Garvan Walshe: Elections produce a faint glimpse of hope after Lebanon’s lost decade

26 May

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party

Two stories emerged from Lebanon’s election (held on May 15th): the loss of a pro-Hezbollah majority in parliament, and the emergence of a new group of younger politicians who want to shake up Lebanon’s post-civil war politics – an activity so badly organised that ‘dysfunction’ no longer serves to describe the inability of the state to maintain the country’s security, enforce the law, provide basic services, or even accountability for major disasters such as the port explosion of 2020.

Dating from the ‘National Pact’ of 1943, Lebanon’s was one of the earliest attempts to reconcile the majoritarian spirit of democracy with a religiously divided public, and a politics that channels religious identity into sectarian competition.

The country’s three main sects are Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims; the President must be Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament Shia. Though this reflected the distribution of population and power in the 1940s, by the 1970s Shias had became more numerous and were demanding a greater share of power.

This set off the civil war of the late 1970s and 80s in which Israel and Syria intervened, with Iran-backed (Shia) Hezbollah eventually fighting an insurgency that forced the Israelis out in 2000.  Syrian garrisons stayed for five more years, until revulsion at the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the Prime Minister, made their continued presence untenable, in a peaceful uprising dubbed the ‘Cedar Revolution.’

Hariri was a property developer who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and secured huge Saudi financing for Lebanon’s reconstruction after the Taif Accord ended the civil war in 1989.

Taif required all militias to give up their weapons. All except Hezbollah mostly complied – with Hezbollah keeping its arsenal in theory to fight Israel but, in reality, to project Iranian power and support Assad’s embattled regime.  Israel, for its part, continues to strike Hezbollah targets in Iran and Syria, though both Israel and Hezbollah try to avoid matters tipping over into a repeat of their inconclusive 2006 war. 

Ever since Hariri’s assassination, Lebanese politics has divided on pro- and anti-Hezbollah lines, with different Sunni and Christian factions jockeying for position, and neither side enjoying a decisive victory.

Most recently, Hezbollah, with its allies in Michel Aoun’s Christian ‘Free Patriotic Movement’, was able to command a parliamentary majority but couldn’t run the country’s institutions. Buffeted by the fall-out from Syria’s civil war (up to a fifth of the population are Syrian refugees), the pandemic, and unable to address these problems because of political gridlock, Lebanon’s economy is a shadow of its former self.

In 2020 a huge, though accidental, explosion of ammonium nitrate (a fertiliser notorious for use as an explosive) laid waste to Beirut’s port, killing 232 people and causing billions of pounds of damage.  Though no culprit has been officially identified, one does not need to be conspiracy theorist to draw inferences from the facts that Aoun blocked attempts to set up an international investigation, and Hezbollah supporters undertook violent protests against the local investigation in 2021.

This was the background against which this year’s parliamentary elections took place, the first test of public opinion since what is sometimes called Lebanon’s ‘October Revolution’ – the public protests against both pro- and anti-Hezbollah sides of the political establishments, which took place in 2019 but had the wind taken out of its sails by the pandemic. 

Many of the protest movement organisers set up new parties to contest this year’s poll, under an electoral system unfriendly to new formations. It aims for religious balance by assigning seats in each multi-member district to specific sects, so new parties need to field not only the right people, but the right people with the right religion in the right places. The established parties operate deep clientelist patronage networks, and vote buying is rife, further limiting breakthroughs.

Nevertheless, these new independents won 13 out of 128 seats. Though hardly enough to hold the balance of power, and likely to be excluded from coalition negotiations, their election at least gives hope that after the chaos and corruption of the last decade, some limited change and political accountability might at last be possible in Lebanon.

Garvan Walshe: Iran’s new President will be a headache for the West – and a nightmare for Iranians themselves

24 Jun

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979 was monopolised by Islamists, Iranians’ democratic aspirations have been crushed under theocratic dogma. The Islamists didn’t have it all their own way, however. Though they managed to install Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader, they were forced to tolerate an elected parliament and presidency.

Sometimes, the regime saw fit to allow loyal dissent, as when Muhammad Khatami held office between 1997 to 2005, as did Hassan Rouhani, who won in 2013 and 2017 – balancing the legitimacy gained by allowing a broad field of candidates to run, with the risk of an unacceptably liberal candidate winning.

Despite the efforts of the Guardian Council, which has the power to “cancel” unsuitable contenders, candidates unsuitable to regime hardliners have been elected with alarming frequency. With the exception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term in 2005, majorities of Iranians have endorsed the most “reformist” candidate allowed to take part at every election in the last 24 years.

In 2009, public support for Mir Hossein Moussavi was so high that the election had to be rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour, sparking off a huge popular protests. The uprising, known as the “Green Revolution” was put down with savage repression, which the Obama administration observed closely while standing idly by.

The Administration focused instead on negotiations over Iran’s illicit nuclear programme, which expanded, under Rouhani’s presidency, into an attempt to give the reformists practical economic benefits in exchange for strategic détente and the postponing of nuclear enrichment.

To the long list of the baleful consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency must be added the collapse of the agreement negotiated by Obama, Britain, France, and Germany (with Chinese and semi-sincere Russian endorsement), known as the JCPOA.

The Biden Administration is trying to revive it, and extend it to cover limitations on missiles and the operation of regional militias, which Iran supports in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.  But it faces a new obstacle in the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi was handed his election by the simple expedient of disqualifying all serious opposition candidates, including Khomeini’s suprisingly reform-minded grandson Hassan, who withdrew under presssure. Raisi won, of course – but turnout slumped by 25 points to just over 48 per cent, denying him popular legitimacy.

Some Iran-watchers, such as Karim Sajadpur think the regime has something else in store for Raisi, who is already being promoted to “Ayatollah” on state TV (in fact, he holds the lesser rank of Hojetalislam). The current Supreme Leader, Khamenei, is 82 and even if rumours of his illness from prostate cancer are exaggerated, he won’t be around for long.

Raisi, who presided over the execution of 5000 regime opponents, including women and children, in 1988, and is personally under US sanctions as a result, would be a strong bulwark against an Iranian version of Gorbachev taking over.

The chances of him winning a fair election were obviously slim. In addition to the longstanding pro-reformist tilt in public opinion, there was an extended, nation-wide working class revolt in 2019 that was put down with ferocious violence, before it petered out because of Covid. The pandemic, too, has been devastating for Iran, which had one of the earliest and most severe first waves and continues to struggle with the disease.

But allowing the people let off steam came second to burnishing Raisi’s credentials this time. The reformist movement has now been sidelined, and excluded from even the hope of power. The Revolutionary Guards’ control over foreign policy and the economy has been bolstered. Expect military adventurism in Yemen and though Hezbollah to continue. The next few years will be a headache for the West and a nightmare for Iranians.

The regime of 1979 is entering its late, ossified stage. It has lost internal drive, except for meteing brutality out to its opponents, and the self-enrichment of its military-industrial elite. It will become brittle as the dwingling number of genuine supporters ages, and is insulated by its power from the fate of their compatriots.

Late dicatorship, when everyone knows the regime is based on lies, but stays outwardly loyal out of fear or greed, can however last quite some time – as observers of Mubarak’s Egypt or Lukashenko’s Belarus can attest. Unlike there, the Iranian regime appears capable of institutionalising itself. Unlike Franco or Trujillo, or indeed the Shah, there is no single patriarch to be dethroned. The autumn of Iran’s patriarchy looks like it could be a very long one indeed.

Daniel Hannan: Does the army really still need tanks? Or the navy aircraft carriers? Or the rest of us, the Trident system?

2 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

My late father commanded a tank in Italy in 1944. He rarely mentioned it (except, somewhat illogically, when reassuring my mother during car journeys that she could trust his navigation skills) but I always thought it must have been a wonderful thing to do. What a privilege to direct that mighty mass of metal, that extraordinary combination of armour, mobility and firepower.

So my immediate reaction on hearing that tanks might be phased out was one of grumpy and nostalgic scepticism. Tanks were declared obsolete after both world wars, yet they turned out to be vital to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. They played a role in subduing Fallujah in 2004, and have been used more recently in the Russia-Ukraine war. Are we truly prepared to dispense with what, for a hundred years, has been the best way to hold (or seize) ground?

The question needs to be put. We are, as a species, irrationally change-averse, and never more so than when we work for a state bureaucracy. Some of the most inexcusable wastes of money in British history happened because generals, defence contractors and Ministry of Defence officials were unwilling to admit that a shiny new project was already passé.

Think, for example, of the Eurofighter, designed to dogfight Soviet MiGs over the skies of West Germany, and already redundant many years before the first wings were welded. Again and again, that white elephant came up for review – and, each time, the Defence Secretary of the day took the politically easier decision to throw good money after bad.

A Minister who suggests phasing out any part of our established capability will get a reputation for being too clever by half and ignoring the professionals. It is no use pointing out that Ministers are there precisely to resist producer-capture. In any argument between a politician and a craggy-faced retired general, the public will always back the general.

Still, it is the politician’s job to ensure that a necessarily limited defence budget translates into maximum force. So let’s ask the question directly. In an age of irregular warfare and increasingly powerful guided missiles, do we need manned armoured mobile guns?

Iraq and eastern Ukraine were exceptional in that their terrain happened to be ideal for tank warfare – respectively desert and steppe. Tanks are of less value in cluttered or inhabited lands. They may be (as both the exceptions again demonstrate) useful against other tanks. But how useful are they against advanced missile systems? Or, indeed, against low-tech guerrilla forces?

Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 exposed the tank’s limitations. Expensive Israeli armour was hammered by cheap IEDs and low-tech missiles. Israeli generals have absorbed the lessons of that campaign. Have their British counterparts?

Actually, yes – at least, to a degree that many will find surprising. Overall, our Armed Forces are in the world’s top five; but, measured by number of battle tanks, we barely scrape into the top 50, well behind Greece, Jordan, Morocco, Romania and the UAE. It makes sense. We are an island nation which has traditionally relied on sea-and air-power. When we do engage on the ground, it is often out-of-area and asymmetric.

So what should we do with our tanks? We can’t put the question off. Whether or not tanks as a concept are outmoded, there is no question that our own main battle tank, the Challenger 2, is showing its age. Since it went into service in 1998, the Americans and the Germans have completed two major upgrades, the Russians five. Our chief armoured vehicle, the Warrior, is even rustier, essentially unaltered since the Cold War.

Given that big changes are overdue, now is the moment to ask whether tanks give us a decent bang for our buck. If we decide that they do – if there is felt to be no other credible way of holding territory – then we should think radically about what the new version might be.

Might we, for example, make a substantially lighter vehicle, easier to airlift and deploy at distance? Might we, in doing so, reduce the manning requirement – or even remove it altogether, relying instead on remote guidance?

I have picked tanks because leaks suggest that they are up for review, but the same logic applies across the board. The most expensive items in our conventional repertoire are our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They cost around £6 billion to build, with a similar price tag for their aircraft.

What else might we have done with such a colossal sum? Instead of floating runways which launch manned planes which in turn launch missiles, might it be more cost effective to cut out the aircraft, and simply launch the missiles (or the reconnaissance drones) directly from the ship? Obviously that would imply some diminution in capability, but did we properly consider what else we could have done with the savings, or were we, as with the Eurofighter, beguiled by the sheer vastness of the thing?

Again, simply to raise the issue is to invite an angry reaction from good and patriotic Service personnel whose job is to consider capacity rather than opportunity cost. So politicians rarely do it. Still, any defence review worth the name needs to put hard questions. Do we need a parachute regiment, for example? There are occasions when we need to drop special forces, but how likely are we to need to make a mass airborne deployment?

And, since I’m deliberately raising the most difficult and provocative issues, how about Enoch Powell’s objection to the nuclear deterrent – namely that, since we would never actually use it, it was money down the drain? Paradoxically, more limited nuclear weapons, capable of battlefield use, might be a more credible deterrent.

There may be good arguments, in all these cases, for sticking with something close to the status quo. But let’s hear those arguments without preconditions. Let’s have a no-holds-barred strategic review which sets out to ask how Britain can best defend its interests given the vertiginous acceleration of military technology.

Many of our postwar strategic assumptions are overturned by hypersonic missiles, weapons of extraordinary stealth and destructive power. At the moment of impact, a hypersonic missile is travelling at 1200 miles per hour, and its kinetic force is equivalent to three tons of TNT. Russia, China and the United States are engaged in a hypersonic arms race which makes a nonsense of much of what we used to think about air superiority, armour and the defence of naval vessels. A total overhaul, in short, is both necessary and urgent.

We should, in reassessing our defence needs, look at our allies’ capacity. It seems likely, for example, that in any major engagement, we would be on the same side as the United States and other Anglosphere nations. It makes sense to co-ordinate our procurement, while still ensuring that we can act independently in a Falklands-type situation. What we can’t afford is to cling to current practice for reasons of political convenience.

My father’s regiment, the North Irish Horse, was reduced, between the wars, to a single officer. It rapidly expanded after 1939 to deploy in Tunisia and later in Italy. It exists today only as a squadron in the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. That is what I call flexibility. Our Armed Forces are extraordinarily good at preserving traditions, but they are also supremely adaptable. It is this second quality, in the end, that wins war

Tom Tugendhat: It’s time for the Government to stand with its allies – and stand up to Iran

26 Aug

Tom Tugendhat is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.

Israel is losing its reputation in the Middle East. For decades, it played the role of chief villain with nations around the region blaming Mossad for every mishap. Today, Jerusalem is a partner with the United Arab Emirates – just the latest of many to build ties to Jerusalem and seek cooperation.

Jordan and Egypt are about to be joined by some or all of Bahrain, Oman, Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia, while insisting that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative remains the basis of its policy, is making sympathetic noises. Arab popular opinion may still find Israel a difficult issue. But the higher-level dynamics are changing, as new interest-based alignments emerge blinking into the light of day.

Tehran is seeing to that. Over the past decade or so, Britain’s friends and partners have focussed on one thing – the threat of violent Iranian subversion and perhaps direct attack.

From Syria to Yemen, Arab states know well the danger that Iran poses. Militias paid for by Tehran and controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps have turned tension into conflict, and fuelled wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed whole countries.

That makes the UK’s recent UN vote even more surprising. On 14 August we, along with France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia, abstained on a motion to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted in favour.

As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, put it: “the result of the vote in [the UNSC] on arms embargo against Iran shows—once more—the US’ isolation.” It’s hard to argue that’s in Britain’s interest. Even less so, given how many of our regional allies are counting on us to hold the line.

Should the embargo end, the next step is clear: Iran will be looking to buy Russian or Chinese air defence weapons to put around the nuclear plants that it has long believed is essential to the regime’s survival. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already confirmed that Iran has increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to more than 300 kilograms, enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent, stored excess heavy water, tested advanced centrifuges, refused inspections into suspected nuclear sites and may be concealing more undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

It will seek to accelerate the development of its ballistic missile programme, particularly in the area of guidance systems. It will become even more aggressive in cyberspace. And it will redouble its political and material support for the Shia militias that are corruptly colonising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Again, it’s hard to see how that helps Britain.

Over the past four years, the approach of the Trump Administration can hardly be described as diplomatic but, despite its tone, its respose to the clear violations of the Iranian regime is based on the actions it’s seeing in Tehran. The UK, by contrast, seems to have an Iran policy more focussed on remaining close to European allies (with a disdain for the current US administration) than on the actions of the dictatorship in Tehran.

That decision to abstain puts us even further apart from our most important security partner and regional allies – undermining a global approach, and pushing us firmly back towards the EU we have just left. Worse, it risks raising questions about the veto that none of us would like to have posed.

Now that the US has lost the vote on renewing the embargo, the White House will, no doubt, use the so-called snapback mechanism to reimpose sanctions as agreed in a 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR). This poses a problem for us.

The snapback mechanism included in SCR 2231 allows participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal’s full name) to reimpose sanctions unilaterally. In 2018, the US withdrew from the deal, so some – Russia and China, no doubt – will claim that Washington can no longer trigger the snapback. UK, France, and others will have to decide: is the deal worth it?

Blocking or even abstaining on the likely vote against the US’s determination to trigger a snapback would undermine the alliance and weaken the UN. The temporary relief of allowing the Iran deal to continue, with the UK standing alongside European allies against the Trump White House, would be overwhelmed in coming years, since no US administration could accept being bound into a UN system without a veto.

“Iran continues to conduct ballistic missile activity that is inconsistent with SCR 2231.” Karen Pierce, our Ambassador to the United States, said in June 2019. That hasn’t changed. But nor has the UK’s posture. We continue to try to perform the diplomatic splits – denouncing Iran, but at the same time remaining committed to a JCPOA that has been consistently violated by Tehran and effectively abandoned by the US.

Iran continues to hold British hostages, most notably Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, and spread terror in the region. In Iraq, its militia allies are assassinating young activists – female and male – with impunity.  They are rocketing Baghdad’s Green Zone and bombing military convoys, with the aim of humiliating the new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kadhimi, and showing him he cannot depend on the US – or any other Western power – for his survival.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah clearly thinks it will not be held to account for the assassination of Rafiq al Hariri in 2005 or for the massive recent explosion at Beirut’s port.

In Syria, Iran has saved the murderous Bashar al Assad and will want rewarding. Some of the militias it has deployed there recently held a public event in Mashhad to advertise their successes, and announce that Jerusalem was their next target.

And now Tehran is offering Beijing privileged access to its energy resources and perhaps also a trading and naval base on the Indian Ocean. None of this is in our interests. But instead of siding with our allies and giving ourselves more leverage over a dictatorship that respects nothing but strength, we are remaining wedded to a deal that has become irrelevant to the two principal signatories.

The time has come for us to change policy. Even under the Obama administration, it is far from certain the JCPOA would have endured as US strategic interests – no matter who is in the White House – lie with regional allies, not the Iranian autocrats, and it seems unlikely that a new Democratic administration would attempt to breathe life into the deal.

The UK should now be joining the US in calling out the real threat to peace in the Middle East and standing with our friends in the region—from Abu Dhabi to Jerusalem. We need to defend the principles of international cooperation, not see them used as a fig leaf for human rights violations, war and nuclear proliferation.

If we’re going to convince allies around the world our place at the UN Security Council works for them and defends our common interest in a world based on agreements, our policy on Iran has got to change. Abstaining shows we’re not prepared to stand up for our friends and won’t stand with our allies – and that weakens everyone, but most of all us.

The case for a new treason offence

27 Jul

The Government is preparing to overhaul Britain’s security laws, utilising work done on them by Sajid Javid when he was Home Secretary, which in turn drew on research by Policy Exchange.

We wait to see what the legislation contains, but the plans seem to fall into three parts.  First, an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act.  Second, an updating of the espionage laws, which will be carried out largely with state actors, such as China and Russia, in mind.  Third, a new treason offence.

Its origins lie in the return to Britain of Islamist terrorists who fought abroad with ISIS.  Ministers believe that the present legal framework isn’t fit for purpose if prosecutions are to be successful.  The recent Court of Appeal judgement on Shamima Begum’s case doubtless explains why we are reading about revised laws now.

At any rate, the original Policy Exchange proposal was supported by a former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd; a former head of MI5, Lord Evans; a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, and former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, Richard Walton.

Tom Tugendhat, one of the authors of that report, Aiding the Enemy, was out and about in the Sunday Times yesterday, concentrating largely on espionage – and writing as he did so “pinstriped fixers, lawyers and silver-tongued svengalis are pocketing money” are doing the bidding of hostile foreign governments.

Meanwhile, Javid was busy in the Mail on Sunday, covering the same themes, and arguing that we need to repurpose “our ancient treason laws to cover Britons who operate on behalf of a hostile nation or go abroad to fight alongside terrorist groups”.

That would cover Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as ISIS and Al Qaeda.  It will doubtless be argued that Britain shouldn’t be in the business of legislating for loyalty oaths, or giving terror groups the same status as foreign governments.

But if you think about it, the loyalty oath claim is a red herring, since what would be required is not a pledge of allegiance to Britain, but the shunning of terror aimed at our troops or civilians.  (The form of words that Javid used would appear to cover fighting alongside terror groups, period – whether against British citizens or not.)

We expect that it will also be claimed that a new treason offence will be “bad for community relations” – i.e: that British Muslims will be opposed to it, though it will certainly go down well among others in Blue Wall seats, as we must now call them, and elsewhere.

A modernised treason offence would certainly be to the point.  Islamist extremism has no room within it for attachment to nation states – what matters is the worldwide community of Muslims, led from its present ignorance, as the extremists see it, to the politicised and ideological version of Islam which they themselves propagate.

(This use of religion rather than nationality as a catch-all definer explains why they identify Jews with Israel, by the way – despite the fact that not all Jews live there and many aren’t Zionists at all.  Hence the Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege in Paris in 2015, and the 2008 massacre at a Jewish outreach centre in Mumbai.)

We anticipate, too, that forcing lobbyists who work for foreign governments to register; toughening up rules on registering interests in the Lords or work undertaken by former Ministers, and slowing, say, the flow of Chinese money into our universities and civil society will also be resisted.  A sign of how much new measures are needed.