Just as talks between Iran and world powers to nail down a deal restricting Tehran’s nuclear programme enter a decisive phase, the Islamic Republic last week put on a show. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) placed a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf, and then blew it out of the water. For the IRGC, praetorian guard of the Shia theocracy, it would not do to show flabby muscle tone at this juncture, to the US or its Gulf Arab neighbours.
In Washington, meanwhile, another form of triumphalism is on display. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, is tomorrow due to address the US Congress – at the invitation of its Republican leadership – and is expected to say that the nuclear deal under discussion amounts to capitulation to Iran and will allow it to build an atomic bomb. As well as a brazen electoral stunt before Israel goes to the polls on March 17, this is a calculated snub to President Barack Obama. Mr Netanyahu is flaunting his ability to go around the White House to Congress, where ordinarily he enjoys the near unanimous support he could only dream of in the Knesset at home. Read more
All smiles: foreign ministers of the six world powers at the nuclear talks in Vienna. Getty
The failure to meet this week’s deadline for a definitive nuclear deal between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia and China, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) is ominous. True, the negotiations, already extended once after the interim agreement a year ago, have been given a new deadline of June next year. But musings of the glass half full, glass half empty variety under-represent just how difficult it will be now to close a deal, and how much is at stake if this chance to bring the Islamic Republic in from the cold slips away. Read more
For a country that so recently harboured ambitions as a great regional power, Turkey is offering an unedifyingly feeble spectacle on its border with Syria, as the merciless fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) close in on the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani. This could be a defining moment for the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who has dominated its politics like no other since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who forged the republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
Despite President Erdogan’s regional swagger, and Turkey’s possession of the second largest army in Nato, the country’s neo-Islamist leadership appear unwilling or unable to prevent a bloodbath at Kobani happening within sight of their tanks. This refusal to act could also sabotage an Erdogan legacy project of a peace settlement with Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, a probable casualty of Kobani as Kurds rise across the region in fury that Ankara is not just watching the town’s defenders being massacred by the jihadi fanatics of Isis but obstructing others trying to aid them. Read more
Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the Turkish parliament
Turkey’s parliament has just voted to authorise the army to use force in Syria and Iraq, the dismembered countries to its south where the jihadi extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have declared a caliphate that is menacing Turkish borders.
Criticised abroad for sitting on the sidelines of the emerging coalition against Isis, and at home for a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that has placed Turkey at loggerheads with almost all its neighbours, Thursday’s vote is being hailed by some as a watershed – Ankara’s return to the bosom of Nato, with which Turkey has been allied for more than six decades.
Yet, rather than a clear-cut decision, this looks like more of a complicated juggling act by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became Turkey’s first directly elected president in August after being prime minister for more than a decade, during which he has left a clear but messy imprint on Turkish policy in the Middle East. Read more
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the White House on September 10 2014
Barack Obama’s outline of plans for a US-led offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, is light on the politics that will be decisive in their defeat. Read more
Recep Tayyip Erdogan just won his ninth straight popular vote in just over a decade, to become the first directly elected president of Turkey, in what is supposed to be his apotheosis, raising him to the historic height of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey. As his opponents have recurring reason to know, Mr Erdogan has established an almost preternatural grip on the electorate that not even prima facie evidence of corruption, willful policy decisions, and creeping authoritarianism seem able to loosen. Now Turkey and the world will see if he is truly a statesman.
Nobody can gainsay Mr Erdogan his victory which, despite a comparatively low turnout, has given him a comfortable first round win. But after more than a decade as prime minister of a nation he has helped transform – not least by spreading wealth and giving a voice to those whom Ataturk’s secular republic kept at the margins of society – Mr Erdogan must now decide where to take a great and pivotal country he increasingly treats as his personal patrimony. Read more
A Yazidi family that fled Sinjar in Iraq takes shelter in the Kurdish city of Dohuk ( SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Barack Obama’s decision to move back into the maelstrom of Iraq, from which he withdrew in 2011 after solemnly pledging to extricate US forces once and for all, would clearly not have been taken lightly.
Little under a year ago, after all, the president baulked at the last fence on Syria, declining to punish the Assad regime for nerve-gassing its own people – crossing a red line he had chosen to single out as inviolable. That was the wrong decision, and it is worth a moment to remember why. Read more
The call this weekend by bishops of the Church of England for the UK to grant asylum to the Christians driven out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul by the jihadi fanatics of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, seems instinctively right. As the Right Reverend David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, observed: “this is, in part, our mess”.
“We have created the space in which Isis have moved in and have expelled Christians from northern Iraq and would like to expel them from the whole of that country,” he told the BBC. Read more
Palestinian employees of Gaza City City's al-Deira hotel carry a wounded boy following an Israeli military strike on the nearby beach in which four children were killed on July 16, 2014. AFP/Getty Images
While the current Gaza war between Israel and Hamas looks ominously as though it may intensify, exacting a yet greater toll in Palestinian civilian deaths, there is a pattern to these conflicts: they usually end after an episode of appalling carnage that shocks international actors into action. Read more
The abdication of King Juan Carlos of Spain, in favour of his son, Felipe, Prince of Asturias, has been on the cards for some time. The image of the king took a big knock when it emerged he was hunting elephants in Botswana at the height of a financial crisis that was costing millions of jobs, and not long after a speech in which he called for “exemplary behaviour” from Spaniards. The monarchy as a whole was damaged when the king’s son-in-law was charged with embezzlement, in a convoluted saga that has sucked in one of the royal princesses, the Infanta Cristina.
King Juan Carlos, through most of his 39-year reign a popular figure in Spain, Europe and Latin America, also showed himself aware of the wider decay and discredit affecting Spain’s institutions, from a politicised judiciary to a parliament that appears to be losing the ability to represent its more and more jaundiced electors. Although the king’s health has improved of late, he is now 76 and has had eight operations in the past four years. Read more
The focus in last week’s European elections was on the seismic waves of the distinct currents of Euro-populism and reaction that “earthquaked” to the top of the polls in France, Britain (or at least England), Denmark and Greece. But arguably the most intriguing insurgency was Podemos (We Can) in Spain, a phenomenon worth examining outside the swish and swirl of populism.
Much of what I have seen written about Podemos has them “coming out of nowhere” – a cliché employed by politicians and analysts that means “we didn’t see them coming”. Yet a three-month-old party with a budget of barely €100,000 shot into fourth place with one and a quarter million votes and five seats in the European Parliament – similar to Syriza, the Greek left-wing party they plan to hitch up with.
The eruption of Podemos and its compellingly outspoken leader, Pablo Iglesias, has already triggered the fall of Alfredo Perez Rubalcalba, the Socialist secretary general who has presided over the party’s worst electoral performance since democracy was restored in 1977-78. But while obviously a rising current of a new left, Podemos could be a broader catalyst for political change in Spain and beyond. Read more
Patrick Seale, journalist and scholar, Middle East commentator and impassioned Syria expert, died last week after succumbing to brain cancer. He was 83.
Best known as the biographer of Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator of Syria, and as a foreign correspondent, first for Reuters news agency and then as the Middle East correspondent for the Observer, Seale was also at different times an art dealer, a literary agent and in 1999 an intermediary in ultimately vain efforts to secure a peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Read more
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and his wife Emine Erdogan (L) greet supporters. (Getty)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reeling from allegations of graft and last summer’s urban rebellion against his socially intrusive authoritarianism, has won a popular reprieve from the only court he believes matters: the Turkish electorate.
With official results still to come, his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) has nevertheless trounced Turkey’s enfeebled opposition – his sixth straight victory at the polls since 2002, leaving aside two referendum wins – the wellspring of Mr Erdogan’s hubristic sense of political immortality. Read more
Anyone who thought references to the Assads’ “killing machine” in Syria’s civil war was hyperbolic metaphor should read a horrendously literal report that has just surfaced, detailing the “industrial scale” killing of about 11,000 detainees in the regime’s dungeons. It provides harrowing confirmation of what organisations from the UN to Human Rights Watch had partially documented: the systematic liquidation, usually by or after torture, of those who question or combat the Assad tyranny.
The report is based largely on evidence assembled and smuggled out on a memory stick by a Syrian military policeman, codenamed Caesar to protect him and his family from reprisals, whose job it was to photograph the dead bodies, often up to 50 a day. The evidence has been examined by lead prosecutors for the war crimes tribunals of Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia and top international forensics experts, commissioned by a London law firm on behalf of Qatar, which has been a leading supporter of Syria’s rebels. They found it to be credible evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes that would stand up in a court of law. Read more
Ariel Sharon (right), then Israel's prime minister, shakes hands with Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas as US President George W Bush watches during a 2003 summit in Aqaba, Jordan. (AFP/Getty)
Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday, was unquestionably a historic figure. He fought in all of Israel’s major wars – including the disastrous 1982 Lebanon invasion he essentially originated. He is also the principal architect of an Israeli settlement policy long designed to make the occupation of roughly half the West Bank and most of Arab east Jerusalem permanent. While all can agree – as no portrait of Sharon and his impressive but dynamic bulk neglects to point out – that he was “larger than life”, only within the solipsistic terms of debate of much of Israel’s political elite, and those who defer to it, can he be seen as a great statesman and master strategist.
Sharon’s reputation as a warrior began with his role in the 1948 war that established the state of Israel. But, as historian Avi Shlaim and other revisionist scholars have shown, he quickly became the spearhead of a policy of reprisals and provocations aimed at expanding the new state’s borders, which its political and military establishment regarded as dangerously vulnerable if not indefensible. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, backed by General Moshe Dayan and usually using Arab infiltration as the pretext, attacked Jordan, Egypt and Syria across the 1948-49 armistice lines between 1953 and 1955. The officer who led the main operations, establishing early on a reputation for bloodthirstiness, was Ariel Sharon. Read more
Scene of the huge car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut, killing Mohamed Chatah and at least four others on December 27, 2013 (Getty)
The bombing in the heart of Beirut on Friday morning, which killed leading Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah, was no random terror attack or communal reprisal. It was a targeted assassination, which would have required careful reconnaissance, detailed intelligence, and complex logistics.
The blast that destroyed Chatah’s car, leaving little but shredded metal and a torn vehicle license that identified its owner, took place not very far from where Rafik Hariri, former prime minister and the towering figure of modern Lebanon, was assassinated by a vast bomb in February 2005. Read more
The twin blasts that devastated Iran’s embassy in Beirut this morning mark a new and menacing stage in the spillover of Syria’s civil war into Lebanon – just as a major battle is getting underway in the Qalamoun hills bordering the two countries. Read more
Army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on an anti-Islamist protester's placard. US president Obama is depicted as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Getty
When the army and security forces ignored pleas for restraint from Egypt’s allies in the US and Europe, moving to crush the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps that spread across Cairo after the July 3 coup d’etat that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, they had reason to feel supremely confident.
What General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his colleagues have done is to restore the security state – an action that should not be confused with re-establishing security.
This restoration is edging towards the status quo ante the Tahrir revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. It started before the coup, with the constitution Morsi and the Brothers railroaded through last December. Most of the controversy excited by this Islamist-tinged charter was caused by the way it ignored liberal, Christian and women’s concerns over fundamental rights and freedoms. Alarmingly little attention was paid to the way the Brotherhood sought to co-opt the military by embedding the army’s privileges and prerogatives even beyond the powers it enjoyed under Mubarak. Read more
Residents gather at the site of an explosion in Beirut's southern suburbs, stronghold of Hizbollah, July 9, 2013. AFP/Getty
Hizbollah has brushed off the European Union’s decision on Monday to blacklist its “military wing” as a terrorist organisation. Well, it would, wouldn’t it.
The Shia paramilitary group issued the mandatory rhetorical broadside. “It looks as if the decision was written by American hands and with Israeli ink”, it said, to which “the EU only had to add its signature”.
In fact, as Hizbollah would surely know, it takes a great deal more than that for the EU’s 28 member-states to reach a consensus on anything at all. Read more
Protesters outside the PP HQ (Getty)
Things are not looking good for Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister. Luis Bárcenas, the treasurer of his right-wing Partido Popular for 20 years until 2009 who is at the centre of a series of interlinked illegal party financing scandals, was feared to be a ticking bomb. On Monday he started ticking very loudly indeed.
Giving evidence to an investigating judge on an alleged multi-million euro slush fund, Mr Bárcenas confirmed the existence of covert corporate donations and off-the-books cash payments to senior party figures. Leaked photocopies of the former treasurer’s secret accounts were published by the left-liberal El País newspaper on January 31. On July 7, El Mundo, its conservative rival, published a patchy interview with Mr Bárcenas, jailed last month in case he fled the country.
In the interview, Mr Bárcenas for the first time confirmed the existence of the secret ledgers; affirmed that the PP had been financing itself illegally for 20 years; and that the totality of the documents in his possession could bring down the government – a thinly veiled threat presumably aimed at trying to get Mr Rajoy to intervene in the judicial process. Read more