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The resignation of Sir Kim Darroch as British ambassador to Washington, because of his leaked messages to London criticising President Trump, is highly revealing about the real state of British knowledge of what is going on in the US.

Supporters of the former ambassador portray him as a skilled and experienced foreign office official who was “only doing his job” until brought low by the machinations of the Brexiteers and the treachery of Boris Johnson. His detractors view him, on the contrary, as an old-style representative of a europhile British foreign policy establishment which is out of place in the age of Trump.

Most striking in the copious excerpts from Darroch’s cables to the home government between 2017 and the present day – published by the Mail on Sunday – is that they do not contain a single original fact or opinion. They are a relentless repetition of the shallowest Washington conventional wisdom about the intentions of the Trump administration.

“This is a divided administration,” Darroch tells his readers and says that there are angry disputes within the White House which he compares to a knife fight. He suspects that Trump could be indebted to “dodgy Russians” and fears that his economic policies could wreck the world trading system. Possibly the president could “crash and burn” because he is “mired in scandal”, though politicians in London should “not write him off”.

Our man in Washington since 2016 believes that Trump has the ability to shrug off scandals and emerge from the flames, battered but intact, “like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in the final scene in the Terminator”.

A senior diplomat from the British embassy goes to a Trump rally and finds the crowd to be almost exclusively white. He describes the enthusiastic atmosphere as being similar to that of home fans at a sporting event and the faithful attending a religious meeting. The ambassador suspects that Trump’s campaign strategy in the presidential election will be to “go with what he knows best” and appeal to his core supporters. Cunning fellow!

Darroch demonstrates a firm grip on the obvious, citing his own sources as confirming information which was already the lead item on every news channel and newspaper front page across America. On occasion, even these sources fail, as they do when Trump is deciding whether or not to launch retaliatory airstrikes on Iran after the Iranians shoot down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

In an excerpt from a cable written at 12.39am UK time on 22 June, Darroch detects disarray in Washington: “Even our best contacts were unwilling to take our calls.”

Isabel Oakeshott, who obtained and published the cables, does her best to make Darroch’s words sound interesting and original by claiming “astonishingly” that the ambassador was dubious about Trump’s statement that he changed his mind on US airstrikes because of his concern over Iranian casualties. Similar scepticism had earlier been expressed by every new channel in the country.

Looking through the excerpts from Darroch’s cables, I searched for something that was not common knowledge and found nothing. Could Oakeshott, known to be sympathetic to Brexit, have deliberately excluded anything really new from her quotes? This is unlikely because journalists generally boost the explosive nature of the “bombshell comments” in their scoops.

It is equally unlikely also that she would deliberately fillet Darroch’s prose style and leave in only the cliches and tired phrases. Assuming that her excerpts are representative of the rest of his cables, it becomes clear that Britain’s most senior man in Washington knew so little about developments in the White House that he might as well have stayed in London, or, for that matter, the Outer Hebrides.

Does this matter? Yes it does, because it highlights the real weakness of Britain at the very moment that a British warship is in the Gulf – with another one on the way – confronting Iranian Revolutionary Guard gunboats, in a conflict which is driven by the US, and whose direction we cannot predict or even influence.

Is Britain kowtowing to the US? You bet she is, but this is scarcely fresh news. In the 40 years that I have been writing about British foreign policy in the Middle East, the priority of British governments has invariably been to find out what the Americans want, do the same thing as them as cheaply as possible and demonstrate what a valuable and irreplaceable ally we are.

This has been the ongoing British approach since 1940 with a brief wobble at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956. The British drew the conclusion from Suez that they must be more closely allied to the US, while the French decided that, on the contrary, they needed to cooperate more closely with other continental states in Europe.

There is nothing foolish about a policy of Britain piggy-backing on American power though the strategy was accompanied by a great deal of self-deception. Brexit or no Brexit, it is not likely to change much. Tony Blair is unfairly blamed by many for cravenly joining the US in invading Iraq in 2003, but another prime minister – Labour or Conservative – would have done exactly the same thing.

The British acted in lock-step with the Americans and appeared to have little other purpose in being in Iraq. As soon as the bulk of US forces left, the British did the same thing and promptly lost interest in the place. The same was true when Isis captured Mosul and advanced on Baghdad in 2014. A House of Commons Defence Committee report the following year that as Isis was preparing to capture Mosul “the political section of the British Embassy in Baghdad consisted of three relatively junior, although extremely able, employees on short term deployment.” When Isis attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq the same year, the Germans poured in thousands of machine guns, assault rifles and anti-tank weapons while we managed to send just 40 heavy machine guns.

What Brexiteers – as well as many anti-Brexiteers – fail to understand is the degree to which Britain’s real political and commercial power has declined. There are lamentations about the decline of the foreign office and the defence forces, but it is too late to do much about this. It was, after all, the slogan of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that the government apparatus was the problem, not the solution. This was always nonsense, but one result has been the ebbing effectiveness of the British state in general of which the weakening of the diplomatic and armed forces are only one aspect.

The vacuous cables and humiliating departure of Darroch, and Britain’s reliance on the US in any confrontation with Iran, tell the same story. Both expose in different ways just how isolated and ill-informed about the world Britain has become. So long as it stuck to old routines and alliances, this was not as obvious as it is now becoming. The only option will be to stick even closer to Trump’s America, but we have no means of influencing or even knowing about Trump’s chaotic course, as our former ambassador has discovered to his cost.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Donald Trump 
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The seizure of an Iranian oil tanker allegedly bound for Syria by British Royal Marine commandos off Gibraltar is the latest episode in the long and disastrous history of economic sanctions in the Middle East. The UK claims that it is implementing EU sanctions on Syria, but the act will be seen by Tehran – and most other states – as the British enforcing US sanctions on Iran that the EU said it opposes. An Iranian official said a British tanker should be seized in retaliation.

Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary and aspirant prime minister, eager to show himself walking tall on the international stage, tweeted: “Swift action has denied valuable resources to Assad’s murderous regime.”

But that is exactly what has not happened. Economic sanctions in the Middle East and elsewhere have invariably been a collective punishment of an entire people while leaders and their security forces come through unscathed. UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003 did not stop Saddam Hussein building luxurious palaces and giant mosques while ordinary Iraqis were reduced to selling their furniture and crockery in the streets.

I visited a village called Penjwin in mountainous northeast Iraq in 1996 which was in the Kurdish-controlled area, but still subject to UN sanctions. I wondered why so many people in the main streets had lost an arm or a foot. The explanation given to me by the villagers lives in my mind as a grisly example of the straits to which people can be reduced by the impact of sanctions on top of their many other burdens.

People in Penjwin said they were very poor and lived in the middle of vast minefields laid during the Iran-Iraq war. The one way they could make money was by defusing one particular mine, the Italian Valmara, and selling the aluminium wrapped around the explosives.

The Valmara is a lethal device with five khaki-coloured prongs at the top that looked like dried grass. If any prong is disturbed a small charge was detonated making the mine jump into the air to waist height and the main charge explodes, spraying 1,200 metal balls over a range of 100 yards.

“I defuse the mine with a piece of wire,” Sabir Majid, a middle-aged man who had formerly been a farmer, told me. “Then I unscrew the top of it and take out the aluminium around the explosives. When I have taken apart six mines, I have enough aluminium to sell for 30 dinars (about 75 pence) to a shop in Penjwin.”

He said this was just enough to feed but not to clothe his family. Few of those who made a mistake in defusing a Valmara survived, but it was surrounded by small, difficult-to-spot anti-personnel mines which looked like large mushrooms and could easily take off a foot or a hand.

At that time, the UN estimated that between six and seven thousand Iraqi children were dying every month because of sanctions. The education and health services had collapsed: visiting foreign doctors “witnessed a surgeon trying to operate with scissors that were too blunt to cut the patient’s skin”.

I wrote many articles about the devastating effect of sanctions on millions of Iraqis, but nobody appeared to pay much attention. Foreign governments, such as the US and UK, blamed the continuation of sanctions, whose ill effects on the mass of the population they downplayed, on Saddam Hussein for not coming clean about his Weapons of Mass Destruction (that turned out not to exist) and not giving up power.

Two UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq resigned in succession in protest against sanctions, but it did no good. It is worth recalling the prophetic words of one of them, Dennis Halliday, as he left his post in 1998, keeping in mind that this was five years before al-Qaeda took root in Iraq. “What should be of concern is the possibility of more fundamentalist Islamic thinking developing,” he said. “It is not well understood as a spin-off of the sanctions regime. We are pushing people to take extreme positions.”

Fast forward 20 years and compare Syria now to Iraq then. Three million people are trapped in Idlib province under Russian and Syrian government bombardment. There is a festering guerrilla war in the Kurdish-controlled but half-Arab area east of the Euphrates river.

All of Syria is subjected to economic sanctions by the EU and US which a leaked UN internal report in 2016 said were causing extreme suffering among ordinary Syrians. Basic medicines and medical equipment could not be purchased and imported into Syria by foreign aid agencies. The report, entitled “Humanitarian Impact of Syria-Related Unilateral Restrictive Measures” – in other words sanctions –and leaked to the investigative publication The Intercept, quotes a European doctor working in Syria as saying: “the indirect effect of sanctions … makes the import of medical instruments and other medical supplies immensely difficult, nearly impossible”.

The UN sanctions against Iraq used to target “dual use” items, such as pencils and tyres for ambulance because they could have a military as well as civilian application. Much the same thing happens with sanctions in Syria today with bans on drilling equipment and pipes for water supply and sanitation according to the report.

A more recent survey by a UN body coordinating humanitarian affairs in Syria published this May is ominously similar to the ones I used to read about Iraq 20 years ago. It says that at least 83 per cent of Syrians were living below the poverty line: “a monthly food ration with staple items costs at least 80 per cent of an unskilled labourer’s monthly salary and 50-80 per cent of a public service employee’s monthly salary”. It describes people trying to cope by eating less, avoiding medical treatment because there is no money to pay for it, child labour and child marriage, and being recruited as fighters to pay off debts.

In other words, a whole society is in meltdown. Part of this is the result of eight years of civil war, but sanctions exacerbate the suffering and prevent recovery. Least affected are those, both government and opposition, who command the armed forces to make sure they never lack for anything. The economic blockade of Iraq did not get rid of Saddam Hussein and the same is true of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The political equivalents of Jeremy Hunt in the 1990s claimed that the aid agencies’ accounts of the misery inflicted on the civilian population by sanctions were phoney or exaggerated. Well-informed officials like Dennis Halliday, who protested about what was happening, could always be smeared as being soft on Saddam. Critics of sanctions in Syria can be similarly ignored or discredited as sympathisers with Assad, though rigorous sanctions have demonstrably failed to stop him tightening his grip on power.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Donald Trump, Iran, Iraq 
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Four years ago, I was standing by the grave of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old child who drowned when the rubber boat carrying him and his Syrian Kurdish family from Turkey to Greece was flipped over by high waves. The picture of his small body in a red shirt and black shorts lying face down on a Turkish beach with his head in the surf was supposed to have focused public attention on the hideous plight of refugees in the Mediterranean.

Alan’s grave was an ugly stone rectangle in a cemetery beside the ruins of the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria which Isis had ferociously assaulted and nearly captured in a prolonged siege in 2014-15. I found the scene all the more moving because there were no flowers and Alan’s little grave was surrounded by fresh earth gouged out by a bulldozer preparing the ground for more graves.

I thought of Alan again this week when a photo was published of a father and daughter, also refugees, lying face down in muddy brown water close to the bank of the Rio Grande which they had been trying to swim to reach the United States. Like Alan and his family, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez drowned together with his 23-month-old daughter Valeria on what they hoped would be the last lap of their journey to a better life.

The photo of Valeria and Oscar, her small head tucked inside his T-shirt and her arm embracing his neck, evoked a wave of emotion around the world. The Democrats in Congress sought to pass a $4.5bn humanitarian aid bill to ease the suffering of migrants on the border with Mexico. Predictably, President Trump aggressively counter-attacked with tweets claiming that many lives would be saved if only the Democrats would change “broken” immigration laws.

Over the years I have become suspicious of photos which epitomise some tragedy by portraying the death or injury of a single individual and are supposed to be galvanising international action to stop the same thing happening again. The emphasis is on pity and grief but attention is diverted from the person or people responsible for some horror. Where such attention-grabbing pictures are not available, tragedies remain little reported and unnoticed.

How many people in the EU states, who are appalled by what is happening on the US-Mexico border, know that the death toll among refugees there is far lower than on the frontiers of the EU?

So far this year 427 refugees are known to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach the EU according to the UN Refugee Agency. “Between 2014 and 2018, more than 17,900 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean – the remains of almost two-thirds of those victims have not been recovered,” says the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

“More people die on the EU borders than any other borders in the world,” says Nick Megoran, a political geography lecturer at Newcastle University, who specialises in borders and border conflicts. He says that the EU holds itself up as model of civilised behaviour, but this appears to apply only to its actions within the boundaries of the EU, while it defends its external boundaries from migrants just as aggressively as Trump.

The number of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey or North Africa to the EU has fallen from a peak of just over one million in 2015, the year Aylan Kurdi died, to 15,459 so far this year according to the UNHCR. In 2018, six migrants drowned every day in the Mediterranean, making a total of 2,275 dead for the year.

Sometimes there are witnesses to mass drownings as fragile craft packed with refugees are swamped or capsized by the waves. A sparse but typical account of one such incident by the IOM on 2 June reads: “according to IOM doctors onsite: migrants reported over 95 were on the boat before it capsized, among them were women and children. Two bodies have been retrieved and 73 migrants have so far been rescued.”

Some boats simply disappear: in the first two weeks of June two boats, carrying between 40 and 50 people, are known to have left Libya but neither has been seen since and there is a growing likelihood that they sank and all on board were drowned. The only evidence for such tragedies is when human remains in various states of decay are washed up on the beaches.

The sharp increase in the rate at which people are dying is partly the result of Italy’s populist government’s determination to stop migrant boats and a consequent “reduction to search and rescue capacity”, says the UN. When refugees are rescued, they are returned to detention camps in Libya where conditions are appalling and they are in danger of being overrun by marauding militias in the latest phase of Libya’s endless civil war.

Lost in all this is the responsibility of individual European politicians and governments, notably David Cameron in Britain and Nicolas Sarkozy, who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The aim of the intervention was supposedly to save the people in Benghazi from revenge by Gaddafi’s advancing forces. In practice, it doomed Libyans to perpetual warfare in which their country is torn apart by predatory warlords acting as proxies for foreign powers.

In previous years, I used to see West Africans working on construction sites in Tripoli who were very much the same sort of people who today make desperate voyages to find work and safety in Europe. What happened was a wholly predictable disaster, since it was evident from early in 2011 that the anti-Gaddafi forces could only win thanks to the close support of Nato airpower and would be incapable of ruling the country.

Much the same was true of Syria from 2012 on where the western powers did not want either Bashar al-Assad or the jihadi-dominated opposition to win the war decisively. Self-interest alone should have told them that a state of perpetual warfare in Syria was bound to destabilise Iraq and provoke a mass flight of refugees towards Europe. If the powers and their regional allies had set out to create the chaotic conditions ideal for the growth of fanatical fundamentalist movements, they could not have done better.

West Europeans have a hypocritical sense of superiority over Americans when talking about Trump’s plans to build a border wall between the US and Mexico, but the defences of the European fortress against migrants are even more cruel and lethal.

When I was looking at the grave of Alan Kurdi in 2015, I thought that at least his death had led people to see the plight of the Syrian refugees for what it was. There was something in this, but emphasis on grief and tragedy has an unstated benefit for governments because it diverts people from examining too closely who is ultimately responsible for the death of these infants. Questions about who encouraged or tolerated the growth of murderous regimes in the Middle East or Central America are brushed aside. So long as governments never pay a price for their bungled military interventions – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia – then they will go on doing the same thing.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Immigration 
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President Trump’s last-minute change of mind over launching US airstrikes against Iran shows that a military conflict of some description in the Gulf is becoming highly probable. His hesitation was most likely less connected with an Iranian surface-to-air missile shooting down a US surveillance drone than with his instinct that militarising the crisis is not in America’s best interests.

If Trump had not pulled back and the strikes against Iranian radars and missile batteries had gone ahead, where exactly would that have got him? This sort of limited military operation is usually more effective as a threat than in actuality. The US is not going to launch an all-out war against Iran in pursuit of a decisive victory and anything less creates more problems than it resolves.

Iran would certainly retain post-strike the ability to launch pin-prick attacks up and down the Gulf and, especially, in and around the 35-mile wide Strait of Hormuz through which passes 30 per cent of the world’s oil trade. Anything affecting this choke point reverberates around the word: news of the shooting down of the drone immediately sent the price of benchmark Brent crude oil rocketing upwards by 4.75 per cent.

Note that the Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down a $130m (£100m) drone, in practice an unmanned aircraft stuffed with electronic equipment that was designed to be invulnerable to such an attack. The inference is that if US aircraft – as opposed to missiles – start operating over or close to Iranian airspace then they are likely to suffer losses.

But the dilemma for Trump is at a deeper level. His sanctions against Iran, reimposed after he withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, are devastating the Iranian economy. The US Treasury is a more lethal international power than the Pentagon. The EU and other countries have stuck with the deal, but they have in practice come to tolerate the economic blockade of Iran.

Iran was left with no choice but to escalate the conflict. It wants to make sure that the US, the European and Asian powers, and US regional allies Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, feel some pain. Tehran never expected much from the EU states, which are still signed up to the 2015 nuclear deal, and has found its low expectations are being fulfilled.

A fundamental misunderstanding of the US-Iran confrontation is shared by many commentators. It may seem self-evident that the US has an interest in using its vast military superiority over Iran to get what it wants. But after the failure of the US ground forces to win in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Somalia, no US leader can start a land war in the Middle East without endangering their political survival at home.

Trump took this lesson to heart long before he became president. He is a genuine isolationist in the American tradition. The Democrats and much of the US media have portrayed Trump as a warmonger, though he has yet to start a war. His national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo issue bloodcurdling threats against Iran, but Trump evidently views such bellicose rhetoric as simply one more way of ramping up the pressure on Iran.

But if a ground war is ruled out, then Iran is engaged in the sort of limited conflict in which it has long experience. A senior Iraqi official once said to me that the Iranians “have a PhD” in this type of part political, part military warfare. They are tactics that have worked well for Tehran in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria over the past 40 years. The Iranians have many pressure points against the US, and above all against its Saudi and Emirati allies in the Gulf.

The Iranians could overplay their hand: Trump is an isolationist, but he is also a populist national leader who claims in his first campaign rallies for the next presidential election to “have made America great again”. Such boasts make it difficult to not retaliate against Iran, a country he has demonised as the source of all the troubles in the Middle East.

One US military option looks superficially attractive but conceals many pitfalls. This is to try to carry out operations along the lines of the limited military conflict between the US and Iran called the “tanker war”. This was part of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the US came out the winner.

Saddam Hussein sought to throttle Iran’s oil exports and Iran tried to do the same to Iraq. The US and its allies weighed in openly on Saddam Hussein’s side – an episode swiftly forgotten by them after the Iraqi leader invaded Kuwait in 1990. From 1987 on, re-registered Kuwaiti tankers were being escorted through the Gulf by US warships. There were US airstrikes against Iranian ships and shore facilities, culminating in the accidental but very avoidable shooting down of an Iranian civil airliner with 290 passengers on board by the USS Vincennes in 1988. Iran was forced to sue for peace in its war with Iraq.

Some retired American generals speak about staging a repeat of the tanker war today but circumstances have changed. Iran’s main opponent in 1988 was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Iran was well on its way to losing the war, in which there was only one front.

Today Saddam is gone and Iraq is ruled by a Shia-dominated government. Baghdad is trying to stay neutral in the US-Iran crisis, but no Iraqi leader can afford to oppose Iran as the greatest Shia power. The political geography of this part of the Middle East has been transformed since the Iran-Iraq war, with change very much to the advantage of Iran. From the Afghan border to the Mediterranean – in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon – Shia communities are in control or are the most powerful forces in the state. The US and UK often refer to them as “Iranian proxies” but in practice Iran leads a sectarian coalition with a religious basis.

It is a coalition which has already won its main battles – with Shia parties in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon – and this outcome is not going to change. The Houthis in Yemen, who belong to a different Shia variant, have survived a prolonged attempt by Saudi Arabia and UAE to defeat them.

Compared with 28 years ago in the Gulf when the US was last fighting a limited war with Iran, the US is in a weaker position. Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE may have urged Trump to tear up the nuclear deal and confront Iran, but they show no enthusiasm to join any war that ensues. Supposing that this month’s pin-prick attacks on tankers were indeed carried out by Iran, which seems likely, then the purpose will have been to send message that, if Iran’s oil exports can be cut off, so too can those of the other Gulf producers. Trump thinks he can avoid the quagmire of another Middle East war, but he may already be in too deep.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Iran 
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There is “sufficient credible evidence” that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, was responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and that he should be investigated according to a UN special rapporteur.

Saudi Arabia first denied government involvement in the murder of Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. It later admitted the brutal assassination but claimed that it had been the result of “a rogue operation” by a 15-strong Saudi team that was waiting for Khashoggi inside the consular building.

There is a chilling moment in the audio recording of Khashoggi’s last moments quoted in the report when he must have realised that the Saudi security officials gathered around him were intending to kill him.

“There is a towel here,” Khashoggi says. “Are you going to give me drugs?” A man replies, saying: “We will anaesthetise you.” There is the sound of a struggle during which the journalist was murdered and his body afterwards dismembered.

The Saudi government has said that neither the crown prince nor King Salman knew about the killing in advance. Sceptics have pointed that several of the team that flew to Istanbul and went to the consulate came from Prince Mohammed’s inner circle. US officials have said that the operation could not have been carried out without the crown prince’s knowledge.

At a hearing in Washington earlier this year, Republican senator Marco Rubio said the crown prince had gone “full gangster”, an assertion repeated by another Republican senator.

In the report issued today the UN investigator Agnes Callamard confirms that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the “deliberate, premeditated execution”.

The report recommends that the crown prince and his assets should be hit by “targeted sanctions” until evidence “is provided and corroborated that he carries no responsibility for this execution”.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Bin Salman, as the strong man of Saudi Arabia, is playing a central role in escalating the confrontation between the US, backed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE on one side, and Iran and its allies on the other. President Trump is giving full support to Saudi Arabia and accusing Iran of acts of sabotage against shipping in the Gulf, but he will have difficulty in dispelling international suspicions that Saudi Arabia is engaged in some plot to provoke a US-Iran war until the Saudi government explains more convincingly who gave the orders for the Khashoggi murder.

It is not as if the Khashoggi affair stands alone. This was the killing of a single individual, but this week the number of fatalities in Yemen since the Saudi-led military intervention in March 2015 is for the first time accurately reported to be 91,600 deaths by violence since the beginning of that year. This does not include the large numbers of Yemenis who have died as a result of hunger and cholera.

This horrific death toll, the result of a careful count by the US-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project organisation, is over the four-and-a-half years since Mohammed bin Salman as defence minister ordered Saudi military action in pursuit of a quick victory against the Houthi rebels. It was widely reported that a motive for launching the war was to enhance Prince Mohammed’s patriotic credentials as he sought to seize all the reins of power in his own hands.

The track record of the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia shows that he frequently looks to violent but ill-judged solutions to problems such as the apparent abduction of the Lebanese prime minister, the incarceration of Saudi businessmen in a hotel, and an escalation of the war in Syria that provoked Russian military intervention.

At the end of 2015, the German intelligence agency BND surprised diplomats in Berlin by publishing a prophetic one-and-a-half-page memo saying that Saudi Arabia had adopted “an impulsive policy of intervention”. It portrayed Prince Mohammed as an out of control political gambler who was destabilising the Arab world. The report was swiftly withdrawn by the Germans, but has turned out to be ahead of its time.

There is a growing bipartisan move against the Trump family’s close links to the crown prince in the US Congress. Governments of other countries vary between fawning over Prince Mohammed and regarding him warily as a political firework which may explode at any moment and in any direction.

Many international leaders will try to ignore the conclusion of the UN report that the death of Khashoggi was “an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible”. But those same leaders should consider the dangers of getting close to a man and a country whose weird and violent policies are a danger to all.

 
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Pictures of Daniel Ezzedine show him to be a fresh faced 17-year-old with a warm cheerful smile. His parents are Lebanese but he was brought up in Germany where he had just left school. His teachers brought him to celebrate his graduation on a trip to Canterbury where he was assaulted and beaten half to death by a gang of youths in what local people are convinced was a racist attack.

It took place at 6pm on 6 June in Rose Lane in the centre of the city about 250 yards from Canterbury Cathedral. Daniel received a merciless beating from his numerous attackers, which left him close to death. Rushed to hospital in London by helicopter, he is still in a coma and doctors initially gave him only a 30 per cent chance of surviving. Seven people were arrested – six of them teenagers – but none have been charged.

The family had difficulty at first in getting visas to enter Britain to see their son because they are not German citizens, though they have lived in Germany for 30 years. “I pray and ask Allah for mercy and that you will soon be on your legs again my little brother,” wrote Bassam, one of Daniel’s five brothers. “You don’t deserve the dead!”

I live in Canterbury and often pass the spot outside Tesco, Marks and Spencer and HSBC where Daniel was set upon. Details of what happened are sparse because the police are not saying what they know and Daniel remains in a coma. But it is telling that the gang chose a Lebanese Muslim to target out of all the passers-by in this well-frequented part of Canterbury.

The attack took place close to a pretty little park called Dane John, which in recent years has become a notorious haunt for gangs selling drugs. I asked one young man if he walked through the park at night. “I do not like to walk through it in day time,” he replied. He said that gangs there are often looking for victims and might easily target a Muslim or anybody different from themselves. A well-attended march against racism took place through the city on Wednesday.

The fate of Daniel Ezzedine is evidence that Britain is becoming a more racist country since the Brexit referendum. Pro-Brexit politicians like Michael Gove deny this, but a poll by Opinium found that overt ethnic abuse and discrimination reported by ethnic minorities has risen from 64 per cent at the beginning of 2016 to 76 per cent today.

But this understates the change for the worse that we are seeing. The Brexit vote promoted English national identity and questions about who is and who is not English – increasingly distinguished from being British – to the top of the political agenda and this is not going away. One can see this in Canterbury, normally a liberally-minded and tolerant little city accustomed to large numbers of foreign visitors and students.

But since 2016 expressions of gut racism have become much more common. Soon after the poll, an Argentinian woman asked for directions from a guard at Canterbury Cathedral and was told: “that way to Dover, love.” More recently, a homeless person in the high street told a friend of mine: “soon the immigrants will go and I will be able to get a job.”

I have been travelling around the UK writing a series about “Britain in the Age of Brexit” and I wondered if members of ethnic minorities believed that racism and racist harassment had increased. I asked three people in South Wales – chosen because it is so different from south-east England – from diverse backgrounds (Pakistani, Sikh, Caribbean, Portuguese) if they had experienced greater racist abuse since the Brexit vote.

Shavanah Taj, a national officer for the Public and Commercial Services Union, whose father came from Pakistan to work in a steel plant in south Wales in 1958-59, said that racist harassment had risen in the past three or four years, though it had also been bad in the past: “In the 1980s, we used to regularly have dog shit in Tesco bags pushed through our letter box and ‘Pakis Out’ in big letters written on the side wall of our house.” That sort of thing had ebbed but is now back and more virulent than before.

As an Asian woman with two small children, she finds her way often deliberately blocked by white men in the street. She and her Nigerian husband ask themselves for the first time “if we will get to the point when we will no longer think of this country as our home.”

Amarjite Singh, a Sikh who works for the Royal Mail and wears a distinctive red turban, agrees that open racism fell away from the end of the 1980s up to 2016. He is alarmed today by the degree to which the far right is more active, holding rallies up and down the country at the same time. He says that many Sikhs – there are about 2,500 in Cardiff – voted Leave because they feared that their jobs were threatened by East European immigration, but they found that they were also being subjected to anti-immigrant abuse.

Singh speaks of one incident that struck him as a sign of escalating racism: “Two weeks ago I was on a bus and there was a Somali woman with a baby in a pram which could not put in the space allotted for it because a young man was blocking it. When the bus driver told him to let her park the pram there, the young man replied: ‘Who does she think she is? She’s only a foreigner.”’

Andrew Woodman, whose mother came here from Portugal in 1952 and his father from Guyana, says that the Brexit vote has emboldened “people, as it does in Trump’s America, to say in public what they used to say in private. I have been called the N-word and that had rarely happened in recent years.” He adds that all you need to generate racial hatred “is to persuade people that those who are different from themselves are the reason they are poor.”

Al Qaeda and Isis attacks from 9/11 to London Bridge all contributed to Islamophobia, but the Brexit crisis is having much greater and longer-term impact because it is redefining English nationalism in a more exclusive and confrontational way. This affects women of Pakistani origin shopping with their children, but it also leads – so a university vice chancellor was telling me this week – to a high flying German scientist, who can easily get a job elsewhere, deciding that he no longer likes the UK and has gone back to Germany.

Euro-sceptic leaders are in denial about the degree to which the Brexit project depended on beating the anti-immigrant drum. But look at how many Conservative and Brexit Eurosceptics found time this week to denounce Jo Brand and the BBC for expressing purely rhetorical violence. And then consider how few of them have expressed dismay at the real violence which inflicted terrible injuries on young Daniel Ezzedine in the centre of Canterbury.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Immigration, Racism 
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Is Donald Trump a fascist? The question is usually posed as an insult rather than as a serious inquiry. A common response is that “he is not as bad as Hitler”, but this rather dodges the issue. Hitler was one hideous exponent of fascism, which comes in different flavours but he was by no means the only one.

The answer is that fascist leaders and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s were similar in many respects to Trump and Trumpism. But they had additional toxic characteristics, born out of a different era and a historic experience different from the United States.

What are the most important features of fascism? They include ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism; the demonisation and persecution of minorities; a cult of the leader; a demagogic appeal to the “ignored” masses and against a “treacherous” establishment; contempt for parliamentary institutions; disregard for the law while standing on a law and order platform; control of the media and the crushing of criticism; slogans promising everything to everybody; a promotion of force as a means to an end leading to violence, militarism and war.

The list could go on to include less significant traits such as a liking for public displays of strength and popularity at rallies and parades; a liking also for gigantic building projects as the physical embodiment of power.

Hitler and Mussolini ticked all these boxes and Trump ticks most of them, though with some important exceptions. German and Italian fascism was characterised above all else by aggressive and ultimately disastrous wars. Trump, on the contrary, is a genuine “isolationist” who has not started a single war in the two-and-a-half years he has been in the White House.

It is not that Trump abjures force, but he prefers it to be commercial and economic rather than military, and he is deploying it against numerous countries from China to Mexico and Iran. As a strategy this is astute, avoiding the bear traps that American military intervention fell into in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an approach which weakens the targeted state economically, but it does not produce decisive victories or unconditional surrenders.

It is a policy more dangerous than it looks: Trump may not want a war, but the same is not true of Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, or his national security adviser John Bolton. And it is even less true of US allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have been pushing Washington towards war with Iran long before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took control in Riyadh in 2015.

Trump’s aversion to military intervention jibes with these other influences, but it is erratic because it depends on the latest tweet from the White House. A weakness, not just of fascist leaders but of all dictatorial regimes, is their exaggerated dependence on the decisions of a single individual with God-like confidence in their own judgement. Nothing can be decided without their fiat and they must never be proved wrong or be seen to fail.

Trump has modes of operating rather than sustained policies that are consequently shallow and confused. One ambassador in Washington confides privately that he has successfully engaged with the most senior officials in the administration, but this was not doing him a lot of good because they had no idea of what was happening. The result of this Louis XIV approach to government is institutionalised muddle: Trump may not want a war in the Middle East but he could very easily blunder into one.

Of course, Trump is not alone in this: populist nationalist authoritarian leaders on the rise all over the world win and hold power in ways very similar to the fascists of the inter-war period. What is there in these two eras almost a century apart that would explain this common political trajectory?

Fears and hatreds born out of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression propelled the fascists towards power. When old allegiances and beliefs were shattered and discredited, people naturally looked to new creeds and saviours. “The more pathological the situation the less important is the intrinsic worth of the idol,” wrote the great British historian Lewis Namier in 1947. “His feet may be of clay and his face may be blank: it is the frenzy of the worshippers which imparts to him meaning and power.”

Is the same thing happening again? Fascism was the product of a cataclysmic period in the first half of the 20th century that is very different from today. The US failed to get its way in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but these were small-scale conflicts in no way comparable to the First World War. The recession that followed the 2008 crash was a blip compared to the Thirties.

Many of the better off reassure themselves with such thoughts. But they underestimate the destructiveness of de-industrialisation and technological change for great numbers across the globe. Inequality has vastly increased. Economies expand, but the benefits are skewed towards the wealthy. Metropolitan centres plugged into the global economy flourished, but not their periphery.

The distinction between winners and losers varies from country to country but governments everywhere underestimated the unhappiness caused by social and economic upheaval. Beneficiaries of the status quo invariably downplay the significance of fault lines that populists are swift to identify and exploit.

Philip Hammond, the British chancellor of the exchequer, contemptuously dismisses claims by the UN that great number of people in Britain were living in “dire poverty” and saying that, in so far as deprivation existed, the government was acting effectively to address the problem. The new wave of Trump-like leaders springing up all over the globe do not have to do very much to do better than this.

Such overconfidence on the part of the powers-that-be is becoming rarer. Democrats who had convinced themselves that Trumpism would be exposed and discredited as a conspiracy wished on America by the dark powers in the Kremlin have seen their fantasy evaporate.

But there is probably worse to come: experience shows that populist authoritarian nationalism – what Namier called “Caesarian democracy” – is not a static phenomenon. It may not begin with all the fascist characterisation listed above, but its trajectory is always in their direction. Regimes become more nationalistic, authoritarian, demagogic, shifting from intolerance of criticism or opposition to a determination to extinguish it entirely.

A case study of this process is Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reinforcing his one-man rule by overturning an opposition victory in the election to choose the mayor of Istanbul. Many Americans deny that the same process is happening in the US, but they tend to be the same people who did not believe that Trump could be elected in the first place.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump 
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I was in Kabul a decade ago when Wikileaks released a massive tranche of US government documents about the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. On the day of the release, I was arranging by phone to meet an American official for an unattributable briefing. I told him in the course of our conversation what I had just learned from the news wires.

He was intensely interested and asked me what was known about the degree of classification of the files. When I told him, he said in a relieved tone: “no real secrets then.”

When we met later in my hotel I asked him why he was so dismissive of the revelations that were causing such uproar in the world?

He explained that the US government was not so naive that it did not realise that making these documents available to such a wide range of civilian and military officials meant that they were likely to leak. Any information really damaging to US security had been weeded out.

In any case, he said: “We are not going to learn the biggest secrets from WikiLeaks because these have already been leaked by the White House, Pentagon or State Department.”

I found his argument persuasive and later wrote a piece saying that the Wikileaks secrets were not all that secret.

However, it was the friendly US official and I who were being naive, forgetting that the real purpose of state secrecy is to enable governments to establish their own self-interested and often mendacious version of the truth by the careful selection of “facts” to be passed on to the public. They feel enraged by any revelation of what they really know, or by any alternative source of information. Such threats to their control of the news agenda must be suppressed where possible and, where not, those responsible must be pursued and punished.

We have had two good examples of the lengths to which a government – in this case that of the US – will go to protect its own tainted version of events. The first is the charging of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for leaking 750,000 confidential military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

The second example has happened in the last few days. The international media may not have always covered itself in glory in the war in Yemen, but there are brave journalists and news organisations who have done just that. One of them is Yemeni reporter Maad al-Zikry who, along with Maggie Michael and Nariman El-Mofty, is part of an Associated Press (AP) team that won the international reporting Pulitzer prize this year for superb on the ground coverage of the war in Yemen. Their stories included revelations about the US drone strikes in Yemen and about the prisons maintained there by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The US government clearly did not like this type of critical journalism. When the Pulitzer was awarded last Tuesday in New York Zikry was not there because he had been denied a visa to enter the US. There is no longer a US embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, but two months ago he made his way to the US embassy in Cairo where his visa application, though fully supported by AP and many other prestigious institutions, was rejected.

After AP had exerted further pressure, Zikry made a second application for a visa and this time he was seen by a Counsellor at the embassy. He reports himself as asking: “Does the US embassy think that a Yemeni investigative journalist doing reporting for AP is a terrorist? Are you saying I am a terrorist?”

The Counsellor said that they would “work” on his visa or, in other words, ask the powers-that-be in Washington what to do. “So, I waited and waited – and waited,” he says. “And, until now I heard nothing from them.”

Of course, Washington is fully capable of waiving any prohibition on the granting of a visa to a Yemeni in a case like this, but it chose not to.

Can what Assange and Wikileaks did in 2010 be compared with what Zikry and AP did in 2019? Some commentators, to their shame, claim that the pursuit of Assange, and his current imprisonment pending possible extradition to the US or Sweden, has nothing to with freedom of expression.

In fact, he was doing what every journalist ought to do and doing it very successfully.

Take Yemen as an example of this. It is a story of great current significance because in recent days senior US officials have denounced Iran for allegedly directing and arming the Houthi rebels who are fighting Saudi and UAE-backed forces. Action by these supposed Iranian proxies could be a casus belli in the confrontation between the US and Iran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that Iran has provided the Houthis “with the missile system, the hardware, the military capability” that they have acquired.

National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Wednesday that Iran risked a “very strong response” from the US for, among other things, drone attacks by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia for which he holds the Iranians responsible.

These accusations by the US, Saudi Arabia and whoever is their Yemeni ally of the day that the Houthis are stooges of Iran armed with Iranian-supplied weapons has a long history. But what do we know about what Washington really thinks of these allegations which have not changed much over the years?

This where Wikileaks comes to the rescue.

 
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There is a story about an enthusiastic American who took a phlegmatic English friend to see the Niagara Falls.

“Isn’t that amazing?” exclaimed the American. “Look at that vast mass of water dashing over that enormous cliff!”

“But what,” asked the Englishman, “is to stop it?”

My father, Claud Cockburn, used to tell this fable to illustrate what, as a reporter in New York on the first day of the Wall Street Crash on 24 October 1929, it was like to watch a great and unstoppable disaster taking place.

I thought about my father’s account of the mood on that day in New York as Theresa May announced her departure as prime minister, the latest milestone – but an important one – in the implosion of British politics in the age of Brexit. Everybody with their feet on the ground has a sense of unavoidable disaster up ahead but no idea of how to avert it; least of all May’s likely successors with their buckets of snake oil about defying the EU and uniting the nation.

It is a mistake to put all the blame on the politicians. I have spent the last six months travelling around Britain, visiting places from Dover to Belfast, where it is clear that parliament is only reflecting real fault lines in British society. Brexit may have envenomed and widened these divisions, but it did not create them and it is tens of millions of people who differ radically in their opinions, not just an incompetent and malign elite.

Even so, May was precisely the wrong political personality to try to cope with the Brexit crisis: not stupid herself, she has a single-minded determination amounting to tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity. Her lauding of consensus in her valedictory speech announcing her resignation was a bit rich after three years of rejecting compromise until faced with imminent defeat.

Charging ahead regardless only works for those who are stronger than all obstacles, which was certainly not the case in Westminster and Brussels. Only those holding all the trump cards can ignore the other players at the table. This should have been blindingly clear from the day May moved into Downing Street after a referendum that showed British voters to be split down the middle, something made even more obvious when she lost her parliamentary majority in 2017. But, for all her tributes to the virtues of compromise today, she relied on the votes of MPs from the sectarian Protestant DUP in Northern Ireland, a place which had strongly voted to remain in the EU.

Her miscalculations in negotiating with the EU were equally gross. The belief that Britain could cherry pick what it wanted from its relationship with Europe was always wishful thinking unless the other 27 EU states were disunited. It is always in the interests of the members of a club to make sure that those who leave have a worse time outside than in.

The balance of power was against Britain and this is not going to change, though Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab might pretend that what has been lacking is sufficient willpower or belief in Brexit as a sort of religious faith. These are dangerous delusions, enabling Nigel Farage to sell the idea of “betrayal” and being “stabbed in the back” just like German right-wing politicians after 1918.

Accusations of treachery might be an easy sell in Britain because it is so steeped in myths of self-sufficiency, fostered by self-congratulatory films and books about British prowess in the Second World War. More recent British military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan either never made it on to the national news agenda or are treated as irrelevant bits of ancient history. The devastating Chilcot report on Britain in the Iraq War received insufficient notice because its publication coincided with the referendum in 2016.

Brexiters who claim to be leading Britain on to a global stage are extraordinarily parochial in their views of the outside world. The only realistic role for Britain in a post-Brexit world will be, as ever, a more humble spear carrier for Trump’s America. In this sense, it is appropriate that the Trump state visit should so neatly coincide with May’s departure and the triumphant emergence of Trump’s favourite British politicians, Johnson and Farage.

Just how decisive is the current success of the Brexiters likely to be? Their opponents say encouragingly that they have promised what they cannot deliver in terms of greater prosperity so they are bound to come unstuck. But belief in such a comforting scenario is the height of naivety because the world is full of politicians who have failed to deliver the promises that got them elected, but find some other unsavoury gambit to keep power by exacerbating foreign threats, as in India, or locking up critics, as in Turkey.

Britain is entering a period of permanent crisis not seen since the 17th century. Brexit was a symptom as well as a cause of divisions. The gap between the rich and the poor, the householder and the tenant, the educated and the uneducated, the old and the young, has grown wider and wider. Brexit became the great vent through which grievances that had nothing to with Brussels bubbled. The EU is blamed for all the sins of de-industrialisation, privatisation and globalisation and, if it did not create them, then it did not do enough to alleviate their impact.

The proponents of Leave show no sign of having learned anything over the last three years, but they do not have to because they can say that the rewards of Brexit lie in a sun-lit future. Remainers have done worse because they are claiming that the rewards of the membership of the EU are plenteous and already with us. “If you wish to see its monument, look around you,” they seem to say. This is a dangerous argument: why should anybody from ex-miners in the Welsh Valleys to former car workers in Birmingham or men who once worked on Dover docks endorse what has happened to them while Britain has been in the EU? Why should they worry about a rise or fall in the GDP when they never felt it was their GDP in the first place?

May is getting a sympathy vote for her final lachrymose performance, but it is undeserved. Right up to the end there was a startling gap between her words and deeds. The most obvious contradiction was her proclaimed belief that “life depends on compromise”. But it also turns out that “proper funding for mental health” was at the heart of her NHS long term plan, though hospital wards for the mentally ill continue to close and patients deep in psychosis are dispatched to the other end of the country.

The Wall Street Crash in 1929 exposed the fragility and rottenness of much in the United States. Brexit may do the same in Britain. In New York 90 years ago, my father only truly appreciated how bad the situation really was when his boss said to him in a low voice: “Remember, when we are writing this story, the word ‘panic’ is not to be used.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, EU 
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In its escalating confrontation with Iran, the US is making the same mistake it has made again and again since the fall of the Shah 40 years ago: it is ignoring the danger of plugging into what is in large part a religious conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

I have spent much of my career as a correspondent in the Middle East, since the Iranian revolution in 1979, reporting crises and wars in which the US and its allies fatally underestimated the religious motivation of their adversaries. This has meant they have come out the loser, or simply failed to win, in conflicts in which the balance of forces appeared to them to be very much in their favour.

It has happened at least four times. It occurred in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, when the turning point was the blowing up of the US Marine barracks in Beirut the following year, in which 241 US military personnel were killed. In the eight-year Iran-Iraq war during 1980-88, the west and the Sunni states of the region backed Saddam Hussein, but it ended in a stalemate. After 2003, the US-British attempt to turn post-Saddam Iraq into an anti-Iranian bastion spectacularly foundered. Similarly, after 2011, the west and states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey tried in vain to get rid of Bashar al-Assad and his regime in Syria – the one Arab state firmly in the Iranian camp.

Now the same process is under way yet again, and likely to fail for the same reasons as before: the US, along with its local allies, will be fighting not only Iran but whole Shia communities in different countries, mostly in the northern tier of the Middle East between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean.

Donald Trump looks to sanctions to squeeze Iran while national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo promote war as a desirable option. But all three denounce Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq as Iranian proxies, though they are primarily the military and political arm of the indigenous Shia, which are a plurality in Lebanon, a majority in Iraq and a controlling minority in Syria. The Iranians may be able to strongly influence these groups, but they are not Iranian puppets which would wither and disappear once Iranian backing is removed.

Allegiance to nation states in the Middle East is generally weaker than loyalty to communities defined by religion, such the Alawites, the two-million-strong ruling Shia sect in Syria to which Bashar al-Assad and his closest lieutenants belong. People will fight and die to defend their religious identity but not necessarily for the nationality printed on their passports.

When the militarised Islamist cult Isis defeated the Iraqi national army by capturing Mosul in 2014, it was a fatwa from the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that sent tens of thousands of volunteers rushing to defend Baghdad. Earlier in the fighting in Homs and Damascus in Syria, it was the non-Sunni districts that were the strongpoints of the regime. For example, the opposition were eager to take the strategically important airport road in the capital, but were held back by a district defended by Druze and Christian militiamen.

This is not what Trump’s allies in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel want Washington to believe; for them, the Shia are all Iranian stooges. For the Saudis, every rocket fired by the Houthis in Yemen into Saudi Arabia – though minimal in destructive power compared to the four-year Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen –can only have happened because of a direct instruction from Tehran.

On Thursday, for instance, Prince Khalid Bin Salman, the vice minister for defence and the brother of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, claimed on Twitter that drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations, were “ordered” by Iran. He said that “the terrorist acts, ordered by the regime in Tehran, and carried out by the Houthis, are tightening the noose around the ongoing political efforts”. He added: “These militias are merely a tool that Iran’s regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region.”

There is nothing new in this paranoid reaction by Sunni rulers to actions by distinct Shia communities (in this case the Houthis) attributing everything without exception to the guiding hand of Iran. I was in Bahrain in 2011 where the minority Sunni monarchy had just brutally crushed protests by the Shia majority with Saudi military support. Among those tortured were Shia doctors in a hospital who had treated injured demonstrators. Part of the evidence against them was a piece of technologically advanced medical equipment – I cannot remember if it was used for monitoring the heart or the brain or some other condition – which the doctors were accused of using to receive instructions from Iran about how to promote a revolution.

This type of absurd conspiracy theory used not to get much of hearing in Washington, but Trump and his acolytes are on record on as saying that nearly all acts of “terrorism” can be traced to Iran. This conviction risks sparking a war between the US and Iran because there are plenty of angry Shia in the Middle East who might well attack some US facility on their own accord.

It might also lead to somebody in one of those states eager for a US-Iran armed conflict – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel come to mind – that staging a provocative incident that could be blamed on Iran might be in their interests.

But what would such a war achieve? The military invasion of Iran is not militarily or politically feasible so there would be no decisive victory. An air campaign and a close naval blockade of Iran might be possible, but there are plenty of pressure points through which Iran could retaliate, from mines in the Strait of Hormuz to rockets fired at the Saudi oil facilities on the western side of Gulf.

 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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