Congress that nothing the Pentagon was peddling would change the balance of power in the Middle East.

American public opinion has consistently and convincingly favored Israel as a reliable ally with shared values and common enemies. That was driven home on September 11, 2011, when 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked that day were Saudis.

They won't say it publicly but the Saudis and some of their neighbors see Israel as more of an ally than an enemy in many respects.  They share a concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions and Russian influence in the region, notably in its support for the Assad regime in Syria and its protection of Iran at the United Nations.  OPEC's lower prices also help the United States and Israel by intensifying pressure on Iran and Russia, whose economies are faltering in the face of American-led international sanctions. The Saudis don't want to see Iran gain full production and market access.

Israel and several Gulf states have been doing business very quietly for years but more recently there are reports that some of them, including the Saudis, and Israelis have been sharing intelligence and common concerns about Iran and the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State and Islamist extremists.  Along with that is a shared concern about what they consider the Obama administration's inept foreign policy team.

But don't look for anything to happen on Benjamin Netanyahu's vision of an Israeli alliance with the secular, moderate Arab states regardless of their common interests.  Nothing can or will happen so long as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remains unresolved and as long as Netanyahu pokes a finger in the eye of world opinion by expanding settlements, notwithstanding the Israeli prime minister's suggestion in his UN speech this fall that such an alliance would facilitate peace with the Palestinians.

That is the reverse of the Arab view: peace is a prerequisite to rapprochement.  They see Netanyahu's proposal as a diversion.  The idea has considerable merit but the messenger is flawed.  Like his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, he has failed to make a convincing case that he is serious about achieving peace and prepared to make the historic decisions that would require.  The Israeli-Arab alliance will have to wait until there are new leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The new reality in the Middle East – the threat of radical Islam, nuclear Iran, a weakened of OPEC and American energy independence – creates new opportunities for American and Israeli diplomacy.  Unfortunately, the current leadership in Jerusalem seems more intent on playing local politics at the expense of Israel's long-term international interests.

©2014 Douglas M. Bloomfield

bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com

Venezuela to probe Chavez cancer ‘poisoning’ accusation


Venezuela will set up a formal inquiry into suspicions that the late President Hugo Chavez's cancer was the result of poisoning by his enemies abroad, the government said.

The accusation has been derided by critics of the government, who view it as a typical Chavez-style conspiracy theory intended to feed fears of “imperialist” threats to Venezuela's socialist system and distract people from daily problems.

Still, acting President Nicolas Maduro vowed to push through a serious investigation into the claim, which was first raised by Chavez himself after he was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.

“We will seek the truth,” Maduro told regional TV network Telesur late on Monday. “We have the intuition that our commander Chavez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way.”

Foreign scientists will be invited to join a government commission to probe the accusation, the OPEC nation's acting leader said.

Maduro, 50, is Chavez's handpicked successor and is running as the government's candidate in a snap presidential election on April 14 that was triggered by his boss's death last week.

He is trying to keep voters' attention firmly focused on Chavez to benefit from the outpouring of grief among his millions of supporters. The opposition is centering its campaign on portraying Maduro, a former bus driver, as an incompetent who, they say, is morbidly exploiting Chavez's demise.

'HIS FAITHFUL SON'

“They're attacking him saying he isn't Chavez. Of course Nicolas isn't Chavez. But he is his faithful, responsible, revolutionary son,” senior Socialist Party and campaign official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters.

“All these insults and vilification are going to be turned into votes for us on April 14.”

Running for the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition is a business-friendly state governor, Henrique Capriles, 40, who lost to Chavez in a presidential vote last year.

Tuesday was the last day of official mourning for Chavez, although ceremonies appear set to continue. His embalmed body was to be taken in procession to a military museum on Friday.

Millions have filed past Chavez's coffin to pay homage to a man who was adored by many of the poor for his humble roots and welfare policies, but was also hated by many people for his authoritarian style and bullying of opponents.

Though Maduro has spoken about combating crime and extending development programs in the slums, he has mostly used his frequent appearances on state TV to talk about Chavez.

The 58-year-old president was diagnosed with cancer in his pelvic region in June 2011 and underwent four surgeries before dying of what sources said was metastasis in the lungs.

Maduro said it was too early to specifically point a finger over Chavez's cancer, but noted that the United States had laboratories with experience in producing diseases.

“He had a cancer that broke all norms,” Maduro told Telesur. “Everything seems to indicate that they affected his health using the most advanced techniques … He had that intuition from the beginning.”

Maduro has compared his suspicions over Chavez's death with allegations that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004 from poisoning by Israeli agents.

The case echoes Chavez's long campaign to convince the world that his idol and Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar died of poisoning by his enemies in Colombia in 1830.

Venezuela's National Assembly was expected to begin debating a proposal by pro-government legislators and Chavez supporters to call a referendum – which could also be held on April 14 – on whether he should be buried at the pantheon in Caracas, a mausoleum built for Bolivar's remains.

OPPOSITION'S UPHILL FIGHT

Though keeping a low profile out of respect for Chavez's supporters, opponents are furious at what they see as the use of his death by government officials to bolster their chances of staying in power.

Launching his candidacy on Monday, Maduro's speech began with a recording of Chavez singing the national anthem. Hearing his booming voice again, many supporters wept.

As well as the wave of sympathy over Chavez, the opposition faces a well-financed state apparatus, institutions packed with government supporters, and problems within its own rank-and-file, still demoralized over October's presidential election defeat and a mauling at gubernatorial polls in December.

Capriles, an energetic lawyer and career politician, has tried to kick-start his campaign with accusations that Maduro and other senior officials lied about the details of Chavez's illness, hiding the gravity of his condition from Venezuelans.

That has brought him a torrent of abuse in return, with the words “Nazi” and “fascist” being used by senior government officials – despite Capriles' Jewish roots.

An opposition official, Henri Falcon, told a news conference Capriles had not registered his candidacy in person on Monday because his team had received “very serious information that an ambush was being prepared for him.”

At stake in the election is not only the future of Chavez's leftist “revolution,” but the continuation of Venezuelan oil subsidies and other aid crucial to the economies of left-wing allies around Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia.

Venezuela boasts the world's largest oil reserves.

Polls from before Chavez's death gave Maduro a lead over Capriles of more than 10 percentage points.

Though there are hopes for a post-Chavez rapprochement between Venezuela and the United States, a diplomatic spat worsened on Monday when Washington expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation.

Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Christopher Wilson

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wins re-election, defeating grandson of Holocaust survivors


Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez won re-election, defeating Henrique Capriles Radonsky, the grandson of Holocaust survivors

Chavez took  54.42 percent of the votes to Radonsky's 45 percent in the Oct. 7 poll, his term will end in 2019.

Chavez, a known friend of Iran, become a leading figure in modern Latin American history and will extend his rule over the OPEC member state to two decades.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed its concern over Chavez's reelection, citing the fact that Venezuela has Shahab 3 long-range missile launching platforms on the country’s Caribbean coast aimed at Florida.

“Hugo Chavez’ triumph can only strengthen Iran’s political and military penetration of Latin America,“ Dr. Shimon Samuels, director for International Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told JTA Tuesday.

“Six more years of the Caracas-Tehran axis could be as perilous as an Afghanistan with oil,”  added Samuels.

Argentina´s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner used Twitter to congratulate her regional ally: “”Your victory is also ours. Go Hugo,“ she tweeted.

Sergio Widder, the Wiesenthal Center’s director for Latin America, told JTA that  “Chavez reportedly facilitated the recent http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/10/04/3108586/argentinas-jews-balk-at-negotiations-with-iran”>dialogue between Argentina and Iran, clearly aimed at closing both the AMIA Jewish Center bombing investigation and Buenos Aires’ demand for extradition of the Iranians complicit in that atrocity.”

Since taking power in 1999, the former solider has become a global “anti-imperialism” fighter, and close ally of leaders from Iran, Cuba, Bolivia and Belarus. Chavez has described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “genocide” and called Zionism racism.

In July 2012 Venezuela was accepted as a full member of the Mercosur regional free trade and political group, and will have increased influence in the bloc which also includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Mercosur's members all recognize a Palestinian state.

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