Tag: Iran

A bona fide boon to lawyers

That’s what the Supreme Court has decided you need: a bona fide (genuine, real, sincere, non-deceptive) relationship with an individual or entity in the US  to come here from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen). President Trump is claiming this vindicates his effort to block all immigration and refugees from these allegedly dangerous countries, from which no terrorist has arrived since 9/11.

Far from it. The merits of the bans he ordered will be considered in the fall. For now, all the Court has decided is that people without a bona fide relationship with the US are not entitled to the ban on the travel ban issued by lower courts.

The question then becomes: what is a bona fide relationship? The Court made clear that category includes familial relations as well as contractual ones, like documented admission to a US university. The only clearly excluded category would be relationships that are deceptive, for example one entered into for the sole purpose of getting into the US.

So the consequence of this decision, as the dissenting minority that wanted to back Trump more fully said, will be a flood of litigation to determine what is a bona fide relationship with a US individual (notable: not necessarily a citizen) or entity. Is an invitation to speak at a conference evidence of such a relationship? Do hotel reservations or airline tickets qualify? What about acceptance into a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the State Department? I’m fairly confident this is a slippery slope to admitting many people.

The problem is that the public image will lean heavily in Trump’s direction, not least because of his exaggerated claim to vindication. This will encourage immigration officials to take a draconian attitude towards enforcement. It will also offend Muslims worldwide, who don’t like the restrictions:

Opposition to restrictions on entry to US

In fact, the countries where majorities like the restrictions are mainly those where ethnic nationalism is rampant: Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Israel fit that category.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State also relish Trump’s hostility to Muslims, which confirms their assertions about the US and the need to attack it. Trump’s crowing about this Supreme Court decision could easily boost extremist recruitment, both inside and outside the US. The restrictions will likely cause more terrorism than they prevent–it will take only one such act inside the US by someone from one of these countries to prove that point.

Trump however will try to use any terrorist attack in the opposite direction. He all too obviously sees such attacks as opportunities to make his political points. He has used each and every attack in Europe as an opportunity to generate antipathy toward Muslims in general. He’ll no doubt amplify that attitude if and when there is an attack in the US, thus generating more resentment and helping extremist recruitment.

It is true of course that he also has friends in the Muslim world: autocrats like Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Egypt’s President Sissi have nothing to fear from this president, who has ignored their brutal and indiscriminate crackdowns on liberal democrats as well as terrorists. Citizens, residents and travelers through those three countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Europe and the US since 9/11, but Trump wouldn’t want to offend his friends by blocking their citizens from the US.

We face another round on the immigration ban at the Supreme Court in the fall, with lots of litigation in the meanwhile. This Administration is a big boon for lawyers.



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What is the US doing in Syria?

Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman, Friday told a Pentagon briefing by teleconference from Baghdad:

if the Syrian regime — and it looks like they are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS held areas.  And if they show that they can do that, that is not a bad sign.  We are here to fight ISIS as a coalition, but if others want to fight ISIS and defeat them, then we absolutely have no problem with that.  And as they move eastward toward Abu Kamal and to Deir Ezzour, if we — as long as we can de-conflict and make sure that we can focus on what it is we’re there to do, without having any kind of strategic mishaps with the regime or with pro-regime forces or with Russians, then that is — we’re perfectly happy with that.

The Colonel also said he was unfamiliar with the Authorization to Use Military Force (the AUMF). It’s disturbing that someone in his position should not be familiar with Congress’ 2001 authorization, under which the operations in Syria and Iraq are being taken, but I confess what he said about the Coalition focus on ISIS is consistent with it.

This is as clear an answer as we’ve had to the question “what does the Trump Administration think it is doing in Syria?” Essentially, it is doing what the Obama Administration did: trying to ignore the rebellion against the Assad regime while attacking primarily ISIS (and secondarily Al Qaeda), in coalition with whoever will serve that purpose. The attack on Assad’s air base that launched chemical weapons, and the more recent attacks on drones as well as the downing of a Syrian warplane, are intended to be one-offs, not a consistent campaign against the regime or its allies.

This disappoints those who regard Assad as one of the causes of terrorist ascendancy in Syria and a political transition as vital to ending both the regime and the appeal of ISIS and Al Qaeda to Syrians. As Faysal Itani puts it, the US faces a choice

between conducting a more ambitious but riskier Syria policy, and accepting sacrifices that could lower the risk of escalation with Iran and the Assad regime but potentially threaten long-term U.S. interests.

Those longer-term threats include a continuing role for Iran and Hizbollah in both Syria and Iraq, with implications for Israel’s security, as well as continuation of the Sunni insurgency in both countries.

The more ambitious Syria policy would, however, require that someone in the Colonel’s position be prepared to say something like this:

The US and its allies will not turn territory over to the Syrian regime or its Iranian-sponsored surrogates. We will follow up victory with a concerted effort to build inclusive governing authorities committed to continuing the fight against terrorism, and to achieve an eventual political transition in Damascus.

That is precisely what the Trump Administration, like Obama’s, does not want to do. The most it has allowed so far is a minimalist civilian deployment, one clearly unable to do much more than the rudiments of “stabilization,” which the powers that be want to distinguish from state-building.

President Obama was remarkably disciplined in this respect: he avoided any commitment even to minimal stabilization in Syria, though he provided sporadic support to the Syrian opposition in the fight against Assad. We’ll see soon whether President Trump matches that performance, or even goes further in collaboration with the regime, or instead decides to expand the mission to blocking Iran from achieving its regional goals.

I wouldn’t bet on continuing discipline. But I doubt a disciplined effort to counter Iran as well. The Colonel has been eminently clear, but this Administration seems determined to send confusing signals about key issues. We might even get a contradictory tweet from @realDonaldTrump tomorrow. Just ask the Qataris.

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Peace picks June 19-23

  1. Losing An Enemy: Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive Trump? | Monday, June 19 | 12 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was an unlikely diplomatic collaboration initiated by three European countries and realized only after the United States took a leading role. Join founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) Trita Parsi for a conversation about the history, success, and challenges facing the Iran nuclear deal. Parsi is the author of three books about U.S.-Iran relations. The discussion will be moderated by career journalist and Acting Director for the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council Barbara Slavin.
  2. The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya | Tuesday, June 20 | 12:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Rafik Hariri Center will convene a discussion on its new report, The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya, shedding light on the rise of jihadist actors in Libya and the dangers they pose for post-conflict state-building. As Libya continues to hold an important position in the global jihadist network, understanding the trajectories of groups like ISIS will be crucial to understanding the fate of the country and sources of its instability. The report, co-authored by panelists Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran, examines jihadist dynamics in Libya and offers recommendations to address this threat. RAND Corporation’s Christopher Chivvis will also join the discussion.
  3. Indian Prime Minister Modi visits the U.S. and Israel | Wednesday, June 21 | 9:30 am – 12 pm | Brookings Institute | Register Here | On June 25-26, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with President Trump for the first time. Shortly after, he will travel to Israel for the first-ever visit by an Indian premier. Join The India Project and the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings for one panel each focused on India’s relationship with the United States and Israel – two countries with which it enjoys close partnerships. Panelists will discuss prospects for bilateral, trilateral, and international cooperation. After each session, panelists will take audience questions.
  4. Securing Stability in the Middle East and North Africa: How Should the U.S. and the European Union Work Together? | Wednesday, June 21 5:30-6:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | As war rages on in Syria and Yemen, instability persists in the Sinai and Libya, and the recent Qatar crisis underscores rivalries and animosities in the Middle East and North Africa, American and European actors search for ways to bring stability to the MENA region. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Mike Doran welcomes Nick Westcott, European External Action Service Managing Director for the MENA, for a discussion about European policy and cooperation moving forward. Doors open at 5:00 pm.
  5. The Refugee Crisis: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions | Wednesday, June 21 | 6:30-8 pm | United Nations Association – National Capital Area | Register Here | Since President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, negative perceptions of immigrants and refugees have been on the rise. Against this climate, the UNA-NCA presents personal accounts of refugees in the D.C. area and a panel discussion featuring Niemat Ahmadi, president of the Darfur Women Action Group; Faith Akovi Cooper, regional advisor at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre; Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate at Refugees International, to dispel myths and misconceptions. The panel will be moderated by Patrick Realiza, chair of the UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee.
  6. Settlements at 50 Years – An Obstacle to Peace and Democracy | Friday, June 23 | 12:30-1:45 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | This month marks 50 years of Israeli control over the West Bank. Although most Israelis support peace negotiations with the Palestinians and oppose annexing large parts of the Palestinian Territories, the Israeli government continues to expand settlements and is considering annexing portions of the West Bank. What drives the Israeli government in this regard? What are the implications for future peace? Join president of the New Israel Fund (NIF) Talia Sasson for a conversation moderated by Haaretz‘s Washington correspondent Amir Tibon.
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A tense and perpetual peace

The Middle East Institute Wednesday hosted a conversation on Iran-Pakistan relations featuring senior fellow Alex Vatanka, retired ambassador to Sri Lanka Teresita C. Schaffer, and MEI’s director of the Center for Pakistan Studies Marvin Weinbaum. The panel—promoting Vatanka’s book Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy, and American Influence—shed light on the tense and cautious relations between almost-allies and almost-enemies at the crossroads of West and South Asia.

The relationship between Iran and Pakistan is a tale of two regional superpowers. Pakistan boasts a population of 189 million; Iran counts 79 million. Pakistan, noted Vatanka, is nuclear armed; Iran aspires to be. Pakistan is majority Sunni Muslim; Iran is majority Shia. The two countries are embroiled in a proxy war in Yemen. There even exist certain pervasive stereotypes, reported Ambassador Schaffer: Pakistanis view Iranians as weak and Iranians see the Pakistanis as provincial.

Yet the countries do not erupt in open conflict.

One factor that does not contribute to enmity is the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. Ambassador Schaffer stressed in her remarks that Pakistan has always had an aversion to Sunni-Shia squabbles, for good reasons. Pakistan has a significant Shia minority, including prominent families in politics and business. They comprise approximately 10-15% of the country’s population. Pakistani nationalism draws heavily on Islam as a unifying factor—to the point that proposals to replace the country’s secular laws with Sharia have always faltered at the question of which school of Islam would define legal doctrine.

This preoccupation with national interests over sectarian ones is a defining feature of the relationship between Iran and Pakistan. There is an understanding, notes Vatanka, that all-out conflict must be scrupulously avoided. Pakistan’s number one foreign policy priority is its relationship with India, followed by its relationship with Afghanistan. Iran is preoccupied with its Arab neighbors. Neither country stands to benefit from violence along the Iran-Pakistan border.

This distinctive disregard of religious tensions holds true despite Pakistan’s recent decision to join the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, a coalition of Muslim countries committed to fighting terrorism that has been criticized for its predominantly Sunni membership and an alleged sectarian bent. In fact, noted Schaffer, sparsely populated Saudi Arabia has a long history of drawing upon Pakistani military support. Pakistan’s decision to join the IMA is nothing really new.

Yet the Iranian-Pakistani relationship is strained. Vatanka traces tensions between the two countries back to 1971—before the Iranian Revolution—when the Shah decided to remain neutral in the war between Pakistan and India. This policy of neutrality outlasted the Shah, who was deposed in 1979. The relationship between Iran and Pakistan worsened post-revolution, as Iran’s cozy relationship with the United States abruptly ended. The ideological gulf between the two countries widened: Iran’s zeal for revolution did not match Pakistan’s self-interested nationalism. In addition, the revolution cut off Pakistan’s supply of subsidized Iranian oil. From the Pakistani perspective, Iran’s diplomatic value plummeted.

Despite these historical rifts, Vatanka predicts a cool and reserved future for Iran-Pakistan relations, marked by military caution and mutual indifference. Iran, a natural gas goldmine starved for markets, trades more with Armenia than with its energy-poor neighbor to the east. For the time being, Iran and Pakistan appear locked in a tense and perpetual peace.

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Uncharted territory

All eyes are on testimony today by National Intelligence Director Coats and Acting FBI Director McCabe as well as tomorrow’s appearance former FBI Director Comey concerning the President’s efforts to obstruct investigations into his links to Moscow. Coats and McCabe have already disappointed, by refusing to talk about their conversations with President Trump. I’d have been surprised if they did. President Nixon charted this territory more than 40 years ago, with consequences. The truth will out, one way or another.

At the same time, the Middle East is once again entering uncharted territory.

Qatar has long been at odds with the Kingdom, mainly over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and for Al Jazeera, a mainstay of broadcast news and talk in the Arab world. Apparently encouraged by President Trump’s plea to cut off terrorist financing, the Saudis neglected their own culpability in allowing resources to flow to terrorists and have turned the screws instead on Qatar, breaking diplomatic relations, cutting off trade and transport, and compelling Gulf Cooperation Council members to follow suit. Then today the Islamic State attacked the parliament building and a monument to Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, in a transparent effort to heighten sectarian conflict.

President Trump’s gullibility in swallowing whole the Kingdom’s allegation that blocking Qatari financing for the Muslim Brotherhood would be a big win against terrorism has to make them worry. But Doha is unlikely to evict the large American air base it built and hosts, if only because that would leave Qatar even more isolated. Qatar’s only places to turn are Iran, with which it shares a gas field in the Gulf, and Turkey, which is reportedly rushing troops to the emirate. Saudi Arabia has supposedly issued a long list of demands. When that is not met, an effort to topple Qatar’s emir, while perhaps not the Kingdom’s strongest suit, may well be where things are headed.

The attack in Iran, following on ISIS attacks in London, Baghdad, and elsewhere suggests the Islamic State is well-launched on its post-caliphate phase. Mosul has mostly fallen. Kurdish and Arab forces are investing Raqqa. Free Syrian Army and regime-allied forces are racing for Deir Azzour and Bukamel on the Iraqi border. ISIS will be going underground and into the desert, looking for opportunities and trying to inspire homegrown attacks in many different countries. That presents no serious military threat, but it strikes fear and loathing into more people than ISIS’s rule in Mosul and Raqqa. That is terror’s main purpose, which President Trump seems happy to amplify with his travel ban and other gross over-reactions.

The net result is a tangle. Washington is backing the Kingdom, even though Riyadh’s actions are splitting the Gulf Arabs and weakening the united front against terrorism and Iran that President Trump claims to have created last month. At the same time, the Islamic State has attacked Iran, which blames the attack on its sworn enemies, Saudi Arabia and the US. Iran is an enemy of the Islamic State (though not always of Al Qaeda), which would put it on the same side in the fight against ISIS as the US, but don’t expect anyone in Tehran or Washington to acknowledge that. In the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. In uncharted territory, some rules of thumb don’t apply.

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Memorial Day for America and the Alliance

Donald Trump has done more damage to the NATO Alliance than the Soviet Union managed in more than 40 years. Even after its implosion, the Alliance endured for another 27 years, fighting its first wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It has taken only a bit more than four months for Trump to cast a pall over Europe’s most important link to the United States and to render the Alliance irrelevant.

German Chancellor Merkel has concluded that Europe, “to some extent,” has to go it alone. This was her reaction to Trump’s miserable performance at the NATO Summit meeting last week, when he failed to mention the Article 5 commitment to come to the defense of our allies and harshly criticized their failure to meet NATO’s exhortation that they spend 2% of GDP on defense. That guideline was intended for 2024, but Trump treats it as a treaty commitment and pretends that the allies owe arrears for their many years of not meeting it.

This purposeful mendacity has consequences. It has convinced the allies that they cannot rely on the United States. An important corollary is that they need not follow the US on other issues. Trump will soon discover that our allies have no interest in ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, for example, but instead prefer to continue doing good business with Tehran. Nor are the allies likely to line up and salute on the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya. “All for one and one for all” has for decades meant Washington could “to some extent” depend on European backing for American initiatives worldwide. That presumption is now null and void.

Who benefits from this Alliance decay? Russia of course. The vodka flowed in the Kremlin last week. Trump’s own ineptitude and the consequent investigations have stymied his efforts to reach out to Moscow. He is nonetheless proving a useful pawn. Russian President Putin’s fondest hope is to throw NATO into disarray. Trump has done it for him, without any apparent quid pro quo.

The notion that the US or NATO would contest Russian action in Ukraine or Syria has evaporated. The consequences will be felt not only in those two countries but also in increased Russian audacity in the Baltics, the Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere. I was just informed of a Montenegrin detained and expelled  from Moscow. Apparently he was on an unpublished non grata list. We’ll be seeing a lot more of that kind of harassment. Putin will push until there is a push back, which he will have concluded isn’t coming any time soon.

He is correct. Trump is pushing back against his democratic allies far more than against any autocracy. His only real enemies at this point are what he likes to call radical Islamic terrorism and Iran, the two of which he has somehow managed to conflate despite their mutual sectarian enmity. Trump simply ignores the fact that Russia is increasingly aligned if not allied with Iran, not only in Syria. Nor does he pay any attention to the fact that Russia and Iran have never focused their attacks there on the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, but instead collaborated in launching the latest chemical weapons attack on more moderate anti-Assad forces.

This is a brave new world in which the president of the United States is not what I would regard as loyal to democratic principles, at home or abroad, or to our democratic allies. Memorial Day commemorates those who have died in the nation’s service. I feel their loss even more deeply when we abandon the ideals they were seeking to defend. This is indeed a sad Memorial Day for America and its allies.

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