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Arab Strategic Miscalculations: Hamas’ Oct. 7 Attack on Israel is the Latest in a long Line of Strategic Blunders.



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By Hilal Khashan

Strategic military miscalculation usually results in the collapse of authoritarian regimes. The decision of Argentina’s military junta to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982 led to its defeat in the war against Britain and the fall of Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri’s regime. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to a military disaster for the Iraqi army following Operation Desert Storm, paving the way for the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Successful countries eventually accept the need to revamp their political systems, initiate democratic reforms and champion world peace. It took Germany, whose army fought exceptionally well operationally and tactically, two world wars to metamorphose. It took Japan’s disastrous defeat precipitated by the Pearl Harbor attack to convince Tokyo to change. Under U.S. direction, the two countries transformed into full-fledged democracies.

Since the turn of the 20th century, political leaders, heads of state and political movements in the Arab world have also shown a propensity for massive miscalculation. Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack is a prime example, but it was precipitated by several other cases that have shaped the region since World War I.

Hamas’ Miscalculation

Hamas’ rationale for last month’s attack stemmed from its conviction that Israel, with U.S. backing and Arab acquiescence, intended to eliminate any possibility of Palestinian statehood. By taking Israeli hostages, it also intended to secure the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, knowing that Israel has in the past been willing to conduct prisoner swaps. (In 2011, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier detained by Hamas for more than five years.) However, Hamas failed to consider the likelihood that Israel’s war Cabinet would launch an unprecedented air and ground campaign following its attack, the scale of which recalled the genocidal horrors ingrained in Israel’s collective consciousness.

Hamas expected Israel to plead for negotiations to secure the freedom of some 240 Israeli captives. Images from Gaza on Oct. 7 showed Hamas guerrillas ecstatic about the possibility of a massive prisoner swap. But Israel instead unleashed a withering military campaign. Moreover, Hamas did not inform Iran and its regional allies in advance about its plans. It assumed Hezbollah would join the fighting from southern Lebanon and that Iraqi militias in Syria would engage Israel from the Golan Heights. Hezbollah’s unenthusiastic involvement in the war has cost it far more casualties than Israel and did not relieve even the slightest pressure on embattled Hamas. Hamas was left stunned by its allies’ tepid response, having previously believed its attack would transform the Middle East and pave the path toward establishing a Palestinian state. An extraordinary summit of Arab and Islamic countries held last month in Saudi Arabia resulted only in generic statements of support for the Palestinians and demands for the immediate cessation of hostilities. Hamas counted on the outbreak of a third intifada, but Israel’s preemptive raids against West Bank activists ruled out this possibility as well.

Arab Revolt in 1916

Hamas’ deadly miscalculation wasn’t unprecedented. The 20th century is rife with episodes of poor decision-making by Arab leaders, beginning with the anti-Ottoman Arab Revolt in 1916. The British feared that Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V’s declaration of jihad in November 1914 against Great Britain, France and Russia (the so-called Triple Entente) would dissuade Indian Muslims from fighting against the Central powers – which included, in addition to the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. The British high commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, tried to convince the emir of Mecca, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, to declare jihad on the Ottoman Empire in exchange for creating an Arab Kingdom in West Asia. In June 1916, Hussein launched the Arab Revolt, unaware that Britain and France had already signed five months earlier the Sykes-Picot agreement, which gave administration over Iraq and Palestine to London and over Syria and Lebanon to Paris. The British also promised the emir of Najd, Ibn Saud, to include Hejaz in his rapidly expanding emirate.

McMahon clarified to Hussein that the Arab kingdom would not include Palestine. Hussein’s son, Faisal, who was proclaimed king of Syria in 1920, had communicated with the president of the Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, and accepted the Balfour Declaration, which promised to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He later rescinded this agreement due to Arab opposition. Faisal also heeded the recommendation of the U.S.-sponsored King-Crane Commission, which called for autonomy of mainly Christian Mount Lebanon.

Despite Sharif Hussein’s concessions, the interests of Britain and France prevailed against those of the Hashemites. Nevertheless, in partial fulfillment of their promise to them, Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for the colonies, declared Faisal king of Iraq in 1921 and his brother, Abdullah I, emir of Transjordan. However, Britain found working with Ibn Saud in Arabia more practical. The British allowed Ibn Saud to extend his territorial authority to Hejaz, provided he did not impinge on Britain’s sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf emirates, Transjordan and Iraq.

1948 Blunder

The Arab summits over the Palestine issue in 1946 in Egypt and Syria did not refer to military intervention in Palestine. They primarily rejected the recommendations of the Anglo-American Commission, which called for creating two states in Palestine, one Jewish and another Arab. They also promised to provide Palestinians with financial aid. Even the Egyptian secretary-general of the Arab League, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, totally opposed the war and advocated negotiations with the Zionist movement. Prominent politician Sidqi Pasha told Egypt’s Senate that the army was unfit for war and would lose if it took on the Haganah, a Zionist military organization that represented the Jews before Israel’s establishment.

King Farouk made the surprise decision to invade Palestine in 1948 against the recommendation of the Egyptian army and Cabinet – despite Prime Minister Mahmud Nuqrashi Pasha’s belief that the Palestine question was not a matter of vital national interest, and the Cabinet’s vote against committing the military to war. The army’s chief of staff did not believe the troops could go to war, let alone win, in part because the army deemed more than 80 percent of military-age Egyptians unfit for military service due to rampant hepatitis, schistosomiasis, malnutrition and illiteracy.

In the first communique broadcasted by the coup plotters on July 23, 1952, Anwar Sadat claimed that bribable officials in the defunct regime had purchased defective weapons, including artillery that exploded when firing during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, leading to the defeat of the Egyptian army. However, investigations after the fall of the monarchy concluded that three artillery units exploded during loading due to poor training, not malfunctioning.

Egypt lost the war due in part to the lack of coordination with the Iraqi army and Jordan’s Arab Legion, the best-trained and most efficient army during the war, and in part to militarily unfit Egyptian troops, the absence of a war strategy and low morale. Farouk was determined to prevent the Hashemites in Iraq and Jordan from becoming the most significant royal power in the Middle East. At the same time, the Hashemites hoped to blunt Farouk’s ambition, especially since he entertained the idea of resurrecting the Islamic caliphate, which was disbanded in 1924 by Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, and declaring Cairo its capital city. The Hashemites had achievable objectives, while Farouk had visions of grandeur.

Suez and the Straits of Tiran

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser made a grave mistake when he nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. His decision led three months later to the outbreak of the Suez War, which saw Britain, France and Israel declare war on Egypt, resulting in a disastrous military defeat for Cairo.

At the time of the canal’s nationalization, just 12 years remained of the original 99-year Anglo-French concession. Yet, the material losses that resulted from its nationalization, such as the seizure of Egyptian assets in European banks and the compensation paid to foreign shareholders, far exceeded the proceeds of nationalization. At the same time, the war and sanctions precipitated the beginning of the collapse of the Egyptian currency. Thousands of Egyptian soldiers and civilians were killed, and most of the hardware that Nasser had procured from former Czechoslovakia was destroyed. The war also destroyed modern European-style cities built by the British and French along the Suez Canal, such as Port Said, Port Fouad and Ismailia, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. Furthermore, the U.N. General Assembly established the United Nations Emergency Force to patrol the border with Israel, stationed in the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and Sharm el-Sheikh, allowing Israeli ships to cross the Straits of Tiran to the Red Sea for the first time since King Farouk banned them in 1950. Nasser’s reversion to the status quo ante in 1967 triggered the Six-Day War.

Egypt’s military was defeated, but diplomatically the war was a success. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower coerced the tripartite alliance to pull out of Egypt, and Nasser’s prestige as the champion of Arab nationalism soared. During the interwar period leading to the 1967 war, Nasser bragged about building the most potent armed forces in the eastern Mediterranean. However, his Arab critics ridiculed him for allowing Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. Over time this issue soured Nasser’s image, and he waited for an opportunity to undo it.

His chance came in May 1967. The Soviet Union warned Nasser about an Israeli military buildup near the Golan Heights in preparation for invading Syria. It was a false alarm, but even after discovering this, Nasser sent his army to Sinai in a spectacular military parade without intending to go to war. He also decided to block Israeli shipping from the Gulf of Aqaba into the Red Sea. Israel considered Nasser’s action as a casus belli and decided to complete the unfinished 1948 war.

The operational problems that plagued the Egyptian military in the 1948 and 1956 wars were still apparent in 1967. The Egyptian armed forces were unprepared for war, given their poor and politicized leadership and insufficient training. Moreover, Nasser assumed that the U.S. would resort to secret diplomacy to defuse the crisis. In 1960, during the union years between Egypt and Syria, Nasser sent his army to Sinai to relieve the pressure on the Syrian army after a major confrontation in the Golan Heights. Eisenhower used his leverage with Israel to restore quiet along the northern armistice line. But in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, fed up with Nasser’s anti-American rhetoric, gave Israel the green light to launch the war. Israeli forces swept to victory against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The political mood in Washington had changed, and Nasser’s failure to understand it caused a geopolitical earthquake that is still reverberating throughout the region.

Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait

Iraq won the 1980-88 war with Iran but emerged economically battered from it. To cover the cost of the war, Iraq had borrowed billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Unlike the Saudis and Emiratis, who wrote off Iraqi debt, Kuwait insisted that Saddam Hussein repay the $14 billion that Iraq owed. Iraq accused Kuwait of exceeding its oil production quota to lower crude oil prices, an untenable situation for Iraq, whose oil revenues were insufficient to cover the salaries of the bureaucracy and the large standing army. Baghdad also accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil from the Rumaila oil field through slant drilling.

Saddam did not comprehend the complexity of international relations. He had spent years in prison and had not completed his college education. The only non-Arab capitals he had visited were Moscow and Paris. He did not grasp that Iraq, a country carved out by Britain in 1921, could not erase Kuwait, another country created by the British. Saddam based his decision to invade Kuwait on a cursory conversation with April Glaspie, then U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who told him that the U.S. had no policy on intra-Arab relations, which he understood to mean that the U.S. would only verbally condemn the invasion of Kuwait. He believed that invading Kuwait before the impending collapse of the Soviet Union would spare him the wrath of the U.S., unaware that the bipolar international system that shielded Third World countries already had ceased to exist.

Saddam’s reckless decision to invade Kuwait decimated the Iraqi army. A multinational military coalition intervened to reinstate Kuwait’s independence, and Iraq was subjected to severe sanctions, marking the end of its status as a rising regional power. In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam’s regime, enabling Iran to creep in and dominate the country.

Misunderstanding How the World Works

Arab leaders, engrossed in a distorted worldview, tend to see the world through the prism of their domestic politics, often failing to comprehend the complexity of international relations. Arabs in high office are autocrats who do not answer to anybody else, driving them to make fateful decisions. Many Arab leaders live in echo chambers, making decisions premised on faulty assumptions, inattentive to how their antagonists might respond. The consequences have played out time and again, including today in Gaza.

Hilal Khashan is a Professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. He is a respected author and analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of six books, including Hizbullah: A Mission to Nowhere. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019).

Courtesy: Geopolitical Futures

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The Death of Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi




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By Patrick Wintour

The death of the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in a helicopter crash comes at a time when the country, faced by unprecedented external challenges, was already bracing itself for a change in regime with the expected demise in the next few years of its 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the country’s hydra-headed leadership where power is spread in often opaque ways between clerics, politicians and army, it is the supreme leader, and not the president, that is ultimately decisive. Indeed, in some ways the posts of president, and prime minister – originally based on a model of the French constitution – became overwhelmed in the drafting of Iran’s constitution in 1979, leading to advocates of a more powerful presidency to claim the role was being subsumed in a form of autocracy created in the name of religion.

The presidency, however loyal to the supreme leader – and Raisi was considered very loyal to Khamenei – is often cast in the role as a useful scapegoat helping the supreme leader to avoid criticism. That certainly became the fate of Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, who became a punchbag for decisions taken elsewhere. In recent months Raisi, elected president in 2021 but in practice handpicked by the supreme leader, had been mentioned as a possible successor to Khamenei. His death instead clears a thorny path for Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei.

The choice is made by an 88-strong “assembly of experts”, and Raisi’s departure certainly increases the chances of a hereditary succession in Iran, something many clerics oppose as alien to Iran’s revolutionary principles. Raisi’s death will add to the sense of a country already in political transition. A new hardline parliament was only just elected on 1 March in which turnout for some of the elections fell below 10%, and was overall presented as reaching a nationwide turnout of only 41% – a record low.

Reformist or moderate politicians were either disqualified or soundly beaten, leaving a new and, as yet, untested division in parliament between traditional hardliners and an ultra-conservative group known as Paydari or the Steadfastness Front. The effective exclusion of reformists from political participation in parliament for the first time since 1979 adds to the sense of a country in uncharted waters.

The cumulative disruption also comes at a time when Iran can ill afford such uncertainty as it faces western challenges over its nuclear programme, a dire economy and tense relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially with regard to relations with Israel and the US.

The loss of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign affairs minister, in the helicopter crash only adds to a sense of instability for a country that prided itself on control and predictability. His most likely successor is his deputy, Ali Bagheri, but hardliners may regard him as too willing to negotiate with the west over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Although Iran has not lost a president in office since the revolution in 1979, the country has a clear formal system for succession in which the first vice-president – currently Mohammad Mokhber – takes charge. Few regard Mokhber, a banker and former deputy governor of the Khuzestan province, as presidential material. A new president should be elected within 50 days, giving the supreme leader and his entourage relatively little time to select someone that will not only become president at such a critical time, but also will be in a strong position succeed Khamenei himself. The immediate challenge of any new leader will be to control not just internal dissent, but the factional demands within the country to take a tougher line with the west and draw closer to Russia and China.

With the sudden death of President Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime unexpectedly finds itself faced with having to hold elections to appoint a successor. The choice for Tehran is whether to allow the vote to be semi-democratic and contested, or risk nothing by ensuring no candidate with any organisation or following stands against the hardliner likely to be chosen as the regime’s preferred candidate. It is not likely to be a long discussion.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

Such a decision comes with risks. Iran has a long and well-known history of filtering out potential political leaders from elections. All candidates have to be deemed qualified by an elite body known as the Guardian Council, and are interviewed to ensure their worthiness for high office.

In most cases, shunned candidates shrug their shoulders and walk away. Many do not even put their names forward, knowing they will be rejected. The less the process is challenged, the less its methods are scrutinised.

Over the last month, however, a public row about the process has developed between the former president Hassan Rouhani and the Khamenei-appointed Guardian Council which has gone to the heart of the arguments about the president’s role and legitimacy. The dispute stems from Rouhani, who was presidentfrom 2013-21, having been banned from standing this year for the Assembly of Experts, an 88-strong body that selects the supreme leader.

Rouhani, already bruised by the way he was treated as president, had refused to acquiesce on the matter. Last week, he wrote a scathing open letter that he said was written not out of personal ambition, but in defence of the republic, and insisting he would not be silent in the face of his attempted sidelining.

He revealed in correspondence with the Guardian Council that he had failed the qualification test on the grounds of insulting the judiciary and the council, lacking political vision and lacking commitment to the constitution – accusations he insisted were an attempt to usurp the authority of the president. He argued that if the Guardian Council could disqualify from future public office leaders with whom they had political, not religious, differences, the president is no longer answerable to the people, but to an unelected body.

Recalling the number of times he had been elected with the support of millions of votes, Rouhani asked: “Do the jurists of the Guardian Council with the least political, security and diplomatic experience have the expertise to disqualify candidates because of what they call political knowledge and insight? You who accuse the candidates of not knowing the people, how many times and in which competitive elections have you exposed yourself to the people’s vote?”

In the withering assessment of his treatment, he said he had been found guilty on the basis of evidence compiled by “agents whose files are a mixture of factional analysis and intercepted and mostly illegal wiretapping, and whose reports turn into vague and general letters with obvious purpose”.

He further warned: “Future presidents (if such an office and institution remains) should know that with this indictment, even they no longer have political freedom and will be unable to perform their legal duties, and instead of the constitution, they should be subject to the Guardian Council, Otherwise, do not doubt that the position of president at the end of the term of office (or even halfway) will be the ceiling and the last responsibility for which they are qualified.”

Referring to specific criticisms of his time in office, Rouhani defended his role in negotiating the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the US under the Obama administration. Referring to Donald Trump’s subsequent withdrawal from the deal in 2018, he said: “My government is proud that it was not only a government of negotiations, but also became a government of resistance when Trump’s unconventional government appeared in the United States.” The agreement had been endorsed by the supreme leader.

Equally, he said, a president had a right to speak about the judiciary’s flaws. And crucially, he argued, criticising others, as he did as president, was not unIslamic. “Freedom of speech is a right, although someone may use this right to say something wrong,” he wrote.

The cumulative effect of the Guardian Council’s actions, he said, would be to reduce voter participation.

Rouhani’s criticisms, written at a time when Iran was not expecting elections, will resonate with many, but the chances of his warnings being heeded and the supreme leader allowing an open field seem slim.

Recent experience suggests the regime will opt for the safety of an election in which its chosen candidate has no serious rival, even if this leads to a lower turnout and a disillusioned electorate. With so much external and internal pressure on the regime, central to which is the inevitable and looming need to replace the 85-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the regime is not likely to leave much to chance. This is a critical moment, Khamenei and his allies will believe, for continuity and security.

The perennial challenge to Iran remains relations with Israel, which reached a new pitch of danger in April when the two countries exchanged fire, sparked by an Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, and more broadly by Iran’s support for proxy groups willing to fight Israel, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

But any new president will have to make big decisions over Iran’s nuclear programme. On 9 May, Kamal Kharrazi, the supreme leader’s foreign policy advisor and former Iranian foreign minister, said Iran would consider a doctrinal shift to nuclear deterrence if Israel attacked what Iran said were civilian nuclear sites.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN nuclear inspectorate the IAEA, warned Iran to end the loose talk about developing a nuclear weapon, saying it was disturbing. Opponents of the regime, still powerful through civil resistance, will not mourn Raisi’s death due to his role in repressing the “woman, life, freedom” protests.

Older Iranians revile Raisi for his role as deputy prosecutor in Tehran in 1988 when, at the age of 28, he played a prominent role in a movement that killed as many as 30,000 political prisoners, mostly members of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation in Iran (MEK).

In 2019 he was chosen as head of the judiciary by Khamenei, a role he used to increase state hostage-taking and continue domestic repression through revolutionary courts.

Patrick Wintour is the Diplomatic Editor of the Guardian

Courtesy: The Guardian, London

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Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi Dies in Helicopter Crash




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The hardline Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, has died in a helicopter crash in foggy weather in the mountains near the border with Azerbaijan. The charred wreckage of the aircraft, which crashed on Sunday carrying Raisi, as well as the foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six other passengers and crew, was found early on Monday after an overnight search in blizzard conditions.

Fears had been growing for Raisi, a 63-year-old ultraconservative, after contact was lost with the helicopter on Sunday as it navigated fog-covered mountains in north-west Iran.

The helicopter carrying Ebrahim Raisi takes off near the border with Azerbaijan on Sunday. Photograph: Ali Hamed Haghdoust/AP

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who holds ultimate power with a final say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear programme – said the country’s first vice-president, Mohammad Mokhber, would take over as interim president. The deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, was appointed as acting foreign minister.

“I announce five days of public mourning and offer my condolences to the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei said. Mokhber, like Raisi, is seen as close to Khamenei. Under Iran’s constitution, a new presidential election must be held within 50 days.

Iranian state media blamed bad weather for the crash and said it was complicating rescue efforts. Raisi’s convoy had included three helicopters, and the other two had “reached their destination safely”, Tasnim news agency reported.

The incident happened near Jolfa, a city on the border with Azerbaijan, about 375 miles (600km) north-west of the Iranian capital, Tehran. The president had been travelling in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The state-run IRNA news agency broadcast footage of an Iranian Red Crescent team walking up a slope in thick fog, as well as live footage of crowds of worshippers reciting prayers in the holy shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, Raisi’s home town.

Rescue team members work at the crash site of a helicopter carrying Raisi in Varzaghan, in north-west Iran Photograph: Azin Haghighi/MOJ News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

More than 70 rescue teams using search dogs and drones were sent to the site, the Red Crescent said, and the chief of staff of Iran’s army ordered all the resources of the army and the elite Revolutionary Guards to be deployed.

Iran owns a number of helicopters but international sanctions make it difficult to obtain parts for them. Most of its military air fleet predates the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Countries in the region sent their well-wishes and offers of support, including Iraq and Qatar, but also Saudi Arabia, which has long been a regional foe. The Saudi foreign ministry was following reports about the crash with “great concern”, the country’s state news agency reported.

The US president, Joe Biden, had been briefed on the crash, an American official said on condition of anonymity.NThe Turkish president said he was saddened to hear of the crash. “I convey my best wishes to our neighbour, friend and brother Iranian people and government, and I hope to receive good news from Mr Raisi and his delegation as soon as possible,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a post on the social media platform X.

The Iran-backed militant group Hamas, fighting Israeli forces in Gaza with Tehran’s support, issued a statement expressing sympathy to the Iranian people for “this immense loss”. Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the Houthi rebels in Yemen also issued statements praising Raisi and mourning his death.

Raisi was a hardliner who formerly led the country’s judiciary. He was viewed as a protege of Khamenei, and some analysts had suggested that he could replace the 85-year-old leader.

He won Iran’s 2021 presidential election, for which the turnout was the lowest in the Islamic Republic’s history. Raisi was under sanctions by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

Under Raisi, Iran enriched uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels and hampered international inspections. Iran has supplied arms to Russia in its war on Ukraine, and launched a substantial drone and missile attack on Israel. It continues to arm proxy groups in the Middle East, such as the Houthi rebels and Hezbollah.

Mass protests in the country have raged for years. The most recent involved the death in 2022 of Mahsa Amini, a woman who had been detained for allegedly not wearing a hijab to the liking of authorities.

The months-long security crackdown that followed the demonstrations killed more than 500 people and more than 22,000 were detained.

Reuters contributed to this report

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Red Notice: Putin is Nearby




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By Dr Chidi Amuta

Putin is nearby. Precisely, Russia’s ambitious global influencer of illiberal  order has docked next door. In Niger Republic to be exact. At the end of April, the military junta in Niger kicked out the American military advisers and tiny troop contingent from their country. Earlier, they had forced the U.S drone and surveillance base in Agadez to shut down. As part of a halfhearted diplomatic move to repair military relations with Niger, an American delegation went to hold talks with the regime in Niamey.

Almost on the same day, officials of the junta were reportedly showing a Russian military advance party around what used to be the American military base. The intent was obvious. The Russians were in the process of being handed the keys of what used to be a US base or at least preparing the grounds for an active security relationship with Moscow. Though the janitors are yet to hand over the keys of the former US base to the Russians, the signals are clear.

Earlier on, the military junta in Niger had chased away the French ambassador to the country, thus ending centuries of French influence in the country. Of course, the military dictators were towing the same line as their colleagues in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. A rushed end to French presence and influence in these former French colonies has since become the central foreign policy doctrine of the new autocrats in what used to be Francophone West Africa.

Official Moscow is still predictably silent on its intentions. But what is clear is Moscow’s preparations to replace the West, specifically the United State and France as the strategic influence in Niger Republic and its environs. And with the exit of both French and American military presence in Niger, the door has been thrown wide open for their replacement by Russia. Of course Russia’s interest in Africa especially West and Central Africa has never been disguised in recent times.

Prior to the demise of the bullish Yevgeny Prigozyn and the decline of his Wagner mercenary force, Russian commercial and security presence in these parts of Africa had been quite pronounced but diplomatically muted. Now what began as an expeditionary mercenary commercial interest is about to graduate into a full blown strategic military and security presence and interest from Moscow.

The presence of US troops and the drone base coupled with the presence of a French protection force in West Africa remained  for a long time part of the international arrangement to keep jihadist terrorists from drifting towards the south of West Africa. Countries like Nigeria were prime beneficiaries of the US presence in Niger. It was more importantly part of an international strategic engagement to barricade the region from a rampaging Jihadist onslaught from the Sahel.

This logic of containment and protection remained the major plank of Western influence remained valid until the rapid reduction of French presence and influence in the region by new military regimes. It all began with Mali which had earlier evicted French diplomats from Bamako. This was followed by the withdrawal of French protection troops from Mali and subsequently the other major West African former French territories now under military dictatorship: Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and possibly Chad.

There a historical context to Russia’s residual appeal in parts  of Africa. Instructively, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world was gripped by anxiety. On March 2nd, the UN General Assembly voted on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of the 54 African member states, 28 voted against Russia while 17 abstained and 8 refused to show up. Towards Russia or more precisely the old Soviet Union, some nostalgia among an ageing generation of elite.

Many of these older African elite recall the days of the Cold War and the old USSR’s identification with Africa’s causes especially anti colonialism and anti Apartheid. Ideological nostalgia towards the Red Empire is strongest in places like Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa where political parties that pioneered the independence and anti racist struggles were backed by the old Soviet Union.

At the present time, Russian influence in Africa remains sporadic and uncoordinated but cannot be ignored as a significant part of the strategic future of the continent. In 2019, the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi was attended by 43 African countries. It was a forum for Mr. Putin to critique the West’s policies towards Africa.

Nonetheless, Russia’s trade with Africa is only 2% of Africa’s goods trade with the rest of the world. A Russian bank VEB now under Western sanctions is a shareholder in the African Development Bank. Even then, Russia’s economic and military interest and roles in some African fragile states remains considerable. Russia is the largest arms supplier to African countries, a net extractor of mineral and other resources and a prop for fragile even if unpopular regimes. But with all its noisy presence in world affairs, Russia remains an unlikely agent of economic benefit for African countries.

The Russian economy is about the size of that of Italy. So, Russia is not in a position to act as an attractive agent of development in Africa. Russia is still a relatively poor country. Its companies playing in the African economic theatre are most extractive industry interlopers and state sponsored thieving entities. Russian infrastructure companies are still not interested in contracts in African countries. African tourist and business travel interests in Russia is next to zero. So, by and large any renewed Russian interest in parts of Africa will remain a matter of limited mutual convenience. Security assistance in return for opportunities for Russian rogue companies to come in and make some quick cash while the Russian state increases its foothold  and authoritarian leverage against the Western liberal order.

For Nigeria, the implications of the exit of two major Western powers from our immediate northern frontier are many and far reaching. Nigeria’s exposure in this regard are threefold. First, the security safe corridor  against jihadist terrorist expansion from the Sahel is instantly closed. Without American drones, intelligence and French troops on the ground, Nigeria is exposed. Our national security is further compromised. The jihadists are now free to roam free from centres in Niger into the troubled northern parts of Nigeria.

Secondly, the military presence of Russia in Niger and other parts of what used to be French West Africa immediately signals a decline of Western influence in the region and its replacement with an antithetical Russian influence. Russian security presence and strategic influence in an area now under military dictatorship effectively means the shrinking of the frontiers of freedom and democratic rule and its replacement with an authoritarian influence. Russian is not known to be a patron of democracy and freedom anywhere in the world. It cannot possibly export what it does not have at home.

Hidden under the above two meanings is a clear and present threat to Western influence in West Africa. The timing of this development in world history is fortuitous. We are in an era where the Cold War has been replaced by an increasing hemispheric war of nerves and rhetoric between Western democracies as we have come to know them and a rising authoritarian counter force. The counter force is being guaranteed by the growing influence and fortunes of China.  Russia, North Korea, Iran and other client states of the same ilk are taking shelter under China’s bloated bank accounts to keep the West uncomfortable.

Nigeria’s political response to the developments in Niger have shown little of an enlightened national self interest. At the time the coupists toppled Niger’s democratic government, Nigeria was in a position to prevent the coup and its nasty consequences. Former president Buhari had a close personal relationship with the democratic leadership in Niger.

Even after Buhari’s tenure, his successor Mr. Tinubu woefully failed to use his position as the new Chairman of ECOWAS to neutralize the coup in Niger. Nigeria was in an eminent position to use its economic and military preponderance in the region to stifle the Niger coupists. We failed.

A few tepid diplomatic threats and fickle sanctions failed to deter the dictatorship in Niamey. The junta got stronger, compared notes with those in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. They got stronger together and became a threat to ECOWAS from which they threatened a pullout. ECOWAS solidarity was broken. The bloc buckled. Its military weakness was on open display as they could neither effect an ultimatum to use force if necessary. Individual member nations reached out to the Niger and other dictators and made individual deals.

Nigeria’s resolve was broken. We shamefully restored electricity supply to Niger, lifted our limited and effete sanctions. And now the Niger junta has dug in and has admitted a potential destabilizing force into our immediate northern frontier. By creating room for the exit of the West from Niger and the tacit admission of Russian influence into the region, Nigeria has shot itself in the foot.

There is something more frightening in our political response to this development. The possibility that the United States and France could decide to pitch tent in Nigeria by negotiating military basing footholds here is far fetched. But even then, it is being opposed vehemently by some politicians instead of being welcomed enthusiastically.

In Nigerian political circles, the debate has been as to whether Nigeria should allow France and the United States to establish military bases in its territory. As is typical in our lazy politics of sectarianism, regionalism and divisiveness, the most eloquent voices of opposition to possible Western military bases in Nigeria have come from northern political voices. This is not only sad but also not backed by any iota of strategic insight and knowledge of basic national interests.

Ironically, the North is the region immediately exposed to the consequences of the withdrawal of Western forces from Niger. It has become the epicenter of national insecurity and instability of the kind associated with increasing jihadist activities. It is the home base of banditry. It is a free market for the spread of small and medium arms from the theatres of trouble in the Sahel, Northern Africa and the Middle East. It is the area where schools are being sacked and farming disrupted. It is the source of herdsmen turned into killers, armed robbers and kidnappers.

More pointedly, there is nothing that says that should Nigeria consider it strategically wise, Western military bases in the country must be located in any particular zone of the country. Such bases can be located anywhere in the country. And they often have collateral economic benefits to the host communities as in places like Djibouti, South Korea and Germany where US military bases are part of the local economic life.

In the world of modern technology, possible Western military bases can be located anywhere in the country. Advanced intelligence gathering and surveillance systems now allow major world powers to gather intelligence, order operations and manage military outcomes from virtually anywhere. The drones that decimated Al Queda in Afghanistan and Pakistan emanated from drone command bases in the deserts of far away Nevada. Donald Trump ordered the drone assassination of Iran’s General Soliman at Baghdad airport from the comfort of the Oval Office in far away Washington.

The long term strategic and overall national interest of Nigeria are better served if we rise above petty regional narrow views of the developments unfolding in our Northern frontier. First, we need to protect the nation from the spread of jihadist insurgency and terrorism. We need to remain enlisted in the international effort to defeat Jihadist terrorism decisively. We need to protect freedom and democratic rule as a heritage after more than four decades of military dictatorship in our history. Consequentially, we need to act in concert with the rest of the free world to discourage Russia’s active promotion and tacit marketing of authoritarianism and anti democratic ideas around the world.

Incidentally, among the salesmen of authoritarianism in the world, Russia is handicapped. Unlike China, Russia is neither an agent of economic development nor a model of cultural inclusiveness and universalism. Few free and happy people want to make Moscow their preferred holiday or business travel destination.

Dr. Amuta, a Nigerian journalist, intellectual and literary critic, was previously a senior lecturer in literature and communications at the universities of Ife and Port Harcourt.

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