BY SHASHI MALLA
• United States & Iran Return from the Brink of Hostilities
A US surveillance drone was shot down in the early hours of last Thursday by Iranian military forces in the Gulf of Oman near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. US President tweeted ominously soon after: “Iran made a very big mistake”. Both sides are disputing whether the incident occurred over Iranian or international airspace. However, sending a spy drone so close to the Iranian coast, whether or not above international waters, was in itself a major provocation, considering the heightened tensions after the two major incidents involving tankers in this very area. It was as if the United States was inciting the Iranians to take action – if they dared.
The US hawkish faction nearly succeeded in opening up the dams of war, because Iran did react to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity and promptly shot down the spy drone. What Secretary of State [SoS] Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton hoped for, succeeded in the first instance. But there must have been more confusion than clarity in Trump’s inner circle/war cabinet as further developments illustrate. Within hours, the president ordered plans to be set in motion for retaliatory strikes. It was even announced that US war planes were preparing to strike Iranian radar and missile installations.
Furthermore, the attacks would take place early on Friday, the holy day for Muslims, to limit ‘collateral damage’. Previously, Trump had also requested Oman, a neutral observer which together with Iran commands the Strait of Hormuz, to act as intermediary and convey to Iran the immanent attack, which could be averted by the possibility of bilateral talks. This was Trump’s old tactic of massive threats followed by negotiation which he had applied to North Korea. This was unalloyed blackmail, and the Iranians were not buying it. Their leaders had also already made clear that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had previously rejected such offers.
With no reaction from Iran forthcoming, SoS Pompeo and NSA Bolton could convince President Donald Trump to allow the vast US forces in the region to initiate offensive action. The US navy in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman (including the muscular aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln) was put on alert, and US Air Force planes were already in the air and en route to attack the three targeted Iranian missile/radar sites.
However, between the decision-making/command and the execution of the hostile military operation, the US President/Commander-in-Chief [C-in-C] had a change of heart [or got cold feet] or [more probably] was persuaded by saner people [probably the powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff] to abort the hostile military action (only 10 minutes before it was to happen) which would be tantamount to a casus belli. A military conflagration in the entire region had been averted, at least for the time being.
In the meantime, details are emerging of the decision-making processes in both countries in the tense hours of the ‘not war, but also not peace’. Both countries are giving the impression that rhetorically speaking at least, both the US and Iran have withdrawn – at least temporarily – from the brink.
Trump has claimed in a series of tweets that he called off launching airstrikes on three Iranian battery sites because he was concerned about killing Iranians. The estimated death toll, which he estimated was 150 people, was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
Meanwhile, Amirali Hajizadeh, the head commander of the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “(IRGC) aerospace division also contended that his forces chose not to shoot down a manned military aircraft with 35 U.S. service members aboard, instead deciding to target the spy drone (flying at a great height): “This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not do it,” according to the Fars News Agency. This indicates first, that the Iranians were very well informed, and second their defense capabilities are very sophisticated.
According to TIME magazine, the situation remains very volatile and [while] “capable of igniting into wider war, the comments show the two nations are willing to de-escalate the building tensions. Taken together, the statements reveal a potential off-ramp to military confrontation.”
However, the Trump administration’s collision course with Iran is not going away. Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the “Brookings Institution” think tank, said the US and Iran are now “partly trying to defuse” tensions for conflict. “But they are also looking for the moral high ground in what is also a competition over world opinion in the economic ‘war’ where the United States is certainly not interested in defusing the situation, but rather in increasing the pressure.”
It is quite clear that the first casualty of a military conflict – apart from Iranian and US servicemen would be the state of Israel (via Iranian proxies such as Hizbullah) adding an additional imponderable to the mix.
• China’s Crucial Role in US-North Korea Confabulations
President Donald Trump getting increasingly nervous about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tete-a-tete with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un during the former’s two-day state visit to the hermit kingdom also hard-pressed by economic sanctions, has precipitously sent an ‘excellent’ letter to Kim, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim is supposed to have said “with satisfaction that the letter is of excellent content” and according to the agency “appreciating the political judging faculty and extraordinary courage of President Trump”, Kim said that he “would seriously contemplate the interesting content.”
Nuclear disarmament talks between the U.S. and North Korea broke down after the failed second summit between Trump and Kim in February 2019 in Vietnam. The US had demanded that North Korea first abandon its nuclear weapons entirely before international UN sanctions were lifted. In contrast, North Korea sought a step-by-step approach in which moves toward “denuclearization” were matched progressively by concessions from the U.S., notably a relaxation of the oppressive sanctions.
The announcement of Trump’s letter to Kim, came days after Kim’s summit with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, which experts say highlighted China’s emergence as a key player in the diplomatic negotiation to resolve the nuclear stalemate with North Korea. The North Korean state media reported that Xi and Kim discussed the political and strategic environment in and around the Korean Peninsula and reached unspecified consensus on important [bilateral/multilateral?] issues.
Xi is scheduled to meet with Trump this week in Japan during the G – 20 summit of the 19 major economies of the world plus the European Union in Osaka from June 27-29. Besides the agenda set by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, Xi will definitely discuss the North Korean imbroglio and the state of the US-China tariff war [and not forgetting the unpredictable standoff in Iran which has become a world issue].
If Trump is to make any headway on these pressing issues, he will have to shed his uncompromising attitude. Perhaps it will be a golden opportunity to realize that the United States is no longer the all-powerful super-power and hegemony that can dictate matters to the entire world, and that collective and cooperative solutions to planet earth’s myriad problems are the need of the hour. Without this ‘spark of vision’, Trump is destined to endanger not only domestic peace and the ’American Dream & Way of Life’ back home, but also world peace and tranquility in general.
Kim for his part has already indicated that he would seek a ‘new way’ if the United States persists with sanctions and pressure against North Korea. He has given Washington until the end of this year to offer mutually acceptable terms for an agreement to rescue the negotiations. Trump has to get down from his high horse, totally abandon his image as the “Tariffs Man” or “Sanctions Man”, and realize that leaders of other countries – whether China, North Korea or Iran –have ultimately to answer to their own people, and there comes a moment when ‘enough is enough’.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the Dock
A United Nations special inquest has found “credible evidence” warranting further investigation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman [aka “MBS”] for his crucial role in the brutal murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. This was the con- clusion reached by Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard in a 98-page report.
Khashoggi, who was a “Washington Post” columnist and an outspoken critic of the authoritarian Saudi regime, was lured to the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul under false pretences [he was to collect papers for his forthcoming marriage to Turkish national and doctoral candidate, Hatice Cengiz], and then executed in a bestial manner and dismembered. His body parts have disappeared into thin air.
Callamard wrote that in her considered opinion, “Mr. Khashoggi has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”
Besides this damning condemnation, the US Special Rapporteur also demanded retribution: “In addition, the execution of Mr. Khashoggi demands that those responsible be identified and held to account for their role in the execution of Mr. Khashoggi. Yet, some eight months after the execution of Mr. Khashoggi, the determination and assignment of individual responsibilities remain clouded in secrecy and lack of due process.”
Callamard also highlighted MBS’s domestic and external campaign against political opponents and dissidents, and noted that “every expert consulted finds its inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the Crown Prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched.”
The Trump administration has done nothing against this reprehensible act against humanity besides sanctioning 16 Saudis over the killing, in spite of the fact that US intelligence agencies have concluded that MBS categorically ordered the journalist’s extermination. President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are too cosy with MBS to expect any US definitive action.
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