The Correspondents Weigh in: Crisis in Crimea

The Crimea Region is highlighted in Red on this map of the Ukraine (via Wikimedia Commons)

This piece will be the first of a special “Weigh In” series that is going to be started on Glimpse, which will focus on momentous current events.

Thomas D. Armstrong:

Recent op-eds have labeled Putin as a mastermind or a megalomaniac fool. I am of the opinion that Putin is a megalomaniac mastermind exploiting a disempowered US. However, debating Putin’s psychological profile is less constructive than analyzing the economic foundation of his regime. Putin and his Russia survive on energy revenues, and war is only making him richer. Unlike 2008, when Putin invaded Georgia, oil prices have held steady. In fact, the threat of sanctions on Russia have only driven oil prices marginally higher, up $2 dollars to $110.8/bbl as of writing. Putin is financing expansionist dreams (and his own savings account) thanks to his near-monopoly on Russia’s energy industry. Therefore, the best way to rein him in is to drive global energy prices down. The US can accomplish this quite easily with a reformed national energy policy. Currently, the US is sitting on an unused 727-million-barrel underground cache of crude oil, and is producing more and more natural gas by the day. If the US were to supplant Russia as Europe’s primary natural gas provider, and flood the global market with American oil exports, energy prices would plummet. A decrease from $110/bbl to $80/bbl would cost the Russian oil industry alone an estimated $120 billion, plus billions more in foreign exchange earnings. Putin is a deft leader, but even he could not survive such a sustained economic collapse.

Nick Kosturos:

Russia’s move to deploy soldiers in Ukraine is indicative of feelings of insecurity rather than confidence. Putin knows that such a large loss of influence in Ukraine, a critically important country in economic, cultural, and geopolitical terms, would be devastating to Russia’s ultimate goal of increasing its regional sphere of influence and international prestige. Putin’s domestic considerations and tensions can also shed light on these aggressive actions. If a small country like Ukraine can successfully stand up to the Kremlin by ousting its man from Kiev, what will Russians think of a leadership unable to control their “Small Russia?” Russia is acting out of desperation, not strength. Putin’s clownish justifications for Russia’s military actions do not hold up to scrutiny and are made under a façade by what I recently labeled an “imitation democracy.”

While the West has multilaterally condemned this act of aggression, which is a positive first step, it should now increase pressure on Russia to relent. In order to force Russia to withdraw and accept Ukraine’s sovereignty and a chance at a peaceful political transition, the West must maintain a multilateral and wide-ranging coalition of rejection, isolating Putin via sanctions on both his allies and competing oligarchs (including their overseas funds and visas), and by supporting Ukraine’s new government through assistance and advisement. At this point, conventional military power projection against Russia is not a viable option – no matter how tempting – as it could spark an unintended military provocation leading to conflict. The current situation is very difficult to manage, although the international community should know that the West ultimately has the upper hand. Russia’s desperate authoritarian strategy based on oppression is doomed to fail in the long-run.

Luke Phillips:

The situation in Crimea is nothing more than the Russians managing their own geopolitical periphery, and so far as it has to do anything at all with expansion, it is only due to the fact that Russian power is presently contracted to levels far below what Moscow would like. America would do and has done the same thing in the event of revolutionary unrest in our neighbor states, as is evidenced by our interventions in Mexico a century ago and in Cuba a half-century ago.

The question here, I think, is what the United States is going to do about it. Part of our grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has been to keep the Russians from establishing formal or informal dominion over the former U.S.S.R. Another part has been supporting the thin veil of liberal international order that girds the power politics flowing subtly underneath in an effort to at least grant a semblance of order and harmony in international affairs. These imperatives have come under increasing pressure in recent years, but in 2013 and 2014 more than ever before. I don’t know what the proper policy response should be, but I hope it isn’t more of the lectures, gestures, and silences with which President Obama responded to the Russians in the Snowden and Syria affairs.

Jacob W. Roberts:

America is in no position to intervene nor should it.  To the western world, Putin’s actions appear nefarious, but from the perspective of many Russians he is acting well within the parameters of international law.  Professor Tatiana Akishina of USC argues that, since the prime minister of Ukraine’s semi-autonomous Crimea region has called upon Putin for military support, his intervention is in accordance with international law.  Moreover, America has intervened with greater frequency and intensity over the past century, thus it is highly hypocritical of US authorities to castigate Russia for meddling within its region.  That being said, it is somewhat disturbing to witness Russia fail to respect the sovereign rights of an independent nation.  One can only hope that Putin’s intervention into the region will be short lived.

Alessandro M. Sassoon:

There is a risk of ethnic cleansing. It starts with classification. Weeks before this conflict made the front pages of the New York Times, reports emerged that Russian-Ukrainians in Crimea were being given Russian Passports. Russians have lived in Crimea for some 200 years, and Ukraine has held the territory for half a century. Then there are the Tatars, the people for whom Crimea is an ancestral home dating back to the Mongol Khan Empire. The Tatar population, which accounts for 13% of Crimea’s inhabitants, is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Under Stalin’s Russia, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported en masse to other parts of Russia (read: Siberia). It should come as no surprise then that they are more keen on being governed by Ukraine than by Russia. As things stand, there are three populations with strong ethno-nationalist tendencies who inhabit a geographic area they all feel they have a historical, political, or legal claim to. Of the eight stages of Genocide, we’ve passed #5: polarization. That means preparation, extermination, and denial are next.

Sabrina Mateen:

Before this conflict, my knowledge of Ukraine consisted solely of “ex-USSR”. I assumed the region consisted of Russian natives, and that they were considered to be allies with their ex-country. However, with the news of an outbreak of civil war, it has become apparent that there are opposing nationalities, languages, and mindsets that are all helping to tear Ukraine into pieces. The conflict seems to be reaching increasingly dangerous heights as Russia begins to put pressure on Ukraine in the form of planned military drills and in one case, an unspecified military presence that looked to be Russians supporting Crimeans. Although the conflict is being called a civil war, it is beginning to seem like one of the many moves Putin has been making to restore Russia to its USSR-era square footage. It is important to see what the United States plans to do, as the Obama Administration is already under scrutiny after the ill-advised response to the crisis in Syria.  Any move from the newly war-shy United States will be seen as an escalation in a conflict that has all the makings of a new Cold War.

Kerry Collins:

Recent developments in the volatile Ukraine situation show the autonomous Crimea region voting to join the Russian Federation. Crimea has a Russian ethnic majority and is predominantly Russian speaking, so it might not come as a surprise that the region is in support of the secession. If it is what the people want, then perhaps the region should have never been a part of Ukraine to begin with. These recent moves that Crimea has made are violations of international law, which puts the United States in a tough response position. The President has been making frantic calls to Putin urging a diplomatic end to this crisis, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Putin doesn’t seem particularly concerned with US warnings. What the EU and the US bring to the table are economic sanctions, and it will be interesting to see if those “sticks” are enough to make Putin falter.

Checklist: Has President Rouhani Lived Up to his Promises?

Hassan Rouhani

Elected in June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani formally assumed office in August. He has since made remarkable advances, including a push to ease nuclear tensions with the West in order to rid the economy of encumbering sanctions. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In early June, newly-elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate in comparison to his hard-line predecessor Mouhmad Ahmadinejad,emerged as a symbol of hope for a citizenry burdened by a catastrophic financial crisis brought on by Western sanctions. Prior to beginning his term, Rouhani vowed to direct governmental efforts towards mending Iran’s shattered relations with the West, reviving the Iranian economy, and articulating a desire to restore basic human rights within the country.

While the new leader was warmly met by the eager masses ready to move past the repressive Ahmadinejad era, there was no telling whether his words would bear fruit. Rouhani’s potential to affect such change was eclipsed by a shadow of doubt stemming from the supposition that he would serve as merely yet another slave to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Islamic regime. So has Iran’s “angel” Rouhani upheld his rhetoric presented during his campaign since entering office? Now, more than 6 months into his presidency, the gulf between his words and actions can be qualitatively tracked.

Appeasing the Hardliners

How has Rouhani performed thus far in winning the favor of governmental hardliners while working towards his progressive reform plans? At the start of his presidency, Rouhani took initiative to begin thawing strained US-Iran relations with a visit to the United Nations. You may recall his fifteen-minute phone call with President Obama during the trip, a call that garnered both support and criticism. Regardless of the critics, this phone call was a huge first step in the right direction towards reconciling US-Iran relations considering that the two states have not shared this level of contact since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Furthermore, Khamenei approved of Rouhani’s October trip to the United States. Although unable to appease hard-liners on the issue as they derided his approach, as long as the President is able to maintain the Supreme Leader’s support, he will be able to ward off hard-liner criticisms in his advances towards a relaxed relationship with the West.

Catering to Reformists

During his reign thus far, Rouhani has been performing a careful balancing act; he has struck a careful balance between the hardline and reformist camps while avoiding alienating Khamenei and other key government players. The new President has successfully garnered and maintained support from notable predecessors, including popular former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and former President Akbar Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, who remarked that “Rouhani’s success in New York is the mark of the divine victory.” Although not to the degree which former president Khatami was able to mobilize the “Iranian street,” Rouhani seems to have been met with considerable success in galvanizing the reformist camp, namely the youth who have warmly accepted his overtures to reduce Internet censorship.

Ending Sanctions

Perhaps his most significant achievement thus far has been unveiled at the negotiation table with Western powers. Back in November, Rouhani was able to successfully reach a temporary deal with the United States while entering into a year-long negotiation period to construct a permanent deal to ease sanctions. The $7-billion USD received by Iran in sanctions relief created room for a rise in the Iranian Rial and a minor stabilization of the national economy. Both the initial agreement and the overtures by both parties have been called nothing short of “historic” in the media.

Economic Viability

As mentioned, some of the easing of sanctions has seen a rise in the purchasing power of the Rial thereby providing Iranian citizens with some relief. Analyst groups claim that “last year, with economic pressure at its peak, Iran suffered from severe hyperinflation, and the Rial became the least valued currency in the world. This is no longer the case, as the Rial has gained significant value in 2013’. However, further economic steps must be made; the nuclear deal with the West has yet to come into full form, and whether Obama will be able to convince Congress to further repeal sanctions will prove to be a major determinant of whether Rouhani’s reform efforts retain momentum.

Relations With Israel

Thanks to his reputation as the new face of Iran, Rouhani has garnered a considerable amount of positive press and, for the most part, positive attention from the West – which has acted as a negative force against Israel. Within a month of Rouhani’s holding office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” immediately dismissing him as nothing more than another mere slave to the Islamic regime. However, it seems that Israel emerged as the real loser in this love triangle between the United States, Iran and itself, failing to turn the West against its enemy as it had hoped. Within weeks after the Prime Minister’s fiery comment, Iran successfully brokered the temporary deal with the United States. Since then, public Israeli threats and comments against the country have subsided as the country now seems more preoccupied with the Palestinian question than the Iranian-nuclear issue at the moment.­­­

Human Rights

The human rights issue is arguably the weakest front of Rouhani’s presidency thus far. The leader’s promises on this subject seem to be little more than empty rhetoric, as notable action has yet to be taken to restore basic human rights and create equality among members of the citizenry. Premature optimism for Rouhani to improve civil rights issues has all but withered as the only observable change has been a steep rise in executions since he took office.

Another warning sign in his term stems from the detainment of prisoners within the country. The government’s minor gesture of releasing a few political prisoners in December did little to placate the mounting concerns of relatives and families of those still imprisoned, including activists of the “Iranian Street.” Additionally, despite early promises to address the house arrests of Green Revolution leaders Kharibi and Mousavi’s house arrests, not even a mention of the issue has been made. The president has remained silent even amidst mounting claims from close family and friends that their health is deteriorating significantly as a result of being confined within their households for several years now.

Whether Rouhani’s strategy to maintain popular support follows that of his predecessor Khatami’s path remains to be seen. In the middle of Khatami’s second term, his base fell apart due to youth and women disenfranchisement. Rouhani’s track record on human rights and freedoms may very well be what determines his support from his base.

Implications for U.S.-Iran Relations

Despite his shortcomings on the human rights dilemma, Rouhani’s successes have provided the Iranian regime with some degree of legitimacy it had been lacking for years, both in the eyes of the international community and the Iranian electorate. The real question for the Obama administration, however, is whether the Rouhani government’s newfound political capital and prestige is enough to placate conservative Hawks in Congress on both sides of the aisle who have been itching to introduce further sanctions. Any new congressional sanctions against Iran would not only spell the end of the current deal but would most likely set back nuclear negotiations by a number of years. Yet Rouhani, a veteran statesman and diplomat, is keenly aware that the halls of Congress are just as significant an arena for statecraft and diplomacy as the negotiating table. Rouhani’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has recently made a concerted effort to promote lobbying of their position to Congress via the small-but-growing Iranian-American lobby already present in the country.We will know soon enough how far Rouhani is willing to go to make good on his campaign promises in seeking to uplift the Iranian state.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Stepping out of Russia’s Shadow? Ukraine’s Next Moves.

A protester at Euromaidan. (Ivan Bandura via flickr)

This past week, Ukraine experienced the worst period of violence in its post-Soviet history and a stunning political development as President Yanukovych was forced out of power by the Ukrainian parliament. The cost of this political victory for the opposition has been great; aggressive clashes between government security forces and protesters resulted in at least 77 deaths and 577 injuries. Although a potential breakthrough peace deal emerged Friday calling for early elections this December, a lessening of the powers of President Yanukovych, and the establishment of a “national unity government,” the Ukrainian parliament voted Saturday to remove President Yanukovych from office and to hold elections on May 25th in a stunning rebuke of his regime. This political whirlwind places Ukraine in a vulnerable position. Although the opposition movement achieved a great victory in eliminating Yanukovych from power, its efforts may prove futile if a fair political transition is not undertaken in the coming months, especially if Russia continues to bully Ukraine into submission. If Ukraine is to move towards a freer and more just society, then the West must work with Ukraine to ensure fair and free elections while offering strong guidance and support during the upcoming political transition.

The unprecedented violence in Ukraine was appalling and indicative of a deteriorating security situation on the ground, suggesting significant gains in the opposition movement and feelings of insecurity on part of the Yanukovych regime. To combat demonstrators, Ukrainian security forces were issued combat-grade weapons and fired upon protesters . Opposition members attacked security forces with Molotov cocktails and possibly firearms . Although both sides have committed acts of violence, there should be no doubt that the preponderance of force came from government-sponsored security forces; reports indicate that government-sponsored snipers killed at least 20 protesters this past week. This suppression is unacceptable and revealed the true authoritarian nature of the Yanukovych government. Although the main perpetrator of the violence has been effectively removed from power, the West must continue to isolate those responsible and should take an active role in shaping the next phase of the political transition.

Even though the U.S. and EU are becoming more active in Ukraine’s political crisis, the most influential external actor in Ukraine is undoubtedly Russia. President Putin and his allies are taking bold steps to keep their Ukrainian puppets in power thereby preserving the status quo. Indeed, Russia’s provocative moves instigated the political unrest when it bullied Ukraine into rejecting a trade deal with the EU in favor of $15 billion dollars in aid and a tantalizing 33 percent discount on Russian natural gas. Naturally, Russia has many reasons to prevent Ukraine from developing relations with the EU. In his quest to restore the idea of a “Great Russia” and a sphere of influence similar to the former Soviet Bloc, Putin knows that Ukraine is the most important country in pursuit of this goal.

Historically, Ukraine has been known as “Small Russia.” The concept of a “Modern Russia” is said to have started in Ukraine, and Ukraine is seen as the birthplace of the region’s Orthodox Christianity. Linguistically, the two countries are also very similar as many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian. The economic ties between Ukraine and Russia are also vital in gauging Russia’s interest. If Ukraine does not join Russia’s Eurasian customs union (which recently recruited Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), then the whole concept could disintegrate. Russian companies have a large investment presence in Ukraine accounting for about 7 percent of Ukraine’s total foreign investment in 2013. In addition, many Ukrainians have migrated to Russia providing a substantial labor force for Russian companies. Ukraine also has geostrategic importance for Russia hosting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet naval headquarters. If the naval base’s lease were threatened by a more independent Ukraine, Russia would suffer a significant loss in a critical region. Clearly, Russia has a substantial interest in keeping a pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. Although Russia has indicated perhaps a softer stance by sending in a more reasonable diplomat to conduct negotiations during this tipping point, this gesture should not be considered a serious change of intention or attitude. Russia knows that losing Ukraine to the West will be a momentous blow to its aspirations of restoring the idea of a “Great Russia.”

When evaluating the West’s efforts to support the Ukrainian opposition and influence the Ukrainian regime, it is important to understand that the U.S. and its Western allies are at an inherent disadvantage. Unlike the Russian state which has few reservations in actively supporting authoritarian regimes that suppress their own people, such as the Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, the West generally does not support corrupt autocrats in such a brash manner. It also is difficult to provide assistance to an opposition that is not well defined. Nevertheless, the EU’s decision to place individual sanctions on Ukrainian officials , and the U.S.’s move to revoke 20 Ukrainian visas were positive efforts to punish President Yanukovych’s regime. These individuals must be held responsible for their actions, especially if they continue to receive guidance from Russia urging the state to resist tectonic reforms in the coming months. However, more must be done beyond sanctions to ensure a meaningful political transition and reform process.

More often than not, the West views elections as the end game of democratic reform, even when the elections in question are severely flawed. The West must actively monitor and offer guidance to the Ukrainian political transition team via diplomatic channels and civil society groups to ensure free and fair elections. Yanukovych and/or his allies may attempt to retain power in the upcoming months resulting in a Russian-backed political machine winning the elections. According to international observers, Ukraine’s 2012 election cycle was plagued with fraud, so it is likely that history could repeat itself if the election process is not regulated and monitored. Western countries should also keep an eye on rising leaders within the opposition movement that could be potential puppets for President Putin. Wealthy oligarchs such as Henadiy Boholyubov and Ihor Kolomoyskyy, who both have billion dollar plus holdings in the financial, media, and energy industries, have recently switched allegiances to the opposition movement even though they have traditionally supported the Yanukovych regime. These powerful actors could potentially hijack the opposition movement and resist any meaningful change that threatens their interests, which could include greater independence from Russia. Ukraine’s proposed political transition and reform could easily become a sham if the U.S. and the EU lose focus and decrease pressure.

Russia is bold to accuse the West of “puppeteering” in Ukraine via diplomatic support since the Kremlin has actively supported a bloody regime that has massacred civilians. While the current situation is not a proxy war, it is hard to ignore the emerging political divide and international political implications of Ukraine’s transformation. Western Ukraine supports further integration with the EU, and Eastern Ukraine is supportive of a strong Russian presence. Moving forward, it will be very difficult to reconcile these two viewpoints in a political transition that seeks a “national unity government.” However, the West and EU can continue to punish Ukrainian officials guilty of oppression and help support and shape meaningful political reform that keeps President Yanukovych and his cronies out of power. The ouster of Yanukovych by parliament, while a positive development, should be watched closely. The inevitable scramble and disorganization that follows such a momentous event could lead to the rise of another corrupt regime that seeks to ally itself to the highest bidder. Regardless of this possibility, those Ukrainians who desire a freer and more just society have won a substantial victory. Let us hope this victory is the first of many to come culminating in a Ukraine that aspires to be more than just a “Small Russia.”

America Won and Lost the War on Terror

The World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 by “Marc AuMarc” via flickr (creative commons)

As the horrific events of September 11, 2001 fade ever-further into the recesses of public memory, it would be prudent to analyze where we find ourselves today in the intractable conflict – known as the “Global War on Terror”– borne out of 9/11. Two analyses, from Stratfor and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, respectively, have done this admirably well, and provided the backdrop for this article’s analysis.

Stratfor: Gauging the Jihadist Movement, Part 4: Franchises and Grassroots (Part of a Series)

Foreign Policy Research Institute: The Three Versions of Al-Qaeda- A Primer

During the Bush years, the United States effectively neutralized the trans-national threat posed by al-Qaeda, and the Obama Administration delivered the symbolic final blow with the Abbottabad raid, leading to Osama bin Laden’s death.

By the end of the Bush Presidency, it was clear that the al-Qaeda core was decimated and unable to coordinate even its own communications, not to speak of spectacular, large-scale attacks that could pose threats to the lives of civilians in Western countries. By this measure – the destruction of al-Qaeda’s C4 (command, control, communications, computers) – the United States won the War on Terror. President Bush, having learned the fate of premature declarations of victory after the famous speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, wisely chose not to declare victory over al-Qaeda in his Farewell Address. But by all realistic and meaningful measures concerning domestic security and the fate of the al-Qaeda core, the American intelligence and military machine had achieved strategic dominance over its foe. President Obama’s expansion of the drone war was often seen as an overextension of the War on Terror past its critical objectives, which is an inaccurate critique when considering the broader picture in that it served the purpose of pursuing al-Qaeda’s remnants further rather than dealing knockout blows. But for strategic purposes, the war had already been won.

But in another sense, it is evident that the United States lost the War on Terror. Many in the young, untested Obama Administration assumed that President Obama’s chief purpose in continuing America’s newly-renamed “Overseas Contingency Initiative” was to mop up the remaining hives of terrorist activity, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in new areas, such as Yemen and Somalia.

It turned out, however, that al-Qaeda as a movement was far more resilient than al-Qaeda as an organization. As the central command nucleus dwindled away, more local, practical offshoots were rising up in various regions of the world. When the media uses the name “al-Qaeda” today, they really mean one of al-Qaeda’s splinter or affiliate groups, chief among them the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and their Sub-Saharan counterparts al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. These are not all necessarily former al-Qaeda commands that split off; some are jihadist groups which have worked with al-Qaeda in the past and now carry on the war.

The function and purpose of these groups is all very clear: to bring about the establishment of Emirates in their local regions, be that through de facto rule during chaotic times (as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has done very well) or through the overthrow of local governments (as most splinter groups have been attempting). This is exactly in line with al-Qaeda’s mission statement as expressed so many years ago in Osama bin Laden’s Letter to America: “The removal of these [American-backed, non-sharia] governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Umma, to make the Sharia the supreme law…” and it reveals a new phase of America’s War on Terror. Today, rather than facing a single, silent, unified foe whose cells and operations stretched across nations, whose capacity was to bring world-shattering destruction upon the West, the United States now faces a broad, loose ideological movement composed of dozens of independent groups, each with the purpose of local disruption and ascension in mind. The only apparent counterattack is a broad mix of the failed counterinsurgency doctrines of the last decade, and a total deprivation of liberty in afflicted areas to neutralize all possible threats.

None of these groups can threaten the American homeland in the way the old al-Qaeda did, yet all of them can threaten American interests in ways the old al-Qaeda never could. Moreover, it is not our fight; it is the struggle of the peoples among whom the new jihadists fight to determine the destiny of each corner of the Muslim world. No matter how much America has done in the past, there is only so much she can do today and into the future. At some point, local communities must figure out what they want on their own accord.

The present US-jihadist war will not end until the historical forces presently bringing about the decay of the Greater Middle East have run their course or have been contained. It should be the purpose of US policy to adapt to this new reality, without, as was the Bush folly, elevating it to primacy as America’s primary foreign policy arena. The age-old American imperatives of maintaining a liberal world order and managing regional balances of power are as important today as they ever were, and those benchmarks are unlikely to change anytime soon. The War on Terror should be viewed as an integral part of US policy towards the Greater Indian Ocean region, completely coherent within US diplomacy, and development politics. To that end, US policies and planning should be redesigned with a more unified vision in mind.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

America and Iran to Bury the Hatchet?

Barack Obama on the telephone with Hassan Rouhani

President of the United States, Barack Obama, talks with the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, during a telephone call in the Oval Office on 27 September 2013.
(Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran has no interest in building nuclear weapons, either for national prestige or for security reasons. He went on to remark that he is willing to sit down with President Obama and discuss a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. President Obama cautiously agreed, and the agreement has led to both criticism and applause within their respective governments. Few details have emerged, but the foreign policy community has already started chiming in on this surprising development.

In a year where the Russians have agreed to mediate negotiations for a Syrian truce and disarmament, perhaps nothing should come as surprising. Yet on the Iranian question, no greater shock could have come, save perhaps a preemptive strike by the Americans and/or Israelis. The United States and Iran have been diplomatically disengaged from each other since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and for the last 10 years relations have only worsened as the two states have played a sort of game of thrones over the ashes of Iraq and influence in the Gulf region. The Iranian nuclear program, funded for decades before the fall of the Shah by the very Western governments which now so viciously condemn it has for the last decade been the most visible point of contention between Iran and the United States. Additionally, Iran’s aspirations for regional leadership and dominance ensured that there has been no shortage of American efforts to contain the Shia nation and prevent it from upsetting the regional balance of power. The seeming radicalism of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, most callously expressed in his denial of the Holocaust, did not help the diplomatic situation in any way.

When Rouhani succeeded Ahmedinejad, there was buzz among the Western media suggesting that this man might be “our man;” he seemed progressive and democratic enough and his words sounded good. Add on to that the events of the Green Revolution in 2010 and the subsequent Arab Spring and there seemed to be an inkling that liberal populism might provide Rouhani the legitimacy necessary to fundamentally change Iranian policies – both foreign and domestic. But after a brief media honeymoon, his fame died a slow and quiet death, as Iranian policy did not appear to differ significantly from that of Ahmedinejad.

Fast forward to today, when we see Rouhani apparently making baby steps in a progressive direction. He has renounced over a decade of Iranian security policy, while making overtures to integrate Iran with the international community. As many commentators have noted, this should not be seen as a sudden change of heart; the Iranian President is undoubtedly still confined by certain limits and boundaries. Nevertheless, this change in tone marks a critical shift, one which will certainly have profound effects on the region. Already the Saudis and Israelis have voiced their disapproval of impending US negotiations with Iran. I recall becoming disillusioned after years of catching the oft-used “Israeli strike on Iran closer than ever before!” headline and resigning myself to the conclusion that the United States and Iran would remain enduring enemies, periodically exchanging harsh words but never anything more. It appears that this state of affairs may soon change.

This saga illustrates an interesting principle of politics best articulated by former Secretary of State George Kennan: “No other people… is entirely our enemy. No people at all… is entirely our friend.” Shifting power paradigms tend to manifest themselves in surprising ways; to the futurist or to the contemporary observer, this development may appear seemingly irrational, yet to the historian looking back it seems perfectly sensible. And thus great shifts in the balance of power are common occurrences in world politics, with many of them marking new political eras.

In 1992 the Europeans signed the Maastricht Treaty and established the European Union. Between 1989 and 1991 the Soviet Union crumbled and the world map was redrawn. In 1973 the People’s Republic of China turned on their former Communist friends in the Soviet Union and instead began working with the United States. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the former colonies of the old European empires claimed their independence. And in each case, observers were shocked; only two or three years earlier there would have been no indication that radical change was on the horizon. This is how the present cooling of relations between the United States and Iran should be viewed: a political anomaly that does not make sense now but one day will be heralded as a major breakthrough in international relations.

Islamic Radicalization in Our Own Backyard

The Westgate Mall Attack and What it Means for al-Shabaab Influence Within the United States

Photo by Anne Knight [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Last Monday, a dense plume of smoke could be seen following a loud explosion that erupted in the heart of the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Shabab militants had held hundreds hostage that day, with at least sixty-two confirmed killed, after storming the mall with guns. Though the grisly attack may seem akin to another terrorism attack in a volatile region, the strike uncovers a few critical considerations regarding the terrorist group responsible and its plans for international expansion.

Al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group (the Arabic name translates to “The Youth”) came into existence in 2006 as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts. The coalition began as a faction fighting Ethiopian forces who entered Somalia to back the country’s interim government. During this period, foreign jihadists flocked to Somalia to help al-Shabaab in its fight gradually establishing a link between the group and al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab has seen its influence dwindle in recent years, beginning with its forced-removal from Mogadishu in 2011 and then again its loss of control of the region after leaving the port Kismayo a year later. These losses deprived them of the ability to levy taxes and acquire supplies in areas under their control.

Given its diminishing hold on regional power, it comes as little surprise that al-Shabaab decisively chose to strike beyond its borders and launch a fatal assault on the popular Nairobi mall; Westgate shopping center is a major tourist hub attracting western foreigners and affluent Kenyans. The attack sends a clear message to radicals and other extremist al-Qaeda-linked organizations stating, “We’re still here, and we’re still in serious business.”

But al-Shabaab’s propagandistic attack was not meant to radicalize Islamists exclusively in the region. The group of fighters that day was comprised not only of Somali nationals, but also of international recruits – most significantly at least two fighters have been confirmed to have come from Minnesota and Missouri. In other words, a number of these recruits who were involved in this gruesome Jihadist strike were United States citizens loyal to al-Shabaab.

Why is this significant? Consider the following factors in conjunction with one another: (1) the choice to attack a site of this sort rather than one with government or military affiliation was largely a publicity-driven move, (2) both the targets and the al-Shabab recruits were an amalgamation of foreigners originating from an array of western countries. The attack was more than just another anti-west assault launched by Islamists; it was meant to serve as an initiative in capturing the attention of Somalis and Muslims – specifically within the United States – for recruitment to the group’s militant forces.

The American-Somali population saw a spike in numbers following immigrants escaping the country’s 1991 civil war . An estimated 50,000 to over 150,000 Somali naturalized citizens reside within the United States today, living in concentrated groups, the largest of which is situated in Minnesota. And although the majority of Somalis have assimilated to American culture, the adjustment of the population has been met with interruptions by the Islamic radicalization of its youth that has been occurring since at least 2004. In 2007, al-Shabaab began openly calling for foreign fighters around the world to come join their extremist forces – and a number of American-Somalis began taking heed to their calls, leaving for Somalia to train in the name of jihad.

While there is nothing new about Americans being recruited and trained to fight for Jihadist terrorist organizations, al-Shabaab and its Nairobi propaganda attack not only increased the probable numbers of radicalized Americans migrating to the region but also highlighted an acute new domestic security concern within the United States. Through recruiting, radicalizing and training, al-Shabaab is able to extend its extremist goals directly into the United States through Somali citizens who leave for Somalia as Islamists and return to the States as new Jihadists. U.S. intelligence forces need to begin focusing on al-Shabaab’s recruitment among the swelling American-Somali population, as it will soon prove itself to be among the next major threats to the borders of this nation. If the government is to minimize the effects of al-Shabaab’s recruitment campaign, it must take initiative to locate both the locals responsible for radicalizing these Somali-Americans, as well as those who have left the country to receive training, to ensure that they do not reenter the country equipped with ambitions of Jihadist destruction.

Not only must it track and locate recruiters and militants who are nationals, but the United States must also keep a close watch as to where in Somalia its dollars are being wired. In addition to the number of recruits the group receives from this country, al-Shabaab’s supporters have maintained direct contact with its leaders; recorded transactions indicate that the group has received at least tens of thousands of American dollars through money transfer businesses over the years to the organization. Since al-Shabaab was added to the State Department’s list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2008, the providing of money, communications, weapons, human capital, etc., to the group has been deemed illegal, which has appeared to have had somewhat of a preventative effect with twelve individuals convicted in 2011. Regardless of this initiative and the seemingly negligible reported amount of funds channeled to the organization, there still exists the prominent threat of “under-wraps” al-Shabaab recruitment and funding that occurs entirely undetected within the United States.

Perhaps in spite of all these considerations, al-Shabaab’s horrific, newsworthy assault on the Westgate Mall was a mere cry for attention – an act of desperation to reclaim what little is left of its legitimacy as a serious terrorist organization. After all, the group’s primary aim has always been to maintain ironclad control over Somalia, and with that gone, al-Shabaab has little to its name within the region. Some argue that the attack will fail to create a substantial wave of radicalization and influence potential recruits in such a dramatic manner. However, the truth still indicates that the threat is grave. The attack shows that al-Shabaab is still serious about its exploits, and the Americans involved prove that the group’s recruitment is still effective and in full swing within the States. Moreover, the White House must marshal its intelligence services in cracking down on domestic recruitment, and perhaps most importantly monitoring the reentry of American-Somalis returning from Somalia, in order to ensure that domestic grounds are kept secure from the new security threat posed by al-Shabaab and its terrorist outlets on U.S. soil.