For years, Turkey and Qatar were at the vanguard of the western imperial project in the Middle East. Having had their fingers burnt in Syria, however, they are now refusing to facilitate Washington’s Iran plans – and paying the price.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May last year – his first foreign trip as President – was significant for two main reasons: first, the $110 billion arms deal it produced, and secondly, the regional blockade of Qatar it heralded – widely seen as having been greenlighted by Trump during his visit. The impact of the blockade – implemented by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – was, however, immediately mitigated by increased trade with Iran and Turkey in particular, limiting its overall impact.
This month’s attack on the Turkish economy, however, has had far more devastating results. Trump’s tweet on Friday August 10th – announcing a doubling of steel and aluminium tariffs on an economy already hit hard by his trade war – sent the Turkish currency into freefall. By the end of the day’s trading, it had lost 16% of its value, reaching a nadir of 7.2 to the dollar two days later; before his tweet, it had never fallen below 6 to the dollar. Trump’s move came on the back of Federal Reserve policies that were already threatening to provoke financial crises in over-indebted emerging markets such as Turkey. These are harsh punishments for countries long considered prime US allies in the region.
A NATO member since 1952 (following Turkish involvement in the Korean war on the side of the US), Turkey has hosted a major US airbase at Incirlik since 1954, essential to US operations in the region, and even housed the US nuclear missiles which triggered the Cuban missile crisis. Incirlik was crucial to the US-UK terror bombing of Iraq in 1991, and, although the Turkish parliament narrowly prevented its use for the 2003 redux, Turkey has been the launchpad for subsequent US strikes both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Qatar, meanwhile, is, to this day, run by the family – the al-Thanis – appointed as Britain’s proxies in the nineteenth century. Granted formal independence only in 1971, the country has remained deeply tied into western foreign policy since then. Both its ‘post-independence’ rulers were educated at the UK’s Sandhurst military academy, and it, like Turkey, hosts a major US base, whilst it’s ruling family, like those of the other Gulf monarchies, are dependent on western arms transfers to maintain their power. In 2011, Qatar played a major role in NATO’s Libya operation, providing airstrikes, military training, $400million of funding to insurgent groups, and even ground forces – not to mention the major propaganda role played by the Qatari-owned network Al Jazeera.
Then, in mid-2011, both countries threw themselves headlong into the war to overthrow the Syrian government. Turkish president Erdogan had previously enjoyed relatively warm relations with his Southern neighbour, but at some stage decided that the western-backed rebellion was going to win, and he wanted in on it. Turkey’s collaboration was crucial for the London-Washington Syria project, not only to give it a semblance of regional legitimacy, but more importantly because its 800km border with the country was to be the conduit for the tens of thousands of armed fighters on which the insurgency would depend.
Unwilling – and, following the decimation of their armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, probably unable – to provide the ground forces necessary to destroy the Syrian Arab Army themselves, the ‘regime-change regimes’ of the west relied on states like Qatar and Turkey to act as intermediaries – to facilitate weapons transfers, provide finance and smooth the passage of foreign fighters. Both states, heady with the prospects of the economic and geopolitical rewards that would follow Assad’s removal, and believing their own networks’ fantasies about an imminent collapse, were more than happy to act as accomplices. Over the years that followed, the resources they committed – and the devastation that resulted – were immense. In the case of Turkey, in particular, the spillover would prove disastrous.
Less than three years into the war, the International Crisis Group estimated that Turkey had spent $3billion on the war on Syria. Yet this figure, high as it is, represents a fraction of the true costs involved. A detailed report in Newsweek in 2015 noted the huge increase in military spending following the start of the Syria war, rising from $17 billion per year in 2010, to $22.6 billion in 2014, an increase of 25%. Furthermore, Turkey has been the first port of call for millions of Syrians fleeing the war. This alone had cost the country an estimated $8billion by 2015. Added to this, the report says, are the ‘collateral costs’ resulting from the deterioration of relations with Russia following Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015, which it estimated could be as high as $3.7 billion due to lost Russian tourism, investment and trade. Trade with Syria, of course, also slumped by “70 percent as a direct effect from the Syrian war,” from $1.8billion worth of exports in 2010 to $497 million two years later. In place of this legitimate trade – much of it in energy resources – however, came a flourishing new illicit trade. This new trade imposed “an additional cost to the Turkish economy: a growing, untaxed, hard-to-control black market economy. To combat its effect on government revenue, Turkey’s Energy Market Regulatory Agency declared an increase in inspections and control mechanisms in Turkey.” Ultimately, however, the government opted to facilitate, rather than attempt to control, this burgeoning black market, issuing in April 2015 “new border regulations that enabled Turkey to open its borders to uncontrolled cash inflow and remittances. According to the new law, travelers no longer had to declare transported currency or profit amounts at the customs booth.” This policy would, noted former governor of Turkey’s central bank Durmus Yilmaz, “attract black money to flow into Turkey.”
“In sum”, concluded the report, “as Turkey incrementally left its prior foreign policy agenda of “Zero Problems with Neighbors” and moved towards an Assad-centric policy, the costs imposed on its economy multiplied. This can be observed directly from the refugee costs, military spending, border security costs and the changing composition of trade volume and quality of liquidity flows in the economy.” Furthermore, “The data suggest…that the more aggressive Turkey gets in its Syria policy in terms of military involvement, the more aggressively these costs rise.” Erdogan’s enthusiastic collaboration with the regime-changers in Washington and London had crippled his country’s economy – not to mention spawning a new era of sectarian militancy in the form of ISIS, which would launch multiple terror attacks within Turkey itself.
Being far removed from the conflict, the Syrian war’s impact on Qatar was not nearly as severe. Nevertheless, Qatar, too, pumped billions into the insurgency: noted the Financial Times in 2013, “The gas-rich state of Qatar has spent as much as $3bn over the past two years supporting the rebellion in Syria, far exceeding any other government” It added that “Qatar has sent the most weapons deliveries to Syria, with more than 70 military cargo flights into neighbouring Turkey between April 2012 and March this year,” showing clearly the division of labour between Qatari finance and Turkish logistics.
Turkey and Qatar have thus put themselves right at the forefront of western efforts to overthrow the Syrian state. To date, however – other than an ever-growing pile of burnt Syrian corpses and a huge hole in their own finances – they have nothing to show for it.
In hindsight, the Turkish downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 can be seen as a last-ditch attempt to test the resolve, not of Russia, but of the west. Erdogan wanted to know whether or not the US was going to put their money where their mouth was and put some decisive muscle into the conflict. In the escalation that followed the attack, Turkey immediately put forward plans for a ‘no fly zone’ – euphemism for the sort of all-out aerial bombardment that befell Libya. But nothing came of it. That was the moment Turkey realised the west were not about to commit anything like the resources necessary to actually bring about victory. Assad was here to stay. Turkey would have to deal with that. And that meant dealing with Russia. The slow realignment of Turkish foreign policy had begun. And earlier this year, with tails no doubt firmly between their legs, even Qatar re-established relations with the Syrian government.
So when Trump came knocking for buyers for the west’s next brilliant idea – war on Iran, beginning with a brutal economic siege – neither Turkey nor Qatar were exactly chomping at the bit to sign up. The suggestion was even less appealing than the disastrous Syria gambit, targeting an even more important trading partner, and with even less chance of influence over some mythical future government. Qatar shares a major gas field – South Pars – with Iran, and is dependent on Iran for accessing eastern energy markets, whilst Iran is the major source of Turkish energy imports. Following Syria, neither country has much nose left to cut off, even if they had wanted to spite their own face. Trump’s merciless attack on their economies is yet another sign of the increasing US inability to bend once-pliable clients to its will. For all his bluster, it is a clear admission of weakness and failure.
This piece was originally published on RT.com
Trump is using everything he’s got to wage economic war on Iran. His problem is that ‘everything he’s got’ is not nearly enough, as the virtual monopoly power once wielded by the US has long since evaporated.
Last week, a senior State Department official announced the US’ intention to cut Iranian oil exports “to zero” by November 4th this year, by threatening to impose sanctions on any company still trading beyond that date. Brian Hook, director of policy planning at the State Department, told reporters on July 2nd that “Our goal is to increase pressure on the Iranian regime by reducing to zero its revenue on crude oil sales”.
Hitherto, experts had predicted US sanctions would see a reduction of around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) by the end of the year – barely one fifth of the country’s current export of 2.4 million bpd. Even the sanctions that preceded the 2015 nuclear deal – which, unlike today’s unilateral effort, were supported by a broad alliance of world powers, including Russia and China – only succeeded in removing half Iran’s oil (1.2m bdp) from the market.
Hook reassured the world that “We are confident there is sufficient global spare oil capacity”, claiming Saudi Arabia alone could produce an additional 2 million bpd. Saudi Arabia and Russia have already agreed to increase production by 1 million bpd reversing the production quotas imposed in the wake of the oil price slump in 2016.
This determination to destroy Iran by any means necessary has, of course, been the Trump administration’s signature foreign policy since day one, with almost every member of his team harbouring a long-held and well documented vendetta against the Islamic Republic. What is new with Trump, however, is not this determination as such – let’s not forget that Iran has been on the official Pentagon hitlist since at least 2001 – as the means used to pursue it. As I argued in 2014, the nuclear deal was not, on the part of the west, a genuine rapprochement so much as a long term programme of western infiltration, based on the ‘Libya model’, aimed at building a pro-imperialist fifth column within the Iranian state in order to prepare the ground for ‘regime change’ in the future. The Trump team, of course, has no patience for the long game, and want to simply cut to the chase. The reason for this obsession with destroying Iran – shared by all factions of the western ruling class, despite their differences over means – is obvious: Iran’s very existence as an independent state threatens imperial control of the region – which in turns underpins both US military power and the global role of the dollar. And as South-South cooperation continues to develop, this threat grows every day, whilst the means to diminish it are reduced by the same measure.
At the same time, the US military encirclement of China – begun in earnest as Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, but, like so much else, undergoing major escalation under Trump – is intimately linked to a policy of cutting off China from its suppliers. In this sense, a policy of ‘isolating’ of Iran is aimed at isolating China also, as China is the largest market for Iranian crude.
Trump’s policy, however, is likely to get few buyers. Pepe Escobar has explained the likely response to Trump’s plans from each of Iran’s top customers: “India will buy Iranian oil with rupees. China also will be totally impervious to the Trump administration’s command. Sinopec, for instance, badly needs Iranian oil for new refineries in assorted Chinese provinces, and won’t stop buying. Turkey’s Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci has been blunt: “The decisions taken by the United States on this issue are not binding for us.” He added that: “We recognize no other [country’s] interests other than our own.” Iran is Turkey’s number-one oil supplier, accounting for almost 50% of total imports. Russia won’t back down from its intention to invest $50 billion in Iran’s energy infrastructure.. And Iraq won’t abandon strategic energy cooperation with Iran. Supply chains rule; Baghdad sends oil from Kirkuk to a refinery in Kermanshah in Iran, and gets refined Iranian oil for southern Iraq.”
With European companies likely to be more nervous about insubordination to US diktat, this merely leaves more tantalising investments open to Russian and Chinese companies. As Philip K. Verleger noted, “It’s a huge opportunity for China and Russia to cement relationships with Iran”.
At the same time, all this activity and uncertainty is bound to push oil prices higher, meaning that any reductions in export quantities may well be compensated by increased revenues.
Trump’s attempts to persuade the rest of the world to cut off its nose to spite its face, then, are likely to all on deaf ears. It is in this light that Trump’s igniting of a global trade war must be seen.
At midnight on July 5th, US tariffs on $34billion worth of Chinese imports went into effect, at a rate of 25%. Trump told reporters that tariffs on a further $16 billion worth were likely to follow in two weeks, fulfilling a pledge made in April to slap tariffs on 1300 products totalling $50 billion annually. These tariffs were designed to target the Chinese aerospace, tech and machinery industries, as well as medical equipment, medicine and educational material. The final total, however, he added, could eventually reach $550 billion – “a figure”, noted Industry Week, “that exceeds all of U.S. goods imports from China in 2017”. These China-specific tariffs follow tariffs on steel (25%) and aluminium (10%) imports imposed on the EU, Mexico and Canada four days earlier.
According to Fox Business, Canada stands to lose around $2billion per year as a result of these tariffs, with Brazil, Russia, China and South Korea each set to lose at least $500 million annually.
But this may be precisely the point: not only to ‘bring jobs back to the US’, but also to create new forms of leverage to be used against rivals and allies (and is there really a distinction between the two anyway these days?) alike. So far, of course, Trump has famously refused to offer waivers to his allies. But with Trump, nothing is forever – everything is leverage, to be played and bartered as seen fit. Could it be, then, that waivers may yet be offered to countries who manage to wean themselves off Iranian oil by the November deadline? And even if not, the very willingness to use trade as a weapon so openly and brazenly is a reminder that there may be further punishments on the way for those who do not toe the line on the strangulation of Iran. After all, as Louis Kuijs, chief economist at Oxford Economics, has pointed out, this ‘new era’ has only just begun: “Clearly the first salvos have been exchanged,” he said, “and in that sense, the trade war has started. There is no obvious end to this”.
Nevertheless, Trump’s bark may yet be well worse than his bite. For on thing, the counter-measures employed by the Chinese – a reciprocal 25% tariff on $50billion of US goods – will hit the US hard. One product subject to the new tariff, for example, is soybeans. China is the market for 25% of all soybeans grown in the US. Grant Kimberley, a soybean farmer with the Iowa Soybean Association, estimates that this tariff alone could lead to a 70% drop in exports.
But even, even apart from the Chinese counter-measures, the US-imposed tariffs themselves are likely to hurt the US as much as China. A report on NPR suggests that “for now, the blows are threatening to land hardest on non-Chinese companies like New Jersey-based Snow Joe/Sun Joe”, which – like so many other US companies, relies on Chinese imports for crucial parts of its supply chain. And in the end, of course, all of these increased costs will be passed on to the US consumer, directly depressing their real wages.
For China, however, the impact is likely to be – in the words of Ethan Harris, head of economic research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – “quite small”. Industry Week noted that whilst “In the past, the U.S. used its economic clout to win trade skirmishes with developing countries… China, whose economy has grown tenfold since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, poses a much more formidable adversary.” James Boughton, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, told the site that “The dynamic is different from anything we’ve seen. China has an ability to ride out this kind of pressure, to weather the storm, that a lot of countries didn’t have in the past.”
Indeed, Trump has already been forced into retreat in some areas, given the likely repercussions. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group consultancy, told CBS that “Trump backed off a couple weeks ago on implementing what would have been significant measures against them. You’re familiar with the Chinese telecom firm ZTE. They were going to be made bankrupt by White House regulations what were being put in place. Trump himself intervened with a tweet saying, we don’t want to lose all of those Chinese jobs… [Trump] knows that China can hit back really hard and they can hit back in a targeted way against red states, against American farmers. So I would be very surprised if we saw significant escalation as opposed to significant rhetoric before elections in the U.S. in November, which is what we’re really talking about here.” Other possible Chinese retaliatory measures include limits on exports of rare-earth metals, essential for technologies such as smartphones, and of course the zero-option of dumping its holdings of US treasuries (although this would not be without serious pain to itself of course).
So the idea that trade war will somehow pressure China (and others) to dump Iran seems ultimately fanciful. The process of ‘delinking’ has already gone too far. China is already Iran’s biggest trading partner, and – with Chinese tariffs on US oil looming – is more likely to increase Iranian imports to replace that no longer coming from the US rather than vice versa. Iran already sells its oil to China in yuan, rather than US dollars, meaning that the entire US-controlled financial system is completely circumvented for the countries’ bilateral trade, and therefore outside the control of US-imposed financial sanctions. Looking forward, Iran is set to play a crucial role in the development of China’s mega Belt and Road Initiative, with a high speed railway planned to provide sea access to landlocked central Asia. And with French oil giant Total’s planned investment in the massive South Pars oil field in jeopardy, the contract is likely to now go to a Chinese company.
Economics professor Danny Quah noted back in 2009 that the dependence of China on US markets tended to be greatly overestimated in the west. By 2006, only 20% of Chinese exports were to the USA, with a far higher proportion going elsewhere in East Asia. In 2013, the US was not even the largest single customer for Chinese goods (it came second to Hong Kong). By 2o15, only 18% of Chinese exports were to the US; with almost half (48.5%) going elsewhere in Asia, 19.9% to Europe, 4.2% to Latin America, and 4.1% to Africa. In other words, the global South accounted for more Chinese exports than US and Europe combined. And, as is becoming clearer by the day, US and Europe are not combined.
According to the CIA’s world factbook, Chinese exports in total represent just under 20% of GDP. If we do the maths, then – 20% of 20% – it turns out that just 4% of Chinese GDP comes from exports to the US. Significant, but hardly the economic gun to the head that Trump seems to believe.
The days when loss of market access to the US meant oblivion for countries like China are long gone. The future now lies in South-South cooperation precisely along the lines of the multibillion Belt and Road Initiative. The US government understand that, and their attempts to simultaneously sabotage both China and Iran are last-ditch attempts to prevent the inevitable – further delinking, and a global economy in which the US is becoming increasingly peripheral. But the truth is, this effort is already too late.
This article originally appeared on RT.com
Trump’s attack on the Turkish lira, combined with recent Federal Reserve moves to choke off dollar supply, are pushing the world towards a rerun of the 1997 currency crisis. This may well be the whole point.
Last Friday, Donald Trump announced new sanctions on Turkey – comprising a doubling of the steel and aluminium tariffs he had introduced earlier this year. Turkey’s currency was already struggling, but these new sanctions “are the straw that broke the camel’s back”, commented Edward Park of the UK investment management firm Brooks Macdonald. The same day, the Turkish lira fell to more than 6 to the dollar, the first time it had ever done so, hitting a low point of 7.21 to the dollar on Sunday. Following Turkish caps on currency swaps, it slightly regained some of its lost value, and was trading at 6.12 by Wednesday, still way below the 4.75 to the dollar it was worth last week. Whilst the Turkish move has had some effect, this should not be overstated: simply banning the trading of lira above certain limits, which is effectively what Turkey has done, is hardly a sustainable means of revalorising the currency; andaccording to the FT, investors “are still ratcheting up bets against Turkey in other ways, such as through credit default swaps that pay out in the case of a debt default”. Turkish bank shares now stand at their lowest level since 2003.
Underlying the currency’s vulnerability are the country’s massive dollar debts. Turkish companies now owe almost $300 billion in foreign-denominated debt, a figure which stands at over half its GDP. The question is – how did this happen, and why has it suddenlynow become a problem?
During the era of Quantitative Easing, the US Federal Reserve flooded US financial institutions with $3.5trillion in new dollars, much of which poured into so-called ‘emerging markets’ such as Turkey. So long as the music kept playing, this was fine – near-zero interest rates, combined with a weak dollar, made these debts affordable. But since the Federal Reserve ended its programme of QE last year – and then started to reverse it, selling off the financial assets it had purchased (and thus effectively taking dollars out of the financial system) – the dollar’s value has started to rise again, making debt repayments less affordable. This appreciation of the dollar has been compounded by two successive interest rate rises by the Reserve; but it has also been compounded by Trump’s actions. Paradoxically, Trump’s trade wars have led to a further rise in the dollar, as investors have viewed it as a ‘safe haven’ compared to other currencies deemed less able to withstand the unpredictable turbulence he has unleashed. Even the yen and the Swiss franc, traditionally viewed as ‘good as gold’ have weakened against the dollar – as, indeed, has gold itself. As Aly-Khan Satchu, financial analyst at Rich Management, has put it the “US dollar has been weaponised – either deliberately or by design” (is there a difference?), adding that the “dollar is basically knee-capping countries”, warning that other countries will face the same treatment “if they continue to pursue the policies that Erdogan is seeking to pursue”.
Thus Turkey has been hit by a quadruple whammy by the US – interest rate hikes and the choking off of dollars from the Fed; tariffs and sanctions from Trump. The result is a loss in the lira’s value of almost 40% since the start of the year.
And the effects are already being felt far beyond Turkey’s borders; the South African rand fell to a two-year low on Monday, and the Indian rupee, Mexican peso and Indonesian rupiah have all been hard hit. This is unsurprising, as the ballooning of dollar-denominated debts – from $2trillion 15 years ago to $9trillion today, largely in the global South – combined with the reversal of QE was a crisis waiting to happen. All the conditions which prefigured the 1997 East Asian currency crisis are now effectively in place. All that’s needed is a push – which is exactly what Trump has just given.
This is textbook stuff – or should be, if economics textbooks bore any relation to reality (which they don’t). The last ten years are virtually an exact replay of the decade or so running up to the 1997 crisis. Whilst the 1985 ‘Plaza Accord’ dollar devaluation was not exactly Quantitative Easing, it had the same intent and results – a flood of cheap money and dollar debt, and therefore growing global dependence on the dollar and vulnerability to US monetary and economic policy. This vulnerability was then effectively ‘cashed in’ with the ‘reverse Plaza accord’ ten years later, which, as with the current reversal of QE, choked off credit and ramped up interest rates, making markets more jumpy and bankruptcies more likely. In the end, the trigger was the collapse of the baht – the currency of a country (Thailand) with a GDP half that of Turkey – which spiralled into a crisis that ultimately spread across all of Asia, sabotaging the continent’s development and allowing US corporations to buy up some of the most advanced industrial plant in the world for a fraction of its value.
It is not hard, then, to see why Trump and the Fed might well wish to trigger such a crisis today. The more the currencies of dollar-indebted countries slide, the more real goods and services they have to pay in tribute to the US to service the same paper-dollar debts – whilst those who cannot keep up will be gobbled up for pennies on the dollar. Yet beyond these purely economic gains lies also the geopolitical imperative – to maintain and extend US domination by scuppering its rivals. Trump is, after all, about nothing if not the conversion of all possible means of power into leverage to obliterate his opponents. Forcing one country after another to the brink of bankruptcy – and therefore to the IMF for a bailout – is a means of cashing in the dollar-dependency built up over the past decade into raw power. One can easily imagine the demands the US might make in return for its support in securing an IMF bailout – end oil imports from Iran, discontinue involvement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative… the potential is vast. Already direct threats are being made against Turkey about ‘what it needs to do’ to ‘reassure the markets’ – the Times on Tuesday, for example, demanding that “Erdogan should end his spat with the West if he wants to avert a deeper crisis…his course of action should be clear: he should raise interest rates [that is, promise a bigger cut of the Turkish economy to international currency speculators], heed competent economists, explicitly guarantee the independence of the central bank [that is, remove it from democratic oversight], and make up with President Trump” – as, after all, “US support will be needed if the IMF of World Bank is to step in”. Indeed, the targeting of Turkey may well be a response to Erdogan’s insubordination in relation to Iran: noted Robert Fisk this week, “Erdogan is helping Iran to dodge US sanctions which were imposed after Trump flagrantly tore up the 2015 nuclear agreement, and – in a decision demonstrating the cowardly response of the EU’s own oil conglomerates to Trump’s insanity – has announced that he will continue to import Iranian oil. Thus will Washington’s further threat of increased oil sanctions against Iran be blunted.” Trump may well hope – as I argued recently – that tariffs can serve as a weapon to bring recalcitrant states back in line with his Iran policy.
Indeed, it is here that the false dichotomy between the ‘globalists’ and the ‘economic nationalists’ in the Trump White House – and the country at large – is, once again, exposed. When it comes to pushing the global South into bankruptcy, their interests are perfectly aligned. However much Goldman Sachs’ press releases may cry wolf about Trump’s tariffs, the reality is that the trade war is the icing on the cake of the Fed’s own policy of squeezing the ‘emerging markets’. Indeed, Wall st depends on precisely the kind of financial instability which Trump’s trade wars have triggered. As Peter Gowan has noted, “the US economy depends…upon constantly reproduced international monetary and financial turbulence” – while Wall St in particular “depends upon chaotic instabilities in ‘emerging market’ financial systems.” But by draping these actions in the flag, and parading them alongside a chorus of pseudo-shock from the ‘globalists’, their true nature is obscured. The global South now stands on the precipice – with ‘establishment liberals’ and ‘nationalist insurgents’ alike lining up to give them a shove.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on RT.com
Since the earliest days on the campaign trail, it has never been in doubt who Trump and his team have had in their sights. “Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests,” Defence Secretary Mattis told his Senate confirmation hearing, having previously claimed the country posed a bigger security threat than either ISIS or Al Qaeda. Mike Pence called Iran the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” whilst new National Security Advisor John Bolton has for years called for Iran to be bombed. Trump himself, in his own little remix of Pence’s phrase, has called Iran “The Number One State of Sponsored Terror”, which presumably means something derogatory.
China, of course, was famously accused of “raping our country” by Trump in 2016, whilst White House aide Peter Navarro claimed the country was waging “economic aggression” against the US. Former National Security Advisor Steve Bannon announced this week that “we are at war with China”.
Iran and China, then, have been favoured rhetorical targets since day one – but this year that rhetoric has morphed into all-out economic warfare. This month alone, Trump has unleashed tariffs on $60 billion of Chinese goods, threatened to do so on $500billion more, and announced his intention to cut Iranian oil exports to zero by November. These weapons of financial destruction are openly aimed at crippling and sabotaging China and Iran in order to stymie their development and bring them to their knees. Yet at the same time as this is happening, the leader of Iran and China’s major geopolitical ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has continued to be courted and flattered by Trump. What is going on?
On the face of it, these hostile acts against two of Russia’s key allies have, as one might expect, been condemned by Putin’s government. Prior to Trump’s May announcement that he would intended to violate the Iranian nuclear deal by restoring sanctions, the Kremlin warned of “harmful consequences” should he do so. And following the recent Helsinki summit between the two leaders, Putin continued to back the deal (albeit on the grounds of limiting Iranian sovereignty rather than defending it) stating that “The Russian position remains unchanged regarding the Iranian nuclear program, and we believe that the JCPOA is an instrument that makes it possible to guarantee the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in general and in the region in particular,” adding that the deal had turned Iran into one of the most heavily IAEA-monitored countries in the world. Russia similarly denounced the tariffs slapped on China earlier this month.
Yet, behind the rhetorical opposition, Russian actions are facilitating Trump’s aggression. Following 18 months of oil production cuts agreed by Russia and Saudi Arabia in 2016, which had successfully raised oil prices out of the slump into which they had fallen, Russia last month proposed an unexpected and immediate reversal of this policy. The low oil prices which had plagued oil markets before the 2016 cuts were agreed had caused huge problems for producer countries such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, leading many to believe that the Saudis had been ordered by the US to flood the market in order to sabotage the economies of its geopolitical foes. The new production quotas, then, had given these countries some much-needed breathing space; yet, this June, Russia put forward a proposal to OPEC to increase production by 1.8million barrels per day (bpd) – and, unusually, proposed that these increases were to start kicking in within weeks. In the end, a pact to increase production by 1 million barrels per day – spearheaded by Russia and Saudi Arabia – was agreed by OPEC and non-OPEC countries in late June. The rise was opposed by Iran, Iraq, Venezuela and Algeria, with Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh commenting ahead of the meeting that “OPEC is not the organization to receive instruction from President Trump … OPEC is not part of the Department of Energy of the United States”.
Within days of the adoption of the Russian-led production increase, the Trump administration announced its plans to “reduce Iranian oil exports to zero” by November 4th. Questioned on whether such a policy might cause disruption as countries scrambled to replace supplies, State Department policy director Brian Hooks remarked that “we are confident there is sufficient global spare oil capacity.” Russia’s push for increased production had, in effect, smoothed the path for the next round of Trump’s strangulation of Iran. It was precisely this deal which lay behind Trump’s brazen claim that world oil supplies would plug the gap created by the loss of Iranian crude; without the end to Russian-Saudi production limits, this would have been unthinkable. As things stand, however, all the pieces are in place for Trump to apply serious pressure on all importers of Iranian oil. Whilst the Russian-Saudi deal offers alternative sources of supply, the trade war now underway demonstrates Trump’s willingness to use tariffs against those who do not bend to his geopolitical will. Whilst Trump has openly threatened sanctions against those who do not heed his call to end their dealings with Iran, it is quite possible that those who do heed it will be rewarded with tariff exemptions. China, in particular – Iran’s biggest trading partner, and now threatened with tariffs on all $500bilion of their exports to the US – will be particularly under pressure.
On the surface, then, Russia’s actions appear self-defeating. The end to the, hugely successful, production quotas of the previous 18 months immediately triggered a drop in oil prices – Russia’s main export commodity – whilst facilitating the escalation of US economic warfare against key Russian ally Iran. Yet there are several reasons Russia may be supporting Trump’s moves.
Most obviously, Iran is a major competitor with Russia for oil export markets – especially in Europe. European hopes to reduce dependence on Russian energy supplies are likely to be seriously dashed if they can no longer turn to Iran as an alternative supplier. Quite simply, Russia will sell more oil without Iranian competition.
More than this, however, even Trump’s use of tariffs as leverage to push countries away from Iran could be to Russia’s benefit. If Trump does indeed make tariff-free access to the US market conditional on cutting investment and trade with Iran, China would face a major dilemma.
China has for some years been not only Iran’s major trading partner, but investment financier as well. In 2011, China signed a $20 billion agreement to boost bilateral cooperation in Iran’s industrial and mining sectors. Today, China is poised to take over development of the massive South Pars oil and gas field should the French company TOTAL pull out, as they are widely expected to do, whilst a $3billion deal was recently signed giving SINOPEC the right to expand the Abadan oil refinery in Khuzestan Province. Meanwhile, reports Fox News, “With the U.S. Treasury putting pressure on Western banks to not make any deals with Iran, the Chinese state-owned CITIC bank is extending lines of credit worth $10 billion for Iranian banks. This funding will finance water, energy and transport projects. To bypass U.S. sanctions, the lines of credit will use euros and yuan currencies”.
But most significant for Russia is the 2017 $1.5 billion deal made by the Chinese Export-Import Bank to finance a high-speed railway between Tehran and Mashhad. The railway is envisioned to become part of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ , creating a high-speed transit route between central Asia and Europe that will shave weeks off current travel times.
This May – in a clear act of defiance to the US – China opened a new train line between China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Tehran, shortening travel time by 20 days compared to cargo ship. Once the full vision of a Chinese built high-tech, high-speed rail network across central Asia is realised, however, the current ‘Northern route’ through Russia is likely to be rendered all but redundant.
Could it be, then, that Russia sees it as in its own interests to facilitate Trump’s quest to chase Chinese investment out of Iran in order to preserve its trade routes and access to European oil markets?
If so, it is likely to be disappointed. For Iran is central not only to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s multi-trillion, multi-decade long ‘geoeconomic’ programme – but also to its defence strategy. As correctly observed in a recent piece published by The Diplomat, “Iran constitutes [China’s] true priority. China has nurtured bilateral relations with Tehran for decades, leveraging a common resentment toward Western dominance. This partnership has great geostrategic importance to both nations. Thanks to its oil and gas reserves, Iran could help Beijing withstand a U.S. attack on its SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication).”
For China, much as it naturally seeks to avoid further punishment from the US, Iran is simply too important to be bargained away. Unfortunately not so, it seems, for Moscow.
Originally published in Middle East Eye, July 2018
Things are escalating again in one of Syria’s many wars. Last Sunday, 29th April, two massive strikes – presumed by Israel – reportedly hit the Syrian Arab Army’s 47th Brigade military base and arms depots near Hama, as well as Nairab Military Airport in Aleppo. The attack, thought to have been carried out using powerful ‘bunker-buster’ missiles, created a fireball which could be seen for miles, and triggered a shock measuring 2.6 on the Richter scale, felt as far as Turkey and Lebanon. It is thought the strikes targeted Iranian surface-to-surface missiles intended for deployment in Syria, and killed 26 – 38 people, including 11 Iranians.
The attack appears to have been coordinated with the USA, coming just hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Jerusalem – where, according to Haaretz, he had “thrilled Netanyahu with hawkish talk on Iran”. That same day, noted the Times of Israel, “news also broke of a phone call between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump”, whilst Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was meeting his US counterpart James Mattis in Washington. This feverish activity came less than a week after “Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the US army’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, whose sphere of responsibility includes Syria and Iran, made a largely unpublicized visit to Israel.” The article concluded that “All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli-American operation to limit Iran’s military activities in Syria — simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia’s green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington.” The war on Iran, in other words, has begun.
In hindsight, it has been underway for some time. Israel has reportedly conducted over 100 airstrikes in Syria since 2011, but a stepchange occurred last July. On July 9th 2017, Russia and the US agreed on a de-escalation zone in Southwest Syria, which, according to Foreign Policy journal analyst Jonathan Spyer, Israel believed “could seriously complicate the de facto Israeli safeguards in place against Iranian infiltration of the border”. In the four months which followed this agreement, Israeli jets made over 750 incursions into Syrian airspace, an average of six per day, and totalling 3200 hours in the country. Clearly, some serious reconnaissance activity was taking place. Then on October 16th, Israeli jets struck a Russian-supplied S-200 air defense battery in the Damascus area. The attack took place during a meeting in Tel Aviv between the Israeli and Russian Defence Ministers, and was perhaps calculated to send a message to Syria that they can not rely on Russian protection.
Then, in January 2018, with the battle against IS almost won, Rex Tillerson announced new goals for the 2000 US troops in Syria, vowing that they would remain until “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.” This was followed in February by calls by the French foreign minister for Iran to ‘leave Syria’, and a warning from the International Crisis Group that Israel had “updated its red lines – signalling it would take matters into its own hands if necessary to keep Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria”.
Since then, Israel has moved from targeting Syrian army and Hezbollah convoys to the directly targeting of Iranian personnel and facilities.It’s shooting down of an Iranian drone on February 9th led to one of its own F-16s being downed by the Syrian army after it bombed the drone’s command centre, the first time an Israeli warplane had been shot down since the 1980s. Yet, in a very rare admission of responsibility, Israel still called the mission a success, claiming that between one third and one half of Syria’s air defences had been destroyed in the strikes.
Two months later, on April 9th, Israeli missiles again struck the same ‘T4’ military base they hit in February. The target this time, however, was specifically Iranian installations and equipment, and 14 Iranian soldiers were killed. According to one Israeli official, this was first time Israel had attacked ‘live Iranian targets’. It was also, apparently, the first time Israel had failed to inform Russia to provide advance warning of an upcoming strike, breaking the ‘de-confliction’ agreement made between Israel and Russia right at the start of Russian entry into the Syrian conflict in 2015.
Russia’s response was similarly unprecedented, with Russia immediately revealing Israel’s role in the attack, and Putin calling Netanyahu to warn him that Israel can no longer expect to be able to attack Syria with impunity. Then, following the US-UK-French airstrikes on Syria on 13th April, the chief of the Russian General Staff’s main operations directorate, Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy, floated the idea of providing Syria with the powerful Russian-made S300 air defence system. The S300, capable of tracking up to 100 targets simultaneously over a range of 200km, “would create a no-go situation for Israel if allowed to be made operational by the Syrian regime”, according to former US naval officer Jennifer Dyer, adding that “The kinds of low-level, preemptive strikes (in Syria) the IAF [Israeli Air Force] has executed in the last few years, against Hezbollah targets and the special weapons targets of Iran and the Assad regime, would become virtually impossible. Israel would lose the ability to preempt the ‘build-up’ to war ”. Russia had originally signed a contract with Syria to deliver the S300 system in 2010, but this was scrapped after pressure from Israel. But, on April 23rd, Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the decision to reverse that suspension and supply the S300 had now been made, with only the technical details left to iron out. Two days later, the Syrian embassy in Moscow claimed that the S300 had in fact already arrived a month ago and was being deployed. The Russian authorities immediately denied this, and reiterated that no final decision on whether or not to supply the S300 had in fact been taken. A few days later, the Israelis struck again, this time with their earth-shaking bunker busters, directly targeting Iranian troops and equipment for the second time. No S300, you see.
Media reports, both mainstream and alternative (my own included!), are increasingly nervous about the scenario now unfolding, and rightly so. Yet, whilst the danger of escalation and miscalculation – and specifically, the drawing in of Russia into the Israeli-Iranian conflict developing in Syria – remains real, many analysts have overstated the friction between Russia and Israel – and, indeed, the convergence of interests between Russia and Iran.
Despite both being opposed to western-backed regime change in Syria, Russian and Iranian objectives in the region are in fact very different. According to intelligence analysts Stratfor, “Russia’s strategic vision is chiefly focused on eliminating sources of instability and preventing U.S.-led military interventions”, with a “broader goal of establishing itself as an indispensable guarantor of collective security in the Middle East”. In Syria, therefore, the Russians have the “limited objective of ensuring that Assad controls enough territory to negotiate with Syrian opposition factions from a position of strength” in order to create a mediated, negotiated settlement, overseen and guaranteed by Russia.
The Iranians, however, are more focused on “containing Saudi Arabia’s power projection capacity across the Arab world”, leading to an “unwillingness to suspend military operations in Syria until Assad has completely vanquished opposition forces….Iran’s belief in the feasibility of a military solution in Syria has made it less willing than Russia to diplomatically engage with Syrian opposition or Kurdish factions during diplomatic negotiations, limiting the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership.” Furthermore, “Iran’s use of Syrian territory to create a permanent transit point of weaponry to Hezbollah has alarmed Russian policymakers who seek to preserve strong relations with Israel.”
From this point of view, far from seeking to protect Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Russia has a direct interest in restricting it. Israel’s strikes may thus serve a function for Russia, putting pressure on Iran to ‘rein in’ the activities Russia views as disruptive to its own aims. Furthermore, Russia may believe that the Iranian presence in Iran – as an alternative source of support for President Assad – makes the Syrian government itself less willing to sign up to Russia’s diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, on a very basic level, a reduced Iranian presence leaves Assad more thoroughly dependent on Russia – a point, no doubt, made by Netanyahu on at least one of his seven meetings with Putin over the last year. And anyway, a cynic might argue, now the rebellion has been all but quashed, haven’t the Iranians served their purpose?
Many people claim that the alliance with Iran is too important for Russia to risk a gambit like this. And no doubt it is. But what if there is no risk? Whilst the Russian-Iranian alliance remains crucial for Moscow’s projection of power into the Middle East, Russia may well calculate that Iran has no interest in jeopardising this however poorly they are treated by their Russian ‘ally’ in Syria. After all, the provision of protection against a US attack on Iran is hardly a buyer’s market – Russia is a monopoly supplier. Safe in the knowledge that Iran really has no-one else to turn to, Russia can afford to let Israel loose on them.
Certainly, Israel’s belligerent Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman does not appear to see Russia as an obstacle to Israeli plans for Syria. “What is important to understand is that the Russians, they are very pragmatic players,” he said in Washington recently, “At the end of the day, they are reasonable guys, it’s possible to close deals with them and we understand what is their interest,”. He certainly doesn’t sound like he is referring to a steadfast ally of Israel’s number one foe.
It may even be that Russia are still, against all hope, expecting to get something out of the Trump administration, in the form of sanctions relief, or at least some recognition of their security concerns in Ukraine and eastern Europe. Such hopes are surely forlorn.
I would like to think Russia is not so cynical as to stand back and allow Israeli aggression against Iran in order to gain leverage in its own relationship with both the Iranians and Syrians, nor so naive as to expect anything from the US. But the omens are not good. The failure to deliver the S300s, or to create any other meaningful deterrent, even after the opening shots in this new war on Iran were fired on April 9th, suggests either cowardice or collusion. And the Russians are not cowards.
Yet acquiescing to western aggression has not turned out well for the Russians in the past. Their failure to veto the UN-blessed crucifixion of Iraq in 1991, let’s not forget, was rewarded with nothing more than an economic straitjacket leading to the biggest collapse of living standards (outside of war) in recorded history. Twenty years later, when Russia agreed not to veto the west’s destruction of Libya, what followed was not gratitude, or acceptance, or respect, but western support for an anti-Russian fascist coup on Russia’s western flank, followed by the imposition of a vicious sanctions regime.
If Russia really are going to allow their erstwhile Iranian comrades to get wiped out, they really should understand that this is not simply a matter of Israel’s ‘legitimate security concerns’. This is about eliminating Iran’s chance of building up a deterrent in advance of an all-out war against Iran itself. And the destruction of states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran is, in turn, about isolating Russia when its own turn comes. This year will see the 80th anniversary of the Munich agreement, another occasion when major powers sacrificed supposed allies in the hope of saving their own skins. That didn’t go so well. Never mind the S300s, Russia need to provide S400s to the Syrian Arab Army and put a stop to this new war before its too late.
Trump’s speech to the assembled Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia on May 21st is worth reading in full. It is deeply disturbing.
Having praised himself for his $110billion arms deal with the Saudis, he goes on to talk about the threat posed by terrorism, and what a wonderful job the US and the Gulfis – that is, the leading state sponsor of the region’s supremacist death squads, and its assembled proxies – are doing in combating it. He then goes on to claim that at the root of the region’s terrorism lurks – guess who? The power leading the regional pushback against ISIS and Al Qaeda – Iran.
“Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding, and the false allure of their craven ideology, will be the basis for defeating them” he says, “But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment”. This is pretty much exactly how Joe Biden – in his own attempt to whitewash US involvement – described Trump’s Saudi hosts three years earlier. But Trump is not talking about IS’s Saudi backers; he is talking about Iran – the same Iran responsible, with its Syrian and Russian allies, for that fact that the IS flag is NOT today flying over Damascus.
It gets worse. Look at the following passage, just after he calls on “all nations of conscience to work together to isolate Iran”:
“Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil? Will we protect our citizens from its violent ideology? Will we let its venom spread through our societies? Will we let it destroy the most holy sites on earth? If we do not confront this deadly terror, we know what the future will bring—more suffering and despair. But if we act—if we leave this magnificent room unified and determined to do what it takes to destroy the terror that threatens the world—then there is no limit to the great future our citizens will have.
The birthplace of civilization is waiting to begin a new renaissance. Just imagine what tomorrow could bring. Glorious wonders of science, art, medicine and commerce to inspire humankind. Great cities built on the ruins of shattered towns. New jobs and industries that will lift up millions of people.”
This is the language of genocide. Heroism and genocide have always gone hand-in-hand in the settler-colonial ideology internalised by the likes of Trump, for which ‘building great cities on the ruins of shattered towns’, be they native American, Palestinian, or, it seems, Iranian, has always been the highest accolade. Some have accused Trump of making novice blunders during his first lumbering foray into the Middle Eastern maelstrom. But I think he knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows very well that the loosely-defined ‘ideology’ he speaks of as ‘spreading venom’ will be much more readily interpreted by his hosts as Shi’ism – the creed to which Iran actually subscribes – than as Wahhabi’ism, the sectarian ideology behind ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Saudi state. And just to make clear what he is demanding be done to this ill-defined – but, nudge-wink, understood – enemy, he spells it out: “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.
It is a choice between two futures — and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you.
A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and
DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH.”
Doesn’t this sound horribly like Trump giving the green light to an all-out war of eradication against the region’s Shia – that is, a war very similar to the one actually being waged, in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, by Trump’s government, his hosts, and their proxies?
At the same time, having found it harder than expected to rip up the Iran deal, Trump is instead hoping to render it null and void by simply blackmailing individual nations into not dealing with Iran, ensuring the formal lifting of sanctions is replaced by an informal blockade.
This is where Qatar comes in. Qatar has clearly not been playing ball with the US-approved, Saudi-led ‘isolate Iran’ programme. This is partly because, ever since the current Emir toppled his pro-Saudi father in 1995, the country has made independence from Saudi Arabia a hallmark of its foreign policy. But it is mostly because Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field – known in Qatar as North Field and in Iran as South Pars.
In fact, the two countries have had decent relations for some time: in May 2010, for example, in stark contrast to the hardline attitude of his Gulf neighbours, the Qatari Emir Al-Thani joined forces with President Assad of Syria, no less, to support Turkey’s diplomatic proposals over Iran’s nuclear programme. Then, in 2014, in a ‘dry run’ of today’s crisis, the Saudis, UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha following a Qatari proposal to help Iran develop its side of the North Field/ South Pars gas field. But what’s taking place now is much more serious. And that is largely because of the likely earth-shattering impact of the decisions surely now being considered by the two powers over where their gas will go, how it will get there – and in what currency it will be sold.
In April of this year, a self-imposed 12-year moratorium on the development of Qatar’s share of North Field came to an end, potentially opening up a flood of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) onto the market in the years to come. But where will it go? Qatar had originally been hoping to build an LNG pipeline to the Mediterranean via Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey; indeed, many have speculated that Assad’s blocking of this proposal in favour of an Iran-Iraq-Syria route was a major reason for Qatar’s support of the anti-government insurgency there. The failure of this insurgency, however, has spelled the death of this proposal, leaving Qatar bound to look East to Asia – already their biggest customers – for their LNG markets. But most of the existing Eastbound LNG pipeline infrastructure is controlled by Iran. For Qatar, then, cutting its Iran links would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. This is why the Saudis aim to demonstrate that the alternative is having their entire face cut off.
For the US, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In 2012, Iran began to accept yuan for its oil and gas payments, followed by Russia in 2015. If this takes off, this could literally spell the beginning of the end of US global power. The dollar is the world’s leading reserve currency, in the main, only because oil is currently traded in dollars. Countries seeking foreign exchange reserves as insurance against crises within their own currencies tend to look to the dollar precisely because it is effectively ‘convertible’ into oil, the world’s number one commodity. This global thirst for dollars is what allows the US to print endless amounts of them, virtually for free, which it can then exchange for real goods and services with other countries. This is what is known as ‘seignorage privileges’; that is, the ability to absorb ever-increasing amounts of goods and services from other countries without having to provide anything of equivalent value in return. In turn, it is this privilege which helps to finance the staggering costs of the US military machine, now running at over $600 billion per year.
Yet, this whole system falls apart once other countries stop using the dollar as their prime reserve currency. And they stop doing this once oil stops being traded in dollars. This is one reason why the US were do keen for Saddam Hussein to go after he began trading Iraqi oil in Euros.
And, slowly but surely, this change is already occurring. In 2012, the People’s Bank of China announced it would no longer be increasing its holdings of US dollars, and two years later, Nigeria increased its holdings of yuan from 2% to 7% of its total foreign exchange reserves. Many other countries are moving in the same direction.
At the same time, China has been on a gold-buying spree, setting up its own twice-daily pricing of gold in yuan in 2012 as part of what the chair of the Shanghai Gold Exchange called the “internationalisation of renminbi”, ultimately aiming towards making yuan fully convertible to gold. Once this happens, the choice for oil-producing countries between trading oil for ever-more-worthless paper dollars, or trading it for convertible-to-gold renminbi will be a no-brainer. For Qatar, the pull may already be irresistible.
Hence the urgency to pre-emptively punish Qatar for its likely move towards a joint venture with Iran to supply Asia with LNG priced in yuan. The aim is to demonstrate that, however economically suicidal it may be in the long term to snub Iran and continue trading in the dollar, it will be politically suicidal in the immediate term to do anything else. Just how far Trump and his Arab friends are prepared to take this remains to be seen. But Trump has repeatedly suggested that the whole point of having a military is to use it.
This article originally appeared on RT.