The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State -DER SPIEGEL (Updated)


Based on the files of Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi (also known as Haji Bakr), a colonel in the intelligence service under Saddam Hussein, this article examines the institutional structure and strategy behind the Islamic State. It is a little on the sensationalist side, and it really only covers the internal security side of the political equation, but it is one of the most detailed descriptions of the IS’ internal workings to emerge so far. It is also interesting because it paints IS as a rational and calculating organization. This is a different picture than we are used to seeing in the press, which has emphasized the group’s fanaticism. It is worth considering that IS may be both rational and irrational at the same time. The group’s strategies and tactics may be entirely rational though its goals uncompromising and fanatical. The fanatical violence may also help with the implementation of rational goals and strategies by mobilizing support among those who sympathize and intimidating/terrorizing the opposition. The mix, in all likelihood is complex. We will not know more until we have a better understanding of the politics among the group’s elite -which is not really addressed in the article.

Here is a follow up article from the blog “War on the Rocks” providing a fairly detailed discussion of IS’s strategy and tactics during its initial period of growth. While has some elements in common with the Der Spiegel article, it downplays the role of ex-Bath’ists arguing that much of the planning and expertise behind the IS emerged from Al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist Salafi movements.

Why Palestine Has No Chance at the International Criminal Court -The Daily Beast


An interesting look at the Palestinian Authority and the International Criminal Court. Not only does it point out the limitations of the Palestinian Authority’s position if it tries to have Israel prosecuted for war crimes relating to the 2014 Gaza war. It also has some interesting things to say about how the ICC works in general and its limited ability to confront powerful states.

Nevertheless, the ICC does provide the PA with some political leverage:
“Palestine’s membership in the ICC likely has political motivations designed to extract concessions from Israel. If the threat of the ICC action spurs Israeli investigations of its own alleged misconduct, that alone could be a success from the Palestinian perspective. If a similar threat slows settlement activity or deters future Israeli military operations, these too could be successes.

Finally, Palestinian membership may be part of a domestic political chess game between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank. Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, made the ICC referral, but Hamas was primarily responsible for the alleged Palestinian war crimes. Although Fatah would be loathe to admit it publicly, an ICC investigation into the Palestinian situation could be an effort by Fatah to strengthen its position against Hamas.”

Would New Borders Mean Less Conflict in the Middle East? -Wall Street Journal


Since the Islamic State seized Mosul last summer, there has been a great deal of time spent discussing the dysfunctional nature of the Sykes-Picot border system drawn up after WW1. While there is no denying the borders did not reflect the political and social reality on the ground, the problem should not be over simplified. No matter where the borders were drawn they would have been disputed. That is not meant to minimize the mistakes made by the British and the French. Rather it means there was no simple neat way to establish a state system in the middle east even if the borders were drawn up with the best intentions. This continues to be true. There is no simple neat way to fix the mistakes of the past. Any attempt to redraw the current borders will be contested, violently in all likelihood. The states involved will object, of course, and the various political and social communities are too intertwined to be divided cleanly.

Brazil’s coming recession: The crash of a titan -The Economist


A gloomy look at Brazil’s economic woes and the state’s increasingly ineffective economic policy instruments:

“Faced with (two) poisonous options, a middle path is most likely. Interest rates will be too high for households and firms, so subsidised funding will grow. But they will be too low to protect the real, so swap costs will rise, too. Both subsidies put extra pressure on the government’s finances. By mixing monetary and fiscal policy in this way, Brazil is slowly rendering both ineffective.”

Reducing Yemen’s Houthis to ‘Iranian proxies’ is a mistake -CSMonitor


A good critique of the standard argument that the Houthis are controlled by Iran. The religious connections between Iran and the Houthis is thin. While the Houthis are Shi’a, they are Zeidis:

“There does not exist a natural affinity between the Yemeni Zeidis and the 12er [i.e. follower of the 12th imam] Shia of southern Iraq and Iran. The zaidiya follows a system of religious law (sharia) that more closely resembles that of the Hanafi Sunni “school” of law than that of the Shia of Iran or Iraq. The Zaidi scholars profess no allegiance to the 12er Shia scholarship of the Iranian teachers… In short there is little religious connection with Iran. For a Zaydi to “convert” to 12er Shiism is as big and alienating a step as “conversion” to Sunnism.”

and the politics are local:

“It began with a rivalry between Houthi summer camps and the Saudi-financed salafi institute in the small, historically Zaydi town of Dammaj, which is a story rather more precise and interlaced with contemporary state power than the implied frame of “age-old” dispute between the two main branches of Islam allows.”

Iran is backing the Houthis and the Saudis are backing President Hadi among others. This is a domestic conflict which has drawn in the regional power. Sadly, this has been a common pattern in the region.

The Iran Nuclear Deal: World Reaction -various


Reaction to the deal has been fairly predictable:

1. The Canadian government is deeply skeptical, and Canadian sanctions will remain in place.

2. The Persian Gulf States have also been skeptical, particularly the Saudis. Saudi press statements offered half-hearted support:
“King Salman told Mr. Obama that he “hopes reaching a final and binding agreement would lead to improving security and stability in the region and the world,” the Saudi state news agency said.”
“Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and political commentator, said the Saudis would be undeterred by any potential Western softening toward Tehran. The Kingdom “is still now going to handle Iran’s expansionism. It’s not going to leave that in the hands of the Americans.”

3. In Israel Prime Minister Netenyahu was bluntly critical, but interestingly, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, formerly the head of military intelligence, had a more nuanced view:
“If we aspire to an ideal world and dream of having all of Israel’s justified demands fulfilled, then of course the agreement does not deliver. It grants Iran legitimacy as a nuclear threshold state and potential to eventually achieve nuclearization. It leaves Iran more or less one year away from a nuclear weapon, and Israel will clearly not like all of this.

“But there’s another way to look at it that examines the current situation and the alternatives. In this other view, considering that Iran now has 19,000 centrifuges, the agreement provides quite a good package. One has to think what might have happened if, as aspired to by Netanyahu and Steinitz, negotiations had collapsed. Had that happened, Iran could have decided on a breakout, ignored the international community, refused to respond to questions about its arsenal, continued to quickly enrich and put together a bomb before anyone could have had time to react. And therefore, with this in mind, it’s not a bad agreement.”

Read more:

4. According to the Republicans: “Obama’s dangerous deal with Iran rewards an enemy, undermines our allies and threatens our safety.” And they are demanding congress be allowed to review it.

The question now is what can they do to derail it? They have some options:

“Members of Congress can hold hearings, calling witnesses to testify about the dangers of the agreement and in this way “embarrass the administration,” he said. Witnesses could testify about the dangers of an agreement, for example, and about flaws in the administration strategy.

Members of Congress could refuse to appropriate funds necessary for an agreement with Iran to go into effect. This would delay – and perhaps derail – the agreement. There are other options, too.

On 14 April members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are planning to vote on Senator Bob Corker’s bipartisan Iran nuclear agreement review act, as it’s known. This would give members of Congress 60 days after a nuclear deal is reached to decide if they want to waive sanctions against Iran.

…. members of Congress could decide to up the ante and impose “pretty draconian new sanctions”, NYU School of Law’s Zachary Goldman said. It would be hard, since they’d need the support of two-thirds of both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives to over-ride a presidential veto. Both houses are Republican-controlled but they would need Democrat votes.”

Considering there are still important negotiations required before the deal is completely done, this has the potential to undermine or at least complicate the deal.

Just as worrying, Republican pressure will force Obama to go top great lengths to justify the deal to congress. As he does so, he will have to characterize the deal as an American win and Iranian loss. This will make it harder for Rouhani to sell the deal in Tehran. In fact, the Iranian press is already claiming that Obama is lying about the nature of the deal:

This is an astonishingly good Iran deal -VOX


Iran and the P5+1 have their deal.

-Iran will give up about 14,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges.
-Iran will give up all but its most rudimentary, outdated centrifuges: its first-generation IR-1s, knockoffs of 1970s European models, are all it gets to keep. It will not be allowed to build or develop newer models.
-Iran will give up 97 percent of its enriched uranium; it will hold on to only 300 kilograms of its 10,000-kilogram stockpile in its current form.
-Iran will destroy or export the core of its plutonium plant at Arak, and replace it with a new core that cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. It will ship out all spent nuclear fuel.

This is a framework agreement so there are still some details to be hammered out. The most important of which is the timing of sanctions relief. This review in VOX is positive, particularly on the issue of inspections. IAEA inspectors will have access to enrichment sites such as Natanz and Fordow as well as centrifuge factories and “all parts of Iran’s nuclear supply chain, including its uranium mines and the mills where it processes uranium ore. Inspectors will also not just monitor but be required to pre-approve all sales to Iran of nuclear-related equipment. This provision also applies to something called “dual-use” materials, which means any equipment that could be used toward a nuclear program..” The deal also includes Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The deal lasts from 10-15 years. Critics will claim that Iran will only be a year away from break-out capability when it ends.This may be true but Iran is only a few months away from that capability now. Military strikes could push them back a few years, but not 10-15. This basic logic is pretty compelling.

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s cold war is making the Middle East even more dangerous -VOX


A decent overview of the Iranian-Saudi cold war and how it is exacerbating post-Arab Spring instability in the region. I would add that a significant contributor to the tensions between the two has been Tehran’s desire to maintain a deterrent capacity vis-a-vis the US (and to a lesser extent Israel) through its relationship with groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The competition then, can more accurately be described as three sided: Tehran-Riyadh-Washington. This triangle has been bent out of shape, so to speak, by the US-Iranian nuclear negotiation process and their collaboration in Iraq. It will be interesting to see what happens to the triangle if the negotiations between Iran and the US produce a deal.