Posts Tagged 'politics'

Live from Kuwait: …democratization?

By: Jon Nordenson

There’s never a dull moment in Kuwaiti politics, but the last few days have been exceptional. In an unprecedented verdict, the constitutional court last week deemed the dissolution of the previous parliament unconstitutional, and reinstated it. Thus; the 2012 elections were declared null and void, and the oppositional parliament it produced is to be replaced by the less oppositional 2009-parliament. However, last night, thousands of protesters begged to differ; they even demanded a full parliamentary system. Are we witnessing a transition towards a more democratic system in Kuwait?

As I have written earlier, Kuwaiti politics have been in a state of constant crisis since Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s ascendance to the premiership in 2006. A campaign (or rather several campaigns) to oust him eventually succeeded last winter, and Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak replaced him. Then the parliament was dissolved, and new elections called for. These elections produced a clear oppositional majority in the new parliament, which now has been dissolved. The term “oppositional majority” might sound somewhat strange, but this stems from the fact that the government in Kuwait is appointed, not formed based on a parliamentary majority. Thus, the situation was that the majority of the parliament was seen as oppositional towards the government.

This parliamentary majority did, not surprisingly, continue to question government ministers, though not in such a harsh way as before. This may not be surprising either; if they had gone too far, the Emir might have dissolved parliament (as has happened many times before when the opposition question ministers), and all their electoral gains would have been lost. Nevertheless, the government seems to have viewed the situation as quite problematic; before the ruling of the constitutional court, the Emir issued a decree suspending parliamentary activities for a month (which would have lasted until their summer holiday, effectively suspending parliamentary activities until October).

Then came the ruling of the constitutional court, which is final. Their argument was that the Emir dissolved the 2009-parliament following Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s resignation, but before Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak had formed a new Government. Thus, the dissolution took place without a Government, which is unconstitutional. What is supposed to happen next is as follows; the current Government resigns (which it did yesterday), a new Government corresponding to the 2009 parliament is formed, former speaker of parliament Jasim al-Khurafi resumes his work, reconvenes the 2009 parliament, and they continue until their term expires in 2013. However, this is not likely to happen, as a majority of the 2009 parliament protest the court’s verdict and refuses to reconvene. Thus, as described by al-Qabas newspaper today, the most likely scenario is as follows; a new government is formed, the old parliament is reconvened but unable to perform its duties, the government asks the Emir to dissolve it, and new elections are held. Again.

The oppositional majority of the 2012 parliament has staunchly opposed the court’s verdict, deeming it political and unconstitutional. As mentioned, a rally was held outside parliament last night, under the heading “we won’t surrender”, drawing thousands of people (estimates vary, but most place the number at between 30 000 and 40 000). A new movement has also been launched; the “return of the majority”-movement. However, the most remarkable thing about last night’s rally was not the protest against the verdict or the rather impressive turnout; it was the demands put forward by the MPs (demands that have also been launched in the media by the same MPs): a full parliamentary system, with an elected Government, and Kuwait as a constitutional monarchy. These demands have been raised by youth movements for well over a year, but now a majority of the (ousted) MPs support them as well. Seemingly, the struggle for democratization in Kuwait has taken a big leap forward. There are, however, several factors at play one should bear in mind:

–          The Hadar/Badu split: Kuwait has been described as a divided society, and one split is between the Hadar (city-dwellers) and Badu (tribal) parts of the population. The Hadar have traditionally held on to the lion’s share of both money and power, whereas the Badu, in spite on constituting a majority of the electorate, are underprivileged in both arenas (which is part of the reason why many demand one electoral district). Not surprisingly, the Badu have been at the forefront of both the campaign against Nasir al-Muhammad, the opposition in parliament, and the campaigns for democratization. Thus, some have deemed the ouster of al-Muhammad and the opposition’s success in the last elections a “tribal revolution”, antagonizing many Hadar. (now) Former MP Muhammad al-Juwaihil has made a career out of this division, constantly making derogatory remarks about the tribes, and questioned their rights in Kuwait under the less than charming heading “Kuwait for Kuwaitis”. The tribes have taken the bait and lashed out against al-Juwaihil, on one occasion burning down his campaign tent. In other words; we might be witnessing an increased polarization of Kuwaiti society.

–          This also goes for sectarianism: about one third of Kuwaitis are Shias, and sectarian tension is a very sensitive subject in Kuwait. Following the “Arab Spring”, the issue has come to the fore. Whereas Kuwaiti Shias generally support the democratic movement in Bahrain, many Sunni politicians and activists have branded it as Iranian interference. Some Sunni politicians – who are part of the opposition – have also accused Shia politicians of lying in Parliament. It should be noted here that most of the Shia MPs were among Nasir al-Muhammad’s closest allies.

–          The Democratic credentials of the opposition: though the demands put forward now seems as important steps towards a more democratic Kuwait, not all parts of the opposition’s track record are equally persuasive. With regards to Bahrain, they have generally not supported the (Shia) democratic movement, whereas they have taken the opposite stance towards the (Sunni) uprising in Syria. Many of the oppositional MPs have supported tougher laws on blasphemy, even advocating death penalty for insults to the prophet. Not all support female MPs and ministers, and one has made negative remarks towards Kuwait allowing churches to be built in the country. The opposition is complex and consists of different groups and ideologies, but many would find it difficult to call it an unambiguously democratic opposition as such.

–          Disagreements within the royal family: there are differences within the ruling family as to which direction Kuwait should take for the future. One persistent rumor has it that some parts of the family are fed up with political bickering hindering any economic development, and are enviously looking to Qatar and the Emirates. Another point is the fight for power; many ambitious members of the ruling family seek their share of power, and try to position themselves. Often, they have allies in parliament and otherwise, giving the infighting wider effects. This has gone so far that the leading newspaper al-Qabas took the unprecedented step and spoke of it on their front page.

There are of course other important factors in play as well. For instance, the fight against corruption, an ever present phenomenon in Kuwait, is at once both very real and the favored accusation used by the opposition as well as pro-government forces. The tribes’ demand for democratic reform may of course be interpreted both as a step towards a more democratic Kuwait, or as the tribes using it for their own benefit, as they stand to win from more proportional representation. Kuwaiti politics is chaotic at the moment, and sometimes quite messy, and certainly unpredictable. But this might be just what democratization looks like. Many different forces with different motives are involved, some probably less noble than others. Yet; if more power is to be moved to democratically elected institutions, others have to give up said powers, which naturally will be a contested process. There is hardly any surprise in a process of democratization being a messy and unpredictable one, and these are adjectives that fit well with Kuwaiti politics at the moment. But one thing is, at least, certain: the question of a full parliamentary system has been raised by MPs, and many will probably feature this in their programs in the next elections (which, I expect, will happen shortly). Given the populist nature of Kuwait’s electoral campaigns, the proposal might very well gain considerable support should the electorate respond positively to it.


The Kuwaiti elections: new elections shortly?

By: Jon Nordenson

When Kuwaiti voters went to the polls on Thursday February 2nd, it marked the end of an eventful and extremely tense election campaign. And given the results, the work of the new parliament is likely to be eventful and tense as well, albeit short lived.

However, before going through the latest results, a quick look a the past few years in Kuwaiti politics is in place. From Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad’s ascendence to the premiership in 2006, until his (last and final) resignation in November 2011, Kuwaiti politics were in a state of “crisis”. As I have written earlier, the kind of “crisis” referred to here is somewhat different from other countries; it was not a particular and unusual situation that brought turmoil to the country. Rather, it was a constant, but slowely escalating conflict between the opposition and the government, effectively hindering any “normal” political work, that is; passing laws, developing the country, and so on. Instead, the legislative and the executive powers were locked in an seemingly endless cycle of interpellations, resigning governments and early elections.

When Kuwaiti voters went to the polls in 2009, for the third time in three years, the credo was that everyone was tired of political bickering and wanted a parliament and a government capable of doing their jobs and fulfilling their terms. The election provided a majority supporting the PM and the government, and for a while, the deadlock seemed to be broken. However, allthough the opposition constituted a minority, they continued their attacks on the cabinet, earning them the nickname “crisis MPs”. Then, following the break up of a oppositional rally by the police in December 2010, things escalated. Prominent opposition MPs present at the rally promised to question the PM in parliament, and to present a motion of no confidence.  Allthough the government still enjoyed majority support in parliament, immense pressure was put on Sheykh Nasir to resign.

Grass-roots movements against Sheykh Nasir, such as “Kafi” (enough) and “as-Sur al-Khamis” (the fifth fence, a reference to the old city wall of Kuwait City),  began to appear, and rallies were organized more and more frequently.  The movements became better organized and coordinated, and teamed up with oppositional MPs to pressure the PM under the slogan “Hukuma jadida – ra’is jadid – nahj jadid” (new Government, new PM, new approach). Throughout the spring and summer they held demonstrations, seminars, issued declarations, and – inspired by the Arab spring – their own “Friday of wrath/anger”. As is evident in their latest declaration, their ultimate goal is a fully democratic Kuwait, with an elected government.

Then came the “25 million KD”-scandal; 15 MPs were allegedly paid by the Government/the PM to be supportive in parliament. The scandal brought outrage among ordinary Kuwaitis as well as the opposition, which vowed to question the PM on the issue. However, MPs formerly supportive of the cabinet switched sides, and it became evident that the opposition now constituted a majority. Sheykh Nasir, as other members of the cabinet from the royal family, refused to face a vote of no confidence he actually might loose, and managed to prevent the opposition from presenting their questioning. Infuriarated by this, oppositional MPs along with demonstrators took the unprecedented step of storming the parliament on November 16th, 2011. The situation had become unbearable for the royal family, and Shaykh Nasir resigned. Defence Minister Sheykh Jabir al-Mubarak was named as his successor, but before he formed his first cabinet, the Emir dissolved parliament and called for new elections.

Which brings us to this years campaign. One event in particular will be remembered from a campaign described by many as harsh and extremely tense; the burning of candidate Muhammad al-Juwaihil’s campaign tent. Al-Juwaihil, who made the headlines in December 2009 when he made derogatory remarks about Kuwait’s tribal population on his own TV-channel, once again lashed out against the Badu. This time, his remarks were directed against the Mutayr tribe, and provoked imideate reactions; hundreds of members of the tribe attacked his campaign HQ, and burned the tent to the ground. Police arrived at the scene, but proved unable/unwilling to interfer.

The incident was hardly accidental. The division between the Hadar (city dwellers) and the Badu (Beduins) is nothing new in Kuwait, but tensions have reached new levels over the past years. The Badu, which constitute a majority of the voters but a minority in parliament, feel marginalized, whereas the traditionally prosporous and mercantile Hadar feel their position threatened. Thus, when al-Juwaihil made his remaks, he did so knowing they would provoke a strong reaction, which in turn would benefit his electoral prospects among Hadar wary of tribal influence. Not surprisingly, both al-Juwaihil and his “partner in crime” Nabil al-Fadl were elected, as was five members of the Mutayr tribe. In the current political climate, both sides benefit from such incidents.

Moreover, it seems clear that the difference between the opposition and the government stems from more than just disagreement over particular issues. In fact, it has little to do with particular issues, as these are seldom dealt with by parliament. Rather, as discussed above, over the past few years it has been all about former PM Nasir al-Muhammad. But in reality, it may be a question of the Badu seeking greater influence. The movement against Sheykh Nasir, both inside and outside parliament, has consisted mainly of tribal MPs and activists. And in the elections just concluded, the opposition won 18 out of 20 seats in the two tribal electoral districts. If the difference in reality is an issue of Badu vs. Hadar, it seems unlikely that it will disappear even though a new PM has been named; more substantial changes would be needed.  As mentioned, the rallying call has been more democracy, which would, given that the Badu constitute a majority of the voters, give them greater influence. It should be noted here, though, that many tribal MPs have been staunchly against both female parliamentary participation in Kuwait as well as democratization in Bahrain (which would benefit the Shia majority), so to brand the opposition as purely democratict might be somewhat incorrect.

Moreover, there are of course other issues involved as well. The Arab spring has been influental in Kuwait as in other countries, providing momentum for the opposition. Secterian tensions between Shia and Sunni has been fuelled by events in the region, particularly Bahrain, and corruption is a very real and ever present phenomenon in Kuwait, important to voters from all political camps.

In last week’s elections, Islamist/Tribal/Oppositional candidates – all deemed oppositional by the Kuwaiti press – gained about 35 seats, and were the big winners. Shia candidates lost two seats compared to 2009, and ended up on seven. Liberals, who often found themselves in the middle between a staunch opposition and the government, did poorly, perhaps not surprisingly in the current climate. Whereas four women made history and were elected to the last parliament, no female candidate made it this time around. About 62% of Kuwait’s roughly 400 000 eligible voters went to the polls, and oppositional candidates won in four out the five electoral districts.

The opposition is by no means a unified groups; it consists of representatives from the Kuwaiti Muslim Brootherhood, Salafis, Nationalists and one liberal. Thus, they might find it difficult to unite on many issues, such as the amendement of article two of the constitution to make Sharia the sole source of law in the country. However, they have proved more than able to unite in their fight against the government before. And, as discussed above,if  the opposition is about much more than a fight against Sheykh Nasir al-Muhammad, they are likely to do so again. With a majority of 35 seats, they will be able to pass a motion of no confidence against any minister. The traditional reaction of al-Sabah ministers to such a situation has been either for the government to resign, or for the parliament to be dissolved. Now, with a new PM, this would be difficult and embaressing, but perhaps also unavoidable.

Thus, the result of these elections might very well be a new round of elections in the not to distant future.

A stable nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East possible? Illusions versus rationality.

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Should the current pressure by sanctions prove insufficient to stop the Iranian nuclear program, the risks inherent in the ultimate recourse to military attack are well-known: escalation, destabilization, collateral military and political damage, strengthening of Iranian resolve to acquire such weapons and rallying the Iranian opposition behind the regime. Still, the evolving perception in the current Israeli government and the Obama Administration seems to be that the risks arising from Iranian nuclear arms outweigh those of military attack.

Those that disagree with this relative risk assessment point out that living with Iranian nuclear arms, if need be, is the lesser risk. Beyond hoping to deter forced regime change or invasion, Iran can reap no military or political benefit from them, and therefore will have no incentive to try. This is the clear historical lesson of nuclear arms so far, as President Ahjmadinnejad himself repeatedly points out in interviews.

The view is entirely correct that nuclear arms are useless as instruments of power projection – and hopefully seen to be so – and therefore need not be feared by other countries. But, unfortunately, this reassurance totally misses the point. There is still the very real risk that these doomsday weapons can be released inadvertently by misunderstandings, misjudgments and technical malfuntions. This is another lesson of the Cold War that came to light after it was over; an insight that should be sobering to those who trust the stability of a nuclear balance of terror.

The nuclear balance of terror of the Cold War provides the analogies by which the risks of similar prospects in the Middle East must be asessed. The perceived stability has now proved an illusion.
This illusion was sincerely believed, as demonstrated as late as 1987 by the comprehensive study “Managing Nuclear Operations”.(1) In great and terrifying detail this study discussed how the nuclear balance of terror operated, or should it fail how nuclear war could actually be conducted – and hopefully stopped. Just like all responsible policy makers at the time, the analysts behind the study naively overrated the ability of the individual human mind as well as complex organizations to maintain rational and effective control during confrontation and crisis. The overriding concern of nuclear strategy during the Cold War was to deter, and, if perceived necessary, pre-empt, the ever-present option of the decapitating first strike by the other side. For this purpose, thousands of nuclear arms were kept on hair-trigger alert. In hindsight, we now see that the elaborate nuclear strategies of the Cold War, as set out in this study, conceived by the brightest minds of their time as the apex of logic and rationality, were actually inherently contradictory: nuclear war must at all times be possible to remain impossible. As a consequence the nuclear balance of terror, like the one Iran may now be on the verge on imposing on its region, was dangerously unstable.

Unknown to the overconfident analysts of nuclear strategy in 1987, the much-feared first strike emerged as a serious Soviet option only four years earlier, in 1983, in response to the mistaken belief
that the other side planned the same (2). Contrary to the common belief at the time, the lessons of the dangerous confrontations of the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 had failed to inspire the caution needed to prevent a new skid to the brink of the abyss. Especially perilous was the cowardice of Soviet intelligence operatives, which prevented them from passing on correct information, fearing the personal consequences should the truth they conveyed challenge the conspiracy theories of their superiors in the Kremlin.(3)

All these fallacies of the Cold War decision-making on nuclear arms would be much worse in a region like the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The minimum of communication and cooperation that kept us all alive during the dangerous brinksmanship of the Cold War is practically absent. Both Israel and Iran officially deny possession and plans for nuclear arms, forcing the others to guess the answers to such vital security questions as capabilities, command and control systems, perceived missions, as well as the political and operational nuclear doctrines, should such exist at all. Saudi Arabia could easily aggravate this dangerously unstable situation by exercising their presumed option to acquire a ready set-up from Pakistan.

The rule of thumb is that nuclear deterrence can only be stable as long as it is unilateral, such as now when Israel alone is a nuclear power in the region (4). A bipolar deterrence introduces the terrifying option of a decapitating first-strike, which makes it inherently unstable. For each new nuclear-armed state added, the balance of terror becomes increasingly unstable because there will be more uncertain factors to juggle. In crisis, pressure and stress will impair human minds’ capacity to rationally weigh goals, costs and risks, precisely when this vital ability is most called for.
To keep us all alive under the menace of nuclear arms, rationality must prevail over illusions. The kind of dangerous suspicions during the Cold War that caused the close call in 1983 would be an almost permanent feature of a nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East. Preventing nuclear proliferation in the region is therefore imperative.

1 Ashton B. Carter, John D. Steinbrunner, and Charles A. Zracket Managing Nuclear Operations, Brookings 1987 (reviewed in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists December 1987)
2 Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitroknin The KGB in Europe and the West. The Mitroknin Archive, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 278-279. David E. Hoffman The Dead Hand. Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, Icon Books, (2009) 2011, p. 60-72
3 Andrew & Mitrokhin, p. 279, Hoffman, p. 62
4 Turkey has nuclear arms under Nato control

The anger over fuel price reform in Nigeria

By: Ingrid Krüger

Earlier this month, the Nigerian government decided to more than double the domestic fuel price, from the initially subsidized price of 40 cents per liter. After a week of general strike, the Nigerian government gave in to the pressure, only keeping less than half of the initial price increase.

What makes a fuel price reform so difficult in Nigeria? Nigeria is the largest crude oil producer in Africa, producing more than two million barrels of crude per day(1) and cheap fuel is considered a birth right among Nigeria’s citizens as in the other OPEC member states. The Nigerian government’s ability to subsidize fuel is challenged, however, both by the vast size of Nigeria’s population and by the country’s lack of sufficient refinery capacity.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with a population estimated to almost 160 million inhabitants.(2) This makes Nigeria oil poor when crude oil production is measured in per capita terms compared to, say, sparsely populated Kuwait, that produces around the same amount of crude. Furthermore, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that because of “poor maintenance, theft, and fire”, Nigeria’s four refineries are operating below capacity. In 2009 and part of 2010, Nigeria’s refineries were operating below 30 percent of capacity, forcing the country to import around 85 percent of the fuel it needed.(3) The vast population and the lack of sufficient refinery capacity in Nigeria make subsidization of the domestic fuel price a very expensive economic policy for the Nigerian government. This may help explain why international comparisons rank Nigeria’s domestic fuel price above the OPEC average and even above the OPEC average within Africa.(4)

Even though subsidization of fuel implies great costs for the Nigerian government, it is difficult to make the citizens in Nigeria accept a domestic fuel price increase. Corruption and poverty make domestic fuel price increases highly unpopular and fuel price hikes have led to general strike in the country in the past. Nigeria receives the very poor rating of 2.4 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), an index scaled from 0 to 10 where 0 is “highly corrupt”.(5) In December, the Economist wrote that “the most moderate estimates suggest that $4 billion to $8 billion is stolen from Nigeria’s state coffers every year”.(6) The corruption among politicians in Nigeria indicates a great waste of the country’s natural resources. To the citizens in Nigeria, it seems that they are picking up the bill for the politicians’ corruption. The revenues foregone by corruption could have been spent investing in poorly needed refinery capacity. Furthermore, poverty makes a doubling of the fuel price unbearable for many people. In 2004, which is the most recent year with data available, more than half the population was living below the national poverty line in Nigeria.(7) As long as corruption and poverty remain high, fuel price hikes will continue to cause great anger in the oil producing country.

1 OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin 2010/2011:
2 The World Bank:
3 Energy Information Administration (EIA):
4 GIZ. Data Preview ‘International Fuel Prices’ 2010/2011:
5 Transparency International:
6 The Economist. Dec 3rd, 2011:
7 The World Bank:

Iran beginning of 2012: diplomacy or war?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Most foreign policy analyses are flawed. They discuss issues and options on their own merit, as if actors’ behaviour were guided by our perceptions rather than their own. Actual behaviour is shaped by two factors: the actors’ motivation and their perceptions of constraints, external as well as domestic. To understand, we must try to enter their minds, admittedly a speculative venture.

The policy and the capacity of the United States remain the factors that weigh most heavily in the power equations of all regional actors in the Middle East. What motivation and sense of constraint is currently driving President Obama’s policy towards Iran? His number one concern is probably stopping nuclear proliferation, to discourage other countries in the region from acquiring their own nuclear arms in response to the Iranian nuclear program, which must therefore be stopped.  A nuclear balance of terror between Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey (already host to US nuclear arms under NATO) and possibly others would be unstable and dangerous, placing at risk vital but vulnerably energy sources as well as the countries themselves.
He probably sees the Iranian rebuff of his original offer of reconciliation in the light of the domestic power struggle in Iran which makes any change of policy extremely difficult to bring about. Obama’s original rhetoric failed to change Iran’s threatening behaviour, but a credible threat of attack could hopefully shake the current Iranian perception of superiority and impregnability sufficiently to induce contending factions to compromise. In other words, since Obama’s speech failed to change Iranian motivation, he now tries to change the Iranian perception of constraints.
Should also this last-ditch attempt at coercive diplomacy fail, he will resort to force. He has no hesitation about this, should diplomatic options fail. Obama has stated that he is influenced by the so-called “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr whose central message is that there is evil in the world that needs to be fought, but in a humble spirit. Nuclear arms are definitely evil.
His acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace Prize was held in the spirit of Niebuhr. He would as US President use military force when necessary (“Wanting peace is in itself rarely enough to bring it about”). But he will calibrate his use of force. Military experts point out that even an underground plant can be incapacitated by a small charge collapsing the entrance and destroying machinery, such as centrifuges, by shock waves.
Obama’s own constraints are
•    His potentially limited time-window created by the presidential campaign since he could lose the election. The bad record of the massive and costly, but largely failed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by Obama’s Republican predecessor and the rhetoric of his Republican opponents, probably adds a sense of urgency to stopping the Iranian nuclear program lest a new Republican President once more resort to extreme policies that could create worse problems than those they set out to solve.
•    The twofold challenge by Israel: the need of any US president to neutralize the Israeli lobby against him in Congress and the US public, and in the current policy predicament prevent unilateral Israeli attack on Iran which could force him to deal with Iran in a different, more violent scenario, in which Israeli vulnerabilities could force him to conduct more comprehensive operations.
•    The need for Iran as a constructive partner in a post-conflict phase to stabilize the vital energy supplies of Saudi Arabia and Iran itself. Also for the political stability of Iraq and Afghanistan after US withdrawal is Iran’s cooperation needed since such stability can only be achieved by cooperation of the regional powers.

To overcome these constraints he has no alternative but to prepare surgical strikes, first as pressure and then, should that fail, as the ultimate recourse. However, to succeed coercive diplomacy and, if unavoidable, attack, need to be followed by military restraint and crisis diffusing diplomacy providing incentives for cooperation.

In Iran, the currently two main rivals, supreme leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, by all appearances share the motivation of a combination of a revolutionary Islamic and anti-Imperialist ideology, and traditional nationalistic quest for power, prestige and recognition. The overriding concern of both is the protection of the revolutionary Islamic regime in Iran.
Their expansionist revolutionary vision is therefore constrained by their perception of any serious risk to the regime their ideology may give rise to. But they appear to differ over whether the nuclear program has reached that stage yet. When President Ahmadinejad initiated a compromise with the concerned outside world fall of 2009, the deal came to naught because the Supreme Leader Khamenei failed to support him when the President’s rivals seized the opportunity to undercut his position.  In fact, the main constraints perceived by any Iranian actor, may be even the Supreme Leader himself, is presumably the intense domestic power struggles which make anyone proposing to depart from the current course, e.g. the nuclear program, vulnerable to attack by rivals.
After all, an Iranian politician advocating compromise on the nuclear program will be faced by the argument that, seen from Teheran, the current pressure they experience along with their reading of the Libyan experience (Kaddafi toppled by Western military intervention after he had given in to pressure to renounce his nuclear program) combine to form persuasive arguments for nuclear arms as guarantee against forced regime change. Also, as in any nuclear state, there will be powerful vested interests behind a nuclear program, which offers position, prestige and income to those involved.
The crucial question now is whether the Supreme Leader Khamenei will have the power to change course, should he decide that compromise would be the smarter course for Iran. Despite whatever policy assets he may see in nuclear arms, the constraint may dawn on him that Iran will be stopped in its nuclear program because as the program progresses, the concerned outside world will increasingly see the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms, including the risks of proliferation, as worse than the collateral risks of a limited, surgical attack, should failed diplomacy leave the world with those options. Consequently, whatever the Iranian motivations for the nuclear program, nuclear arms will not be an option for regime protection. The only chance for diplomacy in the current confrontation is that the Supreme Leader and hopefully contending factions in Iran will be brought around to see compromise and a degree of cooperation as the only viable options for protecting the Islamic, revolutionary regime.

Saudi Arabia
The Royal Family, the governing political elite of Saudi Arabia, is motivated by deep-seated suspicions and resentment of Iran, a sentiment shared by the majority of Saudis and consequently an integral part of the regime’s political legitimacy. These resentments are partly due to the religious Sunni / Shia divide, partly political because of the declared Iranian revolutionary intent to overthrow the pro-Western Saudi royal family.
But those of the Royal Family in responsible policy positions are known to differ over how to weigh the perceived Iranian threat against the constraints on Saudi anti-Iran policies. The King has blamed the US for invading the wrong country in 2003, toppling the stable Sunni regime in Iraq instead of the revolutionary Shia regime in Teheran, urging them to “cut off the snake’s head, not its tail”. But others in the ruling elite are known to think the risks inherent in the confrontation the King seems to be seeking, outweigh the risks currently emanating from Teheran, even with the perceived Iranian encirclement by proxies of Saudi Arabia (“the Shia crescent”, or even “full moon”) .
The Saudi constraints are the potentially disastrous implications of armed conflict for the vulnerable oil production in the Eastern provinces and oil exports through the choking point of the Strait of Hormus. In addition, conflict with Iran also carries serious opportunity costs for Saudi Arabia, in need of cooperation with the revolutionary Shia enemy to exploit shared gas fields in the Gulf. This is potentially serious since gas deficiency forces the Saudis to divert export earning oil to domestic purposes, such as desalination and power production. In case of armed conflict with Iran, the Saudis also fear for their domestic stability should, as a side effect of confrontation with Teheran, Riyadh’s conflicts escalate with its Shia minority in the oil producing Eastern provinces.
The Saudi interdependence with their indispensable ally the USA constitutes another constraint on Saudi policy. (The huge Saudi arms procurements are seen partly as a conscious policy of prepositioning equipment for US forces, partly as a means to strengthen alliances by creating commercial bonds with Saudi Arabia.) With Israel the Saudis share the feeling of having been let down by President Obama in his refusal to support the Arab dictators against the revolting people of the Arab spring (leading to the first independent Saudi military action in contravention of US policy, the intervention in Bahrain).  But in contrast to Israel, with whom the Saudis also share the view on the Iranian threat, Saudi Arabia lacks the capacity for independent military action against Iran To compensate, in case President Obama backs down from attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, the Saudis, to retain the option of attack should they find that President Obama let them down again, even seem to have a tacit agreement with Israel to offer operational cooperation in case of an Israeli attack on Iran, over which they would have virtually no control, but for which they may have to absorb the brunt of the collateral damage of Iranian counter attacks due to vulnerability by proximity.

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is motivated by an overriding fear of a nuclear armed Iran, for the psychological effects it would have on Israelis, the sense of invulnerability nuclear arms could induce on Iran, daring them to more active hostilities by way of proxies such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and of course the ultimate horror of nuclear war, by accident if not by design. He apparently sees the Iranian threat in the context of the collective Jewish trauma of pogroms and the Holocaust. This sentiment is shared by practically all Israelis (although some of them will see the legitimacy the Iranian regime bestows on the Iranian Jewish minority as evidence that the issue between Israel and Iran is political, not racist).
However, there is strong disagreement in Israel, openly aired, over how to weigh the risks emanating from the Iranian nuclear program against the risks inherent in military options.  This disagreement is also reflected in conflicting views in the Israeli coalition government. As a consequence, the differences over Israel’s policy towards Iran remain unresolved at this time of writing, with Defence Minister Barak supporting the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Liebermann leading the opposition.  But since the differences are over tactics, not goals, this balance is volatile. Small changes in risk perception by individual Israeli politicians could change the balance and end the stalemate, sending off Israeli planes or cruise missiles from the Israeli submarines known to hide in the Gulf.
Israel’s constraints derive from the uncertain success of a unilateral Israeli attack and potentially disastrous effects of Iranian counter attacks, which in response to Israeli attacks could be widely perceived as legitimate defence by Israel’s neighbours, thus adding a serious political cost in the current volatile political environment of the Arab Spring.
Adding to the Israeli constraints, Israeli policy makers, with Israel’s total military and political dependence on the US, can ill afford to ignore the strong US rejection of a unilateral Israeli attack, openly and strongly voiced by the Obama administration. So far Israel has had virtually unlimited political capital in the US; no US politician would stand much chance of election without practically unconditional support of Israeli policies. But in the current American political climate, wary of new military entanglements, even US support could wither if Israel were seen to drag Americans into a new war.
To the military risks inherent in a unilateral Israeli attack cautious Israeli politicians are therefore in the current climate forced to add the combined political risk of Arab and American rejection.
But despite the fact that for these combined military and political reasons, the option of unilateral Israeli attack remains hotly contested in Israel, also in the current government, the unanimous Israeli view remains that the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms exceed the collateral risks of military action, unilateral, if need be. The prevailing Israeli view is that if left alone, they will go it alone.

In other words, the prospects of diplomacy versus war over the Iranian nuclear program are determined by the actors’ motivations and sense of constraints as outlined here. But the relationship between the actors is dynamic in the sense that their perceptions of constraints change by mutual influence. Therefore, the ultimate course of events cannot now be foreseen, although a US surgical strike against Iranian nuclear installations seems the more probable scenario at this time of writing. With the strong commitment by President Obama to prevent Iranian nuclear arms, a commitment shared by all possible alternative Presidents as well as US allies, Iran will be forced to change its current nuclear program. This will be an important victory for the efforts to reverse the dangerous current trend towards nuclear proliferation.

How misperceptions may cause war, and how we prevent them?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

In a previous blog contribution I have raised doubts about the realism of Israeli, Iranian and Saudi Arabian perceptions, both of each other’s power and intentions as well as the risks inherent in war. As they edge dangerously towards the brink of war over the prospects of Iranian nuclear arms, the question becomes imperative of how these perceptions are shaped?

The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his application of insights into the limitations of the human mind in decision making, questioning the realism of the traditional models premised on decisions reached exclusively by rationally weighing options. Applying his theories to political decision making about war, he warns against misperceptions built into the human mind[1], in short:

  • Overrate own capabilities and control of events,
  • Exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries,
  • Misjudge how adversaries perceive us,
  • Expect adversaries to understand that our own behaviour may be dictated by the constraints of circumstances, but attribute adversaries’ perceived hostile behaviour to their nature, character or persistent motives.

These warnings stare us in the face when we consider the current narratives of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their narratives share basic messages, but cast each other in reverse roles of aggressor and victim.

To overcome the cognitive limitations that Kahneman points out, it is necessary to critically examine the historical analogies that form the narratives. In fact, applying historical analogies is our only way to analyse policy options along the continuum between confrontation and cooperation. We think about policies in terms of alternative scenarios. A scenario is a narrative about what has not yet happened based on an interpretation of what has. But our concept of the past is a construct.  We are forced to make a choice among the infinite number of variables that shape political reality; consequently, any description is a choice. Besides, each new policy choice will face a unique set of circumstances since there is no repetition in history. Yet, there will be a generic core in each new policy dilemma. Henry Kissinger, a central analyst and political actor during the Cold War, set out the relevance of his study of the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic upheavals of Europe by maintaining that “history teaches by analogy”.  Following up on Kissinger’s dictum I maintain that historical analogies are relevant to the degree they are believed to be. No new situation is identical to any previous, but there will be elements that can be transferred and lessons to be learnt, especially from such recent formative experiences as the Cold War. The current reading of the Cold War is mostly mindless. Rarely do analyses extend beyond the simplistic image of “We, the West, won; they, the Soviets, lost”.

The current dangerous crisis in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia is mainly driven by the Iranian nuclear program. Still, Iran seems to misjudge the implications, and instead appears to be driven by a sense of strength following the perceived weakening of their adversaries following the US defeat they see in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this, Iran resembles the state of mind of the Soviet Union in 1975. That year the Soviet leaders experienced a similar hubris following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, which precipitated an aggressive foreign policy starting in Africa and ending in Afghanistan.  (The legacy today is two failed states, Somalia and Afghanistan, that prior to becoming pawns in other countries’ rivalries were on the threshold to modernity, but are now the source of great suffering and cause of dangerous regional instability.)

The year 1975 launched a new era of cooperation with the signing of the Helsinki accord on Cooperation and Security in Europe. The Soviet agreed to principles of human rights, an agreement that, although entered into in bad faith, nevertheless proved to undermine the Eastern bloc regimes, contributing to their eventual demise at the beginning of the 1990’s. Yet, the policy of cooperation and dialogue gave the Soviet leaders a false sense of supremacy, seducing the leaders, obsessed with prestige and power and deluded by ideology, to the catastrophic foreign policy adventures that caused the climate of cooperation of 1975 to turn into a deep frozen Cold War only five years later, leading the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1983 as the result of misreading of intentions.

What are the lessons for dealing with Iran today? First of all, a non-confrontational approach could prove a more effective policy for advancing regime change than threats, probably even more so in a pluralistic polity like Iran. But avoiding political confrontation is not in itself enough to prevent dangerous misjudgements since it could be misread as weakness and tempt the adversary to exploit the situation. In hindsight it becomes obvious that what caused detente to turn into dangerous confrontation were exactly the misjudgements built into the human mind that Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for identifying in the field of economics. Kahneman would find all his insights into to fallibility of decision making confirmed by the decision makers in both the West and the East during this period, as he no doubt will today in the confrontational relationships in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Obviously, only effective dialogue, by balancing advocacy of owns views with exploring the adversary’s, can overcome these fallacies of the human mind.  This is as true in interstate relations as it is in interpersonal communication. But if it is so obvious, why is it so difficult?  Again, the answer is found in the way our minds are wired, and the solution is to be found in understanding this connection and learning how to deal with it. Kahneman points out that our brains react with positive emotions when our views are confirmed, but cause discomfort when we are contradicted.  In the words of the British Ambassador during my posting at the UN, Sir Crispin: “Gentlemen, let us never forget, we are all animals”.

Given these constraints, how can we bring the “human animals” to better understand, cope and cooperate on win-win options?  Professor Daniel Shapiro at Harvard Program on Negotiation has identified five core emotional concerns that affect our will and ability to overcome the fallacies that Kahneman find potentially catastrophic:

1.           Appreciation: The desire to feel understood and honestly valued.

2.          Affiliation: Recognizing shared identity traits.

3.          AutonomyMaking decisions without imposition.

4.           Status: Positive emotions grow when status increases self-esteem; Negative emotions fester in competition for status.

5.            Role: A role should fulfill emotional needs. Temporary roles may facilitate communication and compromise.

These concerns form the generic core of the motivation for all political behavior. They will therefore be the litmus test for any constructive political process in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Daniel Kahneman’s  good news is that when we chose to engage in deliberation, yet another part of our brain is activated.



[1] Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon Why Hawks Win, Foreign Policy, No 158 (Jan. – Feb., 2007), pp. 34-38

The Bahraini regime trying to reach a post-revolt phase

By: Tora Systad Tyssen

Whereas the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of the Arab spring led to regime falls, the Bahraini one did not and the Al Khalifa royal family is still ruling the small island just off the Saudi coast. In fact, the only thing that has fallen so far in the kingdom is the Pearl monument at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama,  thought to be to the Bahraini revolution what Tahrir was to the Egyptian. It was bulldozed in March when the protesters residing there were dispersed by force.

Even though the anti-government demonstrations prevails across the country and the state security police are out almost every night charging and arresting demonstrators the regime is working hard to give the impression that Bahrain has entered a post-revolt phase. Following the lift of the state of emergency on June 1st a set of steps have been made to give the impression that Bahrain is on its way back to a more stabile political situation[i].

One step was the introduction of what was called a national dialogue in July, where oppositional forces were invited to discuss matters of political, economical, social and human rights reform with the government. Al Wifaq, the main oppositional group that pulled out of the parliament in March in reaction to the governments repression of demonstrations this spring, decided to boycott the dialogue after having attended some of the sessions. Rejecting strongly the regimes emphasis on socioeconomic problems rather than political ones as the root of the protests this spring, they also decided to boycott the by-elections in September/October. The elections were conducted to fill the 18 seats that became vacant after al-Wifaq pulled out of parliament. This being another step by the regime to bring political life in the kingdom back to a more normal state, ignoring the demonstrations still happening across the country. At the opening of parliament on October 9th King Al Khalifa stated in his opening speech that it now is the duty of the Cabinet and the Parliament to take the recommandations from the national dialogue in July into practice and legislation if needed. According to the king significant political reforms are underway including granting the parliament more power and implementing stricter guidelines for nominations for the Upper House (Shura Council. The Bahraini parliament consists of two houses, an elected lower house, and a nominated upper house). The current voting districts, often accused of being gerrymandered to secure a sunni majority in the parliament, are being reviewed to ensure, according to the king, «that Bahrain’s citizens are given fair representation in their electoral constituencies»[ii].

A third step was the establishing of The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry by the king on June 29th this year. The committee, consisting of five non-bahrainis, is tasked with investigating and reporting on the events that took place in Bahrain from February 2011, and the consequences of those events. In other words, to map out the alleged violations of human rights by the state security forces and give recommandations on what its consequences should be[iii].

And so how successful have these steps been in taking Bahrain into a post-revolt state? Well, the easy answer would be not very. Demonstrations are still ongoing, no real reform is seen and and the fact that the Saudi military forces have not completely pulled out those not convey an image of stability or normality (supposing the political situation in Bahrain was stabile and normal prior to the uprising). True, the demonstrations are on a smaller scale than earlier this year, but that is mainly due to a severe crack down on them, rather than the demonstrators pulling out having achieved their objects. Even though the king has promised political reform, no real evidence is seen of it. The fact that al Wifaq has pulled out of the parliamentary system (and the voter turnout in September in some districts was less than 20 %), harms its legitimacy and illustrates the royal families failure to convince the population that it is taking its demands seriously.

In addition the Commission of Enquiry is accused of being biased towards the governments interests and the fact that it is nominated by the king does not help in this regard. The issue is addressed at the commissions official webpage stating in its defence that it «has benefited from a consultation process with various bodies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights». Still many Bahrainis do not expect the commission to map out the breaches of human rights in a sufficent way, despite the commissions postponing of its report from October 23rd to November 23rd saying it needs more time to review in depth the 8800 complaints it has heard and the 5700 interviews it has conducted[iv].

What will be interesting to see is whether the commissions findings and recommandations will be acted on. In the opening speech of the parliament the king promised it would. How much that is related to the $53 million American arms deal Bahrain is trying to close, is difficult to say. A spokesman of the American State Department said on October 18th it would look closely at the report and «continue to take human rights considerations into account as we move toward the finalization of this deal”. At least half a dozen senators have written to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticizing Bahrains human rights violations, claiming «completion of the arms sale would weaken U.S. credibility amid democratic transitions in the Middle East». Some reports claim the deal is already finalized. If it turns out to be, a strong American statement is made that they view Bahrain as being in a somewhat post-revolt phase, as many would claim selling weapons to a state handling a revolt would be questionable, despite the arms supposedly only being meant for «external use»[v].


[i] More on the current development in Bahrain:

[iii] More on the commission and its legal framework:

Implications of 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Iran

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Iran’s parliament elections are scheduled to take place in early March 2012.[1] Last two parliament elections were engineered by Iran’s Guardian Council of the Constitution in such a way that conservative forces close to Mahmud Ahmadinezhad won the majority of the seats in the parliament. Disqualification of hundreds of reform oriented candidates in the previous parliament elections and the suspicious results of 2009 presidential election convinced reform oriented forces close to Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami, to stay away from the debates on 2012 parliament elections. While conservative political organizations and politicians supporting Ahamadinezhad in the 2009 presidential elections are preparing themselves for the coming elections they express their concern over the consequences of eventual absence of reform oriented forces in the elections which may put popular legitimacy of the political system in danger.[2] The absence of reform oriented forces in the election would certainly result in low voter turnout, something the Islamic Republic has tried to avoid throughout its history even though it has not always been able to handle the consequences of high voter turnouts as the outcomes of the 2009 presidential election have shown. The 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi who contested the results of the election are now under house-arrest and many politicians and political activists who supported them in their presidential campaign have been sentenced to prison and their newspapers and organizations closed down. Right now, reform oriented forces led by Khatami are united behind the demands he put forward as a condition of their participation in the elections according to which all political prisoners must be released, freedom of expression and assembly must be protected, and finally free and fair elections must be guaranteed by the government.[3] Since last year, Khatami reiterated these demands several times but has not received any positive response from the conservatives in power. The reluctance of the reform oriented forces to be engaged in the debates on the coming elections has irritated veteran conservative figures who assume that the reform oriented forces may pursue undercover electoral strategies in the elections. According to this supposedly secrete strategy they will not participate in the elections officially but would select and support candidates declared by the Guardian Council as qualified candidates provided they follow a reform oriented politics in the parliament.[4]  The absence of the reform oriented forces from the coming elections makes the efforts of the conservative forces with their meetings, debates and negotiations to form a joint list of candidates in the coming elections to look like a worthless effort since the elections seem to lack real electoral competition. While the absence of a real electoral opponent should have made conservative forces to expect an easy electoral victory, it makes them more cynical and has intensified their divisions and inner fighting. At the moment, there are three conservative sub-factions expecting to win the majority of the seats in the new parliament. Traditional conservatives alliance the United Front of Principalists (jebheye motahed-e osulgarayan) led by the current president of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kkani, the neo-conservative radical forces, which paved the way for Ahamdinezhad’s  presidency in 2005 and 2009, in the Resistance Front (jebheye paidari) led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and finally supporters of Ahmadinezhad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaiy referred to as deviators (monhatefin) by their conservative rivals.[5]

The traditional conservatives believe they would benefit from participation of reform oriented forces in the elections, because it would restore the popular legitimacy the state enjoyed but has been seriously damaged in the aftermath of 2009 presidential election and force Ahmadinezhad’s allies to obey the majority rule within the conservative faction which they have ignored in the previous elections since 2005. But popular legitimacy is a strange word for Ahamdinezhad and his neo-conservative allies whether in the Resistance Front or among those backing Rahim Mashaiy. They both prefer to get rid of reform oriented candidates at all costs.

The traditional conservative faction has good reason to worry about unpredicted consequences of its internal rivalry and the informal support of reform oriented forces to little known reform oriented parliamentary candidates. In the case of a unified conservative list of candidates, the Guardian Council would have an easy job to disqualify unwanted candidates but it might be unable to perform its function satisfactorily when conservatives forces enter the elections with different lists of candidates, because in that case unknown reform oriented candidates cannot be easily recognized, classified and disqualified. There is a chance, the conservatives assume, that as a consequence of their internal confusion the reform oriented forces come out victorious from the elections without compromising their demands as a condition for their electoral participation. Unlike presidential elections in which voters distinguish candidates according to their political affiliations and in terms of their reformist or conservative approach, parliament elections entail many regional and local interests and concerns. For instance, there is an elite competition between Arabs and non-Arabs in the province of Khuzestan which has been exploited by conservatives close to Ahmadinezhad and Mohsen Rezaiy, former commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, in the previous elections and it will be exploited in the forthcoming elections as well. While the former can mobilize Arab voters behind Arab candidates in the south-west of the province, the latter would invest his political influence in the north-east of the province to mobilize non-e Arab voters behind his own candidates. With regard to the split within the conservative faction in this province, reform oriented forces may support Arab or non-Arab candidates advocating local causes and would like to join the reform oriented politics. The political scene in the province of Bushehr is friendlier for such reform oriented electoral maneuvering since the local public sphere in this region is dominated by local intellectuals and political activists who are unanimous in their support for democratic reforms on a local and national scale. Local intellectuals and political activists in this region would support reform oriented candidates since they can transmit their voice and discuss local grievances in the parliament and force governments to take the interests of their province and cities into consideration.[6] The current representatives of Bushehr in the parliament are supportive of reform oriented city councils and local non-governmental organizations and raise their voice against central government’s policies in the region. So it is more likely that local intellectuals and political activists in this region give their support to, at least, two current parliament members if they stand as parliament candidate and are qualified by the Guardian Council.[7]



Peace or war in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia? What to make of two recent US policy moves.

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft 

The US is the outside force that weighs most heavily in the power equations of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. US policy is currently mainly driven by concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. Towards Iran US policy will, in the absence of a trust-building agreement, be based on the assumption that the goal of Iran’s nuclear program is nuclear arms, despite remaining uncertainties and Iranian claims to the contrary. A further US assumption is probably that without a solution acceptable also to Israel and Saudi Arabia, stability in the region, the overriding US policy goal, will not be possible and war hard to prevent.

Two recent US policy moves may appear contradictory: The Obama administration has – after hesitation dating back to the Bush Administration – authorized the transfer to Israel of fifty five sophisticated bombs designed for penetrating underground targets, such as the Iranian nuclear installations. At the same time the top US military commander, Admiral Mullen, has frequently warned against any war scenario with Iran, and is now probably behind the initiative for a hotline with Iran’s naval command to avoid inadvertent clashes in the Gulf between Iranian naval vessels and the US fleet headquartered in Bahrain,  sharing narrow and crowed shipping lanes.

Are these US policy moves incompatible, pulling in opposite directions? Yes and no.

First of all, the US is not a monolithic entity. As in Israel and Saudi Arabia, there are factions that urge military attack against Iranian nuclear installations. These factions are oblivious to or underrate the high risk of escalation by dangerous Iranian counter attacks, a risk severely aggravated by the decentralized Iranian military command and parallel structure of the Revolutionary Guard, fragmenting Iranian control in crisis. The easiest target for Iran’s attacks, closing the Strait of Hormus, would potentially have the most catastrophic consequences world-wide by closing off an estimated 40% of the world’s oil supply.  A sober look at reality should show beyond doubt that none of the four countries – nor the rest of the world, for that matter – can escape an extreme vulnerability in any war scenario – or in the unpredictable, potentially chaotic and destabilizing aftermath. Therefore, war should appear highly inadvisable as a policy option in any conceivable set of circumstances.

The problem is that not everybody sees it that way. The US President is not omnipotent in the US political system, but must compromise, necessarily resulting in occasional incoherent policies. So when agreeing to provide Israel with offensive weapons against Iran, did President Obama against his better judgement succumb to pressure from the advocates of military action to enhance Israel’s capacity to strike Iranian nuclear installations? No, not likely.

President Obama is known to approach decisions in a highly analytic manner. In these two political moves, the following reading of his mind is likely: He fully endorses his top military commander’s rejection of war as a policy option and shares the concern to avoid military confrontation by accident and misunderstanding. But at the same time he is convinced that adding Iran to Pakistan as nuclear armed trouble spots in the region would be unacceptable. In his view, nuclear arms serve no sensible purpose, not for anybody. Therefore, nuclear arms would not make Iran more secure, only severely boost tensions, create the risk of Israeli panicked pre-emptive attacks, and most likely provoke a nuclear arms race in the region. By arming Israel with weapons that conceivably could destroy the Iranian underground nuclear installations, he intends to put pressure on Iran to negotiate.  He trusts that influential circles in Iran realize that in the event of diplomatic failure, military action may become difficult to avoid, irrespective of risks and consequences. If President Obama is seen to fail in a peaceful solution with Iran, his opponents in the upcoming election will use it against him. By failing to compromise now, Iran may come  to face a new US President who, like influential circles in Israel and Saudi Arabia, sees war as the only option left, an option to be exercised urgently in the perceived window- of-opportunity until Iran is fully nuclear armed.

This window-of-opportunity argument for attack is of course politically self-defeating, inadvertently providing a rational argument for Iran’s leadership to acquire a nuclear deterrent, thus providing a lever for those in the domestic Iranian power struggle seeking to undercut any rival that may agree to a compromise.  Realizing this, President Obama’s exceedingly difficult strategy is to create pressure to compromise while reassuring that attack is neither intended nor imminent. With his second term uncertain, as an astute politician Obama probably sees the rest of his first term as the window-of-opportunity for negotiations, and hopes to convince Iran of the same by demonstrably making the option of Israeli attack more militarily credible.

The meaning of ”crisis” in Kuwait

By: Jon Nordenson

Once again, political “crisis” looms over Kuwait, with some commentators suggesting that parliament soon will be dissolved, and new elections held. Yet, in light of the past five years in Kuwaiti politics, this can hardly be termed a “crisis”. Rather, it is politics as usual.

The background for the current crisis is the alleged transfer of approximately KD 25 million ($ 91 million) from government funds to two pro-government MPs. Obviously, this is a serious issue, and in many people’s eyes a confirmation of the corruption they see in every aspect of the Kuwaiti state. Not surprisingly, the scandal has provoked many initiatives from oppositional MPs and activists.

For one thing, opposition MPs have called for an emergency session on the issue, in order to debate this particular incident and to pass new laws to prevent corruption and money laundering. According to Kuwaiti law, an emergency session must be held if at least 33 MPs sign the proposal. So far, 29 MPs have signed, with about 20 pro-government MPs rejecting the initiative, at least for now. One might question whether or not this is a wise approach on part of the government; with such serious accusations, it should be in everyone’s interest to investigate them properly. Moreover, given the recent crisis combined with a fresh report from the IMF criticizing Kuwait for not doing enough to hinder money laundering and terror-financing, new laws on these issues might be a very good idea. It should of course be noted here that the government may agree with the need for a debate on the issue as well as to review country’s legal framework, even though it does not agree on the need for an emergency session.

The scandal has provoked other initiatives as well; a website launched by activists in the country encourage MPs to sign a pledge to provide the authorities with access to their bank accounts, in order to clear themselves from any suspicion of being involved in the scandal. Many MPs have signed similar pledges on their own initiative as well. Moreover, a large demonstration against corruption is planned for the 16th of September. And, of course, the scandal has provoked new istijwabat, that is, interpellations against cabinet ministers, in this case the PM himself.

As I have written earlier, Kuwaiti MPs have a constitutional right to question cabinet ministers on a particular issue, and the questioning may be followed by a vote of confidence. Previously, these interpellations have been a constant source of “crisis” in Kuwait, in that they have provoked the resignation of ministers, the entire cabinet and even the dissolution of parliament when the minister in question stands to lose the vote of confidence. It has been, for quite a few years, the weapon of choice for the opposition. This time, the interpellation on the 25 millions comes in addition to two other interpellations already presented against the PM, and they will almost certainly be followed by a vote of no confidence.

Thus, “crisis” is looming again, and as mentioned, many commentators have predicted the dissolution of the parliament and early elections. But this in itself is nothing out of the ordinary. Since the parliament was reinstated after the war in 1992, only to parliaments have completed their 4-year terms. Since 2003, there have been held four elections in Kuwait. Accordingly, there would be nothing extraordinary about early elections, and it can hardly be said to constitute a “crisis”, as a “crisis” implies that something extraordinary has taken place.

However, this is not to say that Kuwaiti politics is not in a state of crisis. The constant bickering between parliament and government seems to prevent any real development from taking place. The government seems unable to govern an unruly parliament, while the parliament is prevented by law from governing (the Kuwaiti government is not based on a parliamentary majority, it is named directly by the Emir. The parliament for their part has largely negative powers). The result is that nothing much happens; the grand development scheme adopted by the parliament earlier has not yet materialized, in fact, the PM just ordered a report on why it has not yet materialized. And, as the statistics mentioned above clearly shows; neither party is willing to give in, and the result is deadlock and “crisis”. Moreover; the level of corruption revealed in this latest scandal is hardly an asset in Kuwait’s stated bid to become a “financial hub” in the region. In all, crisis may be a fitting description of the state of Kuwaiti politics, but the constant “crisis” between parliament and government is merely a symptom of more fundamental problems.