Let’s start with a little divestment story. Microsoft has said it’s going to sell its stake in AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition startup, after civil liberties groups in the US complained that the technology could, in police hands, lead to arbitrary arrests and limit freedom of expression. NBC news – praise where praise is due – broke the original story of Microsoft’s funding for the Israeli company last October, pointing out that it used facial recognition to observe Palestinians throughout the occupied West Bank, in spite of Microsoft’s promise to avoid using the technology if it encroached on democratic freedoms.
Tag Archives: Iran
Few can forget the words of Tony Blair’s government aide hours after the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11. “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury,” wrote Jo Moore. Donald Trump obviously thought the same thing.
Trump has always boasted of the need for withdrawals – but this was a retreat. The official line – that the US was “repositioning [sic] troops from a few smaller bases” – was almost as laughable as the final US marine abandonment of Beirut in 1984 after months under fire from Shia militias. Almost four decades ago, the Americans said they were “redeploying to ships offshore”.
When the very first Coronavirus reports emerged, I had a suspicion that Iran would be a target of the world’s anger. The spread of Covid-19 to the Middle East was as inevitable as history because the Muslim pilgrim routes have always acted as a channel for pestilence. But however honest or dishonest Iran’s response to the virus has been, contemporary hatred for Shia Islam in Sunni Muslim lands and the anti-Iranian bias of the western world was going to turn poor old Persia into a plague pariah.
A virus that clearly had its origins in China is now supposedly turning Iran into a menace to us all. The New York Times announced that it was emerging “as a worldwide threat”, spreading the coronavirus “to a host of neighbouring countries”. The Jerusalem Post declared that Iran had “now set the Middle East ablaze with fears of coronavirus”. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said Washington was “deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country.”
The US targeted assassination, via drone strike, of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, apart from a torrent of crucial geopolitical ramifications, once again propels to center stage a quite inconvenient truth: the congenital incapacity of so-called US elites to even attempt to understand Shi’ism thus 24/7 demonization, demeaning not only Shi’as by also Shi’a-led governments.
Washington had been deploying a Long War even before the concept was popularized by the Pentagon in 2001, immediately after 9/11: it’s a Long War against Iran. It started via the coup against the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh in 1953, replaced by the Shah’s dictatorship. The whole process was turbo-charged over 40 years ago when the Islamic Revolution smashed those good old Cold War days when the Shah reigned as the privileged American “gendarme of the (Persian) Gulf.”
Yet this extends far beyond geopolitics. There is absolutely no way whatsoever for anyone to be capable of grasping the complexities and popular appeal of Shi’ism without some serious academic research, complemented with visits to selected sacred sites across Southwest Asia: Najaf, Karbala, Mashhad, Qom and the Sayyida Zeinab shrine near Damascus. Personally, I have traveled this road of knowledge since the late 1990s and I still remain just an humble student.
The Iranian general Qassem Suleimani is dead, and tensions with Iran appear to be simmering down. But the landscape he helped build is still very much a problem for the United States.
Since his killing in a U.S. drone strike last week, experts have been rushing to explain just why Soleimani mattered so much to Iran’s ambitions—and what consequences his death really holds for the region. One simple way to think about it: He was the one man who had mastered the new landscape of the Middle East.
Soleimani’s particular skill was in controlling what’s known as “nonstate actors”—a dry name that, in the Middle East, covers the fractious group of militias, religious groups and tribal forces that actually wield power in much of the region. These groups have grown vastly in importance in the past 20 years, confounding traditional diplomats and statecraft, and Soleimani not only exploited but empowered them in Iran’s interests. His absence might help the U.S. in the short term, but it also shows just how deep a challenge the region will pose in the near future—and why our adversaries, whether Iran or Russia, still enjoy a significant and unpredictable advantage in exerting power.
Today Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei gave his first Friday sermon in Tehran for eight years to an audience of thousands, as he tried to calm down the furious public reaction to the Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian plane carrying 176 passengers, then proceeding to lie about their responsibility for three days.
Khameinei spoke of the “cowardly” killing of General Qassem Soleimani by the US, of President Trump using the destruction of the plane to “push a poison dagger” into the backs of the Iranian people. Rhetorical flourishes like this are not going do him a lot of good with critics who see the shootdown as epitomising the incompetence, duplicity and division of his government.
But the nature of the crisis differs markedly from the way it is being portrayed abroad. For more has gone wrong than a series of blunders. Obscured amid the plaudits and denunciations directed at Soleimani and Khamenei is the fact that both men’s policies in the Middle East had become counterproductive.
“In wartime,” Churchill famously told Stalin, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” He said this on 30 November 1943 – by chance his 69th birthday – in an effort to impress upon the Soviet leader the importance of deception in the planning of D-Day. In fact, the Allies did deceive the Germans, whose Wehrmacht commanders thought the landings would be made in northern France rather than on the beaches of Normandy.
But the meaning of truth and lies – even the very word “wartime” – have so changed their meaning and usefulness in recent Middle East history that it’s almost impossible to apply Churchill’s quotation today. After its anti-aircraft missile destroyed Ukrainian Airways flight 752 this month, Iran’s initial lie – that its loss was due to engine problems – was uttered not to “attend” the truth but to protect the Iranian regime from being blamed in case its people discovered the truth.
At the time of his assassination, General Qasem Soleimani’s strategy in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East with large Shia populations had become counterproductive. He is now guaranteed the status of a great Iranian warrior and a Shia martyr, in spite of the mistakes he made in the last years of his life. The violent repression, orchestrated by Soleimani, of small-scale protests in Iraq last October provoked something close to a mass uprising by the Shia community. Iran and its proxies were blamed for the deaths of more than five hundred protesters and injuries to another fifteen thousand; demonstrators chanting anti-Iranian slogans burned the Iranian consulates in the Shia holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf. Later the same month in Lebanon, vast crowds filled the streets of Beirut, demanding an end to a political status quo that Hizbullah, Iran’s local ally, has fought for decades to create. In Iran itself, protests over fuel price rises were ruthlessly suppressed in November: according to Amnesty International 304 people were killed. At home and abroad, the Shia coalition built up by Iran with immense effort since the revolution of 1979 was falling apart; the Iranian state and its two most powerful regional allies, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilisation Forces) in Iraq, were losing their legitimacy as defenders of their communities and opponents of foreign interference in their countries.
American assassinations by drone have been routine since the Obama era, but Qasem Soleimani, who was killed while leaving Baghdad airport on 3 January, wasn’t the head of a terrorist organisation but a state official: a major-general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the leader of its Quds Force, the unit responsible for external and clandestine operations. He was a pivotal player in the region and, at times, its most brilliant military strategist. Iran’s clerical leadership may have dreamed of an Iranian sphere of influence – a Shia crescent – but it was Soleimani who built it, patiently and ruthlessly, after becoming head of the Quds Force in 1998. He spent most of his time on the road, ensuring that Iran’s interests were protected in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Gulf. He used violence, but he also understood the art of the deal, and co-operated with the US against the Taliban and Islamic State, even though he regarded America as Iran’s existential enemy for its support of the Shah and Saddam Hussein, and its alliance with Israel.
Soleimani was born in 1957 to a poor family in rural eastern Iran. He joined the 1979 revolution as a young man, and spent much of the following decade fighting in the war with Iraq, the defining experience of his generation. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed by Saddam’s army, which enjoyed the support not only of the Americans but the Arab states, with the exception of Syria. In a hostile region, Soleimani concluded, Iran needed strategic depth – and, above all, a friendly Iraq, which landed in his lap in 2003 when the Americans invaded.
Experts and politicians are debating if the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a top Iraqi militia commander on Friday was legally justified. But the strike is forcing a bigger question: If Donald Trump can get away with this, what can’t the president do?
The closest thing to a legal justification offered by the U.S. government so far is a Pentagon statement asserting that “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.” According to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. had “clear and unambiguous evidence“ that Soleimani was planning a stepped up “campaign of violence.”
The vagueness of that threat falls short of the traditional understanding of self-defense.