Friday, 29 November 2013

The Geneva Treaty on Iran's nuclear programmes

A preliminary treaty would seem to have been negotiated and signed, last weekend in Geneva, between Iran and the 'P5+1' i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, America, France, Britain and China) plus Germany (plus the EU represented by Caroline Ashton).  This is strikingly significant in itself, and also in what it reveals about cleavages and shifts in the international politics of the Middle East.

The treaty requires that Iran down-scale its uranium enrichment activities (highly enriched - and therefore highly fissile - uranium  being necessary for both reactor construction, and the creation of nuclear munitions).   It offers the lifting of various economic sanctions which have been imposed upon Iran, and crucially on its very large and very formidable oil industries, for the last number of years. This is important for Iran, as its economy has felt the pinch of these sanctions in very serious and damaging ways.

Negative reaction to the treaty has come most obviously from Israel, and, in tones rather less shrill, from Saudi Arabia.  Israel and Saudi Arabia have, to a limited degree, made common cause on this matter (yet another example of the willingness of Israel, 'the only democracy in the Middle East', to enter alliances with the most repulsive regimes for the purpose of political and strategic convenience).  Yet inevitably Israel and Saudi Arabia also have sharply divergent interests in many other respects, and most of the time.  This alliance is not likely to be long-lived.

Any stock-taking must begin with the deal itself. What does it entail?

1) Iran will cease enrichment of uranium above 5% - as compared to the 90% required for weapons-grade material;

2) Iran's stockpile of 20% enriched uranium will be wound down - that is, it will either be diluted to 5% or below, or it can be turned into fuel for Iran's reactor at Bushehr, effectively ending its potential for further enrichment;

3) Iran agrees to construct no new centrifuges (the key apparatus for the enrichment of uranium) for the next six months;

4) Iran suspends work on the Arak heavy-water reactor.  Arak would run on non-enriched uranium, were it to be brought into service. It also produces high-grade plutonium as a by-product, which can be used in the manufacture of weapons.  Agreeing to suspend work on the plant cuts directly into Iran's weapons programmes;

5) Iran has pledged to reconsider the matter of IAEA access to the Parchin military site.  Currently the IAEA is banned from this site, but wants to re-visit it, to assess whether it was used for nuclear tests of a kind directed towards the development of weapons.

For these concessions, Iran wins benefits principally consisting in the unfreezing or unblocking of assets held abroad: $4.2 billion in oil sales revenues in accounts now to be unblocked; $1 billion in repatriated petrochemical sales; $500 million in sales and production in the Iranian motor industry, due to the unblocking of car parts imports; the unblocking of $400 million in Iranian assets used to pay for students abroad; and the lifting of bans on Iranian trade in precious metals.

Of course, no sooner has this deal been put in place, than the jockeying has begun for the ensuing discussions on the future of the Iranian nuclear programmes.  It's reckoned that the Parchin base and its history, much of it murky, may be a sticking point in the coming negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Geneva deal has ramifications right across the Middle East, and in America.  It's a substantial foreign-policy success for the Obama Administration and for Secretary Kerry.   That it's been prepared by secret contacts between the American and Iranian governments for the last several months only goes to reinforce the drama of very highlevel contact and negotiation between political elites which have been labelling each other 'the great Satan' (or its cognates) since 1979.  But it could yet be derailed, or produce knock-on effects as yet unexpected. An angry Israeli government reaction might produce even more intransigence on the Palestine issue (though that might be hard to imagine).   Iranian hardliners may try to rein in the negotiators who have struck the current deal, foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif chief among them.  The Saudis also feel the terrain of Middle East power shifting under their feet, seeing an American focus on rapprochement with the most powerful state in the Gulf, and are alarmed.

The deal is historic, however, not only in what it concretely tackles, but also in its dramatisation of the tectonic movements of power and influence in the Middle East.  In the years of the Cold War, American influence in the region was mediated principally through three 'pillar' countries: Israel, a useful if maverick Spartan military ally; Saudi Arabia, with which the United States has had a close alliance since the days of FDR; and Iran under the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah. When the latter was overthrown in 1979, one of the pillars of American policy was shattered, and a powerful, rich and hostile Iran became in fact the United States' chief enemy in the Middle East.  The new Iran also propagated a radical ideology, represented in the work of its principal thinker, the brilliant sociologist Ali Shariati, an ideology composed not only from Shi'ism, but also from elements of Western Marxism and Third World anti-imperialist nationalism, and thus represented an extraordinary challenge to Western hegemony in the Gulf and beyond.  Iran was the sponsor and supporter of Shia movements in Lebanon, of various Palestinian factions, of the Iraqi majority as the Bush Administration found to its cost after the invasion of 2003, and of significant minorities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  Accordingly, a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, if that is indeed what we are seeing, is a policy/alliance shift of a kind one only sees every few decades.  Watch this space.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Culture and Ideas

It's about time this blog said a little about the net resources I use or admire in regard not merely to politics, but cultural/intellectual matters generally.  Some of what I am going to highlight here is dependent, or partly-dependent on subscription.

The New Left Review has been around as a journal since 1960, or thereabouts.  It remains, surely, the flagship intellectual journal of the Anglophone Marxist left.  It's been an essential forum for disputes and debates in Marxist philosophy, cultural and political theory, radical economics, both in the context of Britain, and globally.  In the Sixties and Seventies, it was a vital conduit for the translation and mediation into the English-speaking world of the work of newly-discovered or re-discovered 'Western Marxism' - the ideas of Georg Lukacs, Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Sebastiano Timpanaro, Louis Althusser.  Important discussions take place in the pages of the Review - the quarrel between Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband (father to Ed and David, recently alleged to have 'hated' Britain) was fought out in its pagesö or more recently debates between Stefan Collini and Francis Mulhern about cultural criticism and intellectuals, or Franco Moretti and Christopher Prendergast about "world literature".  The famous and brilliant 'Nairn-Anderson Theses' on the nature of the British 'revolution', its compromises with the aristocracy and its legacies in the present, were first published in the NLR's pages.  And indeed though the journal was an crucial channel introducing radical continental thought to Britain and America, it also was the arena where a striking array of British, American, and indeed Irish talent was revealed: Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Perry and Benedict Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Francis Mulhern, and many others.

I've had a subscription since 1990, and I can still remember the pleasure and excitement of coming to grips with it then. I was a MA student in UCD, and, under the guidance of Seamus Deane, Declan Kiberd and Thomas Docherty, in particular, and also Brian Cosgrove and Michael Paul Gallagher, I was finding my intellectual feet - an enormously exciting experience.  Suddenly, I found modes of thinking that allowed me to take culture seriously and as part of the social and political world: Marxisms, but also postcolonial thought - Edward Said pre-eminently - and some of the French thinkers so fashionable in the academy then and since: Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Francois Lyotard.  At the same time, I was discovering radical journalism - Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens, both of them at that time closely connected with the NLR - and getting agitated about the Gulf War.  Not only was I working with wonderful teachers and critics, but also, through those mentors, coming to an understanding of what Said famously called the 'worldiness' of ideas and writing - the sense that there is always a relationship between aesthetic ideas and experiences, and the apparently grubby world of politics and capital.  Becoming a devotee of the NLR was part of that very heady mix, and it has never ceased to be interesting and valuable.  Access to the full range of the NLR's articles and archives is by subscription:

New Left Review - NLR 83, September-October 2013

A few years later, I was studying in England, and began to read the London Review of Books.  The LRB is that thing which it's still hard to find in Ireland - a stylish, smart journal about books and ideas and politics, which is not 'academic', but which is a far cry from the standards of the Irish weekend 'arts' or 'literary' supplements, which are so often provincial and narcissistic (the capacity of the Irish Times to focus on the output of its own staff on its book pages is truly embarrassing) and overwhelmingly middlebrow.  The LRB reviews literature, but the essays are not slavishly attached to their topics (sometimes a frustrating trait, but not usually), and will use a book as the occasion for much wider speculation or discussion.  Much more than the New York Review of Books, of which it was originally an offshoot, the journal is flexible and frequent enough (fortnightly) to respond to current events - giving Edward Said the space to review books on the Lebanon War and the camp massacres at length in 1984, or publishing a wide array of responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 - and it generally feels rather more critically distant from a cultural or policy establishment than its Manhattan rival. The LRB, while broadly left-liberal in outlook, is not afraid either, to give space to writers from across the entire political spectrum, from Judith Butler to Edward Luttwak. It's attractively streetwise in tone, but rarely trivial. It's willing to publish slash-and-burn reviews - one remembers a witty but unfair review of Gayatri Spivak's Critique of Postcolonial Reason by Terry Eagleton - or controversial one-off essays or documents: it was in the pages of the LRB, after all, that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt first published the essay that would eventually lead to their book The Israel Lobby, after it'd been rejected by the Atlantic Monthly (which had commissioned the piece originally and then baulked at what it got).   My one qualm about the LRB is its inexplicable tendency to give enormous space in its coverage of Irish writing and culture to Colm Toibin, a moderately talented novelist and long-time journalist of no great investigative zeal or critical brio, who nevertheless seems to have attained to a powerful position in 'Irish Letters', buttressed by glamorous appointments at the NY Public Library and Columbia University.  Even with Toibin's lugubrious presence, however, the LRB remains a great newspaper.  It publishes a certain amount of material for free on its website.

London Review of Books · 21 November 2013

Readers of this blog will be aware of my admiration of Alexander Cockburn, whose last book, A Colossal Wreck, I managed to purchase last week.  A Colossal Wreck is a tremendous compendium of humour, insight and polemic, written, as often in the past, in diary form.  Hilarious and insightful reflections on cookery, vintage American cars, small-town life and politics, on Ireland at several points, combine with guerilla attacks on bloated imitators (Hitchens) and the Washington establishment,  and accounts of friends fondly remembered or praised (Edward Said, Ben Sonnenberg).  In contrast to Hitchens, who so obviously thirsted for insiderdom and friends in high places, Cockburn in the last 15 years of his life burned his connections with the centres of power, and removed himself to remote northern California.  Yet, in the age of the internet, this did not restrain his questing coverage of events and politics all over the world, and he also criss-crossed the United States, carrying writing accoutrements, cooking seafood in motel bedrooms, and endlessly meeting and learning about ordinary people.  From his California base, Petrolia, Cockburn also edited Counterpunch, with his comrades Ken Silverstein (who set up the paper and site in 1994) and Jeffrey StClair.  Cockburn died last year, but CP is still edited by StClair, and remains a wonderful source of edgy journalism, both polemical and analytical, 'muckraking with radical attitude'.  CP maintains a brilliant free website, and also publishes a hardcopy subscription newsheet, often with stories not otherwise available or more comprehensively elaborated.

CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

I said above that the Irish literary-intellectual scene lacks a journal comparable to the London Review of Books.  In fact, this is no longer entirely true, due to the pioneering and splendid efforts of Maurice Earls and Enda O'Doherty at the Dublin Review of Books, an online publication.  That Maurice Earls might be involved in such an effort will not suprise those who are familiar with Books Upstairs, probably Dublin's finest and one of its most pleasant independent bookstores, located on College Green opposite the Front Arch of TCD.  Maurice is the proprietor (as well as the owner of several other bookstores around the city), but he's also a historian, and a real bibliophile.  For many years, Books Upstairs has been the best place in Dublin to find the 'little magazines' that are the backbone of literary activity in many countries - modest reviews, poetry magazines, leftwing or feminist or gay magazines (I'd reckon that Books Upstairs was the first bookshop in Dublin with a gay literature section).  The staff are uniformly pleasant and helpful - Ruth Kenny who used to manage the store is a star of knowledge, enthusiasm, and helpfulness.  Maurice, with Enda O'Doherty, set up the Dublin Review of Books in 2007, initially as a quarterly publication.  Now it's fortnightly, and it's a testament to the editors' focus and care that the standard has not dropped at all.  Here at last we find the extended review, where a book can be contextualised formally, historically, ideologically.  Here at last we can look, through the eyes of primarily Irish reviewers, but also international contributors (it's few Irish journals that can boast of having published an interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski) at a wide range of international writing, ideas and events.  The DRB now publishes essays as well as reviews, and also occasionally excerpts from new books or younger writers.  All of its content is free.

Dublin Review of Books

Monday, 18 November 2013

Diary - November 2013 - Ireland and the environment

A couple of points have come up recently, which bring me back to my argument as put forward in 'Ireland and the Enclosure of the Commons'. 

Firstly, the decision of the Supreme Court in Dublin on the case between Sligo County Council, and the owners of historic Lissadell House.   A badly conducted legal campaign, ostensibly to defend rights of way around the Lissadell estate, has wasted a sum of money that might originally have brought house and estate into public ownership some years ago, and has probably set arguments about public access to amenity lands back by some years. 

Second, last Tuesday, Fintan O'Toole in his Irish Times column, drew attention to the proliferation of ugly, obtrusive, and largely unnecessary barbed wire and high tensile fences on Ireland's mountains.

Why fencing in our high mountain pastures is really the height of folly

It would appear that the Department of Agriculture is offering farmers grants, related to the Single Farm Payment scheme, to construct fences.  This means that on terrain where even sheep are rarely seen, one encounters and struggles to pass fencing.  Another issue of access for walkers on our magnificent mountains.


Diary - November 2013 - the Middle East

Again, I have neglected my blog.  It's foolish.  What I hope to do today is to sketch in a few of the issues and concerns that have interested me lately, and which I should have commented upon.

In the Middle East, we had the apparent will of the United States and its allies to assault the Al-Assad regime in Syria, after the use of chemical weapons in August.  This attack did not take place, partly due to political fudging and incompetence (writing here in their own terms) by the American and British governments, and also because of divisions and controversy in the American foreign policy establishment.  The Russian government - which wishes to enhance Russian international influence and power, of course, under the star of a resurgent 'Greater Russia' nationalism, and which is the Al-Assad regime's primary defender and armourer - ably stepped into the diplomatic  breach.  It put together an alternative plan, which allowed for the Syrian government admitting to possession of chemical munitions, and for a UN programme of their destruction.  The winners here were clearly the Russians - no more a joyous thing than an American diplomatic victory, it should be said.

The United States is meanwhile sponsoring new 'talks' between the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah staffers, and the Israeli government under the leadership of Bibi Netanyahu.  It should be clear that these talks are a waste of time, that they are most risky for the Palestinians, and that they largely function to offer political cover for the Americans (to seem to be doing something - otherwise someone's going soon to start asking Obama when he's going to give back his Nobel Prize), and diplomatic cover for the Israelis to go on with settlement construction.  The bottom line point here, that is never really spoken in mainstream Western circles, is that settlement construction by Israel in the West Bank is  a mode of making war.  If Clausewitz famously said that 'war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means', then we must here recognise the value of Michel Foucault's brilliant reversal of that dictum in his College de France lecture series 'Society Must Be Defended': 'politics [diplomacy in this case] is the continuation of war by other means'.  'Peace talks' which go ahead while settlement construction is underway are like peace talks conducted when combat has not yet ceased, peace talks conducted in the absence of a ceasefire.  The sooner these 'peace talks' grind to a halt, the better.

And most recently, we've had the discussions, involving various permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, but also Britain and France) over Iran's nuclear programmes.  A lot of optimism was generated by the most recent round of talks that a deal might be struck (accompanied by Israel squealing like an irate adolescent in the wings), but seems to have dissipated at the end of such talks, with recriminations on both sides.  A few points are worth making here.  Israel squeals whenever it doesn't get its way, and it squeals particularly loudly at the prospect of any kind of normalisation of Western relations with Iran.  Iran is Israel's main rival in the Middle East as a local great power, and helps back various Palestinian and Lebanese forces which offer resistance to Israel's will.  States are never purely benign agencies, and the Iranian state is certainly not one.  However, it's worth remembering that Iran (a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty) is not in breach of its obligations, and has no nuclear weapons, whereas Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons and viable delivery systems (and never signed the NPT, thus not being subject to international oversight in this regard).   Saudi Arabia (so long so charmingly labelled by the United States a 'moderate' Arab state) squeals about normalisation with Iran, because of a historical paranoia about 'the Persians'; and more pertinently because of its fear and guilt about its mistreatment of its own substantial Shia minority, which happens to live in the areas of its greatest oil wealth.  The Kingdom is also an aspiring regional hegemon, which fears Iran's backing for the last secular radical Arab nationalist regime (Syria), and what this represents for Sunni Islamism.   Patrick Cockburn, of the London Independent, has argued shrewdly that it is quite likely that the talks with Iran will fail, as they do not suit agencies putting pressure on the American government (Israel, the Israel lobby, Congress), and putting pressure on the Iranian government (radicals within the Iranian political establishment, who see negotiations on the nuclear programme as placing Iran in a position of weakness).

What can we surmise from all of these developments?  That American influence in the Middle East is slipping, that regional jostling and power-playing will continue, and that the Palestinians continue to lose.