Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Iran’s Dilemma: Respond to Israeli Actions in Syria in direct attacks o Israel or with Terror Attacks Abroad?








In view of the public promise by senior Iranian spokespersons that Israel would soon weep over its soldiers just as Iran mourned its soldiers, it remains to be seen if and how Iran will retaliate against Israel’s recent broad counter-attack against Iranian targets in Syria: with what intensity, with what method, and in what location. However, notwithstanding declarations from Iranian leaders that ongoing Israeli actions against its forces and proxies will lead to the destruction of Haifa and Tel Aviv, it appears that Iran is not genuinely interested in war, particularly not on Syrian or Lebanese territory, fearing the consequences for both the survival of the Assad regime and for Hezbollah's status. (Israel too is not interested in an all-out war.) Therefore the mutual verbal onslaughts between Israel and Iran oblige both sides to ensure that their actions should be painful, but at the same time measured, in order to avoid escalation. For Iran, a possible arena for a response to what is perceived as intolerable Israel provocation is the international arena. Israel, aware from past experience how Iran can use its capabilities and proxies to carry out serious attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets overseas, is preparing for the possibility that Iran may choose this method again. The main candidates for executing such an attack are the Revolutionary Guards, alone or in cooperation with contracted Hezbollah operatives skilled in overseas attack arrangements, and perhaps even with the assistance of local elements in the various countries.

Iran’s launch of some twenty missiles from Syria toward Israeli territory on the night of May 9-10, 2018 marked the end of the Israeli debate on the question of whether, how, and from where Iran would seek to avenge the deaths of its Revolutionary Guards operatives in Israel's attacks on Syrian territory. After the first Iranian response to the attacks, in which Israel suffered no losses, Israel responded to the missiles with a widespread attack on Iranian military infrastructures in Syrian territory, causing severe damage. In view of the public pledge by senior Iranian spokespersons that Israel would soon weep over its soldiers just as Iran mourned its soldiers, it remains to be seen if and how Iran will retaliate for Israel’s broad counter-attack: with what intensity, with what method, and in what location.

The Iranian rhetoric suggests the response will be directed against military targets in Israel. However, the scope and continuation of Israeli damage to Iranian targets in Syria; the influence attributed to Israel over President Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement; Iran's embarrassment over the public exposure of its nuclear archive; and public threats by senior Israeli figures to block Iran's intention to consolidate its military infrastructure in Syria – all these add to the Iranian sense of humiliation and could broaden the range of its possible responses. Apart from the Revolutionary Guards, Iran can draw from a pool of proxies and organizations comprising Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, Afghan, and Pakistani militants. Some might be willing to participate in action against Israel. And notwithstanding declarations from Iranian leaders that ongoing Israeli actions against its forces and proxies will lead to the destruction of Haifa and Tel Aviv, it appears that Iran is not genuinely interested in war, particularly not on Syrian or Lebanese territory, fearing the consequences for both the survival of the Assad regime and for Hezbollah's status. (Israel too is not interested in an all-out war.) Therefore the mutual verbal onslaughts between Israel and Iran oblige both sides to ensure that their actions should be painful, but at the same time measured, in order to avoid escalation.

For Iran, a possible arena for a response to what is perceived as intolerable Israel provocation is the international arena, although that too is not free of risks and constraints. Israel, aware from past experience how Iran can use its capabilities and proxies to carry out serious attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets overseas, is preparing for the possibility that Iran may choose this method again. The main candidates for executing such an attack are the Revolutionary Guards, alone or in cooperation with contracted Hezbollah operatives skilled in overseas attack arrangements, and perhaps even with the assistance of local elements in the various countries.

For Iran, there are pros and cons regarding overseas terror attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets. The decisions will depend on the answers to the following questions:

a.Would one or more terror attacks on Israeli/Jewish targets overseas be a suitable response to the severe damage suffered by Iran in Syria, and fulfill the declared Iranian promise to make Israel pay?

b.To what extent would such an action deter Israel from continuing its attacks against Iranian moves towards consolidation in Syria?

c. What are the chances of executing an attack without the perpetrators or their support staff being caught or leaving traces that lead back to Iran?

d. Is it possible to realize this intention within a reasonable timeframe, so that the connection between the Israeli activity and the response is clear? An effective attack overseas requires a local logistical and human infrastructure linked to external activists. Even if the basic infrastructure already exists, it will take time to train it properly while avoiding any incriminating links to Iran. Precise information must be collected about targets, which is particularly challenging given the strict Israeli security arrangements for their overseas representatives and institutions. Moreover, the planners must take into account that Israeli security elements are particularly alert at this time and also enjoy cooperation with local security elements.

e. How is it possible to avoid further damage to Iran's image and preclude further isolation, especially when the United States is leading an international campaign to tarnish its name as a country that uses fraud and deception in the nuclear field, and a leading player in the spread of international terror? For example an exposure of Iran's involvement in a terror attack in the European arena, an attack that it initiated and carried out itself or through a proxy, would support the American demand to impose sanctions on Iran for terror, perhaps within an international coalition. There would likewise be negative ramifications in the nuclear context, since Iran has no interest in hampering the efforts of Western countries to prevent the collapse of the nuclear agreement following the withdrawal of the United States.

f. The arena: Iran's need to limit the risk of exposure and consequential severe diplomatic damage could direct the attention of the planners to places where these risks are relatively small. Accordingly, countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, or Central and South America are more suitable than the United States or leading European countries.

g.The nature of attacks and an estimated number of casualties, as much as possible: when selecting the type of action, there is tension between the wish to impose a painful and heavy price on Israel and the fear of a direct Israeli response, and particularly of a strong international response. Such responses will be directly influenced by the number of victims, direct and indirect, resulting from the attack. For example, an attack on a passenger aircraft could potentially cause massive deaths and lead Israel to an extremely severe response, with significant escalation of its activity against Iran, and also arouse intense international anger. On the other hand, damage that is limited to Israeli representatives or organizations will keep the tension within the bilateral sphere, if there are few local casualties.

Iran could opt for a terror attack on Jewish targets identified with Israel, or on Israeli residents and tourists, who are less protected. The many young Israelis who travel in Latin America and the Far East after their army service could be an attractive target for an attack or even kidnapping, since Iran and Hezbollah can present them as Israeli soldiers.

Overseas terror appears to be a means of warfare available to Iran in cases where it wishes to respond, take revenge on Israel, and send messages of deterrence, while retaining the ability to deny any involvement. In recent years, the Israeli public has tended to downplay the potential danger from terror attacks by Iran and Hezbollah, due to the relatively weak Iranian response to assassinations of its nuclear scientists that are attributed to Israel, and because of Hezbollah's failed response to the death of Imad Mugniyeh in 2008: Nasrallah assured Israel of a very severe response and failed. Iran and Hezbollah together planned at least 15 attacks overseas, including attacks on Israeli targets in India and Bulgaria. Thus, Iran and its proxy have not been deterred from attempts to harm Israel outside its borders, and this fact should always be borne in mind. The sometimes unprofessional execution and Israel's success - in cooperation with foreign security elements - in foiling most of the planned attacks are no guarantee that Iran and Hezbollah will not improve their future performance.

To date, Israel has not succeeded in deterring Iran and Hezbollah from use of the overseas arena to launch revenge actions and to intimidate Israel. Iran's relative inaction in this arena is mainly due to self restraint, in view of the potential for international complications, or preference for other, more available, arenas. Hezbollah's "open account" with Israel for Mugniyeh's death, declared by Nasrallah, has not been closed. Moreover, it has been joined by other "open accounts" for the killings of other senior Hezbollah personnel, as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed by Israel in Syria. All these could lead Iran and Hezbollah back to consider the overseas arena, but this time Iran will probably be more meticulous about professional execution, and choose relatively convenient sites for action, where the chances of being foiled or exposed are more limited. Nor is it yet clear if Iran would stop at this stage, or be satisfied with efforts to attack Israel from the battlefield in Syria, or whether it will decide to operate in other areas on the Israeli borders and even beyond. In any event, it seems that the current head-on hostilities with Israel will stimulate Iran to refresh its ability to carry out terror attacks overseas. If it indeed decides to take this route, the infrastructure and capabilities at its disposal will be better than those demonstrated by Iran and Hezbollah in recent years.

IAF aircraft strike underground Hamas terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip

Image may contain: night, sky, cloud and outdoor

Wednesday 23rd May 2018: Israeli Jets Attack Gaza; IAF aircraft strike underground Hamas terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip as well as two military targets that belong to its naval force Tuesday night.
Israeli warplanes on Tuesday night struck underground Hamas terror infrastructure in northern Gaza, as well as two additional military targets that belong to the terror organisation's naval force, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said at 4.30am Wednesday morning.
“The strikes were in response to the event that took place yesterday morning, when a number of terrorists infiltrated Israel and set a military post on fire,” said the statement. “Additionally, the strikes were carried out in response to the ongoing attempts to dispatch drones and kites, with the intention of conducting terrorist activity and setting Israeli territory on fire.”
The statement noted that the IDF “views these continued attempts with great severity, specifically Hamas’ daily attempts to damage Israeli security infrastructure and threats to the safety of Israeli civilians. The IDF is determined to fulfil its mission to protect Israeli civilians. The Hamas terror organisation is accountable for all threats originating from the Gaza Strip, above and below ground, and will bear the consequences for its actions against Israeli civilians and Israeli sovereignty.”
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted Wednesday morning, "Last night, the IDF destroyed another terror tunnel belonging to the Hamas terror organization."
"The attempts to attack Israel from the air, via the border fence, and underground will be blocked by an iron wall and by the IDF's might. It would be well if the Hamas leaders understood that their military project is a failure, and invest their resources in bettering the lives of Gaza's citizens."
Palestinian Arab media reported earlier that the IDF attacked two naval police installations in Gaza. According to the reports, explosions were heard west of Gaza City and a fire broke out. Some of the reports said that the facilities were attacked with three missiles, one from the water and two from the shore.
The Arab Al-Jazeera network later on Tuesday published a video showing the infiltration into Israel by the Palestinian Arab terrorists, who had crossed the border fence south of Kissufim.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Israel Goes to War. Whose makes that decision. PM or DM ?, by Stephen Darori, The Bard Of Bat Yam, Poet Laureate of Zion


The Knesset has recently amended the “Basic Law: The Government,” with respect to "authority to declare war or conduct a significant military operation." Under the previous legislation, this authority was given to the government, but the new law grants the authority to the Ministerial Committee for National Security (the Security Cabinet). However, the final version of the new law goes even further, and concludes: "Under extreme circumstances and for reasons that will be noted…the prime minister and the minister of defense are authorized to make the decision in a more restricted legal quorum." Such a law has almost no equivalent in Western democracies. It lacks the checks and balances essential to a democratic regime and is bound to undermine the principle that war is an act requiring maximum domestic and international legitimacy. Yet in view of the new legislation, the Security Cabinet's work should be improved so that it will be fully familiar with the strategic matters on the agenda. In addition, both for the sake of checks and balances and the prevention of an overconcentration of authority in the hands of individuals and so that more than two elected representatives of the people bear responsibility for cardinal policy measure such as war and peace, at least the entire Security Cabinet should participate in the decision. The tactical decisions can and should be made in restricted forums, but it is best for such a momentous decision as a declaration of war to be taken in a broad forum that bears the burden of the responsibility.
In view of the escalation both in rhetoric and on the ground in Israel's northern and southern conflict areas, the question of who in Israel has the authority to declare war should be considered. The Knesset has recently amended the “Basic Law: The Government,” with respect to "authority to declare war or conduct a significant military operation." It is doubtful whether legislation was needed to change this authority. Under the previous legislation, this authority was given to the government, but the new law grants the authority to the Ministerial Committee for National Security (the Security Cabinet). However, the final version of the law goes even further, and concludes: "Under extreme circumstances and for reasons that will be noted…the prime minister and the minister of defense are authorized to make the decision in a more restricted legal quorum." Such a law has almost no equivalent in Western democracies. It lacks the checks and balances essential to a democratic regime and is bound to undermine the principle that war is an act requiring maximum domestic and international legitimacy.

The reasons for restricting the forum that decides on whether to declare war focus on streamlining the decision-making process and preserving its secrecy. Judge (ret.) Eliyahu Winograd, who chaired the 2006 Commission of Inquiry into the Events of Military Engagement in Lebanon, expressed his opinion about the Israeli government's decision making process as follows: "Almost none of the conclusions of the final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events of Military Engagement in Lebanon were implemented by the government…the recommendations of the final report were not implemented, and lessons were not drawn." In his report on Operation Protective Edge (2014), the State Comptroller, considering the government's decision making processes about the Gaza Strip before and early in the operation, stated, "The cabinet's authorities, including the question of which issues fall under its purview, are not anchored in writing….Cabinet ministers do not know whether the cabinet is a decision-making body or an advisory one….In addition to failure to anchor the cabinet's authority, there is also no norm establishing the duty to provide the cabinet with information…[although] this information was essential for decision-making."

In December 2017, the Ministerial Commission on Legislation approved a bill sponsored by Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked authorizing the government to delegate its authority to the Security Cabinet, which would then be able to decide on a military operation likely to lead to escalation and then to war. The bill addressed two aspects: the nature of military action in our time and the government's mode of operation. The bill was based on a report by a committee headed by former National Security Council head Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, which included recommendations on the declaration of war. The reasons given for the bill stated that there was a lack of clarity concerning the government's authority, since Section 40(A) of the “Basic Law: The Government” states, "The state may only begin a war pursuant to a Government decision," while Section 40(B) of the same law states, "Nothing in the provisions of this section will prevent the adoption of military actions necessary for the defense of the state and public security." The committee believed that it is best that the government authorize the Security Cabinet in order to streamline the decision making processes and maintain secrecy before the campaign.

Since the First Lebanon War (1982), there were very few cases in which the Israeli government made orderly decisions out of a clear understanding that a large scale military conflict or potential for such a conflict was at stake. One example of such a decision is Operation Defensive Shield (2002), in which the government headed by Ariel Sharon ordered the IDF to retake control of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Another example is the decision by the government headed by Ehud Olmert to destroy the nuclear reactor in Syria (2007), which involved the possibility of escalation into a full scale military campaign. At the same time, in two events that did escalate into a large scale operation or a war, the Second Lebanon War (2006) and Operation Protective Edge, events unfolded like a snowball, and the government or the Security Cabinet approved measures incrementally, without officially declaring a major campaign until very advanced stages. The dynamic nature of the campaigns in recent decades has usually dictated policy through a series of tactical, rolling, and successive decisions that in retrospect generated a decision to go to war.

In the United States, the Congress is responsible for declarations of war, as Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution states explicitly that it possesses the sole power "to declare war" and to make rules concerning captures on land and water. Legitimization by the people's representatives as a reflection of the entire people is required for such a critical act in the life of the nation. This does not mean that the American president, the commander in chief of the army, lacks extensive power to use force. The Vietnam War, for example, was the result of a presidential decision by Lyndon Johnson, who relied on a resolution of the Congress following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. This resolution authorized him to use military force, but did not constitute an official declaration of war.

A similar case occurred in Israel in 2006. The government approved Operation Density, an attack by the Israeli air force against Hezbollah's batteries of long range rockets, without understanding where this was liable to lead. According to then-Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, in the Second Lebanon War, "the first point in which we erred or failed as commanders was our inability to change the approach or the general mindset… the confrontation with Hezbollah was not a direct continuation of the ongoing operations we had carried out for the last six years in Judea and Samaria but was, rather, a war." When the government voted a year later on the attack against the Syrian nuclear reactor, it had already learned from experience, and took the trouble in a series of discussions to consider the consequences in depth.

Is legislation the proper way of changing the delegation of authority? Not necessarily, first because official declarations of war are becoming rarer, while events that escalate into a conflict have become more common. Second, the previous law allowed a decision to be taken on an essential military operation even without a decision by the entire government, and the Security Cabinet was authorized to make decisions on operations similar in character to those conducted by Israel in the Gaza Strip in the past decade. At the same time, because of the overall responsibility and the exercise of judgment required, especially when a large scale security event liable to spiral out of control and extend beyond the boundaries of the sector is involved, the decision should be brought before the entire government in a plenary session. Considerations of efficiency, rapidity of response, and even secrecy should not exclude in-depth judgment, an analysis of the information and the alternatives, acquisition of internal and external legitimacy, and the opportunity to consult with everyone who bears responsibility: the elected public officials serving as government ministers and of course the officeholders in the defense and political establishment.

It appears that the main power of the new law will lie in strengthening the element of accountability among the ministers in the Security Cabinet, because it clearly regulates its status as an entity with the authority to make decisions and carry them out – a kind of mini-government in an emergency. Once its legal status and authority is established, the ministers who are members can no longer argue that they did not know and were not informed, as occurred in the past, for example in the case of the terror tunnel threat in Operation Protective Edge. The law gives the Security Cabinet a great deal of authority, but in practice, almost no issue is put to a vote in the Security Cabinet in opposition to the prime minister's view. When the authority to decide is in the hands of two people (and one person if the prime minister is also the minister of defense, as was the case with David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak, for example), a decision is unlikely to be taken without the support of the heads of the security branches, as is proven by the history of the decision not taken (2010-2012) to attack in Iran.

In view of the new legislation, the Security Cabinet's work should be improved so that it will be fully familiar with the strategic matters on the agenda, instead of coming to a discussion of these issues like a fireman putting out fires. In addition, both for the sake of checks and balances and the prevention of an overconcentration of authority in the hands of individuals and so that more than two elected representatives of the people bear responsibility for cardinal policy measure such as war and peace, at least the entire Security Cabinet should participate in the decision. The tactical decisions can and should be made in restricted forums, but it is best for such a momentous decision as a declaration of war to be taken in a broad forum that bears the burden of the responsibility.

With the delegation of responsibility for such a fateful decision from the government to the Security Cabinet, let alone to only two senior government members, note should be taken of the sharp comment by the State Comptroller in his report on Operation Protective Edge: "Dismissing diplomatic alternatives without presenting them to the cabinet first prevented the ministers from properly discussing the advantages or risks involved in those alternatives." Everything that applies to the necessary assessment of the situation in the security sphere with respect to a military conflict also applies in the political and diplomatic sphere – including, for example, peace processes.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Palestinian Agenda is not on the Agenda of the Iranian , person on the Street




An Iranian family visiting the Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, photo by David Stanley via Flickr CC


Most Iranians Couldn’t Care Less About the Palestinians or Israel. Diplomats who served in Tehran frequently claim that Israel and the Palestinians are marginal to Iranian concerns. They are correct about the Iranian public and wrong about the leadership. Maybe this and other formidable gaps between the Iranian public and the leadership could provide the fuel to ignite the opposition to remove them from power.

Three years ago, the then Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, who had also served as ambassador to Iran, told members of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies something they had heard from other foreign diplomats. “You Israelis are obsessed with Iran,” he said. “For Iranians, you and the Palestinians are a marginal concern.”

The Polish minister was right about the average person-in-the-street in Iran, but he was wrong about the leadership. Their divergence of interest regarding Israel and the Palestinians is but one element in the disconnect between the Iranian leadership and the Iranian public – a disconnect that may explain why Iranians took to the streets to protest the ayatollahs.

The Polish minister was correct that Israel and the Palestinian question are of only marginal concern to even educated Iranians. This can be seen by examining internet search terms, which Google Trends plots by country to show relative interest. Terms can be entered in any language including Farsi, which uses Arabic script. (Many of the terms related to Israel and the Palestinians are in fact the same in Farsi and Arabic, though Farsi is an Indo-European language like English and Arabic is a Semitic language.)

This means it is easy to compare the Iranian public’s interest in Israel and the Palestinian problem to its interest in Arab states.

“Filastin” is both the Arabic and the Farsi term for Palestine. One would think, given the increasingly belligerent tenor of Israeli-Iranian relations, that Iranians would show interest in both Israel and the Palestinian problem.

But typing “Filastin” into Google Trends in Arabic script clearly confirms the Polish minister’s observation. In the breakdown by country, Iran did not even appear in the 11 countries listed as searching for the term. In the past five years, Iranians searched the term less than one-hundredth the number of times Palestinians did and less than one twenty-fifth the number of times the Jordanians did, who were second on the list of those who searched the term. (That Jordan is second on the list is hardly surprising as most of its population is Palestinian.)

These differences are even wider than they first appear, as there are at least ten times more Iranians than Palestinians and Jordanians whose levels of internet use is similar to that of the Palestinians.

The lack of interest amongst Iranians is confirmed when other terms are searched.

Probably the most prevalent term regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the term “occupation”, which the Palestinians have successfully marketed in the world.

The number of Iranians searching the term “ihtilal”, “occupation” in both Arabic and Farsi, again amounts to less than 1% of the searches made by Palestinians and only 4% of searches made by Jordanians. Iran does not even make the list of 19 states where searches amount to one-hundredth of those searched by Palestinians.

Hamas, whose leaders have been warmly embraced in Tehran and many of whose fighters have been trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is also of negligible concern to the average Iranian. Iran ranked last out of 21 states who use Arabic script to search for Hamas, and the relative interest is similar to that of the two previous terms.

Perhaps the more religious evocation of “al-Quds”, which means “holy place” and is both the Farsi and the Arabic word for Jerusalem, has greater resonance among Iranians?

Not at all. Iran does not figure in the top twenty countries searching for
al-Quds, and searches for the term by Iranians account for less than 1% of the number of Palestinian searches. For the more religious symbol, the al-Aqsa mosque (“masjid al-Aqsa”), there were too few searches to record.

Obviously, the Iranian man- and woman-in-the-street does not share the leadership’s enthusiasm for Hamas, Jerusalem, or, for that matter, the Palestinian issue writ large.

And he or she doesn’t think much about Israel either.

While Iran is of much concern to Israelis, the term “Israel” in Farsi/Arabic receives much the same attention in Iran as terms related to Palestinians. Once again, Iran appears last on the list of 21 countries, with searches for Israel by Iranians amounting to one-hundredth the number of Palestinian searches and one-fortieth the number of Jordanian searches.

For Israelis, the search for “Iran” in English (which for most Israelis is only a second language) amounts to 4% of the number of searches of the word in Iran, which understandably tops the list. By comparison, searches of the word “Iran” in the US amount to only 6% the number of Iranian searches for the term. Considering that the population of the US is about 40 times that of Israel, this means Israelis search the term “Iran” hundreds of times more often than the average American. (One can’t compare the term in Hebrew as only in Israel is Hebrew widely read or spoken.)

The Iranian public’s lack of interest in Israel and the Palestinians contrasts sharply with the focus, almost obsession, of the leadership of the Islamic Republic with Israel and, to a lesser extent, the Palestinians.

This is especially true of the hardliners. After all, the elite units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are called the al-Quds Force, and one of the biggest annual political events in Iran, al-Quds Day, is devoted to defaming Israel and castigating it for being a “usurper” state that expelled and now occupies the Palestinians.

There is, however, good news. The staggering gap between the Iranian public’s concerns and interests clearly contrast with those of its leadership. It might grow even larger and widen to other areas – which might be sufficient to motivate the Iranian public to get rid of this leadership of woes altogether.

Declining Forex Value the Rial addsfurther challenges to Iran



Iranian currency, image by BockoPix via Flickr CC


Iran Faces Economic Challenges as Its Currency Plunges. The sharp decline in the value of the Iranian currency is causing upheaval in the Iranian economy and challenging the government and the banking sector. The local currency’s plunge to a rate of 6,000 tomans to the dollar, despite the high level of oil and gas revenues, reflects a lack of trust between the citizens and the banking system. A consideration of Iran’s economic policy sheds light on the limitations of the “dual economy” practiced by the Islamic Republic since its inception.

At a time when Iran’s moves in the geopolitical sphere are getting the lion’s share of public attention, economic processes are occurring that will bear consequences for the power of the Islamic Republic. The recent sharp decline in the value of the local currency against the dollar reflects the severity of Iran’s economic plight. When the local currency plummeted to below the benchmark of 6,000 tomans to the dollar, currency trading came to a halt. The efforts of Iran’s central bank to stabilize the rate at 4,200 tomans failed, prompting the closure of the currency conversion market.

A look at the local-currency exchange rate in the early days of the Islamic Republic highlights the dire straits of the currency relative to today’s global market. In the wake of the revolution, the Iranian currency’s exchange rate stood at seven tomans to the dollar, while on the free market the dollar was traded for ten tomans. It is no surprise, then, that the recent plunge in the currency’s value and the distrust between the citizens and the banking system have led some members of parliament to demand the immediate dismissal of Valy Allah Seif, president of the central bank.

There is an apparent contradiction between the nadir the local currency has reached and the state’s revenues from oil and gas. The Iranian oil market is fifth in the world, with a production capacity of four million barrels per day. In addition, Iran’s natural gas reserves are estimated at 17.5% of all known gas reserves, second in size globally after Russia. According to the CIA’s The World Factbook, Iran’s GDP is estimated at $1.63 trillion and its GDP per capita at $20,000.

However, these figures do not reflect the reality faced by the Iranian population, which suffers from unemployment, inflation, growing gaps between average family income and the basket of household expenditures, a severe housing shortage, and more. Why the discrepancy?

An analysis of the political-economic equation can shed light on the reasons for the crisis in the Iranian exchange-rate market. Western experts tend to categorize the Iranian economic regime as a “command economy,” wherein the ruling establishment is the decisive and exclusive actor when it comes to the production and consumption of goods and services. This kind of economy is epitomized by that of the Soviet Union before its demise.

It is true that there is a certain similarity between Iran’s economic regime (which has weakened the private sector) and a “command economy,” but this perception is insufficient as it ignores the characteristics of the dual economy practiced in Iran.

The Iranian economy is comprised of two parallel axes: the official economic regime implemented by the government and the “charity foundation economy” (the Bonyads economy). The largest of the foundations is the “Oppressed and Disabled Foundation” – the second-largest economic entity in the country after the national oil company. The work of the charity foundations, which originated in the revolutionary regime’s confiscation of the assets of the Pahlavi Foundation, involves supplying the needs of the lower classes, helping the families of those fallen in battle, rehabilitating prisoners of war, providing assorted forms of welfare, and inculcating Islamic education, culture, and so on.

Over time, the charitable foundations have become a powerful economic axis that is not subject to governmental monitoring, taxation processes, reporting, or registration in the state accounting system. Not surprisingly, the inability to monitor these entities has given rise to corruption, tax evasion, and resource allocation outside the framework of the approved annual budget.

Furthermore, the Iranian constitution explicitly delineates the balance of power between the Supreme Leader and the president, putting the Supreme Leader in charge of agenda-setting and resource allocation. As a result, a large proportion of state revenues are channeled to entities that are directly under Ayatollah Khamenei’s aegis – such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has evolved not only into a formidable security establishment but also into a powerful economic conglomerate.

The dual economic structure has created consequences that are unique to the Iranian economy. For example, the current president of the Foundation of the Oppressed and Disabled, Muhammad Saeed-kia, has no less power (some claim he has even more) than the minister of economic affairs and finance, Masoud Karbasian. The charitable foundations’ power and influence over the Iranian economy are a source of incessant wrangling between governmental power brokers. The foundations’ activity is clearly aimed, among other things, at bolstering the religious establishment in Iran’s political balance of power. For example, the “Ostan-e Quds-e Razvi” Foundation serves as a support base for Ebrahim Raisi, who challenged Rouhani in the presidential elections.

As usual, the Iranian ruling establishment is pinning the blame for the drop in the currency’s value on external factors, notably the West, claiming that the turmoil stems from Washington’s threats to pull out of the nuclear agreement. Various spokespersons say the Trump administration’s policy on renewing sanctions is fostering uncertainty that is deterring European countries from signing trade agreements with Iran. Yet local traders accuse Iran’s central bank of deliberately slowing the flow of foreign currency into the exchange trade in order to create a shortage. Moneychangers also claim that the shortage is aimed at boosting demand for foreign currency and filling budget shortfalls.

Citizens’ desire to convert their money into foreign currency in order to retain its value attests to a lack of popular trust in the banking system. Inflation and rising prices on the basic basket of goods impel a constant search for solutions in the absence of a banking alternative. The fall in the currency’s value is accompanied by an ongoing slump in local market production that stems from the government’s lack of encouragement. High unemployment figures and the preference for imports over local products also contribute to the currency’s distress.

In the view of industrialists and economists, the stagnation stems from both the sense of security fostered by high revenues from natural resources and the regime’s preference for setting the economic agenda. Moreover, the establishment’s flouting of basic principles of a free economy – in which private owners make their own decisions on what to produce, how to price it, and what to invest in in the first place – exacerbates the weakness of the Iranian economy.

The trouble now besetting the Iranian currency cannot be seen in isolation from the social unrest that began at the end of 2017. The protests that swept about 80 towns across Iran stemmed from the growing gaps between massive investments in the military sphere (with the aim of expanding Iran’s regional influence) and the population’s desire for a better standard of living. This movement was driven by the rising cost of living, high poverty and unemployment levels, a housing shortage, and increasing crime. The travails of the currency need to be analyzed in the wider context of developments affecting Iran.

From the moment the Iranian Republic was established in 1979, its leaders called for the rejection of all aspects of Western life, including the use of foreign currency. Iran’s citizens have taken the opposite tack. The Iranian economy’s source of strength – its gas and oil revenues – could turn into a weakness because of the fragility of the economic regime. The leadership’s ignoring of society’s needs and funneling of massive resources into the military sphere, while averting its gaze from the liabilities of the dual structure, could create serious challenges for the revolutionary regime in the future.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Russian Deterrence influenced Minimal strike on Assad's Chemical Weapons Facilities





US airstrike on Syria before and after, screenshot from YouTube video

 While the purpose of the US strikes was to target Syria’s chemical-weapons capabilities, the relatively modest scale of the strikes are an indication of Russia’s ability to cause Western powers to limit their actions.

The recent US missile strikes on three chemical-weapons sites in Syria represent relatively small-scale action against Syrian President Bashar Assad and underline the extent of Russia’s deterrent posture.

The purpose of the strike was to damage Syria’s chemical-weapons program and to deter the murderous regime in Damascus from unleashing further chemical weapons on the civilian population. Yet in actuality, the strikes are more of an indication of Russia’s success at causing Western powers to limit their actions and opt for extreme caution in their response to Assad’s crimes against humanity.

Russian officials made explicit threats to shoot down US missiles prior to the strike and even to target the missile-launchers. These threats are part of a wider Russian posture aimed at showing the entire world – and the Middle East in particular – that Russia stands by the Assad regime no matter what horrors it unleashes.

Russia’s actions are guided by a cold, hard logic. By standing firm alongside its Syrian client, it is broadcasting the message that any Middle Eastern actor who partners with Russia will gain the essentially unconditional backing of a major power. Between the lines, the Russian message seems to be, “How can you trust the fickle West and the US, which abandon allies or leave them to fight alone? Join our sphere of influence and you will receive real backing.”

This kind of posturing is part of Moscow’s attempt to rebuild its global empire and boost the value of its currency as a superpower ally. There will likely be regional actors who will pay attention to this message.

As for the strikes themselves, they will probably have minimal, if any, impact on overall events in Syria.

The reason the Assad regime uses chemical weapons is because it is engaged in a war against Syria’s Sunni Muslim population, and it is attempting to ethnically cleanse whole areas of communities deemed a threat by the regime.

The Assad regime makes no distinction whatsoever between armed combatants and innocent civilians living in the areas from which the rebels operate, viewing them all as threats to its existence. This is why it repeatedly uses chemical weapons on entire neighborhoods, as well as conventional weapons, committing mass murder and trying to get the rest of the population to flee – preferably, from Assad’s perspective, out of the country.

Already, the Syrian refugee exodus is the worst since WWII. Out of an original population of 22 million people, more than half have left their homes. Of those, half are internally displaced, and around half have left Syria’s borders. The majority of these refugees are Sunni.

The Assad regime is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the fact that millions of Sunnis are fleeing the country suits it just fine. This strategic shift in the country’s sectarian balance serves Assad’s long-term goal of strengthening its rule. It will continue to work towards this goal by terrorizing and butchering the Sunni population, and by dwindling its numbers by forcing people to leave Syria.

As a result, Europe should expect further waves of Sunni Syrian refugees.

The Assad regime has the backing not only of Moscow, but also of a regional and radical Shiite power: Iran. An array of Iranian-led Shiite armed forces are deployed across Syria, where they oversee the brutal campaign against Syria’s Sunnis.

Striking three chemical-weapons targets in Syria will not change this.

The Iranian-Israeli front

Meanwhile, Syria is also becoming an active combat arena between Iran and Israel. This front is growing more explosive and tense with time. Iran is trying to convert its military assets in Syria into bases of attack against Israel. Jerusalem is showing resolute determination to stop this from happening.

The Israel Defense Forces recently announced that an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace in February and was shot down by the Israeli Air Force was armed with an explosive and was on its way to conduct an attack inside Israel.

This represents the first known time that Iran has attempted a direct armed strike on Israel from Syria, rather than its traditional attempts at organizing attacks via proxy.

The recent reported Israeli airstrike on an Iranian-run military base in central Syria, which purportedly was used by the Iranians to operate drones and threaten Israel, appears to represent Israeli self-defense. The goal is to stop Iran from turning Syria into a forward base of aggression.

In the aftermath of the strike, Iranian officials have been issuing threats of retaliation against the Jewish state.

Israeli defense officials have reportedly responded by saying that if Iran makes good on its threat, the whole of the Assad regime could be destroyed in the subsequent Israeli response.

These events represent a high-stakes struggle between Tehran and Jerusalem, with Iran pushing and testing Israel’s red lines and Israel enforcing them consistently. If Iran pushes too far and disregards Israel’s warnings, this low-profile war could turn into a major regional conflict.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Citizens and Democracy in Zion

Image result for Benjamin Netanyahu election
 If Benjamin Netanyahu is forced to step down from his position as prime minister without sufficient evidence proving him to be guilty of criminal activity, the country will lose an experienced and capable leader at a time of growing danger. The elites who are so eager to push him out should consider whether their wish to install an individual more to their tastes is worth the possible cost to Israel’s security.
Winston Churchill was right when he said in 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government ever invented – except for all those other forms that have been tried.”  One of the reasons is that sometimes a democracy will fail unless its citizens act maturely despite inclinations tempting them in another direction.  “Democracy” here means all the processes and behavior that determine what happens in the governance of a liberal democratic country such as Israel.
Israel’s democracy is now undergoing such a test.  Our region is in a time of bloody turmoil and instability. Israel, despite its great strength, faces dangers that require it to act prudently, wisely, and perhaps forcefully to protect itself from rapidly changing security developments.
Fortunately we have a prime minister who is widely recognized as one of the most eloquent and capable statesmen in the world today. With that said, no one would claim that he makes no mistakes or that Israel’s policy cannot be improved.
Partly because of Netanyahu’s unique experience at the center of affairs for many years, and the opportunities he has had to build relationships with leaders such as Putin, Trump, Modi, and Abe (of Japan), it is clear that no other Israeli today is anywhere near as capable of running Israel’s foreign and security policy as is Bibi.
On the other hand, a great many Israelis scorn and disapprove of the prime minister. Even many of his admirers see him as a man of poor character – small-minded, selfish, miserly, and disloyal, unable to create and maintain close relationships with strong people and political allies (with the striking exception of Ron Dermer). Perhaps most of all, Bibi’s hedonistic lifestyle – apart from his strong work ethic — offends many Israelis who contrast it with that of Begin, Rabin, and other Israeli political leaders of the past.
If it turns out that Bibi is guilty of real criminal conduct, as distinguished from technical violations of law, Israel would of course have to do without his foreign policy talent and experience. Perhaps there is still a possibility that the extraordinary efforts to bring Bibi down, by his long-time enemies in the media and the police, will prove that he genuinely is a criminal whom Israelis cannot in good conscience leave as head of government. But so far what is apparent is that a very small fire can be used to make a lot of smoke. Much of Israel’s establishment uses double standards to pursue partisan goals at the cost of weakening their prime minister’s ability to do his job.
Israel’s democracy – its voters, politicians, media, and police – must decide whether the prime minister shall continue to be the man by far most capable of protecting the country in particularly dangerous times, or will be replaced by someone whose personal character is felt to be less objectionable – especially to leftists troubled by having to face a man of the right who is obviously smart and sophisticated. Experience suggests that if Bibi is replaced as PM we cannot assume that his successor will necessarily be a person of better character.
On present evidence, if Netanyahu has to step down now it will be a failure of democracy. It would be a profligate decision to prefer a more appealing national leader over a determination to put the country’s safety in the best hands available.
One possibility is that the police, media, and elite attacks on Bibi will force him to have an early election which returns him to office, perhaps with an increased majority. That would be a case of democracy succeeding through the wisdom of the voters defeating media and legal system leadership. Still, despite their defeat by the citizenry under those circumstances, that elite would have inflicted great costs on the country by an unnecessary election and the diversion of much of Netanyahu’s time and energy from his job.
Of course Bibi will not live forever, and no person is indispensable. Sooner or later Israel will have to find a new prime minister.  If necessary, Israel will get through the present and future dangers without Netanyahu. But a maturely prudent democracy will take advantage of Bibi’s special talents and experience as long as it can, even if it dislikes him.